Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful point, and it might help his case if I remind him that the comparators that the SSRB uses for Members are in fact head teachers of middle-ranking secondary schools and police superintendents. I perhaps wish that it did use the comparator of chief executives of local authorities.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If he looks a little further into the report, he will see that the managing director of a business is treated as one of our comparators in the private sector, as is a particular local authority grade.

Mr. McLoughlin: My hon. Friend mentioned earlier the supplying of computers. The current situation is wholly inadequate, so will he draw attention to recommendation 12 in the report? It states:

If Members are to find any way of locating in their constituencies, acting on that recommendation is one of the most important things to do. At the moment, there is a very long way to go, so will he emphasise that that recommendation needs to be implemented?

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend makes the point about IT very well. He and I both gave evidence to the review, which focused on the position of Members with outside offices and the need for more help. When we considered the incidental expenses provision, we were looking for an element of help for those with offices outside Westminster, and the complexities and difficulties associated with the SSRB's recommendations are something that we will have to contend with.

On this year's recommendations, I want to thank the Leader of the House for discussing with me the form of his main motion. Of course, these are free-vote matters, but I feel able to offer him a strong measure of support. The pensions changes reflect the SSRB's views and the increased cost of providing parliamentary pensions, and they ensure that the main burden is not placed on the taxpayer. That seems non-controversial, and I want to pay tribute to the trustees of the parliamentary scheme, and particularly to its chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill). They have taken the trouble to do so much in terms of training and talking to Members about these issues; indeed, he offered an admirable explanation of the various changes a few minutes ago. The examples that the Leader of the House gave show that such changes
3 Nov 2004 : Column 337
are being phased in, and they certainly reflect what is happening in the civil service. I also accept that the salary rate should not increase above inflation.

I accept the motion on Members' allowances, which reflects the SSRB's thinking. However, the recommendations on incidental expenses provision seem over-complex, creating as they do four levels of payment and a six-and-a-half-year transitional period. I am sure that further reflection would be worth while.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) that the report seems to contain a large number of references to Officers of the House giving evidence and guidance to the SSRB. It is important that we recognise that, much as we admire their work, they have never run a constituency or party office. Their guidance should be taken into account, but it should not be regarded as the final word on the subject. The principle that those who have an office outside Westminster incur extra costs in providing the services available to Members here seems correct, but establishing non-eligibility to the new payment by reference to how many workstations a Member has seems problematic. A simpler system that retains equality of treatment of Members, but which allows a Member to use part of his salaries budget towards office costs outside London, might well be the way forward. That would also avoid an increase in the incidental expenses provision, while giving an extra element of flexibility within the same envelope. The costs involved should be relatively neutral.

Although there has been some talk of a cost to the House authorities if the change goes through, I do not believe that it is based on any research—I understand that it is not—and it seems to me that unless it has some behavioural effect that has not been described, it should be a relatively neutral proposal. I would like to hear what hon. Members have to say, but I am inclined to support the proposal.

The Leader of the House was right to say that amendment (h) may, on reflection, be unnecessary and it may be worth my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) thinking more about whether it is necessary. It may be right for the Members Estimate Committee to look further into it.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does my hon. Friend not accept that the ability of a Member of Parliament to employ two people within the Palace of Westminster should be entirely acceptable? I have one and a half members of staff here and have done for many years; the half member of staff is shared with my wife. We have one suite of offices and two members of staff in the office between our two individual offices. There should be no disincentive to having—quite legitimately—one secretary and one assistant or researcher. Surely there should be no disincentive to having that level of staffing for a Member of Parliament?

Mr. Heald: I agree with my hon. Friend and I also feel that it is right for an MP to be able to decide how to run his office within a reasonable band of options.

Mr. Mark Field: Given that my hon. Friend is on the Members Estimate Committee, will he pay some attention to the points that I made earlier to the Leader
3 Nov 2004 : Column 338
of the House about the particular strains that inner London Members would face if there were to be an abatement of provision? Will he do his best to ensure that inner London Members and those who do not claim the additional costs allowance and are assumed to have single base will be exempt from any abatement provision?

Mr. Heald: That point is probably best considered in the context of a more detailed report that my hon. Friend could present not only to me as shadow Leader of the House but to the Speaker's Panel, which plays an important role in advising on matters connected with pay and allowances. That would be the best way forward for my hon. Friend and his important points.

Miss Widdecombe: My hon. Friend will be aware that my amendment (d) has not been selected, despite gaining 51 Members in support within a couple of hours of being tabled. I am sad about that. My amendment simply said that in referring the matter back to the Members Estimate Committee, we should express the opinion as a House that it is reasonable to employ two members of staff at Westminster. My hon. Friend has just said that he agrees with that, so does he also agree not only that it is reasonable, but that it is the House's view that the Members Estimate Committee should take it into account?

Mr. Heald: Yes, as I said, but I also believe in a neater approach rather than having so many different rates of IEP, which is the product of the system of abatements. I think that a proposal such as amendment (g) offers a simpler way of proceeding. My preference is to leave the decision with MPs and to have as simple a system as we can. I certainly believe that having four different rates of IEP and a transitional arrangement that creates another four rates of IEP for the next Parliament is not a satisfactory way forward. Having said that, the simple point that the SSRB was trying to reflect in its suggestions—that there should be some extra help for people who have offices outside London—is a good one. Indeed I, my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and the Leader of the House himself made that point in evidence to the SSRB. In translating SSRB support for the concept into a practical solution, there might have been room for a simpler proposal.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con) rose—

Mrs. Anne Campbell rose—

Mr. Heald: Gosh, an "embarras de richesses". I shall give way to my hon. Friend first.

Mr. Sayeed: At some stage during his speech, will my hon. Friend explain to the House why, when we have built a very large and very expensive new office building, we are running out of space and need these proposals? Can he offer the House any figures about how many staff, Officers of the House and so forth are on the parliamentary estate and do not necessarily need to be based here?

Mr. Heald: As far as Members are concerned, I think I am right in saying that there about 2,500 passes issued
3 Nov 2004 : Column 339
for them and their teams. The report refers to about 900, who I assume are paid staff, so there is quite a difference between the number of paid staff on the estate and the number of pass holders. As regards the establishment of the House authorities, I do not have the figures to hand, but we should pay tribute to the staff of the House for the work that they do to support us. Personally, I would not want to criticise them in any way, which I hope meets the point.

Next Section IndexHome Page