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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, to which I want to return. As someone who
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gave evidence to the SSRB, I can speak with authority; there was no evidence from any Member of the House on the vital issue of our role. Nor, as far as I can establish, was there any evidence on mileage. As far as I am aware, no Member of the House gave evidence on those issues.
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op): I commend the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I wish to point out that it is extraordinarily difficult to acquire knowledge about the role of an MP. All our constituencies have hugely different problems and we use our personality and judgment to interact with our constituencies in very different ways. The current rules give us a lot of scope to exercise our judgment, but this report gives usin my view and, I hope, that of the hon. Gentlemanfar less scope to take decisions that will benefit our constituents.
I wish to refer to a point that the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury made. It is not an answer to deal with one distortion by introducing another. Two wrongs do not make a right. However, I am afraid that is the whole basis on which the SSRB has approached the issue of staffing.
When I first entered the House in 1974 for a very brief interlude, I had the end of a table and no phone. I had to meet my secretary somewhere down in the bowels of the earth. Therefore, to give us a proper opportunity to do our job, we in the House decidedI think with the nation's supportto improve the conditions in which our staff, and perhaps Members, operate. To refer to that as though it is a retrograde step is extraordinary and seems to go right beyond the way in which the SSRB should look at the issue. It may be that the SSRB's extended its remit itself.
Mr. Tyler: It is a fair point, but my basic point is that if we decide that we can provide a good service to the country as a wholewe are not just constituency Members; we are members of the UK Parliament as wellsurely we should be given some flexibility. It is extraordinary that it appears as though we will be bribed to spend less time in the facilities in which we have recently invested in this place.
There is another more critical issue. What is the prime function of a Member of the House of Commons? What would Edmund Burke say about the suggestion that we should scatter ourselves throughout the country by spending more time with our constituents and that our staff should, too? That would mean that we would not fulfil our role in the House and such an assumption is way beyond the remit of the SSRB. As I understand it, no Member gave evidence on this issue simply because it did not arise at the time of the original review.
Ministers might be only too happy to see some Government Back Benchers and more Opposition Members spending more time in their constituencies. I understand that the Government did not give evidence to that effect; it was given by those mysterious peoplethe authorities of the House. It is extremely important that we deal with the issues carefully and consider them in the round.
My Liberal Democrat colleagues will have a completely unwhipped vote on the issue, but I must say that I am attracted by cross-party amendment (g). It is also probably helpful to retain what I think is paragraph 6 rather than to push amendment (h) to a conclusion. Howeverand it is an incredibly important pointif the Opposition parties are to be denied the resources to do our job in the House properly, I hope that the Government recognise that we shall have to review the Short money; otherwise we will simply be prevented from doing our job properly in holding them to account. In the long run, there will not be a reduction in the taxpayers' provision.
I shall deal speedily with paragraphs 2 and 3 on information technology and the London supplement. They are tidying-up and sensible provisions. They may not be as generous as everyone thinks or would like to accept, but they make good progress.
On car mileage, I recognise that some Members, especially those with large and scattered constituencies such as mine and those who have seen the value of their cars depreciate very quickly as they travel thousands and thousands of miles and way beyond what most people in our comparator occupations travel, have a valid point. Most MPs are now faced with a system that fails to assist with the capital cost of an essential working tool for our job. That is not necessarily the case with some of the comparators.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) made a very important point about the tax significance of that additional sum over and above the Inland Revenue rate.
Sir John Butterfill:
Is the hon. Gentleman also aware that it is by no means clear who asked the SSRB to consider this item? In fact, I understand that the recommendation came as a shock to Ministers and the Cabinet Office. They had no idea that it was going to
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arise, which is why nobody gave evidence. There is just a sneaking suspicion that the provenance of this suggestion may rest with the Treasury at the instigation of the Inland Revenue.
As I understand it, the Inland Revenue rate was decided three or four years ago, even though it was implemented only recently. It completely fails to take into account the considerable increases in fuel costs in recent years. There is a difficulty with that.
It may be that for quite different reasonsfor environmental policy reasons or to lead opinion on the issuethe Government recommended that there should be a change. However, I see no logic to the SSRB coming forward with the recommendation. I want a firm commitment that the Inland Revenue rate will be uprated by the time of the next Budget to take into account the additional costs before I am persuaded that the proposal is logical.
Mr. Tyler: Of course, that is axiomatic. Someone said earlier that we were in a privileged position, but we are not. Everyone is in the same position and we all pay tax on everything over and above the minimal level.
I understand the argument that the incidental expenses provision should be referred to the Members Estimate Committee. That view has some merit. I see from the many issues that have already arisen in the debate that an input from Members, based on their practical experience, would be helpful. However, Members are entitled to know what the remit, limitations and constraints of that investigation would be. Will the SSRB's basic objectives be accepted, and what is the time scale for producing the conclusions and implementing them? What will happen in the interim?
I turn now to parliamentary pensions, and I suppose I should now declare an interest. However, given the convoluted discussion that took place earlier, I am not sure how I am affected. Nevertheless, we are all affected to some extent. I accept that it was unfortunate that the long process to persuade or encourage us to engage in adequate saving arrangements in the late 1990s or the early part of this century meant that, when we
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eventually got round to improving the terms, the world had moved on. It looked as though we were totally out of synch with comparators in other occupations. That creates a difficulty, and I understand the problem and the suggestion from the Leader of the House and the SSRB that there should be some "phased recovery". I have the greatest confidence in our trustees, but some issues have not been properly addressed.
I hope that the Leader of the House will give us a specific assurance that the situation will not set a precedent for going back on explicit promises made to Members only a short time ago about the way in which the rate of contributions will be handled. The fact that the provision is retrospective and will apply from April 2004 also sets an unfortunate precedent. We usually say that we do not want the House to implement retrospective legislation, and I hope that that situation will usually apply to us. Members will face an effective increase of 2 per cent. because the 1 per cent. provision will apply to only six months in the current year.
I entirely agree with the reasonable and equitable improvements suggested for beneficiaries. However, pensionable age remains a fraught question, and there is no way that we are dispelling worries about that today[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) has obviously indicated that that is the case. We should bring ourselves into line with people in comparable occupations, but, as has been pointed out, hon. Members, especially those in marginal seats, are not encouraged by the leaders of their partiesnot even the leader of my partylet alone the Whips, to say on their 65th birthday, "I'm off, friends."
I hope that the Leader of the House will carefully examine the way in which the SSRB was asked to conduct this review. I take up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon. The SSRB made a set of proposals that were unrelated to the matters that hon. Members thought were on the table, so there was no consultation on major changes that will affect the way in which we try to serve the country and our constituencies. That has weakened the packageperhaps disastrously. Although I would hope that an SSRB package would normally receive overwhelming cross-party support when debated on the Floor, on this occasion the SSRB has either been let down, or has let us downI am not prepared to judge which. Yes, it has an important role to play, but it is not right that it should advance principles about the way in which Parliament operates that are outwith its terms of reference.
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