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Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab):
I am pleased to be called to speak in the debate. There are 659 Members of Parliament, so the Members' service has 659 different shapes. I speak for myself on the basis of my experience. I can tell you at the outset, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if I retain the confidence of the people of Eccles at the next general election and they return me to this place, I shall make an even bigger effort to assist the authorities with their future deliberations on the question of what I call the "MPs' parliamentary service" by submitting oral evidence to the Senior Salaries Review Body. That service ranges from a Member's role in the core aims of the service to the way in which the service is delivered across locations. To be frank, I do not think that we do enough to raise public awareness about such matters
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and although I accept that each individual Member must decide the most appropriate shape of service for his or her constituency, there are overarching issues which the House can, and must, address. Nevertheless, I support the system through which the independent SSRB reviews such issues as Members' pay and allowances.
I thank the SSRB for its comprehensive report. I understand that some members of the body may be in the Public Gallery today, so I hope that the debate will further their understanding of the many varied factors behind the 659 different approaches employed by Members to deliver such a complex and important service. I also thank the body for agreeing to hear my oral evidence in support of the written evidence that I submitted. Although I am pleased that my request to the SSRB bore fruit, I am sad to report that on two occasions, the former Speaker's Panel on Members' Allowances refused my request for a meeting and did not offer any solution to the problem with the staffing budget that I had highlighted. I thus have great hopes that the new Members Estimate Committee will be much more transparent, accessible and responsive to Members.
I had a lively and stimulating session with the SSRB, which I thoroughly enjoyed. As I have given written and oral evidence to the 2001 and the 2004 review boards, I have come to realise that while my motive for attending the sessions was to ensure that the body understood my views, I also gained clarification on, and a better understanding of, the issues that arose from our joint exchanges.
Like many hon. Members, I have an office in Westminster and one in my constituency. I employ 2.5 members of staff, who are individual members of the Transport and General Workers Union parliamentary branch, which is based in the House. I would like to increase that complement to three full-time equivalent workers. As you are aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have deep roots in the trade union movement as a lifelong TGWU member. I take the view that if there is an identified formal job to be done, someone should be employed to do it and paid at the right rate for it. I should point out that although I am a proud trade union member, I have consistently put forward my views on the basis that I want to be a Member of Parliament who is also a good employer. That is imperative if I am to deliver the service that my constituents deserve.
To deliver that service, we need not only good equipment, but caseworkers, researchers and, of course, the much maligned administrators. I welcome the increase in the staffing budget because I hope that it will go a significant way towards enabling us to employ the three full-time equivalent members of staff that the SSRB recommends at decent and appropriate salary levels. I welcome the SSRB recommendation that the extra pay intended for staff based in London be recognised in their pay ranges.
I am sorry to say, however, that the problem with the staffing budget remains. In my submission to the SSRB, I argued for the abolition of the anomalous cap on staff salaries. I said that the numbers of staff allowed, after account was taken of the criteria outlined by the House and proper staff evaluation, would create a natural cap in the existing system, and I remain concerned. When the previous report was produced, the House's
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Department of Finance and Administration circulated to us, as employers, the recommended salary scales for each grade of staff. However, the increase in the staffing allowance that we have received each year since then has met only the cost of inflation. Although I have been able to give my staff a pay increase to cover rising costs, I have not been able to allow them to progress up the salary scales. If I were to do that as the SSRB and the Department of Finance and Administration intended, I would have to pay staff at less than the appropriate grade for their qualifications, experience and duties, or employ fewer than three members of staff, which I believe provides a lesser service than my constituents deserve.
I doubt that many members of staff are on the top level for posts such as senior parliamentary assistant. The SSRB and the Department of Finance and Administration recommend a rate of £34,300 for such staff based in London. I am certainly unable to pay that amount. I am sure that many of us have experienced and long serving staff, but we just cannot pay them the highest salaries, even when that is appropriate. We do not have the money to do so because the staffing budget has an artificial cap, which means that if an experienced member of staff meets the criteria laid down in the 2001 SSRB report for the highest grade and if the MP, after proper evaluation, agrees to pay that level of salary, he or she must depress the salary levels of the other two full-time equivalent members of staff or alternatively be forced, like me, to consider employing fewer than three members of staff. The system is perverse.
I hope that the SSRB recommendation to increase our staff budget from £66,450 to £72,000 for Members outside London will help us to make progress on the issue. However, the matter requires further investigation and is still to be resolved. I note that the SSRB recommends a review of job descriptions and pay ranges for caseworkers, which I would support. That should give us a firm basis on which to resolve the matter, and I am happy to assist the Members Estimate Committee or any other appropriate body in order to do so.
It is well known that I take an interest in the provision of information technology equipment. The implementation of the SSRB recommendations in 2001 was undoubtedly a significant step forward. I am glad that the board is unequivocal in advocating that every MP should be provided with three work stations in addition to their own, which is an acknowledgement that we need three full-time equivalent members of staff. However, we must address the increasing use of pervasive technology such as modern mobile phones that can be used as mini-computers. As I have told Mr. Speaker, I am happy to carry out a pilot, and I shall contact him separately on the matter. We need a designated MP IT service unit. Every Government and parliamentary department has its own designated IT unit, and it is not acceptable in this day and age that MPs should have no such support or back-up.
Turning to SSRB recommendations with which I do not agree, I appreciate that pressure on the parliamentary estate has led to proposals for hot-desking. As I have already said, there is great pressure on MPs to take on interns and other temporary staff, but hot-desking is not the answer. Caseworkers generally need access to hard-copy information, particularly in
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immigration and asylum cases. They cannot work just anywhere, if for no other reason than to preserve confidentiality. I am on record as predicting that electronically received constituency casework will increase over the next five to 10 years, which means that MPs will have to employ more staff. However, although e-mail casework is increasing, my constituents are far from emailing me as a matter of routine. Constituents with problems still tend to use a small size of ruled writing paperso much so, in fact, that I think the pad is passed round the constituency. Our constituents expect confidentiality, which must not be compromised. Hot-desking will not solve the ever-increasing need for space for MPs' services on the parliamentary estate. However, the House must be frank with the public and explain why we need certain resources to deliver a modern and effective service. The more accessible and effective Members' services are, the greater the need for adequate and appropriate resources. We should not shirk that responsibility, and we should be frank with the public.
As the initiator of the "ADAPT" learning project, which has subsequently developed into the parliamentary learning project, I was pleased that the SSRB highlighted the key role of training for staff and, indeed, Members. However, constituency staff are the Cinderellas of the field, so more must be done to allow them access to high-quality training and support. We need to develop the parliamentary learning project to deliver core training for Members' services, including the use of the internet-based distance learning system originally envisaged in 1998.
I shall conclude with a provision that affects our constituencies. I am concerned about the recommendation on the one hand to increase the incidental expenses provision to £27,500 while on the other hand clawing back or slicing off some of that money from Members who employ one or more staff members in London. That detrimental change could lead to a massive deficit that might destabilise our services. My local authority has argued with the Government that a reduction in the overall population does not necessarily lead to a reduction in the cost of providing services. I believe that the same principle applies to Members' services. Once a Member has an office in their constituency, fixed costs for rental and heating apply whether they have one or more members of staff. I also oppose any reduction in the facilities available in the House, as it is self-evident that that is not in my constituents' interests. I hope that my recommendation will be remitted to the Members Estimate Committee so that it can find a more acceptable way forward. I shall therefore support the proposals on the provision of incidental expenses tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
I have not yet addressed the recommendations on Members' pay. The SSRB reports that it received no submissions from MPs proposing that their pay be increased. I gave oral evidence to the SSRB and, on both occasions, I declined when I was asked if I wished to comment on Members' pay. To date, I have been happy with an inflation-proof increase on an annual basis. The next SSRB report is scheduled for 2006, but I thank the board for its present report. While I do not agree with
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all of it, it is lucid and easy to read. I hope that some of its key recommendations will command the support of the House, and I welcome the fact that it will be referred back to deal with the concerns that I have highlighted, namely hot-desking and the proposals on the incidental expenses provision.
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