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Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I wish to speak in support of amendment (g). The Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) can relax, as I do not propose to speak to amendment (h) or press it to a vote.
I am exceedingly grateful to right hon. and hon. Members who have supported amendment (g). Like the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), I belong to the select band of Members who, after 28 years of service, will not stand at the next election, so I can press amendments without fear or favour. I tabled the amendment because I am concerned that the House is getting into a bit of a muddle. When I leave, I want to be sure that everything is sweetness and light and runs properly. At the outset, however, I should make it clear that I am not critical of the way in which the SSRB has determined its figures. Whatever mysterious method it uses, I have no quarrel with the total sum. However, the money should be divided equally between all Members of Parliament and, as elected representatives, we should take responsibility for the way in which the allowance is spent, subject to approval from Finance and Administration that it has been correctly spent.
I said that the House is getting into a bit of a muddleafter all the years that I have spent here, I recognise a slippery slope when I see one. I am not sure whether the figure of £7,000 is a bonus or penalty, but it is the start of a slippery slope. I am not sure where it will lead, but I fear that it will further diminish the standing of Parliament. I am afeard that that £7,000 will force MPs to do not what they want to do, but what the allowances direct them to do.
Miss Widdecombe : Will my hon. Friend comment on the farcical situation that would ensue? Members of Parliament would be so penalised by the rule of £7,500 per work station that they would end upas I wouldwith insufficient money to pay the rent for their constituency office, which is the exact opposite of the intended effect of the proposals.
Mr. Page: My right hon. Friend, who had the wit and wisdom to support my amendment, makes a valid point. We must return to a clearer and simpler system, so that we avoid those difficulties. One or two hon. Members have said that the SSRB should stop trying to engineer accommodation in the House and stick to its overall task.
Does my hon. Friend accept that another problem with the recommendations in the SSRB report is that, now that allowances are to be published each year, the very fact that certain Members will be able to claim £27,000 in incidental expenses provision while other Members will perhaps be able to
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claim only £5,000 may give the public a very distorted view of what is being claimed or the benefit that a Member of Parliament is getting?
Mr. Page: One of the advantages of speaking so late in a debate about one's own amendment is that it will have been trawled and trampled over, and generally explained to everybody to the nth degree. In fact, I wonder why I am speaking to amendment (g) at all. Apart from the Leader of the House, who got himself into such a muddle trying to answer questions about these matters, everybody agrees that the amendment is a good thing. Perhaps I should sit down and leave it at that, but I have never known a Member of Parliament not use some words when the opportunity to do so is available. As my time is running out in this place and this is such an opportunity, I should like to say just a little bit more, but I promise that it will be only a little bit.
The main purpose of amendment (g) is to restore to Members the right to restructure their offices however they think best in order for them to carry out their parliamentary and constituency duties. That is the raison d'être of the amendment. As has been mentioned, prior to 2001 all Members were treated equally with regard to allowances. Many aspects of those reforms were welcome, but in my view they started this very unhelpful trend towards ending the uniformity of allowances for Members and introducing an element of persuading Members, by the allowances that were available, to restructure their offices in a particular way that was not their way, but the allowances' way. The £7,000 would accelerate that trend.
I welcome the greater transparency in laying down and publicising Members' allowances, but I think that, in order to be believablethis relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) has just madethose allowances must be made irrespective of where Members' constituencies are and of whether and where they have decided to have a principal office. First, we had extra allowances for Members with London constituencies, and now Members who choose to base their staff in Westminster rather than in their constituency will, if the proposals are agreed to, have their allowances reduced. It is not a fair comparison. We have all had media interest in our various allowances, and we have had it to a greater degree over the past few weeks.
More importantly, I strongly believe that Members should not be subject to financial pressures in deciding how best to structure their offices in order to do the best job for their constituents. They have to stand up in front of their constituents at the election, and I believe that they should not be subject to outside pressures telling them how they should have been running their affairs. As the House will know, the unique nature of each constituency means that there cannot be such a one-size-fits-all arrangement for Members' offices. The Leader of the House accepted that view when he delicately acceptedI was about to say dodged, but perhaps I shall withdraw thatthe points made by hon. Members on this matter.
I shall not expand on that point, except to give just one example. On the day when the list of MPs' expenses was published, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)I did not
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tell him that I would mention him in the debate, but I do not believe that he will be upset, because what I have to say is in no way criticalsaid that he had chosen not to have a fixed office in his constituency on account of the huge geographical area that it covers and the distances between its various towns and villages. Instead, he chooses to travel to his constituents and receive logistical support from his Westminster-based staff. If that is the arrangement that he wants, it is the arrangement that he should have. There should be flexibility in the allowance system to enable him to do exactly that. I believe that the review body's proposals would unfairly penalise those with such arrangements.
Ian Stewart: Does the hon. Gentleman remember that in the 2001 report and the subsequent debate, a special circumstances allowance was referred to? To date, we know of no hon. Member who has appliedI am aware that some have done sowho has achieved any success from that allowance.
Mr. Page: I am not responsible for who gets or does not get any of these so-called special allowances. I believe that there should be an overall, even amount for Members of Parliament, and that it is for them alone to decide how that money is spent.
In short, Members have widely different responsibilities and constituents' needs, and the allowance should give maximum flexibility in office arrangements. Amendment (g) would be easy to administer and control, and would ensure that responsibility is where it should bewith the Member.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Although the length of time for debate is not fixed from the Chair, I am anxious that there are a number of what might be called stakeholders who will expect to contribute to the debate. May I please appeal now for extreme brevity, as we need a winding-up speech at the end of the debate, and there is not a lot of time left?
I want also to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) in initiating the Adapt project, which has led to some extremely valuable training provision for our staff. My staff have found that training extremely useful and valuable, and it has also been valuable to me as a Member. The work that he did was pioneering stuff, and I congratulate him on it. I assure him that the Members' advisory panel carefully considered his submission to us; although we did not call him to give evidence, that submission was extensively considered, and I am sorry that we were unable to follow through the recommendation.
The amendments raise some issues that I would like to address. I oppose amendment (g), which was tabled by the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page), because I think that it breaks an important principle that was introduced after the 2001 election.
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The principle was introduced because it was feared that many members of staff were not being employed under proper terms and conditions. The work done by the Speaker's advisory panel and now the Members' advisory panel, which I chair, led to the introduction of a standard contract for all employed staff, standard pay scales and a staff salaries budget, which was ring-fenced, so that it is in no one's interest to pay their staff poverty wages.
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