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I will support the Leader of the House this afternoon on her motion of expression of opinion. I have no wish to rock the boat on that. However, I beg
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those on the Government Front Bench to accept my amendment and let the MEC have a go at producing proposals. I know that the Leader of the House said that we could produce a memorandum. We do not need the authority of the House to produce a memorandum, a document or a review. The MEC can do that, but we do not have the automatic right to have it considered on the same day as Sir John’s report. It could sit on the shelf in the Vote Office. Yes, we could take the guts out of it and table it in an amendment, but as the MEC is chaired by Mr. Speaker, we cannot have an amendment advocated in the House by a Committee of which the Speaker and the Leader of the House are members.

I seek a commitment from those on the Front Bench. I would happily withdraw my amendment. I do not particularly want a vote on it, but I know that a head of steam has built up from colleagues on both sides because what I am proposing is reasonable and innocuous. If we produce a memorandum or a document of some sort—we are not in the business of an alternative review; I am not rubbishing Sir John at all—please let us have it considered at the same time as Sir John’s report, as an alternative. That would remove a difficulty for the Government and for everyone else, except perhaps myself given the work load of the MEC in producing this.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: My right hon. Friend is about to finish and he has not touched on a subject that has not been raised certainly while I have been in the Chamber, and that is the mileage allowance. Sir John Baker’s report recommends that the mileage allowance should remain as it is. Bearing in mind the dramatic rise in motoring costs in recent times, and the diversity of need for a motor vehicle between those who represent large constituencies many miles from London and those who live in urban areas, is it not time that a more rational, responsible and realistic mileage allowance was agreed?

David Maclean: My hon. Friend has for some time been raising the question of the mileage allowance of which he has long experience, and I will let him speak for himself on that matter. I would not like to incorporate it into my amendment. I could say facetiously that if he got a quad bike it would be a lot cheaper to run, but one gets a little more abuse as well.

I end by reassuring all hon. Members, particularly Government Members, that I will vote for the Leader of the House’s motion even if she votes down my amendment. I do not particularly want to force a vote, but many colleagues expect me to do so. If I can have the assurance that the Leader of the House will bring forward our MEC memorandum and allow it to be considered, debated or voted on when Sir John produces his no doubt excellent independent report, I would not wish to force the matter to a vote. I have signed some other amendments, but I accept the Government’s and the Opposition’s exhortations that we should stick with the pay norms that they recommend.

That is a simple request. I am not out to damage the Government or to harm the Opposition. My amendment is innocuous and straightforward, but it is
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a chance to give the MEC the opportunity to sort out our pay just as we have been given the responsibility of sorting out our allowances.

3.12 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) who, along with his fellow members of the Members Estimate Committee and the Commission, puts much time and effort into representing our interests. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) for setting out so very clearly the facts regarding hon. Members’ salaries in recent years and their context.

I support the position outlined by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. It is certainly right that we should be consistent with what we have asked public sector workers to take by way of salary increases over the past year. I wish Sir John Baker and the MEC well in carrying out their further reviews. They will need to grapple with a number of issues that will no doubt in due course attract well-reasoned representations from hon. Members.

I should like to seek clarification from my right hon. and learned Friend on one issue. If we support the proposal to increase the staffing allowance immediately, will the MEC still be able to consider automatic uprating of the salaries of members of our staff? I want to draw particular attention to chart 3 on page 33 of volume 2 of the review, which shows that 19 per cent.—almost one in five—of MPs passed on less than 80 per cent. of their staffing allowance to their staff, and less than half of staff received bonuses. The ceiling on staffing allowances is uprated in April each year by the increase in the average earnings index, but staff pay is not automatically increased. The report notes the evidence given by staff representatives that many MPs do not pass on the annual uprating.

The SSRB report concludes that the House authorities should consider issuing a notice to MPs in March to remind them of the opportunity for uprating. I think that a rather weak way of addressing the issue, especially at a time when, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley so ably set out, we are looking for an automatic uprating for ourselves; what is sauce for us is sauce for our members of staff as well.

I turn to another staff allowance matter, which will be referred to the MEC. Recommendation 19 is about the “Staffing Allowance”; it states that it should be renamed “Staffing Expenditure” and that the “Temporary Secretarial Allowance” be renamed “Temporary Secretarial Expenditure”. The SSRB says:

I share the pessimism of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd): changing the names may not change how such matters are covered in the press. However, we should recognise that when the package is described as a gravy train, that is not only a matter of concern to MPs; it is not very nice for the staff to be described as being on the gravy train. They do a fantastic job for us. We have talked about the long hours that we work, but they often put in hours well in
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excess of what they are contracted to do. We should pay attention to that in the months ahead, as we sort these matters out.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I endorse my hon. Friend’s views on staff. Has she had the opportunity to compare the salaries that we are able to give our hard-working staff with those often given to local group assistants in local councils? Those salaries are often in the mid-£30,000s; it is totally iniquitous that because of how our allowances are put together, our members of staff based in London cannot earn as much as Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat group assistants out in the sticks, where the cost of living is not as high.

Linda Gilroy: My hon. Friend makes her point well. I thought that she was going to make a comparison with the salaries to which our staff often move on quickly in the world outside Westminster—and rightly so. Just as there is no shortage of people queuing to become MPs, there is no shortage of people queuing to work for us in Westminster. Nevertheless, the gap between what our staff do for us and what we are able to reward them with, and what they should be able to attract, is considerable. If we are to argue that we ourselves should have automatic increases, at the very least we should say the same about our staff. If any hon. Members argue otherwise, I suggest that the system be put the other way round for them, so that they would be notified of what the salaries would be increased to—unless they intervened to have them reduced. We would see what would happen then.

I said that I would be brief. I hope that in winding up, the Minister will join other Members in saying that MPs should be praised by the media for arguing that their hard-working staff should be fairly rewarded; the concept of being on the gravy train and inflating some personal allowance is ridiculous. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) clearly outlined the fact that the money does not pass anywhere near our personal pockets, and rightly so.

I am sure that MPs’ pay and associated issues will continue to be a cause of lively public debate even if we successfully implement some of the proposals that we have been discussing. Nevertheless, they will provide a much better framework around which to have that debate.

3.20 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): We are having an interesting debate on this issue. It is perhaps not as heated or exciting as some that we have witnessed in the past, because in some respects, there is a great deal of consensus around the House.

To the extent that there is any tension or disagreement, it seems to cut to the question of the relationship between this sovereign House and the Government as it affects the matters before us. I should like to point out to Members the difference between the administration estimate—that is, the budget spending line that runs the House of Commons, employs the House staff, and is responsible for the fabric of the building and security—and the Members estimate, which we are discussing. The administration estimate is the property of this House. The House is responsible for it and it is administered by the House of Commons Commission. Members ask questions of the
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Commission about how those moneys are used. The Commission produces an annual report that Members can debate and lays before this House annually an estimate for the running of the House.

The Members estimate, which is the budget spending line from which Members’ pay and allowances are paid, is not the property of this House but is deemed to be the property of the Government and the Treasury. That, at least, is the theory. One might ask various previous Leaders of the House who have been responsible on the occasions of these debates on SSRB reports whether they felt that they had control over the Members estimate. There have been some memorable debates in which the Government have not had their way and this sovereign House has shown that it is indeed responsible for this line of spending. In reality, the Members’ estimate is neither fish nor fowl—it exists in a sort of limbo. Only a Minister of the Crown can propose an increase in expenditure against it. That is why expressions of opinion, whereby other Members can make suggestions, sit alongside the motion.

On the question of a mechanism for deciding pay, I have no problem with what the Government are doing. They have proposed that for the current year, 2007-08, the pay rise for Members should be staged in such a way that its value is only 1.9 per cent. over the course of the year. There does not appear to be any great controversy about that. Nobody has argued against it or tabled an amendment suggesting anything different, and the Front Benchers of all three parties have urged Members to support that restraint at this time. The Government have also concluded that it would be right to have conducted a review that attempts to produce a new mechanism that does not require MPs to vote annually on their pay for the coming year. There is a general consensus around the House that if a workable system can be proposed, that is a good idea that we would all welcome.

There is a problem, however, in relation to how the Government are going about this. In my view, the report that they commissioned from the SSRB should have been a report to this House, but because of the peculiar relationship that I have described as regards the Members estimate, it was a report to the Government, which they then sat on for more than six months. We all speculated that it must be a real hot potato, and that there must be something absolutely diabolical in the report that was causing the Government terrible political angst, which meant that they had to sit on it for six months. When the report came out I read it, re-read it and read it again, and wondered what on earth had caused the Government so much difficulty. That is the first grievance I wish to log about the way in which they have done their business.

I wish to flag up some serious misgivings about what the Government now propose. They are asking us to rescind and tear up the resolution of July 1996, which has governed how such matters are dealt with for the past 12 years. Effectively they want us to sign them a blank cheque. We have to buy a pig in a poke, leave matters with them, and they will have a review conducted by someone of their choosing who will report back to them. We all just have to relax: it will all be okay because they will see us right.

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I do not think that that is a sensible or logical way for the House to proceed. That is why there is an amendment on the Order Paper in my name, and in the names of other Members who serve with me on the Members Estimate Committee, suggesting that we ought not to rescind the existing arrangement until we have seen what the review recommends, and resolved as a sovereign House what we are going to do about it, and what the arrangements should be in future. It is simply logical not to rip up the old system before resolving what the new one will be.

More specifically, the Government have made no suggestion about what MPs’ pay rate should be for 2008-09. That is why my amendment suggests that while we are waiting for a new system to emerge, we should have what is suggested under the existing system—what the SSRB recommended—for next year. It is the only proposal on the Order Paper that makes any provision for any pay rise next year.

During the course of the debate, we have heard from the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) and the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) various rather more detailed suggestions about the task that lies before Sir John Baker—what he will do, what he will recommend and what might come back before the House in July. I have no knowledge of that. I have no particular problem with that state of affairs; I am not sulking because things have been said to those two eminent Members that have not been said to me, but it seems odd that we are being asked to sign up to this change when none of the information concerned seems to have been shared, through the usual channels or by any other means.

Sir John is being asked to return in July with a recommendation for a new mechanism. There is no suggestion as to when this mechanism will take effect, and it was more or less hinted in response to certain interventions that he will make some sort of recommendation for a pay rise for 2008-09. However, I am puzzled by that, because if Sir John Baker comes up with a new mechanism that will operate in future, and part of that mechanism might be the creation of a new body, when will it be created? When will it start to establish the comparators, mechanisms and so on? It will clearly not be possible to do that by July, and unless the new mechanism is determined by Sir John Baker doodling a sum on a pad, there is no possibility of any proposal of a pay rise for 2008-09 by the time we have the debate in July.

Mr. Spellar: Again, we are in danger of mixing up two elements. One is the question addressed by the SSRB of the extent to which there is a need to redress the deficiency when comparison is made with the comparators—the catch-up, in other words. The other is the question of an index by which increases would come in automatically. The question of having a body to examine what happens if such an index fails is another matter. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will make it clear that there is no proposal to set up a permanent SSRB to report constantly, only a body that deals with the index. There are two separate issues. The hon. Gentleman could deal with one—and even with the future index—but they are separable.

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Nick Harvey: Again, I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, which sound sensible. He is a sensible man, but none of the information has so far been shared with the House. It cannot be discerned from the written terms of reference to Sir John Baker, which were published only yesterday. It was naughty to publish the terms of reference for the review after the deadline for tabling amendments for the debate. That is exceptionally bad practice.

The long and the short of it is that the House is being asked to put its faith in the Government and allow them to drive the processes forward. Clearly, some hon. Members have far more information about what is intended than others, and it is therefore difficult for the rest of us to assess whether that is a good idea. I appeal to the Deputy Leader of the House to share with the House what Sir John Baker will be asked to do. Hon. Members have suggested, for example, that he will be asked to do one thing for the next couple of years and something else for the years thereafter. Perhaps that is true, but the terms of reference do not state that.

Sir Michael Spicer: The hon. Gentleman is on exactly the right track and is making the point about which I tried to ask earlier. Would it not be best if the Deputy Leader of the House intervened now, because that would help matters considerably?

Nick Harvey: The sooner the matter can be clarified, the better. I tabled an amendment precisely because of the vagueness and lack of information from the Government about what is intended to happen with the review and the pay settlement for the coming year. If the Government could clear up some of those matters, it might be unnecessary to press my amendment to a Division.

John Bercow: Sir John may be an estimable individual, and an agreeable dinner companion to boot, but, on the evidence thus far, I am sceptical about the merit of his continued involvement. Given that he made a recommendation on pay that the Government have chosen not to accept this year, is it not bizarre, to put it mildly, for the Government to imagine that he will deal with the situation next year? He might again make a recommendation that they are disinclined to accept.

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Inviting Sir John to undertake the review is interesting, given the difficulty that the Government seemed to experience for the past six months in digesting his previous utterance. I believe that the House should control the Members estimate, as it controls the administration estimate, and that the House, not Her Majesty’s Government, should decide to whom it remits such matters for review. I therefore support amendment (c) to the motion before the House, which provides that the Members Estimate Committee, as the only body in the House that could reasonably do the work, should examine the issues at the same time as the review.

Sir John Butterfill: More than six months have passed since the SSRB report was prepared. The Government had the first draft report in May. It was sent back for further consideration—whatever that means. I believe that a second draft was sent to the Government in late
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May or June, and that it, too, was sent back for “further consideration”. The report was then sent to the Government at the end of June or beginning of July. It would be interesting to see the correspondence, if there was any, between the Government and the SSRB during that gestation period. Perhaps we could find out through the Freedom of Information Act.

Nick Harvey: I was about to commend that to the hon. Gentleman. I, too, have heard such accounts, but I can cast no authoritative light on them. Perhaps he should become an FOI campaigner and start some inquiries into the matter.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the excellent and relevant speech that he is making, but will he pick up the intervention that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) made? It might be helpful for the rest of the debate if the Deputy Leader of House could indicate in an intervention that she would look sympathetically on the hon. Gentleman’s amendment (f), which I happen to support, as well as amendment (c), standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), who spoke to it very articulately.

Nick Harvey: As a point of principle, it would be desirable if the Deputy Leader of the House responded to the point that the hon. Gentleman has just raised. On a more practical level, it might be possible for any number of Labour MPs who must be detained on the estate to make an earlier departure, if those who have amendments on the Order Paper could be given the sort of satisfaction that we are looking for.

In the case of amendment (c) to the motion before us, standing in the name of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), the Leader of the House came tantalisingly close to giving him what he is asking for, which is simply that any report from the MEC on pay would be considered in the House as part of the debate on any report that comes to the Government from Sir John Baker. Everybody would be saved an awful lot of trouble if the Deputy Leader of the House could move that final inch, preferably right away, but otherwise at any point during this debate—but I see no sign of her taking up my invitation now.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is on to an important point. Every hon. Member finds the issue of voting on pay uncomfortable. We need to ensure that when Sir John Baker produces his report there are two possible alternatives before the House, so that we, as Members of Parliament, can take the best way forward, and take away the question that is so often raised, and with which we so often struggle. Surely it must be in the House’s interest, and therefore in the Government’s interest, to accept amendment (c), which I understand is signed by three members of the Commission, to which we are referring all such matters anyway.

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