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Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con):
May I join the two previous speakers in thanking the hon. Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) and for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) for the sterling work that they have done on the parliamentary contributory pension fund? I extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) and the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on agreeing to
undertake the onerous responsibilities that they will experience as trustees of the fund.
I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) for all the hard work that he does as chairman of the fund. I also thank his colleagues on the fund for all the work that they do. Last but not least, I take the opportunity to thank all the House staff who so ably support the fund and all that the trustees do.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I add my endorsement to the motion. It would be churlish of me not to thank the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) for his kind comments. He serves as chairman of the trustees and has done so for many years, and has done a tremendous job in ensuring that Members pension interests are looked after. I am sure that he will continue to do that into the future.
I add my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) and for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), with whom I served. Both are prominent Back Benchers and active in their constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North is also Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee. They are both extremely busy and I know that that has been a consideration for them in their decision not to continue as trustees of the pension fund. I pay tribute to them for the tremendous job that they have done in the four years that they served as trustees.
I welcome the appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). Both have served the House as Back Benchers, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn was a Minister and a Whip for some time, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West served in the Whips Office for a number of years. Both have great experience, which is much needed by trustees. I welcome them bothif the motion is carriedand look forward to working with them in the interests of the House and of Members.
I join those around the Chamber who have thanked the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill). He does the job with the confidence of colleagues around the House and has done it with that confidence over a considerable time. We all owe him a debt of gratitude. Those of us who have been here for a long time increasingly appreciate the importance of the issue, and those of us who advance towards pensionable age are even more aware of its importance.
I join also in the thanks to the outgoing colleagues and to the two colleagues who have expressed their willingness to take on that responsibility, as well as to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who looks after our interestsnot that the trustees are partisan or act in a party political way.
Without wanting to open a Pandoras box, may I add one request that is linked to the work of the fund? This is an issue that has rightly and understandably
attracted interest outside the House, particularly over recent years. Pension funds are of interest and the pension
May I ask that one of the tasks of the new trustees and their colleagues on the board should be to produce a simple explanation of the fund as it now is, for the public as well as for Members, and that that should be made available through the outlets that the House has, on websites and so on? If the trustees are to have the confidence of the public as well as of Members, simple messages about the justice and propriety of the fund should be a priority for the trustees at all times.
That this House approves the Seventh Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 436) on Employment of family members through the Staffing Allowance; and endorses the changes proposed by the Committee in the purpose and form of the Register of Members Interests. [Steve McCabe.]
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Before I turn to my Committees specific recommendations in its seventh report, it might be helpful if I briefly set out the background to our proposals for the disclosure of family members in the Register of Members Interests.
On 31 January, the House dealt with my Committees fourth report, which revealed a specific case of misuse of the staffing allowance. That case attracted widespread criticism both inside and outside the House, and prompted callsnot least from the leaders of all the major political partiesfor greater transparency at an early date about the employment of relatives. At the same time, a number of Members sought to include details of such relatives in the Register of Members Interests, but at the moment there is no category in the register into which such disclosures naturally fit.
On 5 February, my Committee reflected on how best to make progress and we announced that we believed that by 1 April the House should have in place, within the existing framework, a system for the compulsory registration of Members who employ family members in connection with their duties as Members, and who remunerate them through the staffing allowance. We said that we would bring forward proposals. In reaching that conclusion, the Committee, to which the House has given oversight of the form and content of registers, was seeking to complement rather than pre-empt the wider inquiry of the Members Estimate Committee and to respond on behalf of the House as a whole to the immediate pressures, from both inside and outside the House, for greater transparency about to such employment. We took the view that the House should take the initiative and seek a House solution, rather than rely on a range of voluntary initiatives from the political parties.
In developing our proposals, the Committee has kept in close touch with the Members Estimate Committee. That process has been assisted in no small measure by the presence of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) on both the Members Estimate Committee and my Committee.
On 28 February, my Committee published its sixth report, setting out proposals for consultation and our reasons for rejecting other options such as a purely voluntary scheme or a full list of Members staff with family members distinguished. We proposed that, in each case, Members should disclose the name of the staff member, the relationship and the nature of the role in which they were employed, with a de minimis exemption when the annual payment involved did not exceed 1 per cent. of a Members salary. The report also
proposed a specific range of relationships to which the disclosure requirement would apply.
We noted that the proposal to include in the register details of family members employed broke new ground in that, for the first time, Members would be required to include information that did not relate to a direct pecuniary interest. In recognition of that extension of its scope, and to emphasise the distinction, we also proposed that the register should in future be divided into two parts, with the first containing the existing categories of pecuniary interest, and the second containing the new category of relatives employed. The House is today being asked to approve that change in the scope and nature of the register. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for providing time for an early debate on our report.
We also sought views on whether there should be a transitional period of voluntary registration. Despite the short period that could be allowed for consultation if we were to meet the 1 April deadline, we received 33 responses in all29 of them from parliamentary colleagues. I am grateful to all those who took the trouble to respond. Few consultees objected to the principle of what we proposed. A number wanted a delay in implementation, with our proposals being considered as an input to the broader Members Estimate Committee reviewnow due to report in time for a debate in Julyrather than as a separate exercise.
My Committee gave careful consideration to those arguments. We concluded that it was both practicable and right to seek to make early progressas has subsequently been made in other areas, including the receipts threshold and petty cash, provisions on both of which take effect from 1 April. We have looked carefully at the specific points made in the consultation and amended our original proposals in a number of significant respects to accommodate many of those, while maintaining the original objectives. Thus, in our seventh report, we confirmed our original proposals on the information to be disclosed and on the de minimis limit. We have, however, simplified the provisions on the range of relationships covered regarding any employee where the Member knows, or might reasonably be expected to know, of any relationship past or present, by marriage or partnership equivalent to marriage, or by blood. We have also modified the proposed heading for the new register category so that it simply reflects the nature of the information disclosed.
We have confirmed our proposal for the new requirements to come into effect on 1 April, at the start of the new allowance year, with their becoming compulsory from 1 August. That lead-in period, during which registration will be voluntary, has a number of benefits. It enables those seeking an early opportunity to put on the public record details of relatives whom they employ to do so within a common framework established by the House. Again, I declare my interest in that I employ a member of my family full-time in the House of Commons. It also provides those who may want to do so with an opportunity to review their contractual obligations in an orderly way, and it provides us with an opportunity to review the arrangements if necessary, before they become compulsory, in the light of the proposals that may emerge from the broad MEC review, and of our
own experience of operating the scheme in voluntary mode. If the motion is passed, the registrar will contact hon. Members next week, setting out the action that they can take.
Before I conclude, I should like to make a couple of more general points. Essentially, faced with the situation following our fourth report, there were three possible options concerning the employment of family members. One was to do nothing, the second was to ban the practice and the third was to introduce greater transparency. I simply do not believe that the do-nothing option is tenable against the climate of public opinion. The second is the possibility of a ban, as the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life accepted in his statement of 30 January, although he conceded that it could
seem a rather harsh answer to the problem.
an alternative approach would be to insist on greater transparency and proper monitoring of existing requirements, which is generally better than creating new rules and prohibitions.
I agree with that; we should not compel hon. Members to dismantle arrangements that have enabled them to provide a high-quality service to their constituents. In proposing a formal mechanism for disclosure of employment of relatives, we have taken steps to introduce greater transparency, while at the same time not precluding changes that may emerge from the MEC review, with which my Committee will continue to keep in close touch on issues where we have a common interest.
Finally, I take the opportunity to remind the House of the importance of ensuring that, in all cases, an employee meets a genuine need in supporting the performance of parliamentary duties; that they are both qualified and able to do the job; that the job is actually done; and that the resulting costs, as far as they are charged to the staffing allowance, are reasonable and entirely attributable to the Members parliamentary work. I also remind the House of the importance of being able to demonstrate, if challenged, that the terms of any such employment are beyond reproach, and of the severe consequences of falling short of this requirement.
I commend my Committees proposals to the House in the hope that their implementation will help to rebuild public confidence in the House, both in our arrangements for employing staff in the light of the undoubted damage done by the events that were the subject of our fourth report, and in the ability of the House to respond quickly and positively to legitimate concerns about our arrangements.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I rise to speak in support of the motion. I am a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, which is so ably chaired by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I wish to make only two or three small points.
First, transparency, however painful, is an essential ingredient of a modern democracy, and we should not enter into arrangements in the employment of staff, or in any other respect, that cannot be defended publicly. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman referred to timing, and I believe that the Committee was right to resist calls for delay. Action was urgently required in the
wake of recent events. We in this House have to get ahead of public opinion, and not be continually dragged along behind it.
It is true that much of the media reporting on our allowances is mendacious, but for far too long we have tolerated arrangements that do not exist anywhere else in the public or private sector. I recall that on one day in 2001 we voted down the Senior Salaries Review Bodys recommendations on pensions and additional costs and substituted more generous arrangements. Sooner or later there was bound to be a public backlash.
Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): The hon. Gentleman said that we voted down some of the SSRBs proposals on pensions. The only way that they were voted down was, I recollect, by our disagreeing with the SSRB recommendation that would have benefited hon. Members in relation to retained benefits. Can the hon. Gentleman recall any other matter?
Mr. Mullin: The hon. Gentleman is far better acquainted with the subject than I am, but my recollection is that at some stage we voted to change the number of yearsit was sixtieths, but has gone down to fortieths. He will correct me if I am wrong, but that was against the SSRBs recommendations, was it not?
Sir John Butterfill: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was referring to the previous debate. The change that he is describing was indeed made some years ago, but hon. Members also agreed to pay the full additional cost of that change.
Mr. Mullin: I am grateful for the hon. Gentlemans confirmation that my recollection is not wrong. It is certainly not wrong on the additional costs allowance, either, where we voted down the SSRB recommendations and added an extra £4,000. The result is that spending the entire allowance has become a target to be aimed for, rather than recompense for expenses legitimately incurred. That is one of the things that have got us into the trouble. However, I do not wish to go any further down that road, because that is not the subject of our discussion.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): This is not on the pension position, but is it not the case that reform usually comes only because of a scandal? My hon. Friend might remember cash for questions, the story in The Sunday Times and so on, when change came accordingly as a result of exposure. It is likewise in the current case. As he says, we always seem to drag our feet on the necessity to be transparent.
Mr. Mullin: Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friends point is that such changes come about usually only after a controversy that dynamites us into action, which is certainly what happened in this case. I am sure that we could point to others, too, were it in order to do so.
Finally, I regard the modest change proposed, which I believe will command universal agreement in the House and outside, as only a first step. We need to establish a mechanism that ends once and for all the practice of voting on our pay and allowances. We look to Sir John Baker for a way out of that. We also need to account properly and publicly for the allowances that we rightly receive, and we look to the Members Estimate Committee to help us with that.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): We are all grateful to the Standards and Privileges Committee for its work, particularly as it has worked so quickly. On 31 January the House agreed the fourth report, on the employment issues arising from the conduct of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) and the Committee has come back with a recommendation within two months. There was strong pressure, from outside and inside the House, for a new regime to be in place by the start of the new financial year. In essence, the proposals in the report, if we agree them, will allow that to happen, even though, as has been said, they are only a first step.
It is clearly intended that from April there should be a facility for registering family members, with a view to a final, compulsory system being in place by August, to dovetail with the recommendations of the Members Estimate Committee as a whole. I strongly support that proposal, and the proposal that we should have a compulsory system rather than a voluntary one. I also strongly support the proposal that the name of the family member, or other person with a relationship with the Member, should be listed, and that the job that they do should be described. I hope that it will also be necessary expressly to state the pay band that goes with the job, so that people do not have to cross-refer to other documents, and to state the minimum number of hours per week that the person is contracted to work. That was one of the abuses that came to light in the fourth report.
I do not have a personal interest in this matter. I have never paid anyone in my family out of my staffing allowance in all my time here, although obviously family and friends have helped with campaigning. That, however, is an entirely different issue, and will apply to all of us.
Given that this is such a high-profile issue, it is surprising that when the Committee went through the normal procedure of advertising its call for evidence, only three members of the public responded. Sometimes a tale full of sound and fury signifies a lot of interest, but when it came to people actually expressing a view, there was a pretty minimal response from the public. Sir John Baker might not love me for this, but I would like to put in a plug for people to make their views known. Given that the deadline that he has set for people to make submissions to him is, I think, 10 April
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