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Thank you. I should like to put in a plug for colleagues and people outside who have a view about pay to make those views known so that they can be fed into the system. We really should not just be
talking to ourselves about these things, and it is important that our constituents feed into this process as well.
My next point might be more controversial. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and I take the view that, as from 1 August, Members should be allowed to employ only one family member at a time. At the moment, several colleagues apparently employ more than one family member or person with whom they either have or have had a relationship. That is within the law, and it is perfectly understandable. It seems to me, however, that the public will not understand if they see the bulk of the money set aside as an allowance for staff pay going into the family. That really is not a credible proposition.
We could achieve this change in several ways. We could decide that Members could employ only one member of staff, and that they could pay that person no more than half the yearly allowance, which is now about £100,000. Alternatively, we could set an upper limit to the amount of money available, or set a percentage. It would not be acceptable if this became a way of employing ones family. People might have wonderfully qualified family members who could do these jobs; that is not the point. The point is that we are public servants, and most of the jobs should be advertised publicly and recruited for publicly. There should be an equal opportunities policy for them, and we should behave like the rest of the public service, as the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges has pointed out.
The only reason why it is acceptable to employ one family member or relative is that being a Member of Parliament often places considerable strains on family life; it is often, in a way, a small business in which all the family is engaged. It is therefore entirely justifiable that a spouse, partner, parent, child, son-in-law or daughter-in-law should be asked to help if they are competent to do so. That is entirely understandable, and can be good for family life. We go beyond the line, however, when we employ a second or third family member. If the first family member ceases to be employed, it is of course reasonable for a second person from the family to be recruited. I hope that we shall have a tough rule in place by 1 August stating that we may employ only one family member from then on.
Mr. Mackay: Would the hon. Gentleman really be comfortable with public advertising of vacancies for our staff? This is a sensitive area. Would he really want a Tory secretary, for example? Would I really want a Lib Dem researcher? I think possibly not.
My understanding is that that occasionally happens under the present arrangements, when Members find thateither in knowledge or in ignorancethey have recruited someone who may not share their political viewpoint. Even in families, however, there are sometimes different political viewsnot, of course, in the right hon. Gentlemans family, as I know that his family members who have expressed their views have the same view as his. I do not resile from my position, however. It would be unacceptable to insist that we had to employ people irrespective of
their political views; the employee has to be compatible with the political party, or suitable for working with a particular colleague, in the case of an independent. Otherwise, it is entirely possible to recruit on a broad basis. There are websites about working for an MP, and adverts are placed in the newspapers. It is perfectly proper to advertise in that way, and the ability to support either the individual or the party would rightly be seen as a necessary requirement of the job.
Simon Hughes: I said very clearly that we cannot legislate retrospectively in such matters, but from 1 August onwards, the rule should be that only one person from the family can be taken into employment, and that where one family member is already working, a second cannot be taken on. We must not be unfair to people presently in employment.
I wish to raise two final issues that colleagues across the House are concerned about. First, the question that we are debating is a different one from protecting the privacy of our members of staff generally. Mr. Speaker and the Members Estimate Committee are addressing a matter that it is important to get righthow we protect the safety and integrity of our members of staff. That is a wider debate, but I do not think it applies to family members. In the case of family members, there is an overriding obligation to disclose, which is what we should do.
The second wider issueagain it is a separate matter and not directly affected by what we are debatingis the need to ensure that the home addresses of family members, as of Members of Parliament, are not exposed to unnecessary risks. As I say, that is a wider issue. The issues for today, however, are different. Should we adopt the report? Yes, we should. Should it be only an interim report? Yes, it should. Should the system become compulsory in August? Yes, it should, but I hope it goes further than that. I hope that it will be made clear from then onwards that one family member employee, at most, is quite enough.
The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) rightly called on us to restore public confidence and trust as quickly as possible, but unless we limit the number of family members that we take on, we will, bluntly, fail to achieve that. I hope that we are tough with ourselves and robust in our decisions, and that we sort the problem out quickly, rather than leaving it in the long grass.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab):
I preface my remarks by declaring two interests. The first is that I am a member of the advisory panel on Members allowances, and the second is that I employ my husband. From the first day I started to employ him, that fact has appeared in my election address. When the fury about the employment of Members families broke out, I had only one communication about it. That came from someone who regularly writes me lettersusually angry lettersbut on this occasion it was to congratulate me on employing Ian, which was described as one of
the best decisions I had ever made. Clearly, not everyone thinks it is necessarily a bad thing to employ ones spouse. Sometimes, however, we have to think a little more deeply about our decisions in the House, and on this occasion, I want us to think more deeply about our job descriptions.
When we started to reflect on these issues, we began by discussing the consultation on the Senior Salaries Review Body, which predates the fury about what happened in the particular case we all know about, so I do not quite agree that we always come to these matters kicking and screaming. We are also looking into personnel functionsanother important aspect. Since I advertise the fact that I employ my husband, I am obviously not against transparency, but I am concerned about job descriptions.
The fact that I am a little disabled is clear for everyone to see, so it is not a private matter for me, but for some people, becoming disabled is a private matter. The fact that my husband is my carer is part of his job description, and necessarily so, because the rules of the House say that if someone is ones carer, it must be part of their job description. If have checked today, and that is a condition laid down by the House, so that other allowances can flow.
Other Members who are disabled might want to keep their disabilities a private matter. Not all disabilities are public. Not all people with disabilities use wheelchairs or have a walking stick, as I do. Some disabilities are private, and some people prefer to keep illnesses a private matter. While this is a narrow area, we must consider whether such matters need to be revisited. If it is a rule of the House that allowances due to Members flow from job descriptions, the Committee needs to consider that situation so that some privacy can be afforded to Members, and we do not have a two-tier system regarding job descriptions.
Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I have every sympathy with the hon. Ladys point. When the Standards and Privileges Committee report says that the job description should appear in the register, it is envisaged that that should be the job title. The wording might be slightly misleading, but the Committee certainly has no intention whatever that the entry in the register should go into any detail about the contents of the job description itself.
Kali Mountford: Many Members with this concern will be comforted by that helpful response. When I asked members of the Committee about the issue, I was told that Members would have time to review their position. I asked over and over again what was meant by a review and I was told, Youll have time to get your house in order. When I asked whether I could take this particular element out of the job description, Officers of the House told me that I could not, because elements of allowances flowed from its inclusion in the job description. The two messages were inconsistent. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, because while my disability is visible and there for all to see, others have disabilities that are not visible. If the hon. Gentleman is correct, people will be comfortedI see that hon. Members are noddingand the review will be unnecessary in that regard.
I am also worried about the very broad range of salaries. Knowing what my constituents are likeI am sure that all hon. Members constituents are the samethey will assume that everyone is on the top rate. I will get letters saying, Isnt there a lot of money going into your house? I can assure my constituents right away that my husband is not on the top of the rangeneither is he right at the bottombut Members will receive lots of letters saying, I expect youre all on the top rate.
This process will not be the end; there will be a lot more curiosity. What we are doing should be about serving the public interest, not public curiosity. I hope that the process will feed into the Members Estimate Committee and that we will be allowed to carry on work to examine a proper personnel function that can exist alongside a proper accounting function. While this process serves a function, it will not be the whole story. Rather than looking at what Members families do, surely the House should look at what all our staff do.
As employers, we ought to be looking at the interests of our staff. All our staff need to be doing what they are paid to do. What is interesting here is not the fact that one individual made a mistake about a member of their family, but the fact that there ought to be a proper personnel function whereby an employer employs a member of staff, we know what that member of staff is doing, and we have a proper way to deal with the relationship between employer and employee so that it is properly accounted for. That would satisfy the public that we know what we are doing, that we are a proper professional organisationall of usand that we do not make a distinction between family members and others.
To say that a member of my family is somehow less of a human being and more likely to be a rogue, a vagabond and a thief seems to be the wrong way to look at things. Any of us could be making mistakes, so we must ensure that the functions of the House are so correctly set up that none of us could make a mistake with any of our staff. That would be the right way forward.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I, too, support the report; in particular, I compliment the Committee on producing it so rapidly. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) pointed out, it is only eight weeks since the coming to pass of the events that led to the necessity to produce the report. It is a great tribute to his work that the response has been so rapid.
I have a small amount of sympathy with the view that the matter should perhaps have been considered in the round along with all the Members Estimate Committee issues. That point was made by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) a moment or two ago, but as the Committee was willing to move so quickly, it makes sense to have produced the report. I hope that action will be taken in advance of the next tax year.
I fear, however, that the House is still woefully slow to wake up to the reality of public opinion surrounding the use andI further fearfrequent misuse of
allowances and expenses. The dismay and disgust of recent weeks have given way in recent days to disbelief as, collectively, we still appear to regard these issues as something of a parliamentary matter to be kept away from the prying eyes of press and public alike. It is essential that we get real. We now need a regime of openness, transparency and full disclosure. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) pointed out, that regime needs to be fit for the modern world in which we live.
I very much support virtually the entire report. It is correct that Members should be required to name members of staff with whom they have a strong personal relationship. I have some fears about the de minimis proposal, although I suspect that the events of recent months will put that to one side. I fear that a de minimis arrangement almost gives rise to the notion that paying 600 quid a year to a close member of staff to do the Christmas card list is part and parcel of the various rations. I hope that what has happened in recent weeks and months means that we will put an end to the flagrant misuse, particularly of the additional costs allowance, which we will discuss further before the summer recess.
I also want to comment briefly on behalf of my own staff. I allowed them to say what they thought about the report. Like many Members, I have never employed a member of my family as a member of staff; I was elected seven years ago. When I consulted my staff, they were concerned about much fuller disclosure, although it is something to which I would not object. However, their objection was instinctive, on the basis that it has perhaps at times been useful not to give their name over the telephone, particularly when a constituent might be violent or threatening. All my staff are here at the Palace of Westminster, in the heart of my constituency, but I am sure that the same objection applies to the staff of many Members from outside London who have constituency offices on their own patch, where staff could find themselves at some risk of assault, through either menacing telephone calls or, indeed, physical attack.
Therefore, in bringing forward this welcome first step in what I hope will be a list of disclosures, we need to recognise that the people who have suffered most are not Members of Parliament, but, in many ways, their members of staff. I am sure that they are the butt of jokes. Anyone who says that he or she works for a Member of Parliament has probably had a very difficult time over the past two months. Staff members are not particularly well remunerated by any normal standards. I would love to pay my staff working in central London considerably more, but obviously I must remain within the constraints of our budgets. We should remember that the interests of staff need to be served as well.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire for introducing his timely report so swiftly. I hope that it will reflect well, together with all the other various other reports, so that we shall put our House entirely in order in the months ahead. I fear it is inevitable that the press will wish to make much of this, but it is not just the result of a campaign put up by the Daily Mail or the Evening Standard.
These issues are at the heart of many of the concerns of the constituents whom we seek to represent, and we now have it in our power to ensure that we get things right.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I thank the Standards and Privileges Committee for its work. The report is based on consideration of the issues, followed by a consultation exercise. I thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for chairing the Committee and for the clarity with which he introduced the report. As is the convention, we found time for the report to be debated promptly following its publication.
Let me say a little about the background. I remind the House, as a number of hon. Members have done, that on 24 Januarybefore the publication of the report on the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway)the House decided that we must deal with the question of our pay and how we decide on it, and also with the question of our allowances.
In respect of pay, we acted on the proposal made many years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) that our pay should be pegged to an external comparator, and that there should be an independent review mechanism so that we need no longer vote on our own pay. On 24 January, the House accepted that proposal. Sir John Baker is now conducting a review that will propose a comparator and a mechanism. He is taking evidence, and will produce a report by the end of May. Hon. Members will have an opportunity to vote on his recommendations before the House rises for the summer recess. The process was already in hand before the breaking of the scandal relating to the abuse of public funds by the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup.
At the same time, we discussed allowances. I made clear then, as I do today, that we ought to treat the matter of our payour remunerationseparately from that of reimbursement. We need to ensure that Members can be reimbursed for travelling to and from their constituencies, and that they can be compensated for the extra expense of having two homes, one in London, so that they can represent their constituents at Westminster, and, in the case of out-of-London Members, one in the constituency.
All Members of Parliament also need proper, well-funded offices to support them in their work. If we believe that legislation should be scrutinised properly, they must have proper staff in their offices to assist them with that scrutiny. If we want people to be properly represented in the constituencies and helped with individual case work, there must be a proper staff complement. Remuneration for travel, for living away from home and for staff offices is important. We decided on 24 January that we would refer the question of allowances for a root-and-branch review to the Members Estimate Committee, and, before the issue of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup arose, the Speakers Committee took on the responsibility.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am reluctant to stop the Leader of the House. I thought that she was giving some brief background to the report, which is tightly drawn, as she will have heard me tell other hon. Members. Perhaps she can bear that in mind when she continues her remarks.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has set out the proposals in the report. We need clear rules, good advice from the House authorities, and public confidence in the outcome. I urge all hon. Members to support the motion.
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for the sterling work he does as Chairman of the Committee, and I thank his fellow Committee members, not only for having produced the report so expeditiously but for all the other work they do on that very important Committee. The disclosure requirements complement the broader review that is being undertaken by the Members Estimate Committee, the findings of which will be published just before the summer recess.
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