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3 Jun 2008 : Column 644

Members of Parliament (Pay and Responsibilities)

3.35 pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I beg to move,

In virtually every occupation, it is recognised that pay should reflect responsibilities. If people receive more responsibilities, they get higher pay. If they move to a post with fewer responsibilities, they expect to receive lower pay. The same should be true of Parliament. If, as is contemplated under the Bill that deals with the European constitutional treaty, this House hands over more of its powers to European institutions, MPs’ remuneration should reflect that diminution of their responsibilities. If, on the other hand, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has promised, Parliament regains some powers, such as those over social and employment policies that were conceded in the Amsterdam treaty, that should be reflected positively when MPs’ pay is assessed.

This issue is important because Parliament is considering transferring a significant slice of its powers on energy, foreign policy, immigration and several other areas to European institutions under the Lisbon treaty. A substantial transfer of powers has already occurred under previous treaties, and this House has ceded powers on a lesser scale to devolved Parliaments and to the judiciary under the Human Rights Act 1998. The German Government estimate that more than 80 per cent. of German laws are now decided at a European level. Our own Trade Minister has admitted that

I have heard hon. Members claim that only 10 per cent. of our laws are made in Brussels—a figure that they attribute to a Library paper, but that paper says no such thing. It remarks that the number of statutory instruments laid under the European Communities Act 1972 amounts to about 10 per cent. of all the statutory instruments passed by the House, but points out that EU statutory instruments typically enact a whole directive, which is often the equivalent of an Act of primary legislation, whereas domestic statutory instruments implement regulations. To compare the two is like comparing apples and pears, or rather pumpkins and pears given the disparity in their size. It also ignores the most plentiful fruit that comes from the European orchard—regulations, most of which are never considered by this House and which hon. Members find difficult even to obtain.

The total scale of EU legislation is enormous. Last year, the EU passed 177 directives, which are more or less equivalent to our Acts of Parliament, and 2,033 regulations, which become directly enforceable in this place, not to mention 1,045 decisions. Even that huge tally ignores the extent to which our powers are
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diminished by our inability to do things that we would like to do because they would conflict with European law. When I was a Minister, officials would frequently say, “No, Minister, you can’t do that”, because something was within the exclusive competence of the European Union.

If the Lisbon treaty goes through, a further salami slice of powers will be transferred to the European institutions. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who served with distinction on the European constitutional convention and who knows more about the implications of the Lisbon treaty than almost anyone else in the House, except for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), recently told the Fabian Society:

She went on to say that we are making

to people’s daily lives, and that she could not tell her constituents that the buck stops here.

Admittedly, declaring wars kept Parliament pretty busy under the previous Prime Minister, as does raising taxes under the current incumbent of No. 10. However, our constituents want us to wage fewer wars, raise fewer taxes and focus on the huge range of issues that affect their daily lives, over which they assume and hope that we retain the powers that they pay us to exercise on their behalf.

Few voters, or even Members of this House, fully realise how many powers have been, or are about to be, transferred elsewhere. There are three reasons for this. The first is that Governments of all persuasions deny that any significant powers are being transferred. The second is that, once powers have been transferred, Ministers engage in a charade of pretence that they still retain those powers. Even when introducing measures that they are obliged to bring in as a result of an EU directive, they behave as though the initiative were their own.

Indeed, Ministers often end up nobly accepting responsibility for laws that they actually opposed when they were being negotiated in Brussels. They took the rap for costly and troublesome home improvement packs—which have added to the woes of the housing market—even though they were actually mandated by a Brussels directive. Similarly, they took the rap for fortnightly bin collections, hospital reconfiguration and a number of other measures, even though they had all been triggered by directives from Brussels. At first sight, it is odd that Ministers—who, in this Government, are not normally slow to blame others—should nobly defend and accept responsibility for Brussels’ legislative progeny, in whose conception they have often played little part. They prefer to claim paternity rather than admit impotence—the fate of the cuckold across the ages.

The third reason is that the transfer of power occurs not all in one go but by a process of salami-slicing, and it is easy to close our eyes to what is happening. As a result, there is a danger of Parliament sleepwalking
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into becoming little more than a provincial assembly. If that is what is happening, we should be paid accordingly—just as district councillors get less than county councillors, and county councillors get less than Members of the devolved Assemblies.

I do not have a masochistic desire to see MPs’ pay cut, but I want still less to see our powers diminish. The best way to prevent the latter might be to link pay to responsibilities. I do not know any Member of Parliament who entered Parliament to become financially better off. None the less, just as the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully, so the prospect of finding our pockets a bit emptier at the end of the month—and having to justify that to our spouses—might wake up those who have shut their eyes to what is happening. If we do not face up to what is happening, we will find ourselves being progressively relegated to what Bagehot called the dignified part of the constitution. As Tony Benn once rhetorically asked:

My Bill is designed to provide a wake-up call whenever we risk going further down that route, although I accept that it has little chance of becoming law in this Parliament. Those who support the transfer of power from here to supranational institutions should logically accept that our pay should reflect the diminution of our responsibilities. But, strangely, all the Euro-enthusiasts whom I asked to sponsor the Bill declined to do so without explaining why. Too many Members are happy to avert their eyes from what is happening, so long as they retain the prestige and emoluments that were appropriate to a fully sovereign Parliament. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

If any Labour Members oppose the Bill, I hope that they will come out and object to it here and now, rather than trying to dispose of it by subterfuge one Friday morning. I look forward to hearing them argue for having their cake and eating it. I doubt that they would convince many of their constituents that, unlike any in other occupation, MPs’ pay should be divorced from their responsibilities.

3.43 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): We have just heard a witty and amusing speech. I was not aware that this issue was going to be raised today, but I was sitting in the Chamber listening to Transport questions and suddenly the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) rose to his feet and made this proposal. He said that he had asked a number of Euro-enthusiasts to back his Bill; I regard myself as a Euro-enthusiast, but he did not ask me. Had he done so, he would have given me notice that he was going to make this nonsensical proposal, and I would have been able to prepare a better speech. However, I shall certainly try to rise to the challenge that he has thrown across the Chamber.

The right hon. Gentleman argues that the volume of legislation to be considered by the House will decline as more and more powers are passed across to the European Parliament, but he knows as well as any other Member that the volume of legislation considered by this House
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continues to increase year by year. We have never suggested that that is an argument for increasing Members’ pay pro rata—

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): That is a good idea.

Hugh Bayley: I note what my hon. Friend says.

Nor should the passing of some legislative powers from this House to Europe be an argument for moving in the opposite direction.

I must say seriously to Members of the House that I do not think that the European Union provides a good model for the remuneration of Members of Parliament. I have just checked with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who is a sponsor of the Bill and well versed in EU matters, and she tells me that EU spend is about 0.5 per cent. of EU wealth. The spend of our national Government is probably about 40 per cent. of our national wealth, which is 50 or 60 times as much as the EU spend.

If the right hon. Gentleman is arguing that there is a serious transfer of financial responsibility from the House to Europe, that is just not based on fact. The Lisbon treaty not only does not change that fact, but it delegates some powers back to national Parliaments. The public want to see more information about MPs’ pay and allowances, but they would get less information if our pay was tied into and buried under bureaucracy from Europe. Surprisingly to my way of thinking, the Bill is proposed by a staunch opponent of Europe whom I would have thought could see that point himself.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a political point about Europe, not a serious proposal for greater transparency in the pay of Members of Parliament and greater accountability to the public for Members of this Parliament. I hope that the Bill does not receive its First Reading.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Lilley, Mr. Michael Ancram, Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. Graham Brady, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. James Gray, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. John Redwood, Ms Gisela Stuart and Mr. Charles Walker.

Members of Parliament (pay and Responsibilities)

Mr. Peter Lilley accordingly presented a Bill to require the Senior Salaries Review Body to take account of transfers of powers between Parliament and European Union institutions when making recommendations on the pay of Members of Parliament; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 113].

3 Jun 2008 : Column 648

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A (Programme motions),

Question agreed to.

3 Jun 2008 : Column 649

Orders of the Day

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 9

Annual report to Secretary of State

Lords amendment: No. 1

3.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 5 and Nos. 106 to 117.

Mr. Plaskitt: We come to what are almost the final stages of Parliament’s consideration of the Bill. Indeed, we are just short of the first anniversary of my introducing it to the House on 5 June 2007. Over almost a year of consideration, we have found much cross-party agreement and consensus as the Bill has proceeded on its way.

Before I dive into consideration of the first batch of amendments, I want to place on record my appreciation of the way that hon. Members dealt with the Bill in Committee, in which where we had detailed, co-operative and constructive deliberations, which have helped to improve it. As I speak to the amendments, hon. Members representing the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrat party will spot ideas that they brought up in Committee, which I promised on behalf of the Government to take away and consider. I have done that. Those with merit found favour, and are therefore to be incorporated in the Bill in a way that will improve it.

The Bill was considered extensively in the other place, where, of course, some of those amendments originated. The process has been constructive, and we now have before us a batch of amendments that are, I think, not too controversial—we shall find out soon—and should add the final polish to a well-considered Bill.

The first group of amendments relates to the status of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission and to its reporting requirements. The amendments make the necessary provision for the new body to have Crown status to provide stability for the Child Support Agency’s greatest resource, its staff.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Obviously it is sensible for the commission’s staff to retain their status as civil servants, but why on earth were the Government ever thinking of taking it away from them? And why is the commission to be a Crown body rather than an executive agency, which is what it was in the first place? The Government seem to have gone around in a circle.

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Mr. Plaskitt: There is no great mystery. The most important thing that the Bill introduces is the commission, which will be a non-departmental public body. We opted for NDPB status because we think it important to put the operation of the commission, and therefore the delivery of child maintenance, at arm’s length from ministerial involvement. That argument has been rehearsed exhaustively throughout all stages of the Bill’s consideration, and I thought that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had accepted that this was the right way to proceed.

Normally when a body takes on non-departmental status the civil servants who work in that body also take on a different status, but when Ministers discussed the issue with staff, they made clear their concern about it. Having listened, we reached an understanding—as I have already announced—allowing the commission to be a non-departmental public body but allowing its staff to enjoy Crown status. That is not a unique solution; there are precedents.

Mr. Heald: Is this not just another example of dithering? The Government began by saying “Let us have an arm’s length body that is not run by civil servants”, and then changed their minds. Suddenly we are back with a half-baked arrangement that is nothing like either of the options.

Mr. Plaskitt: The body will remain at arm’s length. It is a non-departmental public body. The idea was to put it at arm’s length from Ministers, and it remains at arm’s length from Ministers. Nothing has changed, and the hon. Gentleman’s accusation that there has been some dithering is completely erroneous.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Plaskitt: I will give way when I have finished replying to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague.

The fundamental status of the organisation has not changed—it remains a non-departmental public body—but its staff, who are very important to us in helping to deliver all this, raised with us concerns about their status as civil servants, of which they are proud and which they would normally lose when the organisation became a non-departmental public body. They asked whether we would consider giving it Crown status while retaining it as a non-departmental public body. As I have said, there are precedents for that. A great many civil servants are involved—10,000—and we were able to accede to their wishes. They welcomed the fact that, at least initially—I am about to come to that—the organisation will retain its Crown status, and they will retain their status as civil servants.

John Bercow: Lords Amendment No. 2(6) makes provision for an order-making power. My view is that clarity is of the essence. Is it intended that that order-making power should be subject to the negative procedure of the House or to its affirmative counterpart?

Mr. Plaskitt: I may be able to assist the hon. Gentleman with that if he gives me a little time.

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