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3 July 2008 : Column 1099

An amendment has been tabled that would knock that provision out. I invite the House to consider that carefully. We have before us a recommendation that would put the audit of the House accounts on the same basis as that of other public bodies. If we vote it down, we will knowingly vote to have our accounts on a less adequate basis than those of the rest of the public sector. In my view, and in the light of the challenges that we have experienced to the reputation of the House, it would be utterly catastrophic for us to do that knowingly and having taken advice from the NAO.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I go along with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, and as a former member of the Commission and of the Members Estimate Committee I understand the difficulties of his task. I am grateful to him and his colleagues. I can understand the £25 threshold, but I am told by people in the House’s own accounts department that requiring a receipt for everything—be it £1, £2 or 7s/3d—will cause enormous and disproportionate cost. Why was that recommendation made?

Nick Harvey: On 1 April, the receipt threshold was reduced from £250 to £25. That change has involved a far greater adjustment of the administrative load than the further—quite small—reduction from £25 to zero.

When we made that change, it was I who was sent to the media studios. The interviewers did not say, “This is entirely commendable. The House of Commons has reduced its receipt threshold from £250 to £25.” The first question on the lips of every interviewer was, “Why are you sticking at this £25 threshold when the rest of the world expects receipts for everything?” [Interruption.] According to the evidence that we have been given, that is the case in many other walks of life.

There is a £30-a-day subsistence allowance for Members, also based on the practice that we have observed in other professions—the civil service, for example. We do not expect receipts for that. It is a small sum, and the way in which Members use it is at their discretion. Members have complained that they would not be able to get a receipt for the purchase of a newspaper or a cup of coffee. Those are exactly the sort of purchases for which the £30 daily subsistence rate is meant to provide. It is true that the receipt threshold is going down to zero for most purposes, but a small amount is still left to the discretion of Members.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Harvey: I will, but then I must make a little progress.

Stephen Hammond: I entirely support what the hon. Gentleman has been saying, but those in almost every other walk of life must submit a receipt for almost every item of expenditure. Can he explain the rationale for a £30 daily subsistence which will not involve receipts, and can he also explain why it is not being given to all Members of Parliament?

Nick Harvey: The £30 subsistence allowance is based on the subsistence arrangements in other professions, which are recognised by Her Majesty’s Revenue and
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Customs. HMRC does not allow people a tax-free subsistence rate unless they are staying away from home. I think the hon. Gentleman is asking me about those who have only one home. He will have noted our proposal to increase the London subsistence rate and make it a London costs allowance. If he works out what that will deliver to him, net of tax, he will find that it bears a close resemblance to the subsistence allowance that is on offer to other Members.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Nick Harvey: I will give way to my hon. Friend, but then I shall try to finish my speech so that others can contribute.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I support the most robust of responses, which I think is what his Committee proposes. Can he tell us what is the difference between the proposal in his motion that the report

and the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), which appears to delay some changes until October this year, some until April next year, some until April 2010, and some until the end of the next Parliament? How soon will my hon. Friend’s proposal be implemented? I want it to be implemented tomorrow, if that is possible.

Nick Harvey: I do not think it is possible to introduce such systems in the middle of a financial year. I believe that the earliest point at which we can implement most of them is 1 April next year, and that some of the more complex arrangements will take a little longer than that.

I have seen my hon. Friend’s amendment asking for the proposal for central procurement for constituency offices to be brought forward, and inviting the Members Estimate Committee to produce a comprehensive plan before 22 July. With great respect to my hon. Friend, I must tell him that that is simply not possible. We are very keen for the system to be sound and reliable, and over the next year or 18 months, during which time some Members’ leases will expire, we will seek opportunities to pilot the new system so that we can get it right for the majority of Members. That will take a little time.

My hon. Friend invites me to contrast the arrangements proposed in our report with what is proposed in the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). As I said earlier, it is impossible to please all the people all the time, and I do not believe that any one of the six members of the Committee is entirely happy with every last detail of the report. However, we have to decide collectively what is in our best interests. The problem with the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Islwyn is that it helps itself to the spoonful of sugar, but declines to take the medicine. The package that the report proposes was meant to be just that—a package, some aspects of which are to the advantage of Members, but in a context of there being greater controls that are more visible so that the public can see them and therefore understand. If we help ourselves to the goodies but decline to take the medicine,
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the danger is that any progress that we are making in improving public perceptions of our practice and in improving the reputation of the House will be fundamentally undone. That is the danger if we take the sugar but do not take the medicine.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Let me tell the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that the dates in the amendment I have tabled have not been made up, but that they are taken from the Members Estimate Committee report, so there is no difference between us as far as that is concerned. I hope that reassures him.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) says the amendment would lead to our taking the spoonful of sugar, but not the medicine. That is a very lyrical turn of phrase, but will he tell us why the main thrust of this report involves an audit system that is uncosted? I sit on the Public Accounts Committee, and I am sure that this will cost the taxpayer millions. Does not the Members Estimate Committee have a responsibility not to waste public money?

Nick Harvey: It is not true to say that it is uncosted. We have explained in the report the possible range of costs, but in any event the cost of this system will be less than 0.5 per cent. of the Members’ estimates. Surely a sum of less than 0.5 per cent. of the total cost of the allowances Members are drawing is a price worth paying for the purpose of trying to restore the reputation of this House?

Members will have seen over the course of the past week the media reaction to this report, and they will have seen in particular the response from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is perfectly clear to me that if the amendment in the name of the right hon. Gentleman is passed, any sense that we are putting our house in order—that we will have transparent systems of financial control that the rest of the world will recognise and respect—will be undone, and in no time at all Sir Christopher Kelly and his standards committee will be conducting their own separate inquiry, which they have thus far concluded they do not feel they need to conduct.

The right hon. Gentleman accuses me of being lyrical, but I believe that what I say about his amendment is accurate. It will go along with central procurement for constituency offices, which will cost a lot of money, and it happily cashes in on the fact that we are not suggesting reducing the value of the incidental expenses provision, as was suggested by the Senior Salaries Review Body. However, when we suggest having a light-touch system of financial control to try to restore the reputation of the House and faith in the systems we have, he does not want to take that fairly light and sweet medicine.

Mr. Touhig: Is it not a fact that it will cost £1,200 a day to bring in fat cats from the City accountancy firms to spend three days a year going around examining Members’ office cost allowances? The hon. Gentleman is like Ethelred the Unready: pay them gold and they will run away. That is what he is trying to do: he is trying get rid of a bad headline by throwing public money at it, and thereby wasting that money.

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Nick Harvey: The comment about being lyrical could be employed there, too. The proposals include measures that are intended to try to improve the reputation of the House, and we believe that they constitute a balanced package. I know that some Members are unhappy that we are getting rid of the so-called “John Lewis list”— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Allow the hon. Gentleman to speak.

Nick Harvey: Let me rephrase my point, Mr. Speaker. There are those who are upset that the report recommends that Members ought not in future to be allowed to purchase items with their additional costs allowance. I think that they will have the devil’s own job if we continue with the existing system. In an era when freedom of information requires every receipt to be perused by the public, they would have a difficulty in justifying the purchase of televisions, fridges, three-piece suites, curtains, carpets and whatever else. Every time that Members make any such purchase, it will not only be for the individual Member to defend it to his local paper; the reputation of the House and the impression given of us all will be demeaned by the process of that information coming out and being debated and haggled over in the public press.

Several hon. Members rose

Nick Harvey: I give way, for the last time, to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood).

Mr. Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Did his Committee at any time consider the Member of Parliament who has to spend thousands of pounds out of his or her own pocket, and then gets into trouble and criticised for trying to claim it back? Is not a better way to have fewer receipts and a system of audit and accounting, in which MPs do not have to spend as much of their own money? Let me give an example. I was away on NATO assembly duty last week and had to pay $1,500 out of my own pocket just to be on duty. That is outrageous, and this House should be looking at what it can do to help Members, so that they are not laying out their own money and having to claim it back.

Nick Harvey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. A number of Members did make the point to us during our consultations that, across all the allowances, they end up having to shell out quite a lot of money up front and that it takes some time to get it back. I am very sympathetic to what he says and we continue to look at that as a live issue. I am sorry that we have not found a solution at this time, but we have absolutely logged the problem and we continue to explore ways of assisting with that.

Several hon. Members rose

Nick Harvey: I have been speaking for a lot of this 90-minute debate, and I think it right that I shortly allow other Members to speak.

I commend the report, which provides a balanced package. We bring in for the first time systems that the rest of the world would recognise. We are not intending
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to string up at the scaffold every Member who is found to have had the smallest administrative mishap. There will be a balanced approach. The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), who intervened on me earlier, said that things need to be proportionate and that is exactly what we intend them to be. Clearly, as we work our way through this system and as it matures, we will find a way of dealing with these matters that is fair to Members. The rules will be set by Members; the terms of engagement for those coming in to do the studies will be set by Members; the findings of those assurance teams will be reported to Members; and only if it is felt that something is of so severe a nature that it reflects on the standards will it be referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards and Privileges Committee.

However, everybody involved in this—the Standards and Privileges Committee, the commissioner, the Members Estimate Audit Committee and the practice assurance teams—will have to work out together how we are going to deal with these matters in a proportionate and graded way. I do not think that any Member will have anything to fear from this system. On the contrary, they will find it helpful, and within a short time we could have made substantial progress toward restoring the reputation of this House. However, if we do not take this step today and we vote through the amendment, we will be absolutely back to where we were in the dark days of January and February, and back to the sort of media coverage and public hostility that was being expressed towards this House.

4.18 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I want to speak briefly in support of the motion on Members’ home addresses, standing in my name. I have made my position clear on many occasions in this House and I have not changed my view. To do our job properly, we have to be able to speak freely in this House—without fear or favour. We must be able to say what we believe to be true about controversial issues, without feeling that to do so would put ourselves or our families at risk. If our addresses are published on the House of Commons website, it will inevitably result in some Members being inhibited about what they say in the House. If Members want to publish their own addresses, that is a matter for them, but I advise against it, for the same reason that I believe that it should not be required for the House authorities to put our addresses in the public domain.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The Leader of the House will know that I have campaigned on the issues of MPs’ expenses and freedom of information, but it is perfectly possible to campaign for freedom of information and support the point that she is making. It is important that MPs have confidence that they will not be subject to improper and perhaps irregular approaches by members of the public. Keeping MPs’ addresses confidential is important to that.

Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. He is absolutely right: the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was never intended to put anybody’s security at risk or inhibit the democracy of this House.

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Sir Patrick Cormack: Many of us who are concerned about this matter—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who has played such a prominent part in the campaign—are concerned not so much for ourselves as for our families. Frequently, a wife, husband or partner is at home alone when a Member is here. If addresses are published, that can be an invitation to ne’er-do-wells.

Ms Harman: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for the work that he has done. I know that, like me, he believes that the problem is about not just current threats but those in future, either to an individual Member—whether a threat from what is described as a fixated individual or a threat to their involvement in a controversial issue—or to all Members from circumstances that pose new and unforeseen dangers. That could be a new terrorist threat focusing on Parliament.

Once someone’s address is a matter of public information, they cannot make it private without moving. I have had the opportunity to have discussions with the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), and with the House’s security co-ordinator. I thank them both for their important work and their advice to me as Leader of the House. The security co-ordinator takes the view that it would be a risk to put in the public domain our addresses, or anything that would lead to the identification of our addresses, such as our travel plans.

This is also about the security of Members’ families, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said, and the security of the public. The publication of our addresses would put at greater risk those who happen to live in the same block of flats as a Member.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend refers to information in the public domain. Would that include, for example, the address of a locksmith or glazier, whose receipts would be published as part of our general submissions and could give people the information that they need to get access to the property or constituency office of an MP for bad purposes?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we will take the advice of the security co-ordinator about all the issues that could lead to hon. Members’ addresses being identified.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Does the Leader of the House accept that we are not dealing with some theoretical threat? There are Members who have suffered from fixated individuals following them and seeking to interrupt their travel patterns. In fact, certain individuals have subsequently gone into mental institutions to be treated, having received two police harassment warnings after civil injunctions have failed to work. We are dealing with not a theoretical threat but an actual one to Members and their families.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I absolutely agree with him.

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