Previous Section Index Home Page

Mrs. May: I am grateful for that intervention. It is true that, when people have become Members of Parliament at different times, the Fees Office has given different
16 July 2008 : Column 264
advice about how to interpret the allowances. Over the years, the House, through the Members Estimate Committee and officers in the Department of Resources, has been tightening up those rules to try to clarify them and to ensure that Members know more about exactly what they can claim. Some Members’ past claims will be based on a previous regime, and were entirely appropriate under it, but they would not be acceptable today.

To answer the question about the John Lewis list, I believe that officers in the Department of Resources, formerly the Department of Finance and Administration, introduced it with a view to ensuring that, when staff considered claims by Members of Parliament, they had a checklist against which they could decide whether the claim was reasonable and whether Members were trying to get more out of the taxpayer than they needed. For example, they would see that Members were buying a fridge for x amount and would try to ascertain whether they could buy a cheaper fridge that was equally functional. The purpose of the John Lewis list was to help staff determine whether claims were appropriate. Whatever the intention at the time, the term has come to cause concern. However, the ability to claim the items, rather than the term and the existence of a list, worries the public.

Mr. Donohoe: I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way again. Her stance does not relate to the fact that hon. Members also have access to an incidental costs allowance for offices. If the Opposition were serious about the matter, they would have included in the motion the same barriers to the incidental costs allowance as to the additional costs allowance. One could buy a mahogany desk—or anything—to furnish an office. Surely it is wrong to be able to do that when one does not have the right to buy the furniture that is required for a flat.

Mrs. May: There is a distinction between buying furniture for an office, which is perhaps in a constituency and provides a service to constituents, and a television or a fridge for a Member of Parliament. There is a genuine difference, and the public perceive it. They recognise that office costs are needed to provide a service to constituents.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): rose—

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab) rose—

Mrs. May: I know that many hon. Members wish to speak and I am conscious that time is passing. I have been generous with taking interventions and I now want to get on with my speech because I want to deal with the expenses of Members of the European Parliament and the transparency rules to which they are expected to adhere because the spotlight has fallen on them.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman has just heard me say that I want to make progress, so I suggest that he contain himself a little.

We believe that we need to establish equivalent requirements for MEPs. That is why the Conservative party has published a new code for Conservative MEPs on the use of expenses and allowances. They have
16 July 2008 : Column 265
undertaken to abide by the rules of the European Parliament on the payment of expenses and allowances to Members, and to fulfil additional requirements for transparency and accounting in their allowances and expenses. Those will be published in the way we are publishing the expenses and allowances claims for Members of Parliament. We are taking action unilaterally and I hope that it means that Conservative MEPs will abide by additional transparency rules, over and above those of the European Parliament. The Labour party is not adopting those rules for its MEPs and I hope—[Hon. Members: “We’ve already got them.”] Several Labour Members claim from a sedentary position that I am wrong, and I will deal with that shortly. There is a genuine difference between the requirements that the Labour party places on its MEPs and those that we will place on ours. Conservative MEPs will have an equivalent requirement for publishing expenses to the one that we place on Members of Parliament. That gives me an opportunity to consider the Government amendment.

When I first heard about the amendment, I believed that we were making progress. After the vote on 3 July, the Prime Minister said:

Given that the Leader of the House moved quickly on MPs’ addresses—a statutory instrument on that is being considered tomorrow—I thought that she would introduce concrete proposals on allowances that would mean progress before the recess. However, it has taken today’s debate to make the Government do anything about the matter or make any proposals to the House. I fear that we give the public the impression that we are willing to move when it comes to protecting ourselves, but not when it comes to protecting taxpayers’ money and showing that we are doing that.

Helen Jones rose—

Mrs. May: Let me get a little further because I want to make a specific point about the John Lewis list.

Instead of a clear decision about the John Lewis list, the amendment would refer it to the Speaker’s Advisory Panel on Members Allowances. Far from removing MPs’ right to buy items such as TVs and fridges on the taxpayer, the Government would retain it. According to my reading of the amendment, we would effectively replace the John Lewis list with the IKEA list. The Leader of the House’s statement does not take us much further because she offers us Government consultation on capping the extent of claims to 10 per cent. of the additional costs allowance—nearly £2,500 every year.

Under the Government amendment, the taxpayer would still foot the bill for MPs’ furniture and household goods. I do not believe that that is acceptable and that is why we have specifically rejected that aspect of the current arrangements in our motion. The Government also suggest that the task of rewriting the green book, which is currently a matter for the Members Estimate Committee, should be given solely to the Speaker’s advisory panel. The Speaker’s Advisory Panel on Members Allowances is a different animal from the Members Estimate Committee. It has a Government majority
16 July 2008 : Column 266
and its remit is purely advisory. Perhaps when the Leader of the House responds, she could say whether she intends to change the remit if she is asking the panel to rewrite the green book rather than simply advise the Members Estimate Committee about it.

The second half of the Government amendment deals with the role of the National Audit Office and it has two parts. I believe that the first part, which tackles what the NAO should do in considering the rules that the House operates, is contrary to the NAO’s legal powers under the National Audit Act 1983, which states that the provisions

Assuming that the amendment means that the Government are asking the NAO to say whether the rules are correct, or, as was suggested on the radio, that the John Lewis list is being replaced by an NAO list, the NAO does not have that power and therefore could not effect the intention.

The second part of the amendment that deals with the NAO covers what it already does. It already audits on a random basis all the allowances that Members claim and the controls and processes that the Department of Resources uses. That part of the amendment is therefore superfluous. Far from giving us a more rigorous audit regime, the amendment does nothing.

The amendment also deals with MEPs’ expenses. I said that I would state the differences between what Labour and Conservative MEPs do. The Government claim in their amendment that they have open and transparent procedures, but they are far from open and certainly not transparent. The requirement on Labour MEPs is to submit themselves to an audit. The results are not published and I do not believe that anyone even has to publish details of who does the audit for Labour MEPs. We are bringing our MEPs’ expenses into the open in the same way as MPs’ expenses are being brought into the open. I hope that the Government will be prepared to bring their MEPs’ expenses into the open at the same time.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. Will she indicate today whether the Conservative party will make the measure retrospective, so that we can see what the crooked Tory MEPs have been up to over the past few years?

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but I was speaking to an hon. Member when that remark was made. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw that remark, or qualify it.

Mr. Jones: I am sorry, Mr. Speaker—I will just say “creative use of their expenses”, then.

Mrs. May: I would simply tell the hon. Gentleman that I have already set out that, later this year, Conservative MEPs will publish details of their expenses and allowances. They will be subject to a rigorous regime; Labour MEPs will not be subject to that rigorous regime.

16 July 2008 : Column 267

The Government amendment is disappointing. We have a chance to work on the issue, to change the current system and to ensure that we move the House forwards in a way that meets the requirements of the public. But instead, we have taken a half-hearted and tentative step. The public deserve better than that indecision. When the Government referred the issue to the MEC back in February and put the proposal before the House, the Prime Minister wrote to Mr. Speaker and said:

Sadly, that did not happen, because a majority of Labour MPs voted against the MEC report, which meant that it did not go through. The Government did not show leadership, with 33 Ministers, including five Cabinet Ministers, voting against the reforms in the MEC report.

We have an opportunity today to make good some of the damage done by the vote of 3 July and to show the public that we are deserving of our office and their votes, and that we did not enter the House to take advantage of the taxpayer. We understand the privileges and responsibilities of being a Member of Parliament. We are willing to place on ourselves the same sort of requirements for transparency and the checking of our expenses and allowances that we expect other people to place upon themselves. We should not consider that we are different simply because we are Members of Parliament. We should be willing to adopt the same sort of practices that are best practice in the public and private sector elsewhere.

1.22 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move, To leave out from “(MEPs)” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Let me start by agreeing with the points that were made by the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). It is unprecedented for the House to be debating, as whipped business, matters that are traditionally decided on a free vote. Opposition day debates are by definition partisan and are whipped by both the Opposition and the Government. What the Opposition have done with their motion is to take House matters, which are by custom and practice decided on a free vote, and make them into whipped business. That is regrettable.

16 July 2008 : Column 268

Let me turn to the substance of the debate. Our starting point is the health of our democracy. That depends on two things. It depends on us as Members fulfilling our responsibilities—doing the work that is expected of us in our constituency, and here in the Chamber and all the Committees of the House. Unless Members are London MPs, as I am, they have to live in two places—in their constituency and in Westminster—and to travel between that constituency and Westminster.

As MPs, it is our responsibility to help with our constituents’ problems, to listen to their concerns and to play a leading role in the life of our constituency. To do that effectively Members must have a good team of staff. I pay tribute to my hard-working team of constituency staff. Our constituents write to us, e-mail us and phone us, and they expect, quite rightly, that we should reply. They come to our surgeries and expect, quite rightly, that we will take up their case. They expect us to tell them what we do. That is why most of us have websites and some of us do annual reports.

I, and many others in the House, believe in equality. We believe that to be MPs, we should not have to depend on private wealth to do our job and carry out the responsibilities placed upon us by our constituents.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I have a great deal of sympathy with what the right hon. and learned Lady has just been saying, but with regard to communication with constituents, does she not think that the time has come to look again at the communications allowance? Is it not the case that, as the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee said, it is an exercise in shameless self-promotion? Has not the communications allowance, too, brought us into disrepute, and is it not time we reviewed it?

Ms Harman: No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Before the communications allowance was introduced, I used to do an annual report for my constituents, setting out what I had done in the previous 12 months and inviting them to comment on the priorities that I had set for the next 12 months. I probably used the incidental expenses provision outside the rules, but I thought that it was very important to communicate with my constituents. It was to deal with such matters that the communications allowance was introduced. I do not think that it is disreputable for hon. Members from any part of the House to tell their constituents what they are doing. When the public know what MPs are doing, they are more supportive and can get involved.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The Leader of the House knows that I am entirely with her in her opening remarks, but frankly, the communications allowance is an abuse. Any self-respecting Member of Parliament knows how to be well known in his or her constituency. We had years without the allowance. I have never claimed a penny of it and I have no intention of ever doing so. Neither I nor the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), nor many of the Members present, need that sort of thing to be decent constituency MPs.

Ms Harman: The communications allowance is not mentioned in either the Opposition motion or the Government amendment. I said what I believe to be the case about it—and it was decided by the House that we would have a communications allowance.

16 July 2008 : Column 269

Daniel Kawczynski: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. I totally concur with her about how hard-working our staff in our constituencies are, in dealing with sometimes very emotional and difficult cases. My secretary, Mrs. Helen Sheppey, does a marvellous job. Does the Leader of the House share my concern about the way in which the media report on our expenses? Some constituents actually believe that the money comes directly to us. The media are part of the problem, because some constituents do not realise that the money goes to other people, rather than to us. The media are to blame for that.

Ms Harman: It is wrong for the media to give the impression that the money that is available and is paid directly to our staff—our having deposited contracts of employment and job descriptions for those staff doing the work—is added to our pay. The media should not imply that that money goes into our pockets. That is why it is so unfortunate that one Member of the House did not respect the proper rules and brought us all into disrepute.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The Leader of the House was talking about the expectations that our constituents have of us. Does she not accept that our constituents also expect us to have an expenses regime that is transparent, accountable and fit for the 21st century, rather than something more akin to an old boys’ club? For that reason, does she not think that the vote on 3 July was incredibly damaging to democracy? Although I believe that the Members Estimate Committee report did not go far enough in proposing a radical overhaul of the system, it will have beggared belief among her constituents that we voted against better accountability and better scrutiny of our expenses.

Ms Harman: I agree with the hon. Lady that our constituents expect openness, transparency and a properly enforced system. If she will allow me, however, I should like to get on with explaining how I think we can achieve that in the House.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the right hon. and learned Lady give way?

Ms Harman: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman once, so I will press on with my speech for the moment. The allowances are to help us to do our job.

Mr. Touhig: Partly to respond to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), can we make it absolutely clear that the recommendation of the MEC for an external audit never intended that that audit should be published? A myth has grown up as a result of that debate that the external audit recommended by the MEC was to be made public. It was never to be made public; that was not the recommendation. Can we make that clear in the House?

Next Section Index Home Page