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16 July 2008 : Column 276

Mr. Touhig: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in giving way. Does he accept the point that I and perhaps others made on the day of that debate? I was concerned about the cost of the assurance, which I think we had difficulty justifying, but will he support me in killing off the myth that the external audit proposed by the Members Estimate Committee was to be made public? It was never to be made public. That was the recommendation. We have this myth growing up that, somehow, what we have done is secretive and that what we could have done would have been transparent. It was never to have been transparent. It was never to be told to the world.

Simon Hughes: On that point, I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I am trying to ensure that where there is consensus, we have it. The difference was that it was an audit of everything. I share concerns that we should not have a hugely expensive process with millions of quid going to the private sector, but that would not have been the implication had we voted for the motion tabled by the Members Estimate Committee.

I come now to discuss the issues that are, I guess, less controversial. First, I think we made a bad decision on 3 July. I made that clear in my speech at the time and I make it clear again today. The tough audit proposals were voted against by 172 MPs: 149 Labour, 21 Conservative, one independent and, bizarrely, our new UK Independence party Member, who voted in both Lobbies. He must explain that.

Linda Gilroy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: Not for a moment. Every one of my Liberal Democrat colleagues who was here— [Laughter.] No, no, no. Every one who was here voted in favour of the tough and transparent system, and 55 per cent. of our parliamentary party was here. All of them voted for the open system. Of the—

Mr. Touhig: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: No, not for a second. Of the Conservatives, 54 MPs voted for the open and transparent system and 21 voted against. Had those 21 voted for, we would not be in this mess because the amendment would not have been carried. That means that only 27 per cent. of the Tories were in favour of the open system. There were 201 Labour Members here and voting. Of those, 52 were in favour of full transparency and 149 against. That means that only 14 per cent. of the parliamentary Labour party voted in favour of an open system.

Several hon. Members rose

Simon Hughes: I will make one last point and then give way to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy).

Even if every one of my colleagues had been here, there would not, contrary to what the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) suggested, have been a majority against the amendment. Had her Tory colleagues voted with her, there would have been and we would not be in this mess.

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Linda Gilroy: As we are all honourable Members, will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that those of us who voted differently from him did so because we did not think that the proposal was robust, effective, transparent and representative of good value for taxpayers’ money?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Lady will have to explain to her electorate her vote on that day, as we all have to do. All I can say is that the external pressure, which arose for reasons that we all know, for us to have the most robust, the most open and the most transparent system has been greater than ever. As a result of consensus recommendations made to us by senior colleagues and endorsed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we were given an opportunity to do something about that and we bottled it. That is why the Leader of the House has this morning, out of the blue, produced proposals in a written statement to try to rescue the Labour party from the predicament that its own Back Benchers got it into. As she says, those proposals would have to come back to the House to be voted on.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I should say that I voted against the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on grounds of transparency.

The hon. Gentleman is raising sanctimony to a new art form. Where was the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and where were the other 29 Liberal Democrats, if they felt so strongly about this? Everybody else was to blame, but oh no, not the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) responds to that question, may I say that I know there is considerable interest in the matter outside the House? I understand that hon. and right hon. Members want to make their points and make their position clear, but we should remember the duty that we all owe to ourselves as Members of Parliament and to the House of Commons. We should debate this matter calmly and constructively.

Simon Hughes: I will answer the question calmly and constructively. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam was here for the first votes, but he had a long-standing commitment way out of London, to which he went, and he had to leave in the early part of the evening. Other friends who could not be here were at public events—my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), for example. The answer is that some of my colleagues were not here, like other Members, but most of them were and every one of them voted for the open and transparent system.

Several hon. Members rose

Simon Hughes: No, no. I am going to press on because colleagues—

Mr. Touhig: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: I have already given way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Several hon. Members rose

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Simon Hughes: No, no. The Leader of the House therefore thought that she had better respond to the Conservative motion by producing something that tried to take things forward. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House protests that that is not fair, but it is on the Order Paper today as a written statement—not yesterday, the day before or last week, but today. There was no notice of it coming. I honestly believe that the general interpretation is that it is a response to the fact that we are having the debate today. If it is not, I apologise, but it seems mighty strange that it just happened to appear on the same day and after we saw the motion tabled.

Ms Harman: I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that and accept the word that I have given the House, which is that the work that I was undertaking was under way, following the 3 July vote. I had discussions with, for example, the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Comptroller and Auditor General long before we realised that an Opposition day debate was tabled, and indeed discussed with them the value of a written ministerial statement. So I had already discussed the timetable of the written ministerial statement with them. I think the hon. Gentleman should withdraw what he said. I take offence at what he has said about what I have told the House. The work was under way; it was not a response to the Opposition day debate, and he should not choose not to believe me on it. I do not think that is fair.

Simon Hughes: The right hon. and learned Lady and I have known each other for a long time. I am not misrepresenting her. Of course I accept what she says about the talks having been under way since 3 July. I know that; I accept it. The only thing I am observing is the slightly strange coincidence that the written statement landed on the Order Paper today and that we heard about it only once we knew there was going to be a debate today. Only freedom of information requests will tell, I guess, when it was decided to include a statement on the Order Paper today. The rest I absolutely accept; I do not dissent at all.

Under the right hon. and learned Lady’s proposals, the John Lewis list would be abolished. That would be a good thing. There would not be a complete abolition of the payment for household goods and things in a property, as recommended—there would still be a possibility of spending on those, amounting to 10 per cent. There would be an audit, which is what was proposed two weeks ago. So this must be an attempt to scramble back and put things together after what the right hon. and learned Lady voted for was not carried because her colleagues—by a large majority of 3:1—did not follow her into the Lobby on 3 July. That is good; the Government have realised that we cannot go on as we are. If the voices that come from this place today make that absolutely clear, that must be a good thing because the sooner we get out of this mess, the better.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): May I try to put this matter in simple terms, in spite of the chuntering and the side swiping? Is it not the simple reality of the situation that although the reform package might not have been perfect—would any package have been?—it nevertheless would have represented a huge step forward in restoring public confidence? Anyone voting against it for any reason was mind-blowingly stupid and arrogant.

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Simon Hughes: That is my view, and my hon. Friend, blunt Yorkshireman that he is, puts the case clearly. We had a proposal that would not have been perfect, but that would have been miles better than where we were. Some of us voted for it, but, sadly, the majority did not.

I shall say quickly what the Liberal Democrats will do, because political parties must deliver on the matter, as well as the House as a whole. The day after the vote, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam announced that we would implement for ourselves the MEC proposals. We will have spot checks for all Liberal Democrat MPs. We will have independent auditing of our expenses. Every one of our shadow Cabinet members will publish all their expenses, as my right hon. Friend has done, and as Conservative Front Benchers will do. Ours will be published by next Tuesday so that people can look at them, and they will be published on a regular basis thereafter. That is the right thing. There may be questions, but at least everyone will be able to see the facts.

One of the reasons why the European Parliament is often discredited is that people perceive MEPs as being on a gravy train. As someone who has never been an MEP, may I say that it has looked like that even to those of us who support the European Parliament, the European Union and the rest? My friend Chris Davies, a Member of the European Parliament for the north-west, was one of those who said earlier this year that such practices had to stop, private reports in the European Parliament had to be made public, and abuses in the European Parliament had to end. I pay tribute to his work.

We are committed—as the Labour party has been, to an extent, for a while, and as the Tories are belatedly, having made a mess of their expenses in the European Parliament for so long—to declarations by everyone who is elected as to whether they are a member of the parliamentary pension scheme, whom they employ as assistants and whether they are members of their family, and the band of payment within €10,000 bands; nothing being used to cover personal expenses, or to finance subsidies or gifts of a political nature; annual accounting of the allowance; certified independent certification of all the expenditure; annual publication by everyone of everything that they spend; proper contracts; publication on the website, with the consent of staff, of those who work for them; publication of all the service providers; subsistence allowance claims to be published on the website; and generally, complete transparency.

All parties in the House are moving to that being the regime in the European Parliament.

Mr. Spellar: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: I shall not give way again.

I hope that everyone in the European Parliament will go down that road, but some Members of the European Parliament from countries that are absolutely resistant must learn that if they are to give credibility to the European Parliament elected next year, they too need to follow the example being promoted by colleagues such as Chris Davies. I hope that the European Parliament will learn the lesson, and that its reputation will be enhanced as a result. We will support the motion on the Order Paper. I hope that it will produce a speedy consultation, a speedy response, a speedy proposal from the Leader of the House, and a vote that goes the right way when the House returns from the summer recess.

16 July 2008 : Column 280

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has put a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now on.

2.3 pm

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You made an intervention a few minutes ago about the value of the House of Commons. We need to keep in proportion the fact that this is a House of Commons debate, and that we are an important part of Parliament. I will return to that in my final remarks.

I will not follow the speech of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) in relation to the European Parliament, which is not my remit. He made some other pertinent points, however, to which I shall refer during my speech.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who is still in his place and follows such debates as a great parliamentarian, has a great dislike of the communications allowance. It is remarkable how often that view is reflected on the Conservative Benches. In an age in which we get little from our media and have to deal with our constituents through the prism of the media, I would have thought that an allowance that enabled Members of Parliament to communicate with constituents in a non-partisan way about what we are doing would be welcomed throughout the House. The hon. Gentleman would certainly welcome the fact that the MEC report proposed to freeze the allowance at £10,000 for three years from next April.

I enjoyed the speech of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), as I did her speech on 3 July—she made the speech that I would have made, so it saved me from making it. I agree with many of her points, certainly in relation to the role of the National Audit Office and the thorough work that it is doing now, which will continue. One of the ironies of today’s debate, and the proposal to extend the role of the National Audit Office to do an audit of 25 per cent. of MPs throughout the whole Parliament, is that that was a recommendation of the MEC. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has now taken it on board.

The issue that has created the most mayhem among Labour Members is that of practice assurance, which was intended to assist MPs in their roles before they ever got near a National Audit Office full audit. According to our paper, the essence of the scheme was

getting behind the signature, as we said—

There was a system behind that recommendation which enabled Members to put their house in order if need be, without reference to the dreaded Standards and Privileges Committee. That has been removed by the will of the House, and we are now faced with a simple audit.

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As we go along, we will need to find out what was the purpose of those audits, to what purpose they will be put, and to whom they will refer. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who is no longer in his place but follows such debates, was perfectly right: the NAO is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, audits are exempt from that, and there would be no question of reporting to FOI people that there was an audit and what the consequences were.

I was not able to speak in the 3 July debate, which was truncated and covered two subjects: addresses and allowances. I do not propose to use my time today to go through all the arguments that took place then. The MEC had a clear view from the beginning—which was 24 January, when the Government gave us the review, rather than February. First, it was to reassure the public, and secondly, to do so in a way that enabled MPs to carry on their jobs in a complex society, which imposes great demands, to which the Leader of the House has referred, in e-mails, the internet and a host of other ways. The question was how do we relate and give confidence to the public, and also allow MPs to continue with their work.

Many comments have been made about the media coverage. We live in a world in which to keep in touch with civil society, the political society must cross the media bridge. If we cannot do so, there will be a great deal of criticism in the popular press and in our constituencies. There was no greater outrage than in my constituency Labour party when the MEC report was turned down. That was not a happy day for the House. Fewer than half the Members of Parliament voted on the matter, and that would be our criticism—not who voted which way, or which party voted for what, but that only half the MPs thought it appropriate to be here to vote on the question of their salaries and allowances.

When the MEC report was published, and the members of the MEC—the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey)—gave a press conference, it was well received by the media, and that converted into being well received by the public. We had begun to restore the reputation of the House. That fell catastrophically, as we knew it would, when the report was rejected, which brought some damaging and serious headlines, which I will not repeat now. However, it was clear—the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey has touched on this—that matters could not be left as they were on 3 July. A number of recommendations had been accepted, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), and other recommendations were hanging in the air. It was not clear how we were to go forward, but the Members Estimate Committee always said that it would fully respect the will of the House.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend not think that it would have been better with hindsight to have produced a draft report and consulted Members on both sides of the House? They could have put forward some suggestions and amendments so that we might have had a degree of consensus about the way forward when the final report was produced.

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