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16 July 2008 : Column 282

Sir Stuart Bell: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, although I would point out to him that when the Government sent this issue down to the Members Estimate Committee on 24 January, we said that we would need until October to go through the report with the utmost care, to consult a whole host of bodies, such as the National Audit Office, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Inland Revenue and outside bodies, and then to get the support, if we could, of the 1922 committee—the Conservatives’ Back-Bench committee—the parliamentary Labour party committee and then the House. We failed to do that. It is clear that our report had public support through the media, but it did not have the support of the House. The reason for that—I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on this—is that we did not have the time. If we had had more time, we could have looked at the issue more carefully, taken other matters on board and explained what we were trying to do, but we were not able to do that in the short time that we had. It would also have been preferable had the House been able to discuss allowances separately from pay, but the two came together on the same day, and things got very confusing and very confused. The result was not what it might have been, and the consequence is that we are here today debating the matter again.

Although this might be ironic, the fact is that it is a Conservative Opposition day motion that has brought the issue to the Floor of the House and which gives me the opportunity to make the speech that I could not make on 3 July. I am aware that the Leader of the House has had discussions with the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Comptroller and Auditor General and that she has been very active since 3 July. I entirely accept what she has said about those discussions, but the fact is that the time scale for this second debate is longer, and we are therefore able to make some points and to take on board what the Government are now saying in their ministerial statement. I would surmise that we would still have had the ministerial statement had we not had today’s debate.

On the ministerial statement, I welcome the commitment of the Leader of the House to bring within the purview of the original decision by the House an extension of the powers of the National Audit Office to cover all the allowances in the green book, as the MEC proposed, rather than just the additional costs allowance, as well as travel, staffing costs, incidental expense provisions for other office costs and the communications allowance.

I welcome the fact that the green book will be rewritten—another recommendation by the MEC—and that that will be carried out by the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances. I wish the right hon. and hon. Members on the panel well. We met them and discussed our report with them as we went along, and I know that they are diligent and will seek to equate the interests of Members with those of the taxpayers who fund our Parliament.

I welcome, too, the statement by the Leader of the House that the National Audit Office should report to the Members Estimate Committee, which already includes three external members. Incidentally, I also welcome the fact that the work of the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances will also be assisted by two independent members.

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I also welcome the assurance from the Leader of the House that the Comptroller and Auditor General believes that there is an opportunity, given the additional evidence to be provided in support of all claims, significantly to strengthen the assurance that public money has been properly spent.

The House will decide on the motion and the amendment before it. I have enjoyed the comments of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), but the House must bear it in mind—this brings me to your original comments, Mr. Deputy Speaker—that what was at the forefront of the MEC’s thinking in its review was the reputation of this House, balanced with the interests of Members. We have heard many comments about the role of Members and their heavy work load. On our salary and allowances, I have consistently taken the view that it is a privilege to be a Member of Parliament, and that privilege must be guarded with a sense of responsibility.

The Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead have referred to the fact that the reputation of the House has taken a battering over these past few months, but the House may soon have the power to declare war and it may take over the royal prerogative. It debates and decides on major issues, such as war and peace, human embryology, radical changes to society, justice and civil rights. It is still the fulcrum of the nation in times of crisis and of debate on national issues. I remember the debate on the Falklands war. I was not in the House at the time, but perhaps other hon. Members were. There was a debate in the House on the Saturday morning after the Falkland Islands had been taken over by the Argentines, and the question was what we should do. The entire nation listened to our debate on the radio—we were not on television in those days—which shows how important the House of Commons is in our affairs.

Restoring and enhancing the reputation of the House must be a matter for us all. If what we are doing today will add to the reputation of the House in a manner that is transparent and which gains public support, we may find ourselves on our way towards achieving that. I therefore support the Government’s statement and their amendment. I wish the advisory panel, which is in the hands of my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), well. I also wish the National Audit Office, the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Department of Resources, the Members Estimate Committee and the House of Commons Commission well.

There is a great deal of work to be done in the House between now and the general election to restore the reputation of this Chamber and this institution. If we fail to do that, Members of Parliament—whoever we are and from whichever party we come—will be castigated for failing to get a grip on the matters of perception that so involve our constituents. As the Leader of the House said, we do not live in an age of different regimes. The regimes have changed, and we must change. We must be responsive to public opinion. We have failed up to now. Let us hope that, from this day forth, we begin to re-establish the reputation of the House of Commons.

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2.17 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for putting me on the list of those who want to speak in the debate because I have to chair a Select Committee. I want to speak very briefly and I certainly do not want to take up my 12 minutes.

I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) because I am extremely sad that this has become a party political issue. With the greatest respect, this is a misuse of an Opposition day. It would have been more appropriate for us to have debated the issue on another occasion or, if we have to give up time on an Opposition day, we should have had a free vote. Now, as far as I am concerned, this is a free vote—every vote in the House is a free vote as far as I am concerned—so I shall behave accordingly. The Chief Whip knows that, and we have the most amicable relationship, which I trust will long continue.

I am extremely concerned about the reputation of the House. I fundamentally and deeply believe that almost all Members of the House are honourable Members. I believe that they serve their constituents diligently, that most of them work very hard and that they deserve the appellation of honourable Member. What has happened over the past few months in particular is that the silly, misguided and, in some cases, downright wrong actions of a few Members have put us all in a difficult position. That we can all regret, both individually and collectively.

Mr. Kevan Jones: All Tories.

Sir Patrick Cormack: It does not matter from which side of the House they came; the fact of the matter is that certain Members have—

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

Sir Patrick Cormack: I will not give way because I want to be brief. I deplore the fact that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make party politics out of this. I have made it quite plain that most people here are entirely honourable, and that goes for my colleagues on this side of the House and for colleagues on the other side of the House. There have been a few bad apples in the barrel. During the 38 years that I have been here, they have been pretty evenly distributed around the House of Commons, and I do not wish to make any capital out of that at all.

Of course we want a system that is—I do not particularly like the word “transparent”—open and honest and which people can understand. However, we also want a system that we do not need to be apologetic about. That is why I so endorse the comments made from time to time by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who is the quintessence of the right hon. or hon. Member. Much as I disagree with her on some issues, and we know which they are, she has constantly and rightly pointed out that Members of Parliament are all equal and they need an equality of treatment.

More and more, people who have come into this House do so as I did without any capital behind them or without inherited wealth or the prospect of it on whichever side they sit. Although when I came in there were no allowances whatsoever—only £500 towards the
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employment of a secretary—I welcome the fact that more young people, and people of all ages, can contemplate coming here knowing that the necessary second home that they must have in London can be honourably and properly provided for. Of course it is right that receipts should be produced. Of course it is right that people should not be prodigal in their expenditure. However, we are talking about expenditure that is within a global limit of £23,000. No one wants the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) to sleep in an empty box; of course they do not. Of course he must have furniture in his home.

I must say to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House that one inferred from her remarks—I am sure that it was not her intention—that it was not necessary for people to have homes that they could furnish and from which they could establish a base in London and do their job properly in this House. One of the worst developments over the years that I have been here has been that Members have spent too much time away from this House, which is one reason why I was so opposed to many of the changes to our hours. Thursday is now a non-day here. In the old days, it was the busiest day of the parliamentary week. I often quote Duncan Sandys. He had a London constituency but said, “I am the Member for Streatham at Westminster and not the Member for Westminster in Streatham.” If one is going to be a proper Member of Parliament, looking after one’s constituents and constituency when the House is not sitting, but being here to represent them when it is, one does indeed need to have a London base. It is right that there should be proper provision for it.

Mrs. May: I simply want to clarify that I did not imply, and did not intend to imply, that the vast majority of Members do not need a second home in London, but there are ways of providing for that which do not necessarily require the purchase of furniture and household goods.

Sir Patrick Cormack: And there are equally honourable and probably economically more sensible ways of doing that. That is the point. I just ask my right hon. Friend to reflect on it.

I made a promise to the Speaker that I would not be long and I want to finish where I started. We are, I trust, an honourable House. We come here to serve our constituents, not to debate our own emoluments. I hope that we will not be doing it for a very long time to come. However, I hope above all that this is the last occasion—it is the first in my experience—when issues of this nature are debated on a party basis, rather than on a cross-party House basis with a free vote at the end. I intend to exercise my disapproval of not having a free vote in the party as a whole by not voting on the Opposition motion. I trust, however, that at the end of the day, the House will come to a collective decision that will enable us to go forward, holding our heads high and getting on with the job that we really should be doing.

2.24 pm

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): The speech of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) gave the Opposition deputy Chief Whip palpitations, but I am sure that he will recover from them. That
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makes a good start to my speech, because I rise in defence of Members generally and especially those on the Opposition Back Benches who will have difficulty defending themselves in the face of this last-minute publicity stunt by their leader’s office. It shows considerable disdain for them and is reminiscent of that line from a Tory grandee about Michael Heseltine when he was dismissively referred to as someone who bought his own furniture. Obviously, that disdain for those who buy their own furniture is still around in the upper echelons of the Conservative party, but not even in the Conservative party does everyone come from a family of stockbrokers and merchant bankers and, almost by definition, not all of them are able to marry into the Astor family.

The Opposition motion also seems to be a heavy smokescreen to obscure some of the internal divisions inside the Conservative party. We all know from the media that the Tory leadership is in trouble with its MEPs, not only on expenses, but also because of considerable policy differences. It may be that it is trying to create confusion, but it is our duty to clear that away and get a bit of clarity.

Contrary to the assertion by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), it is not the Tories who have brought transparency to the expenses of Tory MPs; it is The Sun and other newspapers. Frankly, the Tories should not be blaming the system for that; they should be blaming their own people. Perhaps they should take a leaf out of the book of the leader of their party who, only this week, I think, made a speech in which he said that we should not blame the system and society and that people should take responsibility for their own actions. Perhaps that doctrine should be applied on the Conservative side of the House at the moment.

I also welcome the fact that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have caught up with Labour MEPs on this issue. However, I query the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)—I can now put the question that I wanted to ask him when he would not take my intervention—on whether the Liberal Democrat proposals will be retrospective and also include Members of this House who were previously MEPs, and whether they will be publishing their expenses for that period.

Mr. Robathan: I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman is going to get a response to that question, so perhaps I can ask him one. Will he point me to where I can find the statement of Labour MEP expenses on the internet or wherever else? I have looked quite hard and I have not discovered that they have been published.

Mr. Spellar: I will certainly refer the hon. Gentleman to the Leader of the House, who has had discussions with the leader of the Labour MEPs. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will be more than pleased to provide him with the information.

As the amendment makes clear, Labour MEPs decided some years ago to adopt open and transparent procedures. We must ask why the Tories did not do the same. There is, of course, a possibility, which we have to consider, that this is not so much about expenses, but about politics—in particular, given a list system, a desire to purge the Conservative MEPs of those who might be causing difficulties for the party—

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am loth to intervene on the right hon. Gentleman, but he should perhaps come back a bit more to the motion before the House.

Mr. Spellar: Thank you for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. But if there are, as we know, attempts to say that those who do not fill in the expenses forms as required by the party leader on a retrospective basis might be removed from the list of prospective Members of the European Parliament standing in the next election, it is possible to query whether that is just to do with their expenses or whether it is an attempt to purge the list of MEPs who might be an obstacle to the Conservative leader’s rather crazy idea of tying them up with a group of very dodgy fringe parties in Europe, which would reveal it as a rather nasty party indeed.

There is also a questionable motivation on MPs’ expenses. Again, nearly all the complaints about breaching the rules relate to Tory MPs. I stress that that does not apply to the vast majority of Tory Members, who rightly claim what they are entitled to and who are being unfairly tarnished by those who behave badly. I also note the way in which the issue has been stirred up by Conservative Front Benchers in—I presume—a vain attempt to curry favour with the BBC, an organisation that is remarkably reticent about its own salaries and expenses. Who knows whether that will become more of an issue later in the year?

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I do not know about the John Lewis list, but the last time I made an expenses claim was when I had to replace my iron and bought a new one for £15.99 from Harry Tuffins. If the media are really concerned about Members’ claims, perhaps they should look at the claims of those who have been Members for many years and are still claiming the maximum allowances. When I entered the House in 1992, the mortgage on the first and only flat that I bought was £250 a month, or £3,000 a year. What about Members who are able to pay huge mortgages, some of whom refinance their mortgages by letting out their original properties, buying more expensive ones and claiming the maximum allowances? They do not even have to worry about the John Lewis list.

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend is right: those of us who entered the House some time ago tend to make lower claims. In fact, I note that mine are substantially lower than hers.

What is actually going on inside the Conservative party? A good rule of thumb, which applies to all parties, is that leaks normally come from one’s own side. They may come from disgruntled staff, as may have been the case in some of the instances that we are discussing, or even from ambitious colleagues. In view of that, I find it slightly surprising that Conservative Front Benchers should wish to table a motion to embarrass their colleagues further, including some of their Front-Bench colleagues. Why, for example, do they want to embarrass the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), whose case is being considered by a Committee of the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am now in danger of having to ask the right hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. He is not talking in a way in which any Member on either side of the House would expect the debate to be conducted. I ask him to think very carefully about what I have said.

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