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16 July 2008 : Column 288

Mr. Spellar: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not slightly odd, however, that—as has already been said a number of times—what is essentially a matter of House business should be raised in Opposition time and thus become a matter of party business, especially given the considerable number of issues raised, quite legitimately, by the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s Question Time?

Is it not also slightly odd that the motion should have been tabled now, given that there are very good Conservative members of both the Members Estimate Committee—including the right hon. Member for Maidenhead—and the advisory panel? The Conservative leadership will know that the Members Estimate Committee is due to meet on Monday to consider a recommendation from the panel for a tightening of the audit—involving the National Audit Committee—and a rewriting of the green book. Is this a variation of the old Liberal Democrat trick of finding out which streets are to be repaired, issuing a focus leaflet demanding that repairs be made, and claiming the credit afterwards? By definition, both those bodies will have to present their findings to the House in the autumn. What was the rush for the motion?

The final question that must be asked is “Does this matter?” It is true that the memory of a half-baked motion rather inadequately moved just before the recess will soon fade, although it will undoubtedly revive some doubts in the Opposition ranks about the judgment of the Leader of the Opposition. However, it does not do justice to Members who make reasonable claims arising from the nature of the job. Gone are the days when it was strongly demanded of a Sheffield Member that he visit his constituency at least once a year—although the requirement was waived when he became a Minister.

Our constituents rightly want to see much more of us than they used to, and to hear from us as well. That is true not only in the United Kingdom but around the world—throughout the Anglo-sphere. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire was wrong in that regard. The balance has changed: although it is right to say that we have considerable parliamentary duties, constituency representation and constituency duties are an increasingly important part of the job. That is the way things are nowadays, and we must face up to it. It means that the great majority of Members must have two residences, and, as we all know and as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), the cost has risen considerably. Indeed, the cost to new Members has probably reached the limit. We sensibly decided not to opt for an eastern-Europe-style barracks block for Members of Parliament, on grounds of cost and security quite apart from any other considerations.

Lynne Jones: I recall that, as a new Member, I was out of pocket for the first few years. Is there not a case for a higher allowance for new Members and an attenuated allowance for those who have been here longer?

Mr. Spellar: I think that that proposal should be considered. The Leader of the House spoke of a possible 10 per cent. limit, although I do not know whether the percentage would change according to the initial setting-up expenses. One of the issues that the panel is examining is the considerable up-front cost of setting up an office and a home and what can be done to help with cash
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flow, particularly just after an election when often people have not been paid. I hope that the panel will look favourably on the idea of giving such help. It must also be borne in mind that we have to live in our second residences for a fairly long period, and it is proper for them to be furnished.

Another aspect that we should bear in mind is the social change that has taken place in the House. Not only are there many more women here; there are many more younger Members. As I said on, I believe, 3 July, for the first time all three leaders of the main political parties have young families. The composition of the House is very different from its composition when I first came here.

As we observed earlier this year, school holidays do not always coincide with the holidays of the House. If we want families to be able to spend a reasonable amount of time together, it is appropriate for them also to have a reasonable level of accommodation—not luxurious, but sufficient to enable them to lead a family life. If we do not build that into the system, only those who have inherited or married into money, or have made some money before coming here, will become Members of Parliament. That would be bad not just for individual Members of Parliament—although it would slowly wear away their position—but for democracy. We must be able to draw on the widest possible pool, not just on those who are prepared either to make sacrifices or, even more significantly, to sacrifice their families in order to represent their constituents in the House.

We need to make that case, even at the cost of the cranky letters and e-mails that we will undoubtedly receive. It is rather a shame that, on a day quite close to the recess, Opposition Front Benchers are not acting on behalf of their own Members, which is why I hope the House will support the Government amendment.

2.38 pm

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I intend to speak on narrow issues. I do not wish to discuss the MEPs. I am not very concerned about what is claimed by MEPs in either party, or about what they publish; I am more concerned about what they do.

I apologise to the House for the fact that I will be chairing the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments at 3.45, and will therefore not be here for the winding-up speeches. I am expecting a rather important statutory instrument on freedom of information, and I think the House would prefer me to be there. Indeed, the House might prefer me to be there now. Lest the media issue any challenge, I should also point out that I am a beneficiary of, in addition to the normal allowances, special help from the House’s disablement fund for Members with mobility and other problems. I am leaning against one of the items that it provides at this moment.

Although I admire the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), I am not going to take the route that he took. I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell). I agree with every single thing he said. Members might think that I would say that as I, too, was one of the MEC 3, who, thankfully, have now been released from the heavy task we were given in January
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of coming up with fundamental root-and-branch reforms to our allowances. I stand by everything that the three of us—along with the other members, the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader, and with Mr. Speaker as Chairman—proposed as a package. I regret nothing we proposed, and I would not rescind any of it. I do have one regret, however: the timing was wrong. We had orders to do our job on such a tight time scale that the House did not have a chance to see the detail of our proposals and to chew them over and consider them, and we probably did not have the time to reassure colleagues in all parts of the House of the content of practice assurance and what it entailed.

I therefore agree with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) that many of our recommendations should have appeared as a sort of Green Paper that we could have chewed over. We could then have come back in October with some final recommendations. If we had done that, I am certain the House would have accepted all the recommendations, and the amendment of the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) would not have been necessary and would not have been agreed to.

I will attempt not to make any partisan points today, but I will say that in some ways the Government are now trying to unscramble what we agreed a few weeks ago in order to create a tough, rigorous audit assurance system. We proposed that in recommendations 1 and 2, but we had not spelled out what we meant by practice assurance, and that scared a lot of colleagues, and colleagues also rightly questioned the cost. Given more time, I think we could have come up with more accurate costs, and I hope that it would have been less than £1,500 per person per day around the offices. That argument has now been lost, however, and this matter is now down to the Government and the advisory panel—I wish the right hon. Member for Warley well, as he will have a busy summer rewriting the green book, and the three of us are glad we no longer have that onerous responsibility. It is now up to the Government to make the NAO proposals work.

My main concern relates to the additional costs allowance and the so-called John Lewis list. I say to the House, with all the authority I can muster as a member of the House of Commons Commission and the MEC, that no MP had ever heard of the John Lewis list before it was forced into the public domain in court. In defence of the Department of Resources—I know it is not popular to defend it—let us ask why it invented it. I have with me a scrappy copy of the John Lewis list, which I have been carrying since January in case I was attacked or questioned on it, and it is internal guidance to the Fees Office staff. It says:

The purpose of the John Lewis list was not to help colleagues get better quality white goods or furniture; it was a guide to stop that happening—it was an internal guide to limit the amount. Let me give a hypothetical example. I had to replace my washing machine last year. I could have bought a top-of-the-range machine made by a company such as Bosch for £1,200—although why anyone would pay that much for a washing machine is
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beyond me—and then have gone to the Fees Office, and it would have said, “Terribly sorry, David, but you’re charging far too much.” It needed an internal guideline. I think the guideline in the list for a washing machine is about £395, which is quite low.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that John Lewis adopts the mantra, “Never knowingly undersold”. Therefore, does it not provide a perfectly reasonable measure of Members’ expenditure?

David Maclean: Yes, it is a good mantra, and that is the point. What would happen if we were to move to any other list? I know that people joke about the IKEA list; it will have some good furnishings, but it will not have any electrical goods. Others have proposed an Argos list. The point is that there will still end up being a list of some sort—perhaps a National Audit Office list.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what the majority of Members want are clear rules that they can understand and then implement? Is not one of the biggest problems the old Fees Office, because inconsistent advice was given to both Members and their staff? We learned a few weeks ago that MPs were employing staff who had not lodged contracts with the Fees Office, but I and others had always been told that people could not get paid until that had been done.

David Maclean: Yes, that is true; there has been inconsistent advice, and that was one of the purposes of the practice audit teams that we wanted to set up. They would go round to help colleagues get things right. I say to Members of all parties that if we do not have that and instead have only a toughened up NAO going round, I suspect that all it will be able to do is report on our errors—our genuine errors and mistakes. When that is in the public domain, those genuine errors and mistakes will be regarded as crimes against humanity. Our internal practice assurance teams were able to go round and say, “David, you put it in the wrong column,” or as the Fees Office informed me in a note two weeks ago, “You’ve transposed the figures 3 and 5; it should be 53 instead of 35.” A tiny amount of expenditure was involved, but I had made a mistake in transcribing some figures on to my form.

When the NAO finds such mistakes, they will be reported as, “MP makes a mistake”, and that will be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee the next day. We wanted something intermediary to hold our hands and help us get things right. There are 650 Members claiming the different allowances at different times of the year in different ways. We have our interpretation and, over the years, the interpretation of the Fees Office has changed, too. A Member said that when he arrived here in 1992 he went to the Fees Office, where someone said, “Oh, why haven’t you got a mortgage, old boy? You can claim for it.” The rules have been tightened up only when various things were exposed as wrong, or when genuine mistakes were made, or we had reports from the Standards and Privileges Committee saying, “This was an abuse.” We have been trying as a House to tighten these rules, not on a systematic basis but as problems occurred. Of course, in those circumstances, advice has sometimes been inconsistent.

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Lynne Jones: However, is it not still within the rules for Members to acquire new mortgages and let out the first home they claimed for, and then claim a larger mortgage? Also, can they not at a later date transfer what was a second home into a primary home and thereby make huge capital gains on the basis of taxpayer contributions, while nothing is done about that? That represents a huge amount of profiteering. The John Lewis list and new Members having to set up their homes pales into insignificance in comparison with such abuses.

David Maclean: If the hon. Lady has evidence of such abuses, they should be recorded. Such allegations were made by external people. I think Sir Christopher Kelly was worried about that. We said point the finger at someone who has got a third home somewhere that is a holiday home and who is claiming additional costs on that. We went into the mortgage issue very carefully. Let me say with all the authority I can muster that the cheapest and best deal for the taxpayer and for Parliament is for colleagues who are elected to buy a property and have a mortgage on it and get the mortgage interest paid by this House. That is a good bargain for the taxpayer at the end of the day.

Linda Gilroy: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

David Maclean: I am running out of time and I do not want to be bogged down on this issue.

We looked at the costs of renting property. If a Member is in this House for a few years—let us say 10, 12 or 15—and they rent a property, the rental costs are likely to increase every single year. There is a higher cost to Parliament in paying for rented properties than in paying mortgage interest costs. We are not here to abolish rented property or mortgage interest. We looked into the matter very carefully and we thought it was perfectly legitimate to let that be claimed. However, as I have said, we came up with a package. There is, of course, a benefit to a Member if they are lucky in the housing market, but I believe that some Members who left this House in 1997 were out of pocket, as property prices go down as well as up—as we are also discovering at present. However, there can be a benefit to a Member in owning their own property; there is the comfort and reassurance of ownership. In those circumstances, we thought we should not allow the additional benefit of £1,600 per year on average, which is the amount claimed on white goods in the so-called John Lewis list.

I take on board the point that there is a higher start-up cost for new Members. What would happen if we were to go down the route proposed in the Government amendment? I am not totally opposed to it, although I will, of course, support the Conservative Chief Whip as I like the part in his motion about white goods. If that is lost, I wish the Government well in the procedures that are adopted. I say to them that if the National Audit Office is to be given this task, it will have to invent a list of the reasonable reimbursement costs for furniture and other household goods. The cap might be at 10 per cent., but our studies suggest that that is too high for continuing Members—we do not need £2,400 per annum to replace the essential items in our property—and too low for starting Members. I leave that as a problem for the NAO and the panel chaired by the right hon. Member for Warley to sort out.

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The other point that needs to be made robustly is that the overall amount of the ACA is about right. Before anyone in the media or elsewhere starts whingeing about it, the Senior Salaries Review Body examined it and concluded that about £24,000 was the essential sum necessary to maintain another residence in London. I hope that the Committee will examine this nonsense of having one property described as the main home and the other as the second home. It will probably have to do so to sort out the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), which is probably utterly unenforceable—that is a problem for others to sort out.

When I entered Parliament as a new Member, my home in the constituency was my main home and my little London flat was my second home. When I became a Minister, things were automatically transferred without my having any say; I was told that my home in the constituency had become my second home and that London was deemed to be my main residence. When I subsequently entered Opposition in 1997, it all changed back, and it changed again when I was made Opposition Chief Whip. This is nonsense, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is working on a paper, which he will submit to the panel chaired by the right hon. Member for Warley, on how we designate our properties.

Three or four years ago, when I was Opposition Chief Whip, I calculated that in one year I had spent exactly 170 days here in Westminster, 170 in the constituency and 25 on holiday. In such circumstances, MPs do not have a main home and a second home; as Members of Parliament, we are required to have a firm base in London. We are not travelling salesmen, who can live in a different hotel room—a different Travelodge—each week, so we need that firm base. If we have bought a property, it needs to be furnished, and if we are to furnish our property and to keep some form of list, we must make a robust defence of the arrangements. I robustly defend the right of Members who are buying a property to furnish it and to have the proper kit so that they are not sleeping on the floor or on cardboard boxes.

One may ask why I recommended the abolition of the John Lewis list. We thought that, taken in the round, robustly keeping mortgages and defending the per diem rate of £30 and the £4,200 of the ACA was a package of measures that fairly compensated colleagues for the costs that they had incurred in maintaining a base in London. I will support the list’s abolition, but if it is not to be abolished, I wish the Government, the right hon. Member for Warley and the NAO success in coming up with a definition of reasonable property and the reasonable kit to have that will persuade our friends and others in the media that we do not have our noses in the trough. We do not have our noses in the trough, but we must ensure that we defend our arrangements properly in future.

2.53 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I thank all hon. Members for the unanimous support for my amendment that was successfully passed over a week ago. One or two hon. Members seem to be a little confused about what they,
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quite rightly, passed, but one of its consequences relates to property accumulation—this answers one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones). One used to be able to claim the maximum allowances and, over time, build up a larger and larger property while claiming the allowances, but that is no longer possible. For that reason alone, a sensible decision was made, and I congratulate the House on its wisdom. I trust that none of the three Front-Bench teams will seek at any stage to unravel and backtrack on the House’s wise decision on that point.

It is important to break down the three separate elements that confuse this debate, not only in the public’s eye but here. The first issue is malpractice. Although it is rare I have occasionally commented on it, and when I have done so, I have suggested that where there appears to have been malpractice, the person involved should repay the money to the taxpayer. That seems to me to be a sensible approach, although nobody has yet followed my suggestion. That is their choice, although it may not be a wise one.

Greg Mulholland rose—

John Mann: I shall give way in a minute. The second issue, which, of those I have raised in the past year, is the one that I have majored on, is party political advantage. I shall cite the simplest example—the use of the dining facilities for party political advantage. Thanks to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and to my delight, that is now debarred. It is no longer possible, as the annual report of the Sevenoaks Conservative Association, in respect of which a registration has just been made with the Electoral Commission, makes clear. It states that the patrons’ club has been terminated, saying:

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