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The termination of the facility for dinners at Westminster removed the main attraction for members.
That is highly appropriate; Parliament has moved on and has stopped the misusing of the facilities for party political advantage. It is important that we continue this approach. I have made a number of other challenges in relation to potential party political advantage, and I will continue to do so where there appears to be any such misuse of the remit of political office
The third issue, which I particularly wish to discuss this afternoon, relates to the systems. This may come as a surprise to some on the Opposition Benches, but I have refused on a recurrent basis over recent months to comment on the so-called irregularities, usually of Opposition MPs, when I have been asked to do so, usually by the media. In these cases, what the individual has done, in essence, is to apply Parliaments systems. I shall cite no cases, because it would, by definition, be invidious for me to do so, but the issue is not the action of the individual, who has acted within the systemthe issue is whether the system is right. That is where there remains a lack of realism not only within this House, but within the parties in the House.
The systems are poor, they are not transparent and they leave each and every one of us, myself included, open to attacks by our constituents, by the media, by mischievous opponents and so on, precisely because they do not have the robustness or the transparency that they require. I have tried to comprehend what the
Government are putting forward today, and I hope that they are not in any way backtracking from the crucial principle that the general public have a right to know what we do, what we spend and how we spend it. If they wish to criticise me for anything that I have done in terms of my expenditure, they are free to do so and I will defend myself robustly. I may have a different view from theirs on what is and is not appropriate, but as their elected representative, I do not have a right to hide this information away.
Strangely, in the years for which I have put this information on my website, nobody seems to have been particularly bothered about it. However, people are bothered about their right to know and about the rights of journalists to investigate. I hear many criticisms of journalists and the media in this debate, but I would go in the other direction: we could do with more investigative journalism in our newspapers, because it is a skill that seems to have died a death in this country. Parliament must have systems that are sufficiently robust and defendable, and absolutely transparent, so that we can feel comfortable.
Our situations will vary. Frankly, I do not care whether people buy a property or not. That is a risk that they take, but they should be open about it. Situations will vary, depending on rental agreements. I read the official Oppositions proposals with some amusement. In essence, if as a renting MP one had an unfurnished flat but now cannot get one, one has to go back to the same landlord or landlady and say, Well, Ill have to have a furnished flat. The rent will go up in order to provide that furnished flat, so the taxpayer will not necessarily get increased value for money. The different arrangements, which are obscure, mean that some things are more than average and others are less than average. Because I rent a room rather than a flat, for six years I did not have cooking facilities as part of the rental agreement. That meant that the rent was lower, but the situation was different.
The issue is that the information is out there. If hon. Members want to look at my websiteI recommend itthey will see that all that information is there among the campaigning issues. I am sure that it has been scoured through by Opposition researchers over the months
John Mann: The hon. Gentleman says that they have better things to do, but there is the issue of party political advantage. One shameful thing during this episode has been the attempts by Conservative central office, when someone has had the effrontery to suggest that certain MPs should repay money, to give false briefings to the press to suggest things that are not there. That has been tried in my case over the past three months on three occasions. None of those attempts has got anywhere, because the information is false. The first was so farcical that the individual concerned had to apologise. I was also able to point out that he was in criminal breach of the Electoral Commission regulations when it came to his own visits, and I discreetly and politely corrected him on that.
Let me complete what I was saying. The second attempt happened when the great mystery of an unknown donation was revealed to the press. The donation was from a Mr. and Mrs. J. Mann MP to the Bassetlaw constituency, and I was therefore not required to register it as a gift to me. The third attempt was the most disgraceful, and came from the miners compensation scandal. I have a specific request for those on the Opposition Front Bench. The papers that they have attempted to circulate to the media should be handed overone decent and honourable Opposition Member has already done soto the Serious Fraud Office, as the matter is related to an ongoing investigation into miners compensation.
The fact that certain people in Conservative central office have chosen to try to circulate such things to the media and have tried to suggest a major scandal with faked documents put out by one of the parties who are being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office is somewhat out of order. I politely request that those documents should be provided to the Serious Fraud Office. I will be happy to provide the Opposition Whips, or the Opposition Chief Whip, who is not in his seat, with the details of where to send those papers. I know that they are in their possession, because one hon. Member has chosen to give me said papers, which were given to him.
Lynne Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is better for Members to be required to submit receipts for genuine purchases than to be able to claim £30 a day for which no receipts are required? As for investigative journalism, would it not be better for the media to investigate Members who have been here for many years and are still claiming the maximum because they have remortgaged their properties?
John Mann: All Members, old and new, are equally vulnerable under the existing systems. There is a premise in the debate with which I disagree, although I am sure that I am in a rather small minority in doing sopossibly a minority of one. The basic tenet of the debate, when it is discussed in private, is that MPs are not paid enough. People say to me, The allowances are your pension, and so on. Thats why we have those things. That has been said to me on countless occasions. If people feel that MPs are not paid enough, the way to deal with that is to propose that MPs should be paid a lot more. I would disagree. I think that MPs are reasonably and fairly paid, and the comparators used in other debates are rather spurious. Comparisons in my constituency would put me in a rather privileged position, so I do not feel a great need to change the situation. However, if the whole expenses system is meant in some way to compensate for a perceived underpayment, MPs should be prepared to say, Pay us more, and well spend the money on whatever we want, but well deal with the taxman just as everyone else does. That would be a way of getting the general public off our back, because they are rightly on it at the moment.
Judy Mallaber: Will my hon. Friend rest assured that a number of MPs feel that we are perfectly well paid? On a day when low-paid workers who are paid £12,000, £13,000 or £14,000 are taking action, it is time to put it on the record that we are very well paid indeed.
John Mann: I agree with my hon. Friend. I am concerned about the approaches of the different Front Benchers, who are all attempting to gain party political advantage with the resolutions that they have tabled. That is inappropriate today. The original motion should not have been proposed. It would directly benefit those who claim the maximum, who have bought property and who are paying their mortgage interest on it. We should be open and honest about the fact that that is what the motion does. That is one way in which people can claim expenses, but it is not the only way. It is not the only system. It might not be the best and most affordable system, but that honesty is needed. Three of those in whose name the motion is tabled, including the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), who is on the Front Bench at the moment, would appear from the Register of Members Interests to have a multitude of properties.
I would not challenge the right of people with a multitude of properties to be able to claim whatever allowances for housing are available, along with everyone else, but I am damned sure that a number of my constituents would feel that that was inappropriate. That is the danger of phrasing such a resolution in such a way. We need a little breathing space so that we can get some effective systems in place that mean that everything is out in the open. They should be clear, easy and not over-generous. If we do that, the faith of the public in what we are doing will increase and they will concentrate far more on the political differences rather than on the perception of the increased wealth that we gain from being here.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Mr. Speaker has imposed a 12-minute limit, but, in view of the number of Members who still hope to catch my eye, it might be helpful if Members considered reducing their comments even further.
It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). The only point on which I agreed with him was his last point. I totally disagree that todays debate is somehow improper; in that, I expect that I disagree with some of my Opposition colleagues. It is perfectly right that we should use an Opposition day to highlight the matter and to show the public that we take the debacle that happened on 3 July seriously, and that we want to do something about it before we go away for the recess.
I get slightly tired of the ideapeople get rather pompous and high-minded about thisthat our expenses are a matter for the House and should not be a political matter. Of course they are political. Anything we do in the House is political, and trying to pretend that there are somehow two levels of debate is a complete waste of time. If what I read in the newspapers is true, on 3 July, which was a free-vote day for us and was meant to be a non-political day, there was an attempt to make some sort of tawdry deal in that Labour Back Benchers would back the payroll and vote against increased pay on the basis that the John Lewis list would survive. If
that is trueI can only report what I read, and these things are rather difficult to provethat shows how much the politics interfere with such debates.
Lynne Jones: Is there not every difference between doing something, and doing what is right? I recommend International Stock of Kings Heath as a very cheap source of electrical appliances, but I cannot see that it is better to replace the so-called John Lewis list with a £30-a-day allowance for which no receipts are required. Doing something is not the same as doing what is right.
Mr. Atkinson: I agree, in the sense that I did not agree with the £30 daily allowance. That is why I did not vote for it. However, I did not vote against it, and to some extent I regret that, as it might have moved the debate on had I done so.
The motion has one great advantageits clarity. It proposes a clear way forward and so gives us a very good basis for debate. I may not have understood everything that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw saidhe lost me during part of his speech, as I am not up to date with his justifiable campaign on the miners compensation schemebut I was concerned that he was trying to close loopholes. The difficulty with all allowances is that they do not take account of the fact that everyones different circumstances require them to live in slightly different ways.
Consequently, the motion is right because it is simple and gives a sense of transparency. The electorate can judge whether individual Members of Parliament are behaving properly only if they can see what we claim and then form their own judgment. It is impossible to write a rule book that covers all eventualities and all the circumstances that MPs face.
I want to make another point. Some colleagues on this side of the House as well as on the other may disagree with me, but I believe that we have an ostrich-like view of what is going on here. This issue has caused me more embarrassment and my constituents more annoyance than anything has during the many years for which I have been in the House. The public feel very strongly about this matter, especially when they read about the John Lewis list.
I understand exactly the basis of the John Lewis list, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) was right to say that it has been a useful guide. However, it has become a sort of totem that has registered with the public. People think that we are all buying £2,000 German washing machines when our washing machines break down.
These matters are important, and we did need to deal with them today. I accept what the Leader of the House said earlierthat the document that came out today was simply a coincidence, and that the work had been in progress before. That is good. I hope that we do not lose the vote on our motion today, but I suspect that we will. However, even if we do lose the vote, at least the Government will be able to move on in a positive way to resolve the issue. I think that it needs to be resolved as a matter of considerable urgency.
I shall end with a few brief remarks about pay and allowances in this House. This is a question that we tend to duck. It is all right to say that public sector workers are out on strike, but we need a level of pay in this
House that will encourage ordinary men and women who carry the normal burdens of life to become Members of Parliament. We cannot have only wealthy people here. The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) is a rather nice, old-fashioned class warrior whom I quite like, but it was nonsense for him to suggest that all Conservative Members are rich and all Labour Members poor. I seem to remember that new Labour was founded by an awful lot of wealthy millionaire socialists.
Mr. Spellar: I think that the hon. Gentleman slightly misunderstood me. I said that many people are in exactly the same position as the one that he has described on the Conservative Benchesthat is, that Back-Bench Members are being let down by their Front-Bench Members, who treat them with considerable disdain and do not recognise that proper expenses have to be provided. I knew that Conservative Members would find it difficult to speak on their own behalf, so I sought to do it for them.
Mr. Atkinson: I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman needs to speak on behalf of Opposition Members, but we should lay the myth that all Labour Members are as poor as church mice. They clearly are not.
My real point is that we need to have proper pay and allowances in this House. We have consistently asked independent people to look at our pay and allowances. When they come forward with recommendations, we are told by Cabinet Ministerswho, of course, get a bit more money than the ordinary Back Bencherthat we should forgo any increase because we would otherwise be setting a bad example.
I voted for the compromise proposal that we should instigate the Baker review, but at a delayed date. That was the right thing to do, but in case anyone thinks that I voted out of self-interest, I should add that I shall not be in the next Parliament, and so will not benefit in any way. However, we need to address this problem.
As was mentioned earlier, when I first arrived in the House new Members were given easy advice by the Fees Office, as it was then known. We were told that it didnt really matter how we spent the money, although the allowances were of course much smaller in those days. When I first arrived, new Members were asked to divide the entire annual allowance into 12 portions and to put in a claim every month. That arrangement suited both the Fees Office and us, and there was no problem. Most of the money went on rent, council tax or utility bills, and it did not allow anyone to rush out and buy expensive German washing machines.
The problem arose in 2001, when we voted to increase our allowances from about £13,000 to just under £20,000. That changed the name of the game. In retrospect, we should have re-examined the circumstances of the allowance, because the decision opened up the opportunity for vastly more discretionary payments. In some way, that was the downfall of the allowance.
I hope that the Opposition motion will be carried today. As I said earlier, it has the advantage of simplicity. The danger is that we do not realise how far behind the pace of public opinion we are on this issue. If we are not seen to be doing something about it urgently, many of us will have a fairly uncomfortable summer recess.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I say how pleased I am to follow the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson)? I agree with him that this is a political issue. I do not agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who said in a rather pompous way that these things are somehow above party politics. The motion before us, tabled on behalf of the Conservative party, is very party political. I must say that I give the Opposition 10 out of 10 for front, as I do not think the Conservative party has any moral authority to lecture people about probity in public life.
What the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is trying to do is quite clear: he is trying to throw enough smoke in the air to capture the mood of public dislike for politicians because he thinks that that will get him some party political advantage. However, I remind the House that the real rotten problem lies with the Conservative party. I admit I am talking about a minority in that party, but I should like to remind the House of some of the recent scandals.
We all know about the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway). We also knowmy hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) mentioned itabout the widespread abuse by Conservative Members of this Houses dining facilities for raising party funds. In 2006, the right hon. Member for Witney was himself criticised for using his parliamentary office for party fundraising. There was also the report a few weeks ago about the hon. Members for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton).
In addition, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and I have highlighted the web of untransparent systems set up to hide who was funding those on the Conservative Front Bench. Without that complaint and the report from the Standards and Privileges Committee, we would still not know where those funds came from.
People may ask whether these problems are new in this Parliament, but they are not. We all remember the honourablealthough perhaps he was not so honourableJonathan Sayeed, who charged people for tours of this place. In the end, he was asked to pay back £16,000 improperly
Mr. Kevan Jones: I will, and I shall now refer to the changes to the additional costs allowance. They were introduced because the former Conservative Member Michael Trend was abusing the system by claiming an allowance when he did not have a second home.
Such examples are relevant, because press reports give the impression that we can still do that, and the changes referred to by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) were brought in as a direct result of what happened.
What have all the people I mentioned got in common? They are all Conservatives. The Conservative party cannot lecture others, and not try to sort out its own house. We should also consider the scandals exposed recently in Europe; we are talking not about small amounts of money but about half or three quarters of a million pounds claimed by the MEPs in question.
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