Previous Section Index Home Page

16 July 2008 : Column 301

As has already been explained, the Conservative party is trying to claim the moral high ground by saying it will bring about openness and transparency through the publication of MEPs’ expenses. My party has been doing that for the past eight years. When the shadow Leader of the House’s party publishes those expenses, I challenge her to ensure that the figures go back eight years; it would be interesting to see what Conservative Members have been up to over that period.

Most right hon. and hon. Members want a clear system for expenses. They want what they have claimed to be well understood. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, it would then be down to the public to judge Members on what they have claimed and how they have used their expenses. This is not a criticism of any individual or set of individuals; the problem is that the system has grown up over time, and that has led to a lot of inconsistencies. I am not criticising individuals in the Fees Office, but different advice is given. Sometimes, the office is given some very difficult jobs to do.

At the end of the day, we have to recognise that if Members need a second home, they need an allowance to cover that. That should not be a generous allowance; it should be an allowance to cover the cost. Most hon. Members would be quite happy to have the amount that they spend published, but they also want to make sure that they understand the rules, so that they cannot inadvertently fall foul of them.

Much has been said about the Members Estimate Committee report. I voted against what it said, and I shall make it clear why I did so. I make no criticism of the individuals involved; they had a very difficult job to do, and with hindsight, if they had published a Green Paper and put in place a consultation, I think we could have come to an agreement and put forward a suggestion. Now that the report has been voted down, it has a sainted, Ark-of-the-Covenant feel to it, but the idea that it would solve all the problems is absolute nonsense. I do not accept that giving me, or any other Member of Parliament, £4,200 a year without any receipts is more transparent than keeping the system as it is, or having more rigorous auditing and publishing the results of that audit.

I am sorry, but I do not think that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has read the report in detail; if he has, he has certainly not understood it. I am all for the idea of assurance, and people going into offices to give advice, but the idea that he put forward today, with which I agree, is that the public money that Members spend should be rigorously audited. I have no problem with that; if those audit reports are made public, fine. That would give the public the assurance that they want. If there were clear rules laid down, Members could be assured that what they were claiming was correct.

It is all very well for people to say that there is widespread abuse, as the shadow Leader of the House did earlier. I hear that all the time. I heard the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) accuse Labour MPs of doing various things. I am sorry, but as the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said, if people are abusing the system, they need to be reported, and the system should deal with them. We cannot allow the current situation to continue. I
16 July 2008 : Column 302
shall break the habit of a lifetime and agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey on one point: what we did a few weeks ago left us in limbo, and we could not leave things as they are.

The proposals that have been put forward are correct. Rigorous audit has to be put in place, and the rules for Members of Parliament have to be clear. People who try to make a party political point of the issue, as the Conservative Front Benchers are trying to do today—

Miss Widdecombe: What about the first part of your speech?

Mr. Jones: I was happy to say what I did, because I was responding to the cynicism shown by Conservative Front Benchers, who have used the debate for party political advantage. Like other Labour Members, I should like to keep reminding the public about where the rotten apples in this House have been in the past few years. If we have a clear system, and a clear audit process, and information is published, which is what people rightly want, we could get some credibility back.

We cannot get into a situation in which hon. Members are told that there are no allowances for second homes, because the result would be that the only people who could afford to come to the House would be those with independent wealth. I am not making a party political point; I refer to what the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) said in the St. Albans & Harpenden Review, of which I am an avid reader. She summed up the issue quite well:

I agree totally with that. If we do not have a proper system, MPs will be self-selecting. The only people who would get to the Commons would be those who could afford to, and that would be wrong.

3.25 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): First, may I apologise for the fact that I was not present for the speech of the Leader of the House, which followed that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)? May I also associate myself with the remarks made by several long-serving Members of the House and say I regret very much that the subject should have been raised in a political context? We had a debate on this subject, and Members on both sides of the House had free votes on it, not long ago. It has always been a matter of House business, rather than party business. Both Front Benches remind me of those Governments who hold referendums, and when their citizens give them an answer they do not like, hold them again. We should have faced the fact that the House made clear its view on the so-called John Lewis list, and we should have found ways of making it transparent, rather than trying to abolish it altogether.

The contributions made by Members on both sides of the House today have been largely conditioned by the mischievous and malicious onslaught of the media and the public prints, not just over the past few weeks but over the past few months. Our response to that should not be to crawl on our bellies, but robustly to
16 July 2008 : Column 303
defend what is right. Yes, it is right that we should have better reporting and more transparency, but it is not right that we should make it impossible for hon. Members to carry out their duties.

The answer that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead made to my intervention threw up a very interesting question, according to my interpretation of it, at any rate. Her response seemed to suggest that if one is wealthy enough to equip and furnish a second home, one should be able to buy that second home with the aid of state allowances, but if one is not wealthy enough to do that, one must take a furnished, rented place, and therefore get no advantage. It is a rather strange proposition that there should be two tiers of Members in this House, according to whether they can equip and furnish their own home. We should rather be firm, and say that Members do require a second home. As the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) amusingly said, we do not go to our constituencies only once a year now. Unless our constituencies are in London, it is still very difficult, on Monday and Tuesday nights, to get home, even for those whose constituency is in the home counties, as mine is. It is therefore quite right that we should have a second home.

When I first came to the House, the allowances were somewhat less generous. In my first year of owning a second home—my constituency cottage—I had a box in which I kept my hairdryer, kettle, toaster and sundry other things. That box went in the car and it went between my homes. I could not put a fridge or an oven in the box, or a bed, let alone several beds for a family. I happen not to have had a family, so at least I did not have to face that problem. It is ludicrous to suggest that most people who come to the House, having had an ordinary professional salary or less, can afford to equip and furnish a second home from scratch.

I do not speak from self-interest because I never did purchase a washing machine on the allowances.

Mr. Kevan Jones: You did not need to.

Miss Widdecombe: That is right; I did not need to. That was because I had a very good friend who was not then in the House, but who is now my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), and he had a spare washing machine, which we put in an estate car and took to my cottage. It lasted for the whole 18 years that I had that cottage, and every year thereafter, in recognition of that benefit, I bought my hon. Friend dinner, and I did not charge the dinner to the allowances. So I never had to buy a washing machine.

That may be a frivolous story, but it is ludicrous to suppose that a Member of Parliament with three or four children can somehow wash and rinse all the washing by hand and run it through a mangle. Such a person needs a washing machine. It is not a luxury. I never had a television. I do not like television, so I never had one in my second home, and I never asked the state to provide one for me. I went 18 years televisionless in my second home, but I can just imagine the response of a Member’s teenage children if he said, “By the way, throughout the summer there won’t be any television.” Therefore, it really does make sense to allow people to get everyday items that one would expect to find in a reasonable home, and if one can do that, someone somewhere has to decide whether an item is reasonable
16 July 2008 : Column 304
or whether the state and taxpayer have been taken for a ride. That was how the John Lewis list came into being. Anyone would think it was a wedding list.

Moreover, the press do not publish the rules. The rules say that one cannot whistle up a £10,000 kitchen from John Lewis, or a £5,000 bathroom. If a kitchen or bathroom is replaced, the rules say very clearly that those costs must be divided between genuine replacement and betterment, and the betterment element must be paid for by the Member. But out there, egged on by the press and by the silly, crawling, gutless response of the House, everybody believes that these things can be whistled up with no rules, restraints or accountability. We should have had the guts to defend ourselves, just as we should have the guts to do so when the press talk about our lavish perks and include our secretaries. There have been some hon. Members for whom their secretary has been a perk, but precious few of them. Such is the view out there that Adam Boulton, who is supposed to be politically wise, actually stated on his programme as though it were a matter of fact that our secretarial allowances are paid directly into our bank accounts. That comes from an experienced political commentator—

Chris Bryant: Who is paid thousands for his suits.

Miss Widdecombe: Who I expect is paid thousands for his suits, although I am not sure. But whether he is paid thousands for his suits or not, he wanted to portray the worst possible picture, and it is false. I, like most hon. Members, do not benefit from one penny of my secretary’s or researcher’s salaries, or from one penny of what goes on computers, stationery and postage. We do not benefit, and to have that portrayed as a perk is ridiculous.

If there is one thing that we should have done it is to abolish the word “allowance” and to substitute the word “reimbursement”, and to have that which is centrally provided not counted as our personal allowances.

Lynne Jones: The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that Members do not benefit from the salaries received by their staff; indeed, many of us have at some time in our political careers actually contributed to those salaries when the allowance was inadequate to provide the staff necessary to fulfil our duties.

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I spent the first seven or eight years of my time in the House subsidising a range of allowances. She is absolutely right and we should point that out.

We are always told that we have gold-plated pensions, but the average pension in payment to former Members is £8,000. Those of us who have managed to clock up the whole sum, as I will have done when I leave, have done so by bringing in pension contributions from former schemes. I came in from the public sector, but many hon. Members have come in from the private sector, so the taxpayer has not been responsible for those contributions. We should have the guts to stand up for ourselves, to make these things clear, not simply to say, “Because you are being misled into believing this is a gravy train, we will give up things that are necessary and essential.”

16 July 2008 : Column 305

Finally, there is the issue of our pay. There is another solution to all this, which is that we are paid so much that we do not need the allowances. If such a major change is ever made, the time to make it is before an election when those voting for it will by and large not benefit. But we never dare to do it before an election because that is the very moment when we go out there and account for ourselves and we feel that we might be unpopular.

We should stop crawling before this press onslaught. Yes, there have been abuses. Do we blame all general practitioners for Harold Shipman? Do we say that because a handful of teachers have been convicted of paedophilia, all teachers are bad, and that because more than a handful of accountants are crooks, all accountants are bad? As for lawyers, I will not even go there. The answer is no. Therefore, although there have been and always will be some people in Parliament who are not as straight as they should be, we should not allow ourselves to be tarred by that.

We deserve to be paid properly, we deserve to be reimbursed for reasonable expenses incurred, and we deserve to be allowed to do our jobs properly. If we do not do that, one of two types of people will come into the House: those who can afford not to be recompensed and those whose pay is so low that to them it all looks like something very grand. The vast ranks in between—the professionals, those who are paid a reasonable but not excessive amount—will not come to this place, and the press and the media at the moment are doing their level best to ensure that Parliaments of the future will be composed of people of substantially lower quality than Parliaments of the past.

3.38 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What a performance to have to follow!

This is an important and necessary debate, particularly in the context of the vote of 3 July. I appreciate the strength of feeling that has been expressed on both sides of the House, and the fact that there was passion on both sides of the argument clearly demonstrates the need to have this debate again. It is regrettable that the debate has regularly turned into a partisan affair. [ Interruption .] This issue affects and impacts on every single Member of Parliament, and for Labour Members to make it a partisan issue is a discredit to them and the House.

Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vara: I should like to make some progress. [Interruption.] I shall be more than happy to give way later, but I am under a time constraint and I should like to make progress.

I wish to make it absolutely clear that this issue is seen by the public outside as a House issue that affects all Members. That Members here have used it as an opportunity for cheap political point scoring demeans us all. We all entered Parliament to serve our constituents and our country, and, to the limited extent that we can, to make the world a better place. Unless we properly resolve this issue, it will continue to recur over and over again. That is why it is important to deal with it thoroughly.

16 July 2008 : Column 306

Rob Marris: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is absolutely right that, in a sense, this is an individual issue for all of us. The flavour of what the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said was that she thought—and the Opposition motion tends to suggest this—that hon. Members should rent furnished accommodation. Does the hon. Gentleman think that I could rent furnished accommodation within 10 minutes of Parliament for £650 a month? That is what my outlays are now, including utilities and so on. Secondly, as an individual, does he claim his additional costs allowance for rented furnished accommodation? As he says, this is an individual matter.

Mr. Vara: What I do will be published later today. [Interruption.] I am mindful of the time constraint and the fact that— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman be heard.

Mr. Vara: The fact that the hon. Gentleman, along with the rest of the nation, will be able to see how I spend my money speaks for itself. I am not going to waste the House’s time.

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

Mr. Vara: I will not; the hon. Gentleman has spoken.

What is required in the House is leadership. We had the opportunity for leadership to be exercised by the Prime Minister on 3 July. His response was not to turn up to vote. When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked him earlier why he did not vote then, the Prime Minister ducked the issue. When asked by a journalist why he did not vote, he said that he had been in a meeting. Let me make one thing absolutely clear: the Prime Minister should be aware that he has a suite of offices just behind the Speaker’s Chair, and he would be well advised to have his meeting there when there are important debates, so that when there is a vote he can miss the meeting for a couple of minutes, vote, and then continue with it.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): On the matter of ducking the issue, will the hon. Gentleman inform the House about how much money he gets for his directorship of Saffron Ridge Ltd?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not in order.

Mr. Vara: The hon. Lady proves my point that this is an issue of the House, and she demeans herself more than anyone else.

In the absence of leadership from the Government, it is right that there should be leadership on the Conservative side: later today, we will publish the right-to-know form in respect of all our Front Benchers.

Lynne Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vara: I will not, because I am under a time constraint. Frankly, the public deserve better than the partisan contributions from the Labour side.

Next Section Index Home Page