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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
I begin by saying that the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who is not in his place at the moment, made a very important point to the Leader of the House in his intervention. The system that we have been working with may have its inadequacies, but all hon. Members who submit a claim sign a certificate to the effect that they have used the money for a purpose that is consistent with their parliamentary duties. I agree with him in that I cannot understand how people can get away with using that money for a purpose that is
wholly inconsistent with their parliamentary duties. How can it be said that there is something unclear about the certification that we all sign each time we claim? It is unfortunate that the impression has been given that, somehow, it was sufficiently unclear that it was all right to have blatantly fiddled the system, as, sadly, one or two Members appear to have done.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the faults has been that we have not had a system of audit that goes beyond the signature and allows proper scrutiny, simply as a check that hon. Members are behaving in accordance with what they have signed for? That is the great strength of the improved arrangements that are being put in place today. As a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, I think it important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) was saying from the Front Bench, that we should uphold the highest principlesin fact, the seven principles that Lord Nolan proposedand the new audit arrangements are a step in the right direction.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he will knowbecause he used to be my sparring partner on these issues for many yearshow often I have said that we need better and essentially external audit of what is done in the House. I am therefore very pleased that that is part of the proposals today.
The Leader of the House suggested in the earlier exchanges that we do not want to get into a Dutch auction between the parties on who is holier than thou, and I absolutely agree. It is important that we as a House come together on the issue and find a way forward that does not try to divide us into different camps, nor enable any portion of the House to claim a specific sanctimony all its own, as that is unhelpful to the process of finding the right solution.
I want to spend a little time on the Freedom of Information Act statutory instrument. It has been withdrawn, but it is extremely cogent to the proposed scheme of publication. I wholly welcome its withdrawal. I always intended to oppose it, as I have always opposed such matters. The one party political point that I want to makeI hope it is not at the expense of othersis simply that I was very saddened by the spin coming from those who speak for No. 10, who suggested yesterday that the statutory instrument was based on what was called an all-party agreement. It was categorically not based on an all-party agreement. The Liberal Democrats were neither asked the question, nor did we agree to it. I see the Leader of the House nodding on that point. It is thus wholly incorrect to suggest that we would support such an exemption for Members of Parliament.
Ms Harman: I had not planned to intervene, because I spoke for so long; but to put the record straight, I never said all-party support. I said that I understood that we had the support of the official Opposition. Of course, a Liberal Democrat Member served on the Members Estimate Committee, so was aware of what we were planning, but I have never taken that to be assent from the hon. Gentlemans party or ever claimed that.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for clarifying that. She was absolutely correct in
what she said, as was the Prime Minister in what he said from the Dispatch Box yesterday, but it was spun a different way later, which is unfortunate.
If we had been asked, we would have said no, because we do not believe that the House should be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act on this matter. We have always argued that that Act should not be diluted. The first Committee on which I ever served in the House was the one that considered the Freedom of Information Bill, and we argued then that the Bill was a diluted form of the excellent White Paper, produced by Lord Clark of Windermere when he was in government, on which it was based. It was diluted again in the Standing Committee and when it returned to the Chamber. Ever since, there have been attempts, notably by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), to dilute it again. If we keep on diluting the Freedom of Information Act, we get to a point where it is positively homeopathic in its dilutionit no longer has the effect that we want it to haveand that is something that we should oppose, and my hon. Friends will certainly do so.
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, despite several attempts to get an assurance from the Leader of the House that the Government will not seek to exempt MPs from freedom of information legislation on any future occasion, she was evidently unable to provide such a categorical assurance to the House today? Does he also share the concern that the only conclusion we can draw from that is that, despite what is being said today, there may yet be further occasions when the Government will seek, once again, to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act? We are seeking to defend an important principle.
Mr. Heath: I agree with my hon. Friend that the principle is importantit is one of the three principles that I am about to set outand I was disappointed that the Leader of the House was not able to give that categorical assurance, because it would have been helpful to the House, particularly to those hon. Members who felt that we were going in entirely the wrong direction in trying to disapply the freedom of information provisions to ourselves.
The first principle is that the concept of freedom of information applies to Members of Parliament as much as to anyone else in the public services. That is non-negotiable. The second principle is that the public have a right to know how public money is spent. Again, that is a key principle. The third principle is almost a reverse
of the second in some ways: MPs should get the expenses that they need to do the job they are asked to do on behalf of the public and the community that they servicenot a penny more, not a penny less. We should be prepared to defend the provision of those expenses. No one else would call them expenses; they are the running costs involved in being a Member, and we should not be defensive or ashamed about that. That is what is necessary to do the job that we do in the House.
Dr. Lewis: I warmly welcome the non-partisan way in which the hon. Gentleman is approaching the subject, but on never diluting the Freedom of Information Act and never making an exception, may I remind him of the important point that was made by the Leader of the House? An exemption to the Act was made in respect of MPs because of the insane decision by the High Court that our home addresses should be published. I must remind him that, quite rightly, at least half of his parliamentary party signed up to that and that not one Member chose to divide the House on it. So that is why it is perfectly reasonable for the Leader of the House not to give a blanket commitment never do that again, whatever the circumstances. When the Act was originally passed, no one in their wildest dreams would have imagined that the High Court would be mad enough to suggest that our home addresses should be published en masse on the internet for the benefit of any trouble maker at home or terrorist abroad.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point. He knows, I think, that I did not agree with him on thatothers didand I made it clear that I did not. There must be very specific and particular security reasons for non-publication. Everyone knows where I live in my constituency. That is published in the phone directory, and I make no secret of it. But there are specific reasons for specific Members where that is not the case.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: On the issue of not a penny more, not a penny less, may I return to the question that I put to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan)? Should any capital gain arise from the ownership of a London property, should it be paid to the Treasury? If there were a loss subsequently, the Treasury could pay the Member who had lost out.
I do not think that there should be personal gain; that is my view. Actually, I would go further than that, and when we considered the review, I made a recommendation. Years ago, we arrived at the wrong system when we decided that people could buy properties and reclaim the mortgage. I know that there are contrary views on the issue. Some say, Well, actually, that has been a saving to the taxpayer, but the situation would be much clearer if we identified a place to live and the rental was paid directly by the House. Then there would not be any question of people buying
furniture and acquiring gain from their property. However, that is not the system, and I do not criticise any Member for abiding by the current rules, because that is what is set out.
It is wrong to suggest that when somebody has used the current allowances to buy a property, and then has to put furniture in itshock, horror, they need some furniture!it is somehow a scandalous waste of public money. That does not make sense. One must use either one system or another. We cannot have a system and then criticise those who use it in a perfectly sensible and sober way.
Mr. Frank Field: I want to come back to the substantive point that we are discussing today. It is not a general point about the Freedom of Information Act and how it operates; the issue is how it operates specifically with regard to our expenses. Is it not true that however the Government wish to present those expenses, our constituents will be able to find out what we have spent and how we have spent it?
Mr. Heath: That moves me neatly on to what I was going to say next. My difficulty with the proposals before us is the relationship between the scheme of publication that has been suggested, which has many admirable qualities, and extant freedom of information requests and decisions of the tribunal and the High Court, which cannot just be wished away; they exist. The tragedy is that if the House had used its brain a little more three or four years ago when the issues started cropping up, and had realised then that the need to respond to the public interest meant having a proper scheme of publication and a proper audit system, I think that would have satisfied the Information Commissioner. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that it would. Then we would not have had many of the discussions that we have had in the past few days.
The tragedy is that those who did not want to disclose anything have ended up having to disclose everything because they could not see the way the wind was blowing. I hope that this is a lesson to Members of the House: when the public have a legitimate right to know something, trying to keep it secret beyond the point at which that is tenable is a very bad tactic, quite part from anything else, because the result will not be what they expect it to be.
Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend has given us wise words. Does he not agree that the conclusion of what he says is that a simple pair of messages must come from the House? The first is that we will comply with the law that applies to everybody else, and secondly, we will make available to the public all the information about the money that they give us and how it is spent?
That must be the case. That brings me to my difficulty with what the Leader of the House is saying. She has brought forward a scheme which, as I say, has many admirable qualities, but the problem is that it has been trumped by the decision of the High Court, following the tribunal decision. If an application were made, but the House decided not to comply with that application, and the case went before the Information Commissioner and was appealed to the tribunal, before going to the High Court, it may well be that a different
view would be taken on the basis of the scheme before us today. However, that is by no means certain.
The right hon. and learned Lady is saying, We shall have to decide, once the measures are in place, whether we want to continue releasing information down to receipt level, in accordance with the Court judgment. We are deciding not to do that, under the measures that we are debating today, because the scheme of publication does not allow for that. It would be perverse to have two schemes of publicationone by category, and the other down to receipt leveloperating in parallel. That is my difficulty. There is no resolution of that problem at the moment; it will depend on how the House decides to proceed. However, I think that we are getting ourselves into another mess.
I am assuming that the House authorities will now release all the redacted information that they have been working so assiduously to produce, and have spent £2 million on preparing. If they do not, I have to say that if I were a person who had an FOI application in place, I would be rushing to the High Court to try to get a mandatory injunction to ensure that the House complied. I am not sure whether the House would have its assets sequestered as a result, but that would be an interesting constitutional outcome. It is now clear that the House has to comply with the request, and I inferred from what the Leader of the House said that it was the intention to do so in the very near future.
Dr. Palmer: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, albeit slightly unenthusiastically. The amendment that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) tabled was designed to ensure that information down to receipt level was available, if necessary. We are not allowed to speculate in detail on why it was not selected, but I believe that the reason is that its provisions are covered by the intention of the House. I would certainly be disappointed if that were not the case.
Mr. Heath: There have been several expressions of disappointment about the fact that the amendment was not selected, but the issue is not in my hands. The inevitable result of the situation that will pertain by the end of the debate, provided that we go ahead with the proposals, is that we will have the scheme of delegation, but it will be superseded by the fact that we are required, under a current ruling, and until an alternative ruling is in place, to provide information down to receipt level. That is the position that the House is in, and it should be aware of that. Given that, the Leader of the House may like to consult her colleagues to see whether there are more sensible alternatives to the method of redaction being used. There are various ways of achieving the same result. The first is redaction at source
Yes, I am talking about the future. We could invite Members to go through a redacting process at source, before they hand in the receipt, to make sure that it does not contain certain things. There is also the
blank sheet proposal, in which hon. Members would transfer the information from the receipt on to a standard form, which provides the information that is properly released. It is that form that is submitted, but it is of course backed up by a receipt, which is open to audit by the auditors. Both those systems would be much cheaper than what takes place at the moment, and would have fewer implications for the staff of the House. I hope that we will consider that.
The changes in the Green Book do not necessarily go as far as I would like, but they accurately reflect the decisions of the House. A good job has been done in translating the decisions of the House into the new regulations. As I say, it is not the Green Book that I would have written, but I nevertheless think the House should support it. I have already spoken about external audit: it is the most important element of the package before us today, because until there is an audit people can trust of how we run the mini-businesses that are our offices, they will not accept our word that we have done it properly.
That brings me to the point on which I want to finish. Surely the lesson from the whole affair is that we constantly need to step outside this place and look at ourselves as others see us, rather than thinking about our concerns and the potential for embarrassment or difficulties, which is undoubtedly there. We know that the press will make mischief out of almost anything that we do. There will be people who will deeply regret the publication of their expenses claims because they will have them splashed all over the papers, and upsetting and misleading statements will be made about how spendthrift they are. That will happen. It is regrettable, and one would hope that it would not, but it will. At the same time, surely we ought to see our behaviour as the outside world sees it. One of the great sadnesses of the proposal that was on the Order Paper until yesterday was that what the outside world saw was our hiding from the public who pay our wages, and that is not right. I hope that we will not do so again.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I warmly welcome the Governments decision not to seek to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I was one of the Labour Back Benchers who went to the Whips and said that they could not vote for such a proposal. I do not frequently clash with my partys Front Benchers, but on this occasion I felt that it was an important matter. I take great pride in the fact that my party is led by people who listen and respond. It should be respected for that.
I also welcome motion 2, which is in the name of the Leader of the House. It substantially increases the detail of Members expenses that the House will publish routinely and automatically each year, without the need for freedom of information requests. However, I am concerned that the motion does not go far enough to reassure public concerns about MPs expenses. I fear that there could be a gap between the 26 categories set out in the motion and the receipts publication scheme, which has yet to be implemented.
The reputation of the House and of MPs generally is not as high as I would like, and our hesitation or reluctance to respond fully and openly to freedom of information requests about our expenses has contributed to that. Our reputation matters. If people respect Parliament, they are more likely to listen to the sometimes conflicting views expressed in the House, and to accept our decisions, especially when they do not agree with them. Equally importantly, they are more likely to take the trouble to turn out and vote in elections.
I wish to illustrate my concern by speaking in particular about motion 2(2)(b)(v), which refers to fixtures, fittings and furnishings under the heading of the personal additional accommodation expenditure allowance. I say to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that I am not suggesting that that area of expenses is more open to criticism than another. I have chosen to focus on it for two reasons. First, there is a widespread public interest in the issue, given the public comment and coverage about the John Lewis list. Secondly, fixtures, fittings and furnishings purchased under that heading are likely to be more expensive than the registered letters, mentioned by the Leader of the House, that are referred to in the congressional compendium of Members expenses.
The new Green Book sets high standards for us Members to observe. We do not have those standards as a badge of our good standing and then set them aside; we have them because we mean to apply them. Let me read one or two items from the new Green Book. It states:
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