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Claims must only be made for expenditure that it was necessary for a Member to incur to ensure that he or she could properly perform his or her parliamentary duties.
I think it perfectly reasonable for a Member of Parliament to purchase a £250 or £300 television for their second home so that they can watch Newsnight after the days business and keep up to date with the television news. However, I am not sure that it would be necessary to purchase a £1,500 widescreen television; if a Member did, some of their constituents might think that that had more to do with watching football matches at the weekend than keeping up with the news, which would be a necessary part of parliamentary business.
Dr. Tony Wright: Such examples illuminate the debate. They are one reason why even an expanded publication list does not quite do the job. We all accept that a Member has to buy a television set, refrigerator or vacuum cleaner to maintain a house down here. However, if someone bought those things every year and claimed for them, that would be an abuse. We would not know that that abuse was being carried on if we simply had aggregate figures, even on an expanded publication listwe would know only if we had detailed expenditures.
Hugh Bayley: I fully agree. I am not allowed to refer to an amendment that I put down, but my hon. Friend will be aware that I take the viewin relation to this category at least, and possibly to othersthat we would do more to reassure the public if we published routinely and without the need for freedom of information requests a more detailed breakdown of expenditure.
On my hon. Friends point, I should explain that the reason why there may be a gap between the 26 categories on the one hand, and the receipt publication scheme on
the other is that anyone who has looked at freedom of information documents provided in response to freedom of information requests will be aware that one of the ways sometimes used to confuse the information seeker is to provide reams of documents, often with black marks crossing out certain passages. That makes it extremely hard for the person who has requested the information to dig out the facts that they are after. It has happened to me; it took me literally hours to find the nugget of information that I was after in a package of a few hundred pages with some markings out.
When more than 1 million Members receipt documents with crossings out are released, it will be extremely difficult for a member of the public to sort the wheat from the chaff. It does not help the public or anybody else to release thousands and thousands of receipts from Rymans for staplers or single reams of paper. However, as my hon. Friend points out, it may make sense to release receipts for larger capital items so that somebody could check, as my hon. Friend suggested, whether a new television had been bought three years running.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: We do not want to set hares running. My Friend mentioned a £1,500 television set, but that would never have got through the old system. The Green Book says that items of furniture and so on must not be extravagant, and I do not want people out there to think that we routinely buy super-expensive televisions.
Hugh Bayley: My hon. Friend has made his point [Interruption.] No, I do not think that he is right, because a judgment about what is and is not extravagant has to be made and the public have a right to share in making that judgment. If the information is not available to them, they will not be able to look at the evidence and make judgments themselves. Unless we give them the opportunity to do so, our motives will remain in question.
John Bercow: I understand the hon. Gentlemans point about the distinction between a modestly priced item and an extravagantly priced one, but that has been satisfactorily addressed by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). I put it to the hon. Gentleman that his concern is substantially addressed on page 11 of the revised Green Book, given the proposed 10 per cent. limit as a proportion of the total allowance that can be paid in respect of the type of items that he is describing.
Hugh Bayley: Ten per cent. of the allowance is about £2,000. To say to the public that Members can spend £2,000 without having regularly and routinely to face the discipline of that expenditure being broken down in the figures that the House releases to the public would put us, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) suggested, in a position of doing slightly too little, slightly too late, and leave the public feeling that we were not doing enough to reassure them that our expenditures are made for good parliamentary reasons. That is why I would like the Leader of the House and those who speak for the other parties to reflect on what I have said in their closing remarks.
Members should avoid purchases which could be seen as extravagant or luxurious.
Hugh Bayley: I am glad to see that it is there. How will the public be reassured that the items are not extravagant or luxurious unless we release the information to them, and do so in a form that is digestible instead of as part of a compendium of 1.2 million receipts, the vast majority of which nobody would express any interest in whatever?
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) on a thoughtful speech. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), who is momentarily not in the Chamber, for making a very good maiden speech in his new capacity, setting exactly the right tone and balance for the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton mentioned the absence of oil as a commodity for which we should provide receipts. If he had to produce receipts for all the oil that he had purchased in his life, I suspect that it would involve a very substantial sum.
I welcome the production of the new version of the Green Book and congratulate its authors. The background to their task was the mixed reception for the report by the so-called MEC 3 back in July. I hope that we are now back on track to produce a new set of rules. My Committee has an interest in clear rules with robust and reliable advice from the Department of Resources, because we want to reduce the number of times that colleagues come into contact with the Houses self-disciplinary system and are then investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and subsequently by my Committee.
I want to take issue, I am afraid, with something that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said; I do not do that very often. He started his speech by saying that he could not understand how it could be unclear when a Member signed off the application for reimbursement. If he looks through the reports from the Committee of which he was briefly a member, he will see that lack of clarity in the rules and flawed advice or procedures from the House authorities have been contributory factors in complaints against Members being upheld. There is an imperative to move towards greater clarity of the rules to avoid the sorts of problems that have arisen in the past.
Let me clarify what I said. I absolutely agree that there was sometimes a lack of clarity, which may have contributed in marginal cases. My point was about somebody having deliberately and clearly flouted
the rules and written something untrue by signing their name to a certificate to say that something was incurred in support of their parliamentary duties. Like the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), I cannot understand why that is not a prosecutable offence.
Nick Harvey: Is not one of the strengths of the regulatory systems inside Parliament that the burden of proof necessary is not that which an external court would need? The hon. Member for Stafford and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome say that they do not understand why a prosecution did not take place in the case involved. The answer is perfectly simplethat the standard of proof that would have been required in the criminal court was not obtained, but the standard of proof necessary for the House to come to a very severe conclusion in that case was met.
My Committee has an interest in the broader reputational issues of the House that have been discussed during the debate, and I think that the revised audit proposals can increase public confidence in how taxpayers money is spent. My view is that the vast majority of colleagues have nothing whatever to fear from greater transparency, and it is unfortunate that more recently an impression to the contrary may have been given. As we have just heard, where colleagues do break the rules, the disciplinary consequences can be politically terminal.
I want to refer to an issue touched on by the Leader of the Housethe need to ensure that the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who is an independent Officer of the House, and the role of the Committee to which he reports are not prejudiced by the dispute resolution procedure proposed in the report. Paragraph 5 of the introduction to the report before the House makes no reference to the role of either body in determining whether expenditure is allowable, and the resolution before the House gives that task to the Committee on Members Allowances. It could therefore be possible for two Select Committees of this House to come to a different view on whether the rules have been broken. That would not be a good outcome.
Public confidence in our behaviour has been enhanced over the past 12 years by having an independent parliamentary commissioner whose reports we always publish. I pay tribute to the work of Philip Mawer and John Lyon; indeed, today we publish two of John Lyons reports. It is important that this strong independent outside element is not bypassed or undermined by the
new procedures and that the commissioner retains the discretion to determine whether to investigate and whether there has been a breach of the rules. I was grateful to the Leader of the House for the assurance that she gave on that point.
John Bercow: I agree with the thrust of the concern that my right hon. Friend is expressing. Certainly, we do not want anything to be introduced which, by accident or design, would make our procedures more opaque or decision making, if I may say so, more long-winded. Does he agree, without reference to any particular case, that where individuals are the subject of investigation, there is an important principle to bear in mindnot only that someone is innocent until proven guilty but that justice delayed is justice denied? It is incredibly important that timely decisions are reached about the fate of individual Members.
Sir George Young: I agree with that. Without referring to an individual case, one can contrast the time that the police authorities or the Crown Prosecution Service may take to reach a conclusion and the much reduced length of time that the House can take to reach a decision on an identical matter.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) for his helpful approach to the issues that I have mentioned, avoiding any conflict of conclusions on whether the rules have breached. He and my Committee had a helpful meeting on Tuesday. Between us, we can resolve two imperativeson the one hand, preserving robust existing disciplinary procedures with the commissioner, and on the other, giving authoritative guidance to colleagues where there is uncertainty.
In paragraph 6, there is a reference to practice notes. Those will be important, and I hope that the commissioner and my Committee might be included in the consultation on these, as we have some corporate knowledge of operating them. For example, the practice notes on what is a main home may need to take account of past cases where lack of clarity has caused difficulties. The new Committee on Members Allowances is given the role of keeping the rules under review, but the parliamentary commissioner has a similar obligation under Standing Order No. 150, as has my Committee under Standing Order No. 149. We have a view on the content, interpretation and propriety of the rules, but the new Committee is given a similar responsibility. Again, we will need to work closely together to avoid duplication; I am sure that with good will that can be done.
I strongly endorse the principle of Members taking personal responsibility for all expenses incurred, as set out on page 7, but I wonder whether the practice notes might give some guidance on what might be seen as extravagant or luxurious, to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for City of York. I also endorse the principle of avoiding claims that damage the reputation of Parliament
On travel expenditure, am I alone in questioning the cumbersome and time-consuming new arrangements for auditing rail travel? They are far more complex than the old warrant regime. May I suggest spot checks? Proportionality is an important concept, and misuse of rail travel between Westminster and the constituency has not been a source of problems. Filling in every
detail, every month, of every rail journey between Waterloo and Andover is not, in my view, a productive use of my time.
The document has rules on communication and stationery that take up the points in my Committees 19th report, but it would have been helpful if we had been in the loop with regard to this document. Other bodies in the House were consulted on its drafting, but neither the commissioner nor my Committee were, and I see no good reason for that.
I also welcome the recommendation that material to be published and claimed for under the communications allowancethe newslettersshould be submitted in advance. If all colleagues do that, we will avoid a lot of problems. I welcome the operational assurance proposals. It is important that that unit within the Department Of Resources should be properly resourced and staffed by people with authority and an understanding of what the life of an MP involves.
I make a small and final plea. The claim forms are available online, but we cannot complete them on a computer. We have to print them out and fill them in by handnot all colleagues have good handwritingand we then have to photocopy them if we want to keep a copy before sending them off. I would like to fill it in online, print it out, sign it and send it off, and then keep the file on the computer, but the present regime does not permit that. It is a small plea, and I am sure that it is not beyond the wit of man to enable that process to take place.
Of course, we have to be open and transparent, and accountable for the money that we spend. We were sent here originally to keep an eye on what the King spent on behalf of our constituents. That responsibility as custodians of the public purse remains and we should be doubly vigilant when the money goes through our own banks. But we were also sent here to hold the Government to account and to fight for our constituents, and our energies should not be diverted from that task by unnecessary bureaucratic procedures. I believe that the proposals before us give us the chance to strike a better balance.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I fully expected to be on the losing side today. My understanding was that the dark forces on both sides of the House had conspired [ Interruption. ] Well, my colleagues on both sides of the House had come together to persuade the Government to remove the House and Members of Parliament from the scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act in relation to detailed spending. That was the proposal that we were to be presented with today, and because I have learned over the years that the dark forces normally get their way, I imagined that it would be carried. It is only because I thought that it would be carried that I suggested to a colleague we might try to recover the situation. I know that amendments have not been taken, but the point of our proposal was to say to people who had worries about the retrospective nature of the provisions that we could at least decide prospectively that we wanted to sign up to what the court has told us to do.
That situation will not arise, however, because we have returned to where we were. I am glad about that, and I am glad that we are now all on the same side. I am
delighted to be able to support all these good and sensible proposals on increased audit and assurance and an expanded publication scheme. Unfortunately, however, we have to remember the history. It is to the great credit of the Government that they introduced the Freedom of Information Act. I remember the process well, as does the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). It is to the great credit of the Government and the House that they decided to include Parliament in the Acts provisions. Most people thought that we should be in the vanguard of these matters. We speak a lot about accountability and transparency, and therefore it was felt that we should be central to the new provisions.
The problem is that, since then, large numbers of Members of Parliament have sought to extricate themselves from the onerous provisions that they passed. I can understand why they, we, I would want to do that. The implications of the Act can be extremely irritating. Newspapers can foment mischief and misinformation about what we spend money on. Our political opponents can use the Act simply to cause all kinds of trouble and to spread misinformation. All of that is true, and I have enormous sympathy with those who make such points, but the remedy is not to say that we should find a way in which, uniquely, Members of Parliament can be removed from the provisions.
I am afraid that people do not think that our system of allowances is robust enough. We know, if we are honest with ourselvesand this has been said by several hon. Members already todaythat this was a disaster waiting to happen. We had a system of allowances that was open to manifold abuse. I do not know the extent to which it has been abused. I know that there has been a spectacular case of abuse, but there may be others that show the capacity for abuse. When the issue was tested to assess whether there should be more direct access to detailed accounts of MPs expenditure, the Information Tribunal and courts were emphatic because of our tolerance of the deficiencies of the system.
The ACA system
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