is so deeply flawed, the shortfall in accountability so substantial, and the necessity of full disclosure so convincingly established, that only the most pressing privacy needs should in our view be permitted to prevail.
We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities. The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers...they bear on public confidence in the operation of our democratic system at its very pinnacle, the House of Commons itself. The nature of the legitimate public interest engaged by these applications is obvious.
Let us be clear: the effect of the withdrawal of the proposal overnight is that we are now back in the
situation that the court judgment brought about. We are going to have an expanded publication scheme, and I welcome that. It is a good thing, but we are now also subject to the decision under FOI law that the details of our expenditure should be published. I am not sure whether this is an example of the dark forces still being dark, but there is clearly still a feeling among some hon. Members that if we can only agree to an expanded category of items to be published, we will somehow be able to extricate ourselves at the eleventh hour from the decisions that have made the publication of our expenditure inevitable. I say to those dark forces that that is not the case.
Those who have followed the Freedom of Information Act will know that the obligation to produce publication schemes is a quite separate arm of the Act from the testing of disclosure provisions in the public interest. There should be a good publication scheme, approved by the Information Commissioner, and I hope that ours will now be better. However, that will do nothing to satisfy the public interest test that is applied to disclosure. That test has been applied by both the tribunal and the court, and that is the situation in which we must live.
It was not entirely clear from the Leader of the Houses answers where she believes that now leaves us. She must be honest and direct with the House and admit that it leaves us in the position that I have just described. It would be wholly unsatisfactory to have a hit-and-miss, ad hoc disclosure system. As hon. Members have said, we must all be systematically covered in the same way, so that information is released on a standard, properly redacted basis. That is what we have been told to do, and there is no escape from it and no eleventh-hour reprieve. The reprieve that Members thought would work for them has collapsed, and there is no other. It is now time to say that this is the world in which we live.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: I do not have any problem with the publication of receipts, but what about the proportionality that my friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) mentioned, as in the case of thousands and thousands of receipts from Rymans? Does my Friend want us routinely to submit receipts from the Members restaurant or the canteen? Would he insist on every single receipt being handed into the authorities, regardless of the value of the service purchased?
Dr. Wright: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that any relevant receipt should be produced. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House described the elaborate, and I thought necessary, process that had been gone through to ensure that only relevant information will be published. That is what this whole exercise has been about.
On proportionality, I suspect that like me, when he was first elected my hon. Friend was told by the Fees Office that he could not claim for newspapers. I remember expressing some surprise, because we do not just need the daily newspaper that anyone would buy. A tool of our trade, particularly on Sundays, is often the whole set of papers, but we could not claim for it. I recently discovered that that rule had been
abrogated or allowed to drift, and that I had lost years of expenses. I wanted clarification in writing, and since then I have been keeping receipts for all my damn newspapers. I have not submitted them yet, but do we really want to have to get receipts for so many papers on a certain day?
It so happens that I cannot get newspapers delivered to my house, so I cannot get a weekly receipt. I just buy them when I need to. I suppose that this is a small point, although I am not sure whether it is over a period of years, but what is the answer to the problem of newspapers? [Interruption.] Well, my hon. Friend
Dr. Wright: I apologise to my hon. Friend; I have not yet given enough thought to the newspaper question, but I shall now give it substantial thought. What I do know is the rubric that is to be contained in the instructions to us, which is simple and helpful: that we should not claim for anything about which we are not willing to be subjected to public scrutiny. It is a straightforward principle. If we claim for the right things, we have the answers to any queries that arisewhether about newspapers or anything else. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for City of York, although the extended publication scheme is welcome, I am worried that, if we continue to deal in aggregate figures, one could not discover a range of abuses that might exist. Given all that has happened, there is no alternative but to ensure that we put in place and believe in a system that will hound out any possible abuse, and discipline Members to ensure that it works.
There is an old adage that sunshine is the best disinfectant. We have not had sunshine and we have therefore needed disinfectant. People who believe that a little bit of sunshine now means that we can keep out much other scrutiny are wholly misguided. We live in a regime under which people can see in detail on what we spend money. There is no rowing back from that. I wish that my right hon. and learned Friend had simply said on behalf of the Government that that is the world in which we live and that we must make the best of it.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I welcome the debate today and the generally constructive tone. I welcome the helpful proposals to improve accountability for our expenses and I especially welcome the withdrawal of the proposal to exempt Members of Parliament from freedom of information legislation.
I was very taken with the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), especially his call for us to see ourselves as others see us. He may not know that that is a quote from a poem by Robert Burns, and it is all the more appropriate given that we will celebrate Burns night on Sunday. We should hold on to that pearl of wisdom throughout the debate.
We must admit that we have a problem with public perception. Survey after survey shows that members of the public tend to have a positive view of their Member of Parliament, but that their view of us collectively, as a breed of politicians, is much more negative. That is
where many of the problems lie. The subject of Members expenses has fuelled the negative perception. As has been said, it has been a vexed issue for many years.
It does not help that our expenses system is so poorly understood, and that the media have been less than helpful in sensationalising expenses. Indeed, the word expenses is misleading because in most jobscertainly in jobs that I had before being electedsome of the items for which we claim would not necessarily count as expenses. For example, large headline figures of more than £100,000 are produced, but the vast majority of that money is spent on the salaries of our incredibly hard-working staff, who deal with constituents concerns day in, day out. Constituents greatly appreciate that help and continually give excellent feedback about our staff. Those salaries make up most of our expenses, but what newspaper editor or managing director would include in their expenses the salaries of everybody who worked in their organisation?
John Bercow: The hon. Lady makes a powerful and important point. Does she agree that it is incumbent on us to explain what we, as Members, and the public are getting in return for those staffing budgets? To put it simply, if the sums available were much lower, the delays to constituents would be that much greater. Some of the vexatious complainants about the size of the allowances are precisely the same people who would grumble about the tardiness of our responses.
Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman is right. The service that our staff provide enables us to deal with, for example, the more than 3,000 constituency cases that the Leader of the House mentioned. That figure is not unusual for most Members. From speaking to Members who have been here much longer than me, I know that the volume of correspondence has increased hugely in recent years. Although e-mail is an excellent way in which people can communicate with their Members of Parliament, making communication easier means that the volume of correspondence increases and more support is required to handle the inquiries.
Many of our constituents mistakenly believe that the money comes directly to us and is paid into bank accounts, from which we pay out. We know that money comes directly to us for certain allowances, for example, the allowance for rent, only when we have submitted the claim and the receipt to show that we have already paid. As a new Member, with student debts, I suddenly had to pay deposits and found that cash flow was a bit of a problem in the first two weeks, so that is another misconception.
References to second homes can conjure up an image of a gravy train and of holiday homes, but the reality is that we get out of this place at 10 oclock or 10.30 on Monday and Tuesday evenings and just about manage to get back to somewhere in London to put our head down and try to get a decent nights sleep before we come back here early the next morning. It is not exactly a glamorous lifestyle.
I absolutely love doing the job of Member of Parliament; it is a great privilege for me to represent the people of East Dunbartonshire. However, all of us in the House know that the job is far from easy. Spending half the week away from loved ones places strains on family life, and the huge amount of travelling takes its toll, resulting
in tiredness and exhaustion. I want to make it very clear that, without the support of my excellent staff, without being able to travel regularly between my constituency in Scotland and Westminster, without having somewhere to stay when I am down here in London, and without the resources to pay for my office telephone bills, my stationery and my IT equipment, I would simply be unable to do the job of representing my constituents properly. That case is not often made, but it needs to be made.
I am in favour of transparency because I believe that, when people are presented with the mundane details of our toner cartridges and our telephone bills, the heat will go out of the issue. In the main, our constituents accept that we need to do our job, and that we need the resources to do it.
Jo Swinson: I shall come to the issue of the Scottish Parliament in a moment. By and large, that has been the experience there, because, once everything is in the public domain, journalists get a bit bored with trying to write these stories.
Trying to hide the justifiable expenses that we claim in the process of doing our job is damaging the reputation of politics. It is also absolutely pointless. The way in which we are going is clear to see, and to try to hide the information is counterproductive. It fuels the publics negative perception of politicians and of the House.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): While the hon. Lady has been talking, I have been thinking about this. The seedier end of the press seems to be getting at those of us who are possibly the most diligent, because we use all of our staffing allowance to employ people. As the hon. Lady said, we do not see that money at all. The press will get on to us about that because it does not understand that that money does not pass through our pockets but goes directly to our staff. Also, those of us who go to our constituencies every weekI do, and I think that most of us dohave higher travel costs. If we go by train, our travel costs will perhaps be higher than if we went by car, although we could make a greater profit out of using a car. None of these things is taken into account. Last year, I was told by my local paper that I was the highest-spending MP in Bradford, because my train fares came to more than those of the other four MPs. There were all sorts of reasons for that, and they were only £20 more. So, this year, I have started to use my senior citizens rail pass to reduce the amount of money that I am using
Jo Swinson: It was a very good point. At the other end of the spectrum, when I was first elected to the House, I was still able to use my young persons rail card, so my travel bills went up slightly after my first year as a Member of Parliament.
The hon. Lady has made a good point, and transparency should be our friend. We might not be able to guarantee
treatment that is always favourable or entirely fair from the media; I cannot promise that we would get such treatment. However, I believe that our constituents will, by and large, treat us fairly. They, at least, will be in a position to assess the situation, if they can see the travel claims and other expenses of the hon. Lady or any other Member. They know how hard their individual MP works, and they will be able to make their own judgment. This is about ensuring that people have the power to make those judgments. They know, from dealing with our staff, that there is always a well-staffed officeand they might be aware that one MP has higher staff costs than anotherand they will be able to see the benefits of that. It will be up to our constituents to judge whether we, as MPs, are spending the taxpayers money well. Transparency, then, is a good principle for us to adopt.
We heard earlier about the 26 categories that will now apply and debated whether every receipt should be published, which will also happen under freedom of information legislation. I accept the argument that perhaps if we had had a better publication regime before, we might not have reached the stage of the Information Commissioners ruling that every receipt has to be published. But we are where we are, and we are now going to publish detailed receipts1.2 million of them, as we have heardso I would argue that it makes no sense to stop there. Once we have done this, we should have a system that enables us to do it on a regular basis, so that it is entirely transparent. We know that there will be freedom of information requests anyway, so rather than wait for them to come in, I believe that the House should be proactive and take that step.
In effect, what is the big deal? Yes, costs are attached, and the Leader of the House gave us a figure of £2 million earlier, but I am willing to bet that the public out therewho may or may not be listening to or watching this debatewould think that it was a price well worth paying for transparency in Parliament and for restoring some trust in our democracy.
We have had much discussion, some of it rather amusing, about whether what is proposed will be difficult to achieve, with all the redacting and so forth that will be required, but it is really not that complicated. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have both managed to follow such an arrangement for some time. Perhaps our officials could speak to their officials to work out the best, most civilised and reasonable way of proceeding. I quite like the example mentioned earlier of having a standard receipt form into which all the details could be put, perhaps online to save some of our staffs work and departmental resources, ensuring that receipts are tendered for the auditors to look at. There are lots of ways doing that and a streamlined system could be put in place while ensuring that all the information is in the public domain.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): On the question of the cost and the 1.2 million figure for receipts, was the hon. Lady as surprised as I was that the costs went so high? Does it not seem that many costs are included in the calculation? If one were merely scanning in pieces of paper, the recurrent cost would, in fact, be extremely low.
Jo Swinson: Another point to be borne in mind is that presumably we are going back to 2004, which will include several years worth of expenses. If these had been annual costs, one would not have expected them to be so high. As I say, I believe that the House will be able to take steps to collect the information in a more sensible way before publishing it, so that the process is made easier.
I very much agreed with the sentiments of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on the requirements for receipts. I would be in favour of having a zero limit on the requirement for receipts, as was initially recommended by the Members Estimate Committee. When I worked in business, that was standard practice. I understand that it might be a bit fiddly having to submit full receipts, but I think that the public would welcome it. If we are going to take a step towards transparency, we should go the whole way: we would have nothing to hide and the public would be aware of that fact. As we get it all into the open, it will just become routine.
I was asked earlier about the experience of the Scottish Parliament. Yes, if we proceed with the new arrangement, I am sure that journalists will still pick up on little stories. Let us think of some examples of what was reported in the Scottish press. One story was about an MSP who claimed for a pint of milk and a packet of tea bags for the office, but to be honest, I do not know what the story is in that. When I worked in an office, whoever nipped out to buy a new packet of tea bags or pot of coffee reclaimed the money from the petty cash when they returned and stuck the receipt in the petty cash tin. That is not a story. That is not scandalous. Frankly, if that is the worst that the newspapers can come up with, people will soon get bored; the press will not sell many papers by saying that tea and coffee are provided in MPs offices.
The audit principle in the motions before us is also very good. I am delighted to see that the internal auditing will be more robust. More important, however, is the principle that external auditing has to be accepted. That is absolutely essential. Having each MP externally audited at least once in a Parliament is the right way forward.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My hon. Friend has come to what I think is the most important point: the auditing, particularly the external auditing, of Members claims, which provides protection for Members as much as for the public and the public purse. Members should look forward to it rather than be afraid of it. I say in passing that my hon. Friend might be a bit optimistic in thinking that full publication will somehow defuse the public interest in all this. The public interest will still be there, because some members of the public simply delight in these matters. I am nevertheless very much in favour of going ahead with the freedom of information proposals.