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I am sure that there will still be great public interest in the issue, but I suspect that some of the more lurid and scandalous stories will be abated and that we will get rid of the perception that Members of Parliament are trying to hide something, which would be a very good thing indeed. My hon. Friend makes a good point about auditing giving Members a
degree of protection. I believe that the opinion of most Members throughout has been that we want to ensure that we are doing things properly, but there has often been uncertainty and a lack of clarity about exactly what the right procedures are. It has been felt that it is somehow possible for Members to get into hot water even having stuck to the rules. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase pointed out, a full transparency system has the advantage of enabling us to know that everything will be in the public domain, and a matter of judgment for our constituents.
What happens next? I had hoped to intervene on the Leader of the House to follow up our exchange last October, when I asked when our expenses would be published. Initially, they were to be published last autumn. The Leader of the House explained today in colourful detail some of the difficulties encountered in the preparation of the material for publication and some of the important security considerations involved. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will enlighten us further when he winds up the debate. Now that we are aware of the scale of the task, how many people are working on it and how much more there is to be done, may we have a more accurate estimate of the expected date of publication, so that the public can be reassured that the process will not drag on indefinitely?
My final point relates to freedom of information legislation and to whom it applies. The one issue about which I still feel some concern is whether there is any prospect of further attempts in the House to exempt Members of Parliament from freedom of information legislation. I asked the Leader of the House that question earlier today, during business questions. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) have also asked for assurances in that regard, but as yet none has been entirely forthcoming.
Earlier this week, media reports suggested that there had been some tentative agreement between the Labour and Conservative parties on exemption from freedom of information legislation, but that the relevant order had been withdrawn when the agreement collapsed. I hope that lessons will be learned from the events of this week, and that there will be no moves to create another such agreement and to return the proposal to the House.
Mr. Heath: I do not know whether my hon. Friend noticed that during the proceedings before the order was withdrawn it was submitted to another place, where it was examined by the Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments. The Committee reached what I gather is, in the language of the other place, the damning conclusion
that it may imperfectly achieve its policy objectives.
I am told that that is the strongest criticism that the Committee makes against a statutory instrument, and some difficulty may be encountered in getting it through the other place even if some unpleasant collusion happens in this House.
Jo Swinson: We were saved by the other place from the Bill presented by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean). I hope that the other place will not be required to save us again, but if it is, what my hon. Friend has said may provide us with some reassurance.
It is in all our interests to deal with this issue, to put it behind us, and to get on with restoring public trust. I believe that the best way in which the House can do that is to go down the route of full transparency. I hope that notwithstanding the new categories that are being introduced, once the first tranche of freedom of information expenses have been published, the House will recognise that continuing that practice is the wise thing to do.
Like some other Members who have spoken, I am one of those who told the Whips that they were not prepared to support the Freedom of Information Act exemption, and it may be considered relevant that I would expect the same to happen if the issue arose again. The relationship between the House of Commons and the public is currently like a marriage that has almost broken down. One third of the public do not vote. Of those who do vote, a large number do so on the basis of choosing what they see as the lesser evil. They believewe are clear that this belief is partly generated by mischievous press seeking to increase readershipthat we have let them down on a series of occasions and that a significant number of Members are evading the spirit of the system. That may well not be the case, but the effect is that, like the partners in a marriage in trouble, we have to go further than would normally be necessary to reassure the other partyin this case, the general publicthat their suspicions are no longer justified, if they were ever justified. As a result, a system of accounting for expenses that in an organisation where no particular concerns had arisen would be perfectly adequate is no longer adequate. In order to reassure the public, we cannot simply do the minimum that the courts appear to require. We have ostentatiously to go beyond what the courts require, to show that we are open beyond any question of doubt.
That point is of relevance to the discussion of what happens to receipts in future. It would be a pity if we went away today having resolved the question of all the pending receipts, but still unsure of what we were going to do about receipts submitted tomorrow morning. It would be helpful if the Deputy Leader of the House could reassure us that for the foreseeable future the intention of the House authorities is that if a valid Freedom of Information Act request is made for details of a Members expenditure, they will be provided, with all the protection for privacy and security we assume always applies, even for quite normal freedom of information applications.
The problem is not money; it is trust. Very few of my constituents argue that we should not have the legitimate expensesfor second homes, and moderate costs for equipment and staffthat we receive. When I take those who are sceptical through the information point by point, almost every one of them says, Well, yes, all right, that does seem reasonable. My problem is that people get around it. We do not, therefore, have to adopt a fanatical position and say that every tea bag used is a shameful misuse of public money. What we need to do is go to the point where no reasonable doubt remains, so that if people want to know what we spent money on that came from their pockets, they can find out.
There are two possible ways to do that. One is that on a regular basis we scan and publish every receipt on the internet. That seems to me to be a slightly exaggerated response. The alternative is that we provide the information to constituents and journalists on request, so that if a Member regularly has an unusually large furniture and fittings bill, a constituentI think only the Members own constituents should be able to do thisor journalists can inquire further and ask for a list of what was purchased. I anticipate that the average journalist, who also has limited time available, would not need to interrogate all 650 Members individual expenses constantly, but would do the work when a query arose.
I take the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that we might be able to do things more efficiently if the information were simply transferred to a blank sheet of paper, so that we knew that the furniture expenditure of the hon. Member for X included £175 on this and £43 on that, without having to scan and reproduce the original receipt. The Committee could reasonably examine that issue to work out the most efficient way of providing the information and short-circuiting much of the elaborate redacting process that has been necessary up to now.
The conclusion that we are reaching today is pretty healthy, in the sense that we have cross-party agreement, although there are small differences of emphasis, that what we need to do is provide detailed summaries, in the 26 categories, of our spending, and further detail as required. When we talk to the wider public about this, we need to accept a certain humility. There has been a sense of self-congratulation in parts of todays debate; people think that we have got this right and everything is perfect. I have contributed to that with my own comments, but we should qualify it by being aware that people are worried and sceptical and that what we are doing is providing necessary reassurance to ensure that they will no longer be worried and sceptical.
John Bercow: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to display considerable humility in this matter, because our rectitude is forced and belated. Does he agreethis is pursuant to what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and others have saidthat we should robustly defend, for example, the size of the staffing expenditure that some hon. Members have to incur, which is larger than that of others? Their expenditure is greater for one compelling reason: that such Members haveI, like others, must be honest about thisa very much larger case load and it has to be serviced. They should not be in any way embarrassed or defensive about the fact that their allowance claim is that much largerit is in the public interest and in their constituents interest.
That is entirely right. As has been said, it might well be that this would be clearer for the public if staff were directly employed and if the money did not appear to go through our accountswe know that in reality it does not. I would not be opposed to Members who can show that they have an exceptionally large case load making a case for additional staff. This is something for another day, but one can debate whether we should be involved in all the individual issues in which we are
involved or whether some kind of local ombudsman might be able to take over some of these roles. As long as people see us as the court of appeal when they get stuck in any part of the administration, we have to be able to respond to that. We have to be honest in defending to people the fact that the expenditure is necessary, otherwise they will not get the help.
John Mann: I thank my hon. Friend for making this excellent contribution, but he may be in danger of drifting slightly away from that excellence. His constituents, like all our constituents, know how much he spends on staff; they have been able to see that information and make a judgment on it for a number of years. Is he inundated with letters, e-mails and phone calls every year about how much he spends on staff, or, like me, does he only receive commendations from people for work done and the occasional criticism when something has not been done quickly enough?
Dr. Palmer: I think the balance of feedback that most of us receive is positive, but every time our annual expenses are declared, the same point arises and we hear people say, My God, you have £200,000 coming into your pocket.
Dr. Palmer: My hon. Friend is fortunate if no one says that to him. I have had it said to me, and when I have explained, people have been satisfied, but I suspect that there are some people who have not written to me and are sitting out there grumbling.
Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. Would he like it to be on the record that some hon. Members have high staffing costs because, for example, a key member of their staff who has gone away to have a child must be paid for not working for a year, while someone else must be paid to do the job in their place? The Members staffing allowance may be £20,000, £30,000 or £35,000 higher for that year.
Dr. Palmer: That is a good point. We have the temporary secretarial allowance to pay for a substitute for people who are ill or absent for other legitimate reasons. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, we must be prepared robustly to defend the necessity of the allowances so that we can do our job.
I take the point that was made earlier that we should come to one anothers support if there is unreasonable nit-picking for partisan purposes. That is difficult during electioneering, but we could at least refrain from adding fuel to the flames when people are being unreasonably criticised.
Hugh Bayley: Is there not a danger of over-egging the pudding? A member of my staff was on maternity leave, and I was in precisely the position that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) described. In one year, a large five-figure sum was marked down as other expenditure and, understandably, the media wanted to know what it was. When I explained, no comment was made.
That is right. We could have a profitable discussion with some of the voluntary websites that
monitor us and generally do a good jobfor example, TheyWorkForYouabout how information is presented so that it is as transparent as they and we wish it to be, and so that cases such as that described by the hon. Gentleman do not cause unnecessary public scepticism.
Despite kicking and screaming along the way, the House has arrived in the right place, and we have a system of allowances that we can defend collectively and with which we are prepared to be as transparent as anyone could reasonably expect. I support the motions, and I congratulate my colleagues on bringing them forward.
I left the Chamber earlier to take a call from an excellent Canvey Island councillor, Peter May, who told me that, having worked together, we have today secured an offer of a decent home for a very vulnerable constituent. I could not have helped Councillor May to obtain such a result without the staffing, office and expenses made available to me as a Member of Parliament to do my job of helping my constituents and holding the Government to account.
It is obvious that the harder an MP works, the more he consults, communicates, holds surgeries and helps his constituents, and the more he travels between Westminster and his constituencyhon. Members whose constituencies are close to Westminster have more opportunity to travel daily to meetings in schools and in the eveningsthe greater his or her costs will be. There is not necessarily any great credit in being a low-cost Member of Parliamentquite the opposite. In that respect, some of the newspapers have misrepresented the position of MPs and their expenses, and I hope that that will end. However, I will not hold my breath.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, made an excellent speech. In fact, he showed a masterly touch despite having been in post for such a short time. He also displayed a lightness of touch, and I enjoyed what he said and how he said it. I congratulate him.
The hon. Gentleman told the House that in political life, one can do the decent thing, only for advantage to be taken of one. He is so right. I was a victim of that. When I resigned from the Tory party, it made baseless and rather nasty comments about my employment of my staff. I put that right, and the party paid heavily in court for that mischief. Category (d) in motion 2 refers to staffing expenditure. I voluntarily published details of my staffing expenditure before the arguments kicked off about the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) in February or March last year. I gave full details of my staff, who they were and what my relationship with them was, including my employment of my ex-wife, whom I had divorced five years earlier. I published their job specifications and their salary bands in detail, because I thought that the public had the right to know what use I was making of public money, but that information was misrepresented and used against
me in an offensive and unfair manner. I was deeply angry about that, until of course the judgment, which left me in pocket on the matter.
I demanded that the House authorities perform a full audit of my staffing arrangements, including the three staff who had had accusations made against them. The House authorities resisted that demand at first, but in the end they agreed. The audit took about six months, and it was a backward-looking audit, unlike the instructions that the Conservative party gave its MPsthat they should clean up their act and publish information looking forward. That was deceitful, and they were pretending to be open and transparent when they were not. The audit examined a three-month period and found that the member of staff who was the principal victim of the accusations had, working from her home office, sent an average of 107 emails every working day, in addition to her responsibilities for the diary, snail mail, the telephone and other tasks.
your arrangements for the staff mentioned above
comply with the primary requirements of the Green Book set out on the first page of this letter.
The Personnel Advice Service has also reported to me that all three of your staff appear committed, hard-working and possessing at this time the necessary skills and competences for the work undertaken.
It is my understanding that no other Member has had such a backward audit of their staff. I am delighted that I have had such an audit, although it would not have been necessary but for the mischief caused by others, who brought the House into disrepute as a result.
The communications expenditure is covered under paragraph (2)(c) of motion 2. Questions come in from my constituency every week from vexatious people, as they do for other hon. Members, so I want to put it on record that although I did not need to have my publications checked, I have always had each one checked and approved before publishing them. I am happy about that, and I think that that system is essential to ensure that the public can have confidence that Members are not using the communications allowance improperly. I do not think that Members are.
Paragraph (2)(a)(ii) of motion 2 covers office equipment and supplies. It would be helpful in the future to consider including petty cash in that category as an individual item. A Member can take up to £240 in petty cash during a year and that will need to be scrutinised.
In fact, petty cash should be audited. Records of every penny going in and out should be kept in a petty cash book, as they are in my office, and it should be audited at least once in a Parliament. The public deserve to see what petty cash is going through Members offices, too.
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