household costs...utilities, telecommunications, maintenance and repairs.
Service charges in London can be very high. They can amount to £2,000 or £3,000or even £5,000 or £6,000and that sum could be a blanket over any revealing information that the public may want to see to compare what Members are spending on utility bills. Separating out service charges would be a good idea, and I am grateful that the Leader of the House accepted that amendment in principle and thought it was a sound measure. I encourage her to bring it forward at some time in the future.
Let me move on to motion 5, which will set up a new Committee. The work involved is already being done in the House. I am sure that the new Committee will do it more formally but, essentially, as we heard earlier, the work proposed is the same as that which is being done. We have not been given a global sum for what the new Committee might cost. I think it might cost several tens of thousandsif not a few hundreds of thousandsof pounds each year. The House deserves to know what the Committee might cost.
In this economic climate, as everyone is tightening their belts and wondering whether they will have a job or a salary next year, why should we be giving one of our colleagueseven though I am sure that that colleague will be a good chapan extra £14,000 Committee Chairmans salary for doing what is already being done free of charge? If the Deputy Leader of the House wants to intervene, I shall give way to him.
Bob Spink: I am grateful for that clarification. Is the Deputy Leader of the House confirming that that Committee Chairman will not receive a Select Committee Chairmans salary? I would be prepared to give way if he wished to clarify that point.
Bob Spink: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not wish to go against the mood of the House or to be pernickety. That is not the point, but I think we must be careful about how the action that we take looks to the public. That is what this is all about.
I thank you for your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker. We should not fear transparency. We should welcome public scrutiny, but we should also expect the press to act responsibly. As one Labour Member said earlierI forget who it waswe should make sure that we do not transgress by irresponsibly seeking to score political points against other hon. Members in a way that is unfair and brings this House into disrepute.
Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I think that members of the public who watch this debate should be satisfied with the fervour for openness expressed by every hon. Member who has spoken. The one thing about which we, as parliamentarians, have to be very careful is not to assume bad faith on the part of colleagues. It is very easy to do that for political purposes, and it may be that we can avoid that by ensuring greater openness in these matters than ever before.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) may have suggested that withdrawing the statutory instrument due to be debated today was somehow a sign of bad faith on the part of members of the Government Front Bench, but I think they have simply taken a pragmatic view. The statutory instrument was itself pragmatic, in the sense that it was designed to see whether some of the tensions could be resolved without giving way to those who wish to refuse disclosure.
As we heard earlier, exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act may yet be granted in respect of details that should be avoided, such as personal addresses. However, I think it was right to withdraw the statutory instrument, for the simple reason that it sent the wrong message.
The message that has been sent out today by hon. Members of all parties is that we want to offer the greatest possible openness to our constituents. The issue is how we can do that in the most pragmatic way, without hiding anything. I must say that I see a problem in putting every receipt on the internet, but I think that the price is one that we must be willing to pay.
As has been noted, such an approach will cost something like £3 million. Any savings will be minimal but I guess that that £3 million, if it satisfies the public that we are doing the right things, is something that we will have to accept. Moreover, as other colleagues have observed, it may not be a cost that is repeated as time goes by.
Like other hon. Members, I think we should be proud of what we do for the money that we get for supporting our constituents. Last year, as always and in common with another colleague, I made all my expenses clear to my constituents. I pointed out something that people often do not know, which is that it costs about £250,000 a year to keep an MP. That sum is made up of salary, pension contributions, the office costs allowance and so on, and it works out that keeping their MP costs everyone who lives in my constituency £2.50 a year, or 5p a week. Some people may say that I am not worth 5p, but no one in my constituency asked for their money back when they were offered it. I very much hope that that is indicative across the piece, and that most constituents regard their MPs as good value.
However, is it possible to satisfy requirements for openness without incurring even more cost to the public? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), who said that we should ask our constituents what they want to know about their MPs expenditure. One of my constituents took me up on my offer to let him look at my books. He went through all the receipts for 2005-06 and 2004-05, after which he said that he was wholly satisfied and did not want to do any more. However, I said, No, youve come here to see the last five years so youre going to sit there and do it. [ Interruption. ] Well, I let him off at 2001-02. But the
truth is that if we as local parliamentarians are willing to open our books locallywe should be prepared to do sothe wider concerns might be not just appeased but somehow reduced.
My guess is that, whatever we do, the media have it in for us. There is no way we can wholly satisfy the media. Why? Because we are well paid; it is not a bad job; and we get relatively good support although we work extremely hard for it. The truth is that we earn above the average and we have a better standard of living than manyindeed, mostof our constituents. Whether we earn less here than we did in other jobs is irrelevant. The fact is that people think that we are well looked after and that our expenses are very generous, and all the rest of it. So I do not think that we can win the argument that we are somehow hard done by, but does it matter?
The truth is that our task is to do the best that we can for our constituents. We need our allowances to do that. If it costs something to open our books, although that may be a waste of money in the sense that it saves nothing, and if it satisfies the public that we really are the hon. Members that we call one another, it would be worth while, and motions before us today go in that direction.
Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): I want to ask two very short questions of the Minister. Before doing so, may I apologise to the House for unavoidably not being present during the first part of the debate?
My first question concerns an appeal by a Member under the Green Book rules when he finds himself in disagreement with the finance officers. I very much approve of the Green Bookin fact, I am bound to do so, because I helped to draft some of itwhich says:
If the issue is not resolved, the Member may ask the Finance and Services Committee to rule.
The Finance and Services Committee does not meet very often at the moment. I do not think that its Chairman particularly wants the onerous task that would be involved. Certainly, the 1922 committee and I believe very much that a Committee on Members Allowances would be the right Committee to undertake that appeals task. I think that I am right in saying that the Government agree with that but have not so far found it possible to amend the Green Book to accommodate that view. I think that things were done in a bit of a hurry; those words were included to fill the gap. I hope that the Minister might be able to say something about that in his reply. I realise that he may be in some difficulty at the moment, because he may not have a settled policy on the mechanism, but would he tell us whether the Government intend to do that and, if so, how it is to be done and whenor at least let us know at a later date? I just wanted to flag up that issue.
My second question is perhaps even more difficult for the Minister. If someone does an FOI trawl as a result of the motions today, what advice is the Minister getting on the reaction of the courts, given that we will accept the motions and that we will have the Green Book, an audit system and much greater transparency? Is he getting any advice? Does he have any view, or even any hopes, on whether the courts would take a different view in the future than in the past, given the greater
transparency and strictures that will be introduced by the motions? I should be grateful for answers to both those questions.
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this afternoons debateall those who have made interventions, as well as all those Back Benchers who have made speeches? It is not usual when making a winding-up speech to compliment those who have opened the debate, but with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make an exception to that because both opening speeches were excellent. I give credit to the Leader of the House not only for setting the right tone for the debate, but for the enormously generous time that she gave to all those hon. Members who wished to intervene on her speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) on his maiden speech in his new role as shadow Leader of the House. He, too, contributed enormously to making sure that the right tone was set.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who is not in the Chamber, spoke of possible dark forces disrupting the debate, but I am pleased to say that as a result of the tone set by the two opening speeches, if there were any dark forces, they certainly did not see any light. We as an institution are all the better for it, as the public watch us while we debate this important issue.
This is a crucial debate that strikes at the very heart of trust and confidence in Members of Parliament. It has generated a fair amount of heat, both inside and outside Parliament. I hope that at the end of it, there will be a fair amount of lightlight that leaves no doubt that we understand the publics deep distrust about the way in which we use taxpayers money, light that makes it absolutely clear that we want greater transparency regarding our costs and allowances, and light that will convey the important message that the motions before us go some way to trying to restore the public confidence that the House so desperately needs, and the confidence that its servants need.
Let us be clear about one thing, though. Of course it is right that we should claim expenses to carry out our duties as Members of Parliament, and it is important that we should have a staffing allowancea point referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). We should also be allowed to claim expenses for living away from home, travel and the like. We cannot have a system in which only the wealthy can afford to become Members of Parliament. That would be the consequence if we were not allowed to claim expenses and allowances.
It is important that we claim those expenses and allowances in a way that is transparent and seen to be transparent. Moreover, the processes that we use must be properly regulated, and must be seen to be properly regulated. That point was referred to by the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer). The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made suggestions about the mechanics of disclosure, and I hope that those responsible for implementing the process will take note of what he said.
We support the proposals to break down Members expenditure into more categories, providing greater detail for the public and clarity on what Members spend their allowances on. Moreover, we support the new version of the Green Book; the guiding principles, derived from the code of conduct for Members of Parliament, underpin the spirit of the expenses and allowances regime. The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) referred to one of those principles when he spoke of the necessary expenditure principle.
It is right that the book should be brought more up to datefor example, by ensuring proper reference to civil partners alongside the usual reference to spouses. The public will also be pleased to see the proposals for better auditing and assurance. The two-pronged approach being takenon the one hand by the National Audit Office, and on the other through internal audit, carried out by the Houses auditors in conjunction with a team from PricewaterhouseCoopersshould lead to greater thoroughness in policing how we spend taxpayers money.
I accept that some Members have concerns about the financial proportionality of the audit proposals, expressing the view that the cost of carrying out such a detailed scrutiny of expenses is far in excess of possible risks of abuse. It is fair to say that increasing the rigour of the audit regime will mean an increase in costs, but we must not consider that in isolation. We must also consider the need to restore the reputation of the Housea point touched on by the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster). With that in mind, I believe that there is proportionality and proper balance as regards costs and the end results.
The motion proposes that the Advisory Panel on Members Allowances, which meets in private monthly and advises the Speaker and the Members Estimate Committee, be replaced by a new Select Committee on Members Allowances. That Select Committee, with all the powers that it would have, would certainly help demonstrate to the public the importance that we place on the subjectagain, it is a move in the right direction.
On the other measures put before us, I should say that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made a valid point about the possibility of work duplication. If the proposals are passed today, and I hope and expect that they will be, that will need to be looked into. It is always a pleasure to hear my right hon. Friends contributions; his quality and experience only add to the general quality of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) raised two questions, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House takes those on board; I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
It cannot be right that we expect public bodies, individuals and other organisations to have levels of transparency and openness higher than our own. It cannot be right for there to be one set of rules for the public and another for us, or for us not to make the necessary changes to bring our own standards of audit and transparency into line with 21st-century best practice.
Dr. Julian Lewis:
I entirely endorse the point that my hon. Friend has just made, but will he take this opportunity to put one thing, which has involved the public being
misled by the press, on the record? Not everybody in a senior position paid from the public purse has a publication regime that extends down to individual receipts. That has not been made sufficiently clear. The question is whether we have a sufficiently rigorous auditing process, and that is what we are achieving today.
Mr. Vara: I agree with my hon. Friend, and the issue will certainly become clearer as the procedures are put in place. I should also say that the vast majority of Members claim their expenses properly and legitimately; we are where we are because of a tiny minority. It is important for the public to recognise that we have a duty to our constituents and the country, and that we claim money to allow us to do our duties properly.
We must subject ourselves to the same sort of regime that we expect to apply to others. Our procedures must be easy to understand and unambiguous; they must inspire confidence rather than derision from the public. The importance of this debate must not be underestimated by anyone here today. Nor should we underestimate the strength of feeling that there will be among the public and media if we do not accept the motions today. Accepting them will be a positive step in trying to restore the Houses reputation. I urge all Members to support them.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) complimented the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House of Commons, the two main Front-Bench spokesmen, and I would like to compliment him in turn on his important speech. He raised one issue around which the whole House can uniteif there were no means of meeting our legitimate expenditure from the public purse, only the wealthy could afford to be Members of Parliament. That would be wholly inappropriate.
That point is brought home to me particularly by the fact that a friend of mine, a member of Rhondda Labour party, has a letter written by William Abraham, Rhonddas first Member of Parliament; he was known as Mabon. He was a great figure, who sat for many years in the 19th and 20th centuries. The letter is to the trade unions in the Rhondda, thanking them for paying his expenses while he was living in London as their Member of Parliament; it was before Members were even paid. The issue has been around for more than 100 years. It is only because trade unions were prepared to meet the legitimate expenses of the person who had to come from the Rhondda up to London that the area ever had representation at all. The issue that that raises needs to be at the forefront of our minds.
I will deal first with issues to do with the publication scheme. It is a delight to have back the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). He is a more substantial figure, at least physically, than his predecessor, and he can match him word for word. [Hon. Members: Oh!] I am sorryI am being somewhat cruel.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that it would be perverse for us to introduce this publication scheme because it would mean that we would end up with two such
schemes. He asked, as did the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer), about the legal advice. Nothing that we are considering today changes the legal obligations that are on the House authorities as the data holders. It is for them to comply with the legal obligations on them, which are to disclose information down to receipt levelI use the phrase down to receipt level precisely; it does not necessarily mean receiptsand they will do that. The publication scheme that we have brought to the House will give the public the information they need in a form they will find useful. It is with that in mind that we proposed it, not as an alternative way of meeting our legal obligations. The publication scheme is different from the publication of redacted receipts. It will provide information in a form that shows, across headings and over the years, information that will be useful to the public. Indeed, many people may find it a more useful way of looking at it than other ways.
Chris Bryant: It is for the House authorities to comply precisely with what is required of them under law, and that means that they will publish receipts. I hope that that answers my hon. Friends question.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, whom we all welcome to his new responsibilities, referred to his oil billsas opposed to his oil payments. That resonates with me because there is no gas in my home either; I have oil as well. He asked about the categories. If he took a bit more time to read the motion, he would note that it says: