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The Committee on Members Allowances shall keep the categories listed in paragraph (2) above under review and may modify them from time to time as the committee may
feel appropriate. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) also asked about precisely what categories we have. We do not want to fix our mind for ever, and that is why we tabled the motion as we did.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton asked whether we would charge for information. I do not think that the House should charge, and we have no plans to do so, although in the end it will be up to the House authorities to make that decision. He referred to receipts going back to 2005. The motion relates to 2005the year of the last general electiononwards because it seemed a bit odd to have a publication scheme for people who are no longer Members of this House. In fact, the House has information going back to 2004-05, so that is also part of the legal obligation on the House authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) referred to dark forces, as did the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. I thought that that was a slightly unfortunate phrase, because I honestly do not believe that there are dark forces in this House, merely differences of view about how we should progress on this issue. He cast a rather dark perspective on the debate, so I am not moving forward with him on that.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson)to whom I was very rude in the Adjournment debate before Christmas, for which I do not apologiseasked when the process that the House authorities are
going through will be completed. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, rightly, that there is a hope and an expectation that we will be able to turn around within a month the business of when this is given to hon. Members and they can confirm it. I know that some hon. Members have had to go through a similar process for freedom of information requests, quite separately, and it has taken three months for the process to be agreed because of internal disputes.
Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): As one of the hon. Members who has been through that process, I confirm that it does take a long timemuch longer than a month would allow. I hope that my hon. Friend will revisit that process. It is like a game of ping-pong. We give information to the people in question and they carry out the changes that we hope they are meant to carry out. Sometimes they miss them, and it is necessary to check the details again, and then we often see things that we did not notice at first, such as an address, or postcodes on receipts that companies include in the reference number. It is a complicated and time-consuming process.
Chris Bryant: I hear what my hon. Friend says. Obviously it is in everyones interestthat of all Members, and the publicthat we do things as swiftly and accurately as possible, and I know that that is what the House wants.
Jo Swinson: I would just like a slight clarification. I appreciate that there is a degree of uncertainty about how long it will take Members to deal with the information. Do we have a rough idea of when Members will get that information so that they can start looking at itwhat month they might receive it in, for example?
My hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) made strong speeches in favour of transparency, and everyone in the House shares their concern to ensure that we have an adequate level of transparency that meets the public need.
I now come to several matters relating to the new Committee. The membership of the Committee will be a matter for the political parties in the usual way, as is the case for all Committees of the House, and for the Committee of Selection. It is important that we acknowledge that there will be no Government majority on the Committee, which is why it has eight members, putting it virtually in parallel with the Committee on Standards and Privileges. It is important, as the Leader of the House said, that we do not bypass the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Nothing that we are saying today bypasses it, or obviates its role.
It is also important, as several hon. Members have said, that we have a robust audit. Everyone has said that the new system of audit we introduce will be substantially more robust than that of the past. It will be risk-based and it will ensure that wherever there is an element of risk, a proper audit is done so that the public can be assured of value for money. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York[Hon. Members: City of York]
Sorry, my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley)quite a different person. He dresses quite differently.
My hon. Friend made an important point, and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me on this, about the fundamental principles that underlie the claiming of all expenses. He read out only one of the fundamental principles in the new Green Book, but the others are important and should be referred to directly:
Claims should be above reproach and must reflect actual usage of the resources being claimed...Allowances are reimbursed only for the purpose of a Member carrying out his or her parliamentary duties; claims cannot relate to party political activity of any sort, nor must any claim provide a benefit to a party political organisation; it is not permissible for a Member to claim under any parliamentary allowance for anything that the Member is claiming from any other source; Members must ensure that claims do not give rise to, or give the appearance of giving rise to, an improper personal financial benefit to themselves or anyone else; Members are committed to openness about what expenditure has been incurred and for what purposes; individual Members take personal responsibility for all expenses incurred, for making claims and for keeping records, even if the administration of claims is delegated by them to others; the requirement of ensuring value for money is central in claiming for accommodation, goods or servicesMembers should avoid purchases which could be seen as extravagant or luxurious; claims must be supported by documentary evidence.
Hugh Bayley: Like other hon. Members, I subscribe to those principles, but I argued that if we published expenditure on fixtures, fittings and furnishings in aggregate, we would not have the openness that is required. It is stated that Members
are committed to openness about what expenditure has been incurred and for what purposes.
Chris Bryant: I hope that my hon. Friends mind can be put at rest, because the House authorities will be publishing receipts going back to 2004, so the issue is firmly dealt with. He suggested that somebody might be claiming for a television costing £1,500, and that that claim might have been met by the House. I think that that is a red herring, because I do not think that the House would meet that claim under the old or new scheme, and quite rightly so.
Dr. Julian Lewis: In that area of debate, may I flag up a matter that I thought was extremely unfair to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett)? She put in a claim in relation to her accommodation for something to do with her garden. The claim was turned down, yet the information that she had tried to get it but been refused was released, much to the joy of the press, who proceeded to criticise her for having asked. Surely what should be revealed is the expenses that are granted. It should not be revealed if somebody asks whether they can claim for something, is told that it is not appropriate and says, Fine, I will let it go. That situation was most unfair to the right hon. Lady.
Chris Bryant: That specific issue is a matter for the House authorities, both as the data holder and as the body that did not pay the original claim. However, the public expect us to provide a clear set of rules that mean that such things are not in doubt.
Several hon. Members have, in one way or another, asked whether we should be moaning about the situation in which we find ourselves. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) referred to how it often feels unfair to us that certain expenditure is referred to as our expenses, particularly given that the largest figure in our annual expenditure is staffing costs. Perhaps 50 years ago, when an MP might have visited their constituency twice a year, and the band played when they got there and played even louder when they left, they were able to survive without staffing. Today, the understandable expectation is that Members will be able to respond to letters, e-mails and every other form of inquiry very swiftly. I know that all hon. Members try to do that, and we would not be able to do it without our staffing expenditure.
I remember setting up my office when I was first elected in 2001. Buying desks for my staff was quite an expensive business, and at the end of the year I had to pay a very significant tax bill for that benefit, even though it did not particularly feel like a benefit to me. It felt like a benefit to my staff.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned the fact that journalists might inadvertently, or perhaps advertently, tend to criticise the most diligent Members by attacking those who use their allowances to the full to provide a swift and effective service to their constituents. The hon. Member for Castle Point seemed to suggest that we should invert the list when considering Members effectiveness, and that the cheapest MPs are the least diligent. I do not know whether anybody would want to go that far, but nearly all MPs now seek to do a job that is entirely different from the one that was done 30 years ago. That is why it is important that we have a completely different structure of Members allowances and expenditure.
Every MP and every constituency is completely different, with different competing needs. In my constituency, very few housing-related issues arise because more than 80 per cent. of my constituents live in their own home, but many issues of miners compensation arise. Other MPs have a completely different pattern of issues coming to them.
I do not believe that we should moan about the situation that we find ourselves in. As several hon. Members said, it is a great privilege to sit in this House and represent our constituents. Nor, however, should we be ashamed about the expenditure that we wholly legitimately incur.
When I was elected, there was no transparency about Members expenditure. There was no audit and there were no rules, or minimal rules, and that was in 2001. Indeed, when I rang the Fees Office and asked what to do about my additional costs allowance, I was told to divide it in 12 and submit a form. I chose not to do that but to submit receipts. We have moved forward, and that is vital.
I believe that we are taking significant additional steps forward: through tougher rules on contracts to ensure that all employees are doing the job that they are meant to do, and on receipts to ensure that people are
claiming what they are meant to claim, and through a robust independent audit, introducing the National Audit Office into the running of our finances for the first time and enabling it to do a full-scale audit. We are also providing for far greater transparency through the publication scheme and what the House authorities will do in future.
Chris Bryant: I am sorry, I forgot to mention that. As the chairman of the 1922 committee said, the Green Book states, as the Members Estimate Committee agreed, that appeals should go to the Finance and Services Committee. There is a slight element of uncertainty because the Members Estimate Committee relates to theI look forward to many man to man chats, and I hope that all hon. Members will support the package of motions that we are considering.
(1) That, subject to the provisions of paragraph (2) below, for the purpose of the publication scheme adopted and maintained by the House under section 19 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, such information about payments made to, or on behalf of, hon. Members which is already published routinely in accordance with the scheme shall continue to be published;
(2) In addition, information relating to Members expenditure from the beginning of the current Parliament shall be published in relation to each financial year, to the extent that such information is separately identifiable, under the following categories:
(3) The Committee on Members Allowances shall keep the categories listed in paragraph (2) above under review and may modify them from time to time as the committee may think necessary or desirable in the interests of clarity, consistency, accountability and effective administration, and conformity with current circumstances.
That this House approves the Guide to Members Allowances (the Green Book), published as Annex 1 to the First Report of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee (House of Commons Paper No. 142) and endorses the Principles set out in Part 1 of the Green Book as the basis for all claims made by Members;
That the rules set out in the Green Book shall govern all expenditure on Members allowances with respect to all claims for expenditure arising on or after 1 April 2009;
That the Members Estimate Committee shall carry out a review of the provisions of the resolutions of this House relating to such expenditure, make such modifications to them as are necessary to ensure that they are consistent with the provisions in the Green Book, and report to the House; and
That this House thanks Ms Kay Carberry CBE, nominated by the Trades Union Congress, and Mr Keith Bradford, nominated by the Confederation of British Industry, for having acted as the Speakers external appointees to the Advisory Panel on Members Allowances. (Ms Harman.)
That this House approves the arrangements for the audit and assurance of Members allowances set out in the report of the Members Estimate Audit Committee to the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee, published as Annex 3 to the First Report of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee (House of Commons Paper No. 142). (Ms Harman.)
That the following new Standing Order and amendments to the Standing Orders and Resolutions of the House be made:
A. New Standing Order
(b) to advise the Speaker, the Members Estimate Committee and the Leader of the House on the potential development of the arrangements made by or under the Resolutions in force from time to time regarding Members allowances &c;
B. Amendment to Standing Order No. 152D
C. Amendment to the Resolution of the House of 5 July 2001:
Members Allowances, Insurance &c.
Paragraph (5) of the Resolution of the House of 5 July 2001 relating to Members Allowances, Insurance &c. shall cease to have effect. (Ms Harman.)
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