Previous Section Index Home Page

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): rose—

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): rose—

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): rose—

Ms Harman: I shall give way once more, to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), and then I must get on with my speech.

Andrew Miller: Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that, after the inquiry, there will be proper consultation with all staff representatives, and that the results of that consultation will be available to the House before the matter returns here and we make a decision on it?

Ms Harman: I shall give that assurance, and the Deputy Leader of the House has already begun meetings with the various staff associations and the trade unions.

Motion 4 would allow the House to express the view that Members’ staff should be employed by the House, while ensuring that we would appoint and manage them, and would ask the House of Commons Commission to look into how that could be done. It would help us to move towards a prompt change in the arrangements if the Commission could get to work on the practical issues alongside the Kelly inquiry.

Motion 5 would provide that, in respect of all claims where documentary evidence is required, there should no longer be a £25 cut off. There would need to be receipts for all claims. I really do think that that is something sensible which we could decide for ourselves now.

Finally, motion 6 would allow the Members Estimate Committee, which already has the power to amend resolutions of the House, to amend the Green Book. It has been a great concern for us to see the reputation of the House suffer over the issue of our allowances— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is best not to shout the right hon. and learned Lady down, because then what happens is that when the shadow Leader of the House stands up, there is more shouting. I do not want that. This is a debate, and people should be allowed to be heard.

30 Apr 2009 : Column 1072

Ms Harman: We all know that much of the criticism that has been ladled out to everybody has been simply unfair, but we can and should respond with sensible actions. Today, we have the opportunity to make a number of changes and to support the Kelly inquiry. I am sure that the public will understand that the Kelly committee will need some time to deliberate, but they will also expect us to take action now, where we can. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we support the steps necessary to protect the reputation of Parliament and reassure the public.

Several hon. Members rose

Ms Harman: I am concluding my comments.

I hope that we can do as much as possible today by agreement. It would be good if the public could see that we are able to discuss these issues in a way that is calm and measured, and looks to defend the public interest. We all want the reputation of the House to be restored; today is an opportunity to make a start on that. If the House does as we ask, we will have endorsed the Kelly inquiry, sorted out the outer-London allowances, ensured that all claims are backed with receipts, ensured that the public can see all MPs’ outside earnings, and taken steps to ensure that it is clear that our staff are employed on parliamentary business. That will all go some way to restoring the public confidence that this House needs and, I believe, deserves. I commend the motions to the House.

1.31 pm

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): We are living in very feverish economic and political times. At a moment like this, the House can either look absolutely absurd or lift its level of debate and discussion to something that properly understands what this place should be. The boot that is on one foot at the moment can, in due course, change, and the balance of advantage in this place changes with it. We must therefore appreciate that this Parliament needs to work through those changes and set standards to which everyone will adhere.

We are a representative democracy. We are elected here to do our public duty, but we are also private individuals. We do not have a presidency—we have a Parliament. Those who say, “Look, the Senate can exist with 100 people and the House of Representative with 435”, or whatever it is, forget that it takes a billion quid to be elected President. Yet it is from our Parliament that all our Ministers are drawn. We are the pool of talent from which the legislation is made and from which the Executive are formed. That is how we are, and it means that this place has to work to accommodate both those needs.

In the midst of all this—inevitably, as in all politics—is the conflict between personal interest and public duty. A lot of people misunderstand what interest is—it is not just being interested in something but being linked to it and perhaps able to influence it. In this House, the real influence, or interest, of the Back Bencher is very limited. The Back Bencher has power only if he or she acts collectively. It needs to get to the point where either the ayes have it or the noes have it. But Ministers, who take executive decisions, can change things with a stroke of their own individual pen, and therefore need different rules.

30 Apr 2009 : Column 1073

We do need rules for how we behave and for how we handle money. In my view, the rules must be fair, they must be lasting, and they should not in any way be based on partial political advantage. We have a conflict, perhaps, between not being corrupt and not turning this place into somewhere that is so over-sanitised that we become merely robotic fodder. This House recently set out a whole new book of rules. On page 5, it says that they are rules that

They only came into effect on 1 April, and now it is the thirtieth.

In the past, we have had problems with how our remuneration—our package of reward—is shaped. On the last occasion when there was this sort of fever, the then Prime Minister, now Sir John Major, set up the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Lord Nolan, to whom I spoke often—he is about 6 ft 6 in, so it was quite hard work—set out some original principles designed to govern us for a very long time. Frankly, some of those principles have gone wrong, particularly at a local level where local and parish councillors feel that they can hardly express an opinion without having to withdraw it; that has become absurd and needs review. However, the principles set out to govern us still endure, and we should not forget what they were.

There is another problem with our salaries and allowances. In the past, because no one quite dared make the stand that was perhaps necessary to protect this House as we would all wish, it was decided instead to disguise them. I mean no embarrassment to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) by quoting what he said in the Evening Standard today; in fact, a lot of people will agree, even if they do not say it so baldly. He said that the Prime Minister—frankly, I think that this could apply to all Prime Ministers—

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD) rose—

Alan Duncan: I will give way, but I will not do so very often because so many Members want to speak.

Lembit Öpik: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way in the course of his reasoned and interesting speech. In line with his call to courage, has he considered the case for doing away with the expenses system altogether—bar travel, which has to exist as an expense—and allowing an independent salary review board to consider what salary would be reasonable for us if those other expenses were abandoned? I accept that there are people in the Chamber who do not agree with that, but I am asking whether he has considered it, and the Kelly review should be encouraged to do so too.

Alan Duncan: Let us be honest: many models could be advocated, one of which is completely to do away with the second home allowance and pensions, increase MPs’ salaries, and let us sort it out for ourselves. However, anyone who was brave enough to propose such an increase in salaries at the moment would be likely to walk into a firing squad.

30 Apr 2009 : Column 1074

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What my hon. Friend quoted from the comments of the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) in the Evening Standard is doubtless true, but I hope that, in a public-spirited and cross-party way, he will be willing to concede that what is said of the Prime Minister’s attitude has also been true of previous Prime Ministers, and it is also true—this is absolutely critical—of current party leaders. As long as these matters are driven by people who have inherited or earned wealth, or much higher salaries than those of Back Benchers, it will be difficult to make progress other than by an independent review.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Alan Duncan: Hold on—I have to answer my hon. Friend first.

I think that if my hon. Friend studies the record, he will see that I attributed the same difficulty to former Prime Ministers.

Mr. Sheerman: I have been in the House for somewhat longer than the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that the problem has been the cowardice of successive Prime Ministers in failing to take the recommendation of an independent body, face it up with the public and in this place, and give the award that was recommended? Unless an independent body makes the judgment and we accept it without any qualification, we will never free ourselves from this tawdry debate.

Alan Duncan: That is the crux of the whole argument about whether we should determine our own remuneration and allowances or contract it out. Crucially, in deciding one way or the other, we should not have one foot in and one foot out and be for ever chopping and changing by contracting it out and then calling it back in again. That, I think, is the crux of the argument that might emerge today.

I shall canter on, if I may, in order not to delay the House too much. The honest truth is that scrutiny of our expenses has intensified, because that is the way of the world, but the model that is being scrutinised was designed for salary rather than for genuine allowances. That is unacceptable in the modern age. We have to set higher standards, but we have to do so honestly and openly.

Sir Alan Beith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alan Duncan: No. Oh, it is the right hon. Gentleman—of course I will. I beg his pardon.

Sir Alan Beith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, not least for that kind recognition. I hope that he will not use quite the language that he just has, because it implies that a great many hon. Members claimed allowances not because they were justified for costs that they were incurring but in order to augment their income. I am sure that I speak for a great many Members who have honestly and always claimed only those amounts that were necessary to reimburse the costs that they have incurred in carrying out their duties.

Alan Duncan: I fully accept what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I am grateful to him for correcting me. I hope that what he has said will be understood not just by the House but by those who observe our proceedings.

30 Apr 2009 : Column 1075

We should appreciate that as of 1 April there is a much stricter regime for this House, basically requiring all receipts. We are also introducing a regime of audit and assurance. I chair the Members Estimate Audit Committee, and we are making very significant progress and ensuring that all the standards that we set are akin to those of any public body or the most strictly regulated plc. That is what we should strive for.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): In the 34 years that I have been here, never once has it been suggested to me, by the Whips or by anybody else, that expenses or allowances—call them what we will—should be part of my salary. If anyone had suggested that, I would have told them where to get off. When I sign a form each month for allowances, I do so on the basis of money that has been spent. Otherwise, I would be a thief and totally dishonest.

Alan Duncan: I will not go into all the details, but looking back over the years, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that at the start, the second home allowance was often just paid once a month without receipts, which is an unacceptable system in the modern age.

It is quite clear that as time has gone on, we have moved gradually, intermittently and sometimes contradictorily between setting our own terms and giving the responsibility to another body. I believe that it is right that we should not set our own terms and conditions. Indeed, the Prime Minister believed only a few weeks ago that the current issues should be referred to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. So it was that he wrote to the chairman of that committee on 30 March. It is now only a month later—30 April—and things seem dramatically to have changed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and members of his Committee have tabled an amendment suggesting that everything should be referred to the committee chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, and the Leader of the House has now said that she is prepared to accept that. I shall come to the procedural consequences of that in a moment, but that committee, the successor to the Nolan committee, is empowered to look into all these things. So, in quantum rather than in principle, is the Senior Salaries Review Body, which is examining our pay and pensions. Those bodies are best equipped to come up with a conclusion and a clear overall picture.

I introduce a small element of caution. All hon. Members will have received notification from that committee about the basis on which it intends to conduct the review. It states at the beginning that it has to do “what the public want”. To be fair, that is part of a longer sentence that says more besides, but the whole point of that committee is that it should set itself above the fever and anger of the day-to-day world and embrace the highest possible principles that should govern our proceedings. It is the Committee on Standards in Public Life, not the committee for public opinion on public life.

We have seen a lot of political goings-on over the past few days, and I do not want to score political points and make—[Hon. Members: “But—”] No, there is no “but”. I am going to examine the motions. Motion 1 is an
30 Apr 2009 : Column 1076
all-embracing statement of principle that talks about allowances in general. Based on his amendment, my right hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, says that we should defer our conclusions, and he means that in the plural and overall. Having heard your ruling, Mr. Speaker, I can accept that our procedures allow for votes on the other motions that will follow, but let us be honest—if that amendment is accepted and we then go on to vote on all the other motions, the House will look absolutely absurd.

I note that there is nothing about grace and favour homes, and the motion on London is clear and the debate familiar. On financial interests, I have referred to what I think should be the overall governing principles, but the mood of the day is the mood of the day. But let us admit it—timesheets are absurd. The Leader of the House lives a very busy life. She is also the deputy leader of the party, chairman of the Labour party, the Minister for Women and Equality, the Lord Privy Seal and the Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. I would love to see her timesheets. The notion that in life and in the modern world of work one can keep timesheets—let us face it, they are designed for one thing only, which is the subsequent embarrassment of those who have to publish them—will not do much good for us or anybody. If someone is seen to earn a lot of money from a company and work a few hours, everyone will be phoning up the company and asking, “Why do you employ this person at such a rate?” If anyone is getting a little bit of money for a large number of hours, they will be asking, “Why isn’t that person a full-time MP, and why are they earning tuppence?”

Clive Efford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alan Duncan: Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me if I do not? I want to race on and let others speak.

A much bigger issue is staff. I am very perturbed by what I sense to be the concern of all our staff about what the proposal would mean. It is not entirely logical that everything that is thought to be wrong with who employs whom, and what their employment contract is, would automatically be solved by creating a massive human resources and personnel department in the House of Commons. The Leader of the House says in one motion that we have to cut the cost of politics. I have seen, and the House will know, how much it costs to publish 1 million redacted receipts. If on 1 July, or whenever, 3,000 contracts suddenly have to be transferred to the House of Commons, the resource implications will be absolutely massive. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is assiduous in ensuring that he knows what is going on in all the highways and byways of the parliamentary estate, and with its people and premises and so on. He went to a meeting with staff yesterday, and I think that he would readily admit that the tone surrounding what they thought might be in prospect was not a happy one.

Next Section Index Home Page