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Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): As I am retiring, I have obviously had several telephone conversations with the Department of Resources in the past week. My staff have an expectation of what their status will be and what will happen to them at the end of this Parliament. In talking to the Department of Resources,
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I found that the fact that it would become the employer of nearly 2,000 people means that its status would be very different from ours. We are small employers of two, three or four people. It will have to take into account a whole range of matters such as equal pay, which will require a large HR department.

Alan Duncan: My hon. Friend has a lot of experience in employment matters, and that is the basis of the experience that she has brought to the House. It is the sort of experience that this House will need in future if we are going to be any good at what we intend to do.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that if we defer the question of fair, direct employment of staff and allow the continuation of the fiction that we are passing £130,000 through our own pockets, because we think that it would be bureaucratically inconvenient, the public will feel that we have not taken their concerns seriously?

Alan Duncan: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to base decisions that affect people’s lives on what he describes as a “fiction”, rather than the facts that matter, I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree with his approach to politics and decisions.

The crucial amendment on which we will vote at 5 o’clock is (j), which would defer everything until the Committee on Standards in Public Life has reported. I sense that the mood of the House is that it should be accepted. If the Government have said that they accept it, it is more likely than not to go through, unless they change their mind again. We are experiencing the control of everything in the House by the Executive, who are in some difficulty. We simply say that we do not want to score political points, but we want the House of Commons to work in the long term. We also want to ensure that a feverish shambles does not become an even greater shambles. The option in the amendment, which the Government now support, is to defer everything, and not make piecemeal changes. Although those changes were said to be an interim solution, they are not, because “interim” does not appear in anything before us today. Three hours’ debate in the current political climate is no basis on which to make lasting changes.

I leave as much time as possible for Members to contribute, but I hope that they understand the importance of their vote at 5 o’clock.

1.51 pm

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak early in the debate and to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of House. I also speak as a member of the House of Commons Commission and of the Members Estimate Committee.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s graceful approach in accepting the amendment. That was sensible, and fitted the tone of the documents, which I have read carefully, that Sir Christopher Kelly issued. It was appropriate for the Prime Minister to write on 23 March to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life to request an inquiry into Members’ allowances. The Members Estimate Committee, assisted by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border
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(David Maclean), conducted a six-month inquiry last year. As has been mentioned, the Senior Salaries Review Body held a review, which lasted a year. The House did not accept its conclusions and recommendations, just as it did not accept ours last year. The point has been made—perhaps more flamboyantly than I would make it—that no Prime Minister since Edward Heath has accepted a recommendation from a Senior Salaries Review Body about Members of Parliament’s salaries.

The question of staff has been raised. Last year, the Members Estimate Committee considered what would happen to our staff if they became House of Commons employees, and its two-volume report includes a large section on that. As the law stands, any member of staff who becomes a member of the staff of the House of Commons also becomes a member of staff of the Commission, and cannot be a political servant or can be only politically neutral. Any change in that procedure would require a new unit and possibly legislation.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Would that mean that, following a general election, it would be the House’s responsibility to redeploy those members of staff whose former employers had lost their seats?

Sir Stuart Bell: That is a pertinent point. The Leader of the House said that the House of Commons Commission would examine the matter carefully between now and 29 October. My right hon. and learned Friend was asked whether it would take evidence and representations. I assure hon. Members that, under the chairmanship of the Speaker, the Commission will consider every aspect, take evidence and receive submissions before the matter comes back to the House after 29 October.

Angela Browning: I hope that the House of Commons Commission will also avail itself of a lawyer experienced in employment law. When we heard that the change was originally to be made on 1 July, it showed that the Government clearly had no idea about the legislation that they had created or the rights of employees.

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. We have examined proper advice on employment law and we will do that again. However, I assure hon. Members that the most complete analysis and investigation of that serious matter will be undertaken. Members of the Commission, under Mr. Speaker’s chairmanship, are well aware that 2,000 members of staff work for Members of Parliament inside and outside the House, and their interests need to be taken into account.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is obviously experienced in such matters. Is there no way of maintaining the arrangements broadly as they stand, while altering the way in which the money is reported and accounted? The problem is not the way in which we employ our staff, but that the public are misled into believing that the money comes to us, rather than to our staff.

Sir Stuart Bell: The hon. Gentleman’s point touches on what the shadow Leader of the House said. There is a perception in the public domain that the salaries of Members of Parliament’s secretaries and assistants are part of our income. I was on a TV programme with Andrew Neil, who said to the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), “You’ve spent £133,000
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this year. How did you do that?” The right hon. Gentleman replied that most of it was spent on salaries. Conveying that message is one of the impossibilities that we are currently experiencing. That is one reason for the Government’s proposal. However, when considering our staff, we must be careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend’s comments are helpful and I believe that the Commission’s work will also be helpful. Does he not agree that it seems strange for us to be asked today to express an opinion before the important work has been done?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend makes her point, which is a matter for the Government, not me as a member of the House of Commons Commission. I simply say that, between now and 29 October, staff salaries and their relation to Members of Parliament will be carefully considered.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman seriously basing his argument on the fact that we cannot convince the public? According to him, they are too dim to understand. However, we remunerate our staff for the job that they do; it is nothing to do with money coming into our pockets. Do we genuinely intend to alter the lives of our staff and all those who work for us simply because of a perception?

Sir Stuart Bell: I always enjoy hearing the hon. Lady, but history gets rewritten quickly. If she reads Hansard tomorrow, she will realise that I did not say what she claims.

Andrew Miller: Will my hon. Friend reinforce on behalf of the Commission the assurance that the Leader of the House gave that, as part of the process, the Commission will engage with and take evidence from representatives of our staff in their various guises and ensure that that evidence is reported properly to the House before any decisions are made?

Sir Stuart Bell: I assure my hon. Friend that no decisions will be made without a full review by the House of every aspect of the evidence.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir Stuart Bell: I have only 10 minutes to spend on the subject and I should like to make some progress.

The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the Green Book and that it is only a month old. The Green Book is a book of principles and governance and it carefully states what we are doing about governance and audit. The hon. Gentleman knows that we held a meeting yesterday about audit, which is a significant part of our allowances and how they are supervised. The Members Estimate Audit Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), comprises hon. Members. Three outside independent members also advise the House accounting officer. We also have the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office, with overall audit of the accounts and processes. There will soon be
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an operational assurance unit, managed separately from the section in the Department of Resources, which will administer payments. The unit’s role will be to give advice to Members and to ensure compliance with the rules and the maintenance of standards.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that hon. Members’ staff do a fantastic job on a day-to-day basis, sometimes in difficult circumstances? Does he think it fair that we should be transferring staff to the House without any consultation with them? What assurances and guarantees can he give that their salaries, bonuses and redundancy payments will not suffer?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend makes a point similar to that which the Opposition made earlier about the anxiety among staff, even if we have a general election and there are changes in the membership of the House, about what would happen to them. As I am indicating, at this moment in time, anyone who becomes a member of the House of Commons staff or the House of Commons Commission is politically neutral. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will need to look at that issue, which is also one that we will look at carefully.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): On a couple of occasions I have asked the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who answers questions on behalf of the House of Commons Commission in the House, whether it would be possible for our staff to join the pension scheme for House staff. When my hon. Friend is looking into the pros and cons of transferring staff across to the House of Commons, will he look into their pension entitlement, too?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend has hit on an important point. Not only is there the question of transfer; there is also the question of pensions and pension rights, which is a major matter that we will need to consider.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and value his experience in this place. However, can he please tell me and the House whether consideration has been given to whether staff contracts, which are quite different from each other in many cases, will all need to be renegotiated under the proposal that our staff cease to be employed by us and become employed by the House authorities instead?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend makes an important point.

Meg Munn: TUPE.

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) makes another point, from a sedentary position, which I have already made to the authorities. There is such a thing as TUPE—the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, which we passed through this House many years ago. As we can see, the consideration of the anxieties of staff is extremely important.

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Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that the many hon. Members who, like me, supplement their staffing allowance by transfers from, say, the incidental expenses provision or their own resources will still be allowed to do so in future?

Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the transfer from the incidental expenses provision to salaries, which is also one that we may look at.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): On the subject of consultation, when my staff heard about the proposal last week, I had to admit that it was sprung on me. They said, “How were you going to consult us?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, because I don’t know enough about it.” I still do not know at what stage my staff will be consulted or whether it will be me or someone else who consults them. On the employer-employee relationship, according to the proposal, I will still be allowed to hire and fire. If I am still allowed to hire and fire and the employee goes to a tribunal, will it be me or the House who will respond?

Sir Stuart Bell: I have been talked out on the Floor of the House. This is a debate of the utmost importance—constitutionally, for this Chamber and for Members of Parliament. We belong to the future, as well as the past. We must remember that point, because it is extremely important—a sovereign people and a sovereign Parliament.

2.4 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) is absolutely right: this is a debate of great constitutional and practical importance. Unfortunately, it more resembles a Whitehall farce, given the way that the House has proceeded on the matter over the years—constantly debating it and giving more hostages to fortune, but never reaching resolutions that satisfactorily address some of the basic issues or give confidence to the public that the system meets the need.

Need is an important part of this debate. We should not walk away from the fact that Members of Parliament need expenses in order to do their jobs on behalf of their constituents. We need to make that absolutely and abundantly clear. Paying staff, renting offices and providing accommodation for Members of Parliament whose constituencies are a long way from London is part of the responsibility of the House, in order to enable Members to do their jobs properly.

But—and it is a big “but”—there are criteria that should apply to that provision of finance. It should be based on genuine need and provide what is necessary for right hon. and hon. Members to do their jobs as Members of Parliament, but not a penny more and not a penny less. That is a significant point. That provision needs a system that is transparent, so that the public can see that the money is being used effectively and properly. It also needs accountability and external audit that goes beyond what is available in the House, so that there is a guarantee that matters are being properly dealt with.

We cannot get away from the urgency of dealing with the issue. As I have said, it is a matter on which we have had endless debates. The public are sick and tired of us
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sitting in this Chamber and talking about our allowances, rather than the big problems that face this country. They simply do not understand why, if we purport to run the country, we cannot run our own affairs properly.

Clive Efford: I absolutely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Does he therefore agree we should not have to wait to be told to do what is right? Getting rid of the outer-London allowance for MPs is the right thing to do. Publishing details of second incomes that may influence hon. Members’ activities in this House or how they vote is also the right thing to do in the interests of openness and scrutiny of this House. We do not need anyone to tell us how to do that; we should get on and do it now. Does he agree?

Mr. Heath: My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) has made it clear in what he has recently published that there ought to be matters we can agree as a matter of urgency—matters that are self-evident; matters that are clear abuses of the present system that we can remove. That is why we need the twin-track approach, dealing both with the more complex issues, about which it is quite proper to ask for Sir Christopher Kelly’s and his committee’s advice, and with those matters which I would have hoped—although I am almost doomed to disappointment in this respect—the House could see are matters that are in our hands and which we can deal with urgently today.

That is why, although the Leader of the House has accepted the amendment standing in the name of the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), I do not take the view that we should not proceed with the other motions. We have opinions on them; nevertheless, they are matters that we can quite properly discuss in the House today.

John Barrett: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Heath: I will, but I will try not to take every intervention; otherwise I will still be speaking in 40 minutes.

John Barrett: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the worst abuses has not been covered today, and that is the use of grace and favour homes? Expenses are there to cover additional costs. There are no additional costs for those living in Downing street and they should not be claiming for constituency homes.

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend knows that I tabled an amendment to that effect, because I thought it was a glaring omission in today’s proposal. However, that amendment has not been selected, so we cannot debate it. The Leader of the House says that her solution—the Prime Minister’s solution—is to deal with the issue through the ministerial code of conduct. That is not sufficient. There should be a rule that governs the right to those allowances. The reason I say that is that the issue should be a matter about which members of the public can make complaints and which could be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and, if necessary, brought before the Standards and Privileges Committee.

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