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30 Apr 2009 : Column 1083

Under the Government’s present proposal, it would simply be a matter for the Prime Minister. Keeping everything within the bunker at No. 10 would not be satisfactory under the rules of the House, and I therefore ask the Leader of the House to think again. If she will not do so, I will certainly make such a proposal to Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee in due course.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman says that he sees merit in taking action on some of these issues now, notably the less complicated ones. I agree with him, and that is a view shared by a number of Members in all parties. Does he recall that, as recently as 1 April, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that agreement on action on a number of these issues was needed now, and that this matter needed to be sorted out?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I am a little disappointed to sense that these matters could be left in their entirety to the committee. I regret what I take to be the current view of the Conservative Front-Bench team, because there was a sense of urgency a few weeks ago. That was clear from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam said at the time. He put forward proposals—they might not command the support of every Member, but they have mine—to reduce the additional costs allowance to cover only basic accommodation costs such as rent, council tax and utility bills, and nothing else. There would be none of this John Lewis list or any other incidentals. That system would be clearly understood by the public, and we could act quickly to adopt it. I understand that other Members have different views, however. I also understand that the Leader of the Opposition put forward proposals of his own. They were not entirely irreconcilable with our own, and there was a suspicion that we might have reached an agreement. I shall come back to the provenance of the arrangements in a moment, because the subject is instructive about how the Government do business.

What are the concerns that the public have been expressing very loudly in recent weeks? If any Member has not heard them, they cannot have talked to many of their constituents recently, because these are real concerns. People are talking about inappropriate purchases being made at the taxpayer’s expense. Whether such purchases are typical, common or fair is neither here nor there—that is what people are concerned about. They are also concerned about the abuse of definition in relation to our identifying our principal place of residence, and about the fact that, for some hon. Members, it seems appropriate to change that definition every now and then, according to the potential income involved. That gives rise to a great deal of concern. Concern is also being expressed about unnecessary accommodation, and the possibility that people are claiming for accommodation that they do not need because they have alternative arrangements of one kind or another.

The public cannot understand why we cannot deal with these issues. Frankly, I cannot understand why we cannot deal with them even under the present system, because it is clearly stated on the forms we sign every time we submit a claim that the costs have been occasioned
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by parliamentary duties, although that definition seems to be remarkably wide in some cases. Nevertheless, that is the question that the public are asking.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Every single one of us wants our expenditure to be seen to be accountable, clear and absolutely necessary. I have had incredible letters from some of my constituents about the way I am apparently spending public money. I have written back, faithfully and factually, yet those same people still write letters of abuse. Even if we state our case accurately here today, we are still not going to get away with it. There will still be a sense that we are overpaid and underworked; that is common to many people’s responses.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is perhaps a counsel of perfection to say that we will ever get away from that entirely. Every time we see a clear abuse of the system in the pages of a newspaper, it affects not only the person who has been named but every single Member of the House. Every Member of the House is considered to be a crook. That is unacceptable, and it is something that we have to deal with as a matter of urgency.

Given the public concern, it was nothing short of an act of genius for the Prime Minister to come up with a solution that absolutely failed to meet those concerns. The process has been quite extraordinary. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam put forward his proposals and, whether people agreed with them or not, they were real proposals that addressed the issues and would have made a real difference to the way the House is perceived. The Leader of the Opposition also put forward proper proposals. They were not identical to ours, but they addressed the same issues and tried to find a way forward. At that time, we had nothing at all from the Prime Minister.

The last time we debated this matter, the Prime Minister did nothing whatever to get the proposals from the House of Commons Commission through; he did not even bother to turn up. He showed no sense of leadership. This time, he waited until the very last moment, then reluctantly agreed, when pushed several times by my right hon. Friend and by the Leader of the Opposition, that it would be a good idea to have a meeting of the three leaders to see whether there was a possibility of consensus. Yet before that meeting, which he did nothing to arrange, had even happened, he came up with a set of proposals that had apparently been written on the back of a fag packet. He did not appear to have discussed them with members of his own parliamentary party. He put them out to the press before he even had the agreement of the Cabinet, which emerged to find them already in the public domain.

As an afterthought, the Prime Minister rang round the leaders of the other parties to try to arrange a meeting that very evening, because he thought it would be a good idea to get their imprimatur for his proposals. At that meeting, he was completely belligerent and refused to accept any amendment to his perfect proposals. And he wonders why there is no consensus! Then, last week, he made his announcement to the public in a YouTube appearance that had all the awfulness of a David Brent performance. It was quite astonishing—and this was the Prime Minister addressing an issue that affects the House in an extremely important way.

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The Prime Minister proposed an attendance allowance, but would it address the question of transparency? No. It would provide cash in hand with no accountability. Would it be related to real costs? No, because it would be given to every single Member of Parliament, irrespective of their needs or arrangements. Would it even be workable? No, it could not have worked within the present arrangements. The Prime Minister failed to understand that, in proposing a system that already exists for the European Parliament—doesn’t it work wonderfully there!—he was proposing that the gravy train of Europe should come to Westminster. Incidentally, that also happens at the other end of the corridor. We hear apocryphal stories of noble Members leaving the Rolls-Royce running outside while they nip in to sign in, before going home having claimed their allowance for the day. Is that the system we want? No. That is why it had to be rejected. Eventually the message even got through to the bunker, and it was not put on the Order Paper today. There is, however, a vestigial reference to it in motion 1—I will return to that in a moment—because the Prime Minister can never be completely gainsaid. He must have his way, so if he cannot have it through a vote in the House, he must find an alternative.

Let me go through the matters for consideration. The grace and favour issues are not there, and I have explained why that is wholly unacceptable and should be remedied. I hope that the House can agree to some motions—our motion 6, which is a technical motion, and motion 5 on evidence of expenditure, which adds to transparency and accountability.

Motion 3 deals with the registration of interests. I know that that matter is a bit difficult, but it is a basic principle. I have thought about the questions that it has been suggested would arise. Whether people are being paid far too much for too little in their outside employment or are spending too long at their outside employment are legitimate questions to ask Members of the House. If they are not full-time Members of the House, what are they doing with their time? How does their loyalty to their constituents square with their loyalty to their shareholders or employers?

Mr. Hogg: I take that point, and as the House knows, I practise as a barrister and am sometimes in court. I always declare that fact, my constituents know it, and it is in the register. What possible objection is there to that?

Mr. Heath: There is no objection, but it is a matter of transparency—[Hon. Members: “Yes, there is.”] There is no objection within the rules of the House as presently constituted. However, our constituents are entitled to know how we apportion our time and the extent to which we are prepared to provide our time for their benefit rather than for our own. That is the question.

Mr. Sheerman: I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and when he started I thought that I would be on his side. However, he is making me angry, because he has said not one good thing about the work—the hard work—of parliamentarians on both sides of the House, in Committee and in constituencies. I share the criticisms, but, for goodness’ sake, cannot someone on the Opposition Benches get the balance right rather than picking up every negative comment, and say something good about the House—about the
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all-party aspects, the hard-working, good legislators, and the work in Select Committees? Come on, please say something good about our colleagues.

Mr. Heath: Clearly the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said. If he is not prepared to listen, I find it difficult to answer him.

Motion 2 deals with Greater London; surely we can go ahead with this necessary reform. I do not claim exclusive credit for my party colleagues, but I am pleased that not a single Liberal Democrat Member who serves a Greater London constituency claims the allowance. Those Liberal Democrat Members can commute perfectly happily within London, and it is not unreasonable to expect other Members to do so. I notice that the starting date in the motion has been changed by the Leader of the House, to give a little more leeway. We do not need to wait for a transparently appropriate measure to be introduced. The measure is already in place for central London, and it is an anomaly that it did not extend to the greater metropolis.

Mr. Ian Taylor: The Kelly committee may come to the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined, but the matter is being imposed in isolation. Those Members, including me, as I fully declare, who have never been in London, and whose constituencies are in Surrey—the old border of my constituency went down to Guildford—have suddenly been lumped in, without any consultation about the impact on us. I have served for 22 years, and I speak on behalf of all the other Members on a cross-party basis. The matter should not be imposed without full consideration.

Mr. Heath: The number of parameters to consider is not enormous, and I notice that the Leader of the Opposition accepted the proposition at an early stage. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) will disagree and vote against it, but the proposition is properly put forward.

Motion 4 is very significant, and many Members have made interventions on the matter. There are arguments for putting members of staff directly on the payroll of the House of Commons, but there are many imponderables, and many serious questions need to be asked about the process. Sadly—I will upset the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee again—some Members do not behave as we would wish in their employment of their staff. There are some mill owner MPs who exploit their staff, who might be extremely grateful for the protection of the House. Equally, however, there are issues about transfer of staff, about what happens at the dissolution of a Parliament, and about pensions. The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) is keen on a move to the House of Commons pension scheme, and I understand that entirely, but a huge cost is involved in that, and the House must be aware of that cost—I think that it would double the House of Commons pension bill. Given that we are talking about savings in this context, we really ought to be aware of that before we agree to his approach, and issues relating to the political restrictions that might apply would need to be addressed before we could make progress.

Hugh Bayley: Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that it is fair, just and sustainable that the staff of the House, who provide a very good service to us, are in a public sector final salary pension scheme with a notional contribution by the employer of about 25 per cent. of
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earnings, whereas our staff are entitled to join only a stakeholder scheme, which provides considerably poorer benefits and whereby they get only 10 per cent. of their salary paid in by the employer?

Mr. Heath: Serious questions need to be asked about that and about the whole of the public sector’s pension schemes. The hon. Gentleman knows that Liberal Democrats have very serious concerns about the sustainability of public sector pensions as a whole, including those of Members and servants of this House. All I am saying is that one cannot sign a blank cheque for a very large sum without understanding the consequences. May I say to Labour Members who are very concerned about this matter that that is why I have tabled two amendments to motion 4—amendments (a) and (b)—at which I invite them to look carefully?

The consequence of those two amendments would not be to remove the progress being made on this by the House of Commons Commission, which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough mentioned; it would be to ask the Commission to examine the benefits and disbenefits before it moves to implementation, so that this House does not agree to something and instruct the Commission to go ahead with it. Instead, the Commission would examine all the consequences of it, report back to the House and, on that basis, make recommendations. In the first instance, I ask the Leader of the House to accept this sensible pair of amendments, but if she does not do so, I ask hon. Members to support them, because they are a sensible precaution to take, in order to avoid yet another car crash on this matter.

That leaves me with motion 1 to discuss. We have heard what the right hon. and learned Lady has to say, and I hope that that will not remove any of the urgency that all of us identify as necessary on this. The one great benefit of accepting the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire is that it would remove this vestigial inclusion of the requirement to take account of hon. Members’ attendance at Westminster. I was going to have to ask a lot of questions about that, because if it simply meant that if a Member never attended Westminster they would not get accommodation, that would be exactly fair. If it was a per diem attendance allowance by the back door, which I suspect it was intended to be, I would be wholly against it, for all the reasons that I have indicated. It is not good enough for the Leader of the House to say that it makes no difference now, because it is already in the paper produced by the Committee on Standards in Public Life; it is there as one issue to be looked at among many. In the form in which it was presented to us in motion 1 the provision was an instruction to the Committee, which is why it was unacceptable. If we accept the amendment, that becomes redundant and we look forward to the proposals.

I hope that we can make some progress today, because we need to do so. However, I fear that the process to date has been so farcical and absurd that it will instil little more confidence in the eyes of the public until we have the report of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee, until it does the job that we have asked it to do and until we agree the recommendations, so that we actually have a proper externally audited arrangement that bears scrutiny. At the moment, we do not have such an arrangement.

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2.28 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): It should be clearly understood that the reputation of the House has been much damaged by the controversy about second homes. We can debate today whether we should go to Kelly or otherwise but, as has been said, there is a strong feeling among the public that we are on the make, that what we claim is somewhat dishonest, that it is all part of our salary and so on. It would be wrong of us not to recognise that that feeling has grown in recent times.

We did not do ourselves any favour when some decided to promote a private Member’s Bill that would have exempted the House of Commons from the freedom of information legislation. What sense did that make? The Labour Government should be much praised for introducing the Freedom of Information Act 2000—the previous Government absolutely refused to introduce such legislation—but a few years later we tried to claim that it should apply to all public bodies, but not to ourselves. No matter what excuses were made or promises were given that we would still disclose how much we claimed, the general feeling was that we had something to hide. It is sometimes forgotten that that private Member’s Bill was passed by this House—thanks to the Whips on both sides—but it fell in the Lords, because no one was willing to pick it up. The Lords did us a great favour on that occasion.

It is right that non-London Members should be able to claim for what is described as a second home. Indeed, it would be wrong if we could not claim. In case anyone thinks that I am taking a holier than thou attitude, I should say that I claim for rented accommodation—the rent, the council tax and upkeep. Obviously, not a penny goes into my pocket, but neither am I out of pocket. That is perfectly legitimate. Some hon. Members claim that some people will never understand how such an arrangement can be justified, and that may be so, but fair-minded people would do so. The reason why fair-minded people are not in favour of the present arrangements is that they believe that most of us are being dishonest and that what we claim is not what we have actually spent. There have been one or two cases publicised that, to many people, do not seem to make much sense or have much logic, and they have undermined the position on second homes.

The legend has grown up that because of inadequate salaries—I do not know whether anyone will argue today that our salaries are inadequate, and I doubt whether many members of the public would take that view—the allowances were introduced and we were tipped off, presumably by the Whips, that we could use that money for our own purposes. I do not know who suggested that in the first place, but in all the years that I have been here no one has said to me that we should claim money and put it into our own pockets. I do not know why that legend has grown up. I work on the assumption that the large majority of hon. Members, in the past as well as now, are honest people and that when they make a claim to the Fees Office each month, they do so on the basis of the money that they have spent. We are not crooks or dishonest, and the few cases that have come to light in no way contradict that. The allowances have never been a substitute for our salaries.

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House that we should accept the amendment from the Standards and Privileges Committee. There is
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a lot to be said, especially as far as motion 1 is concerned, for the matter being considered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I hope that it will be able to make recommendations in the very near future. I also hope that we will accept its recommendations, because there is little sense sending the issue to that committee and then rejecting its findings.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) echoed my concern about what is called the Westminster allowance. It is true, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House said, that that will be considered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but I hope that it does not recommend it. It is nonsense—absolute nonsense. What would the public say about our being paid for coming in to do our job? That is what it amounts to, and I see no reason or justification for its ever being proposed in the first place.

What would happen when we were doing our parliamentary duties outside Westminster—for example, with Select Committees that went outside Westminster or with the Council of Europe and so on? Just imagine the number of exceptions that we will have to make. There would be a whole list of them, from A to Z. What about those Members who were genuinely ill? Would they be paid? What about those on maternity or paternity leave? What would happen with the attendance allowance then? As I have said, the proposal is complete nonsense and the sooner we chuck the whole idea the better.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is making all the points that I could have made. There was one exception in the proposal, of course. Ministers did not have to attend Westminster. They only had to think a ministerial thought in the day and they could collect the allowance.

Mr. Winnick: That is a good point.

I started off by talking about the public concern and the unease that is felt. Our responsibility is to try to rectify the situation as quickly as possible and to convince the public—or at least those who are willing to be convinced, as I believe that most will be—that our system is perfectly in order and that we should claim allowances.

It is interesting to note a point that was mentioned to me by my secretary after she had spoken to a close friend of hers who keeps in touch with events and so on. Her friend was surprised to find out that the bulk of the allowances goes on staff costs. The general feeling has grown up that all this money is used for second homes and so on, when we know that the large majority of the money that we claim is for staff costs. Surely that is perfectly justified. It would be odd if we had to pay our secretaries and researchers—not that I have a research assistant—out of our own pockets. It is all clear, and it is all perfectly right, proper and legitimate, but we must persuade the public of that. At this moment, the public are not so persuaded. The sooner they are and the sooner we can put our house in order, the better it will be.

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