Previous Section Index Home Page

2.37 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): When I first came to this House in 1970 I felt, and I still feel, that representing a part of the United Kingdom in the Parliament of the United Kingdom is as high an
30 Apr 2009 : Column 1090
aspiration as any man or woman can have. No one should be prevented from standing for election to Parliament because he or she is either too poor or too rich. It is therefore clearly important that we should have allowances—we did not have them at all in those days—that enable Members to have a home either in the constituency or in London, depending on where their main residence is. I do not want to enter in detail into the argument over London Members, save to say that I do not believe that it is the duty of this House to pass resolutions that retrospectively oblige colleagues to cancel contractual obligations. It is very important that we should recognise that.

That is why I believe very strongly that we ought to accept the spirit of the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. I believe that it addresses all the issues properly. We have appointed Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee to look into all these matters and they should not feel constrained or trammelled in any way. It is important to recognise that the matters that have been referred to Sir Christopher Kelly include the whole business of outside earnings as well as everything else. I do not know, any more than any other colleague in any part of this House knows, what Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee will recommend. I hope that when the recommendations are made, we will be able speedily to accept them even if some of them are somewhat uncomfortable for us, as they may well be. What we should not be doing this afternoon is putting the committee under any constraints by passing any of the other resolutions. We are dealing with a very short period of time—only a few months—and we want to get this matter right.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far, but does he agree that we should accept all the recommendations brought forward by the Kelly committee without amendment? If we amend them, we will once again be determining the parameters of our pay and conditions.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I very much hope that we will be able to accept all those recommendations, but we are a sovereign House and will have to debate them. I hope that they will be sensible, constructive and prudent, and that we will be able to accept them. The hon. Gentleman may not have heard me, but I said earlier that some of the recommendations could be uncomfortable—for me, for him or for others—but that we should wait for them. When we receive them, they should speedily be brought before the House, and I hope that they can be implemented as quickly as possible.

I want to address two issues in particular, the first of which concerns our staff. The recommendation on the Order Paper that all our staff should be centrally employed has aroused very real concern in all parts of the House. It is an idea whose full consequences have not been thoroughly thought through. The relationship between Members of Parliament and those who work for them is extremely important. It is right that Labour Members should be able to employ people who to some degree share their political views and prejudices, and the same is true for Conservative Members. It would be very difficult for a member of the Labour party to employ
30 Apr 2009 : Column 1091
someone who was a card-carrying Conservative, and the reverse would be equally difficult. It is very important that Members of Parliament are able to select who works for them. I last advertised for a member of staff about 18 months ago, and I received something like 100 applications.

John Bercow: Well, you would, understandably.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Yes, and I saw a large number of people and appointed someone. It is very important that nothing should get in the way of that process. Although my hon. Friend is enjoying his own joke—

Mr. Sheerman: It was a very good joke.

Sir Patrick Cormack: It was a very good joke, of course, as all his jokes are. However, I hope that he would accept that all hon. Members should have that untrammelled right to appoint their staff. I do not want the House of Commons to be turned into a vast employment agency that hires, fires and allocates staff.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) intervened earlier to ask what would happen to her staff, who are making plans based on the knowledge that she is retiring from the service of the House of Commons. Their loyalty to her may be such that they may not wish to carry on working in the House of Commons for another Member of Parliament.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack: My right hon. Friend is in exactly the same position, and I shall give way to her briefly.

Miss Widdecombe: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as I was going to make exactly that point. I am retiring at the next election, and all the members of my staff have indicated to me that they wish to stay with me during the wind-up period and then leave the House. It would be very unfair to them to force them to transfer at the last minute to a different set of conditions, and that is why we need to get the transitional arrangements sorted out.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I completely agree. I have tabled an amendment, which Mr. Speaker has selected, that at the very least would allow staff to choose whether they should be individually or centrally employed. We shall see whether we vote on that later, because I want to hear what people have got to say, but it would be quite wrong to rush through such a change.

Earlier, I listened to the remarks made on behalf of the House of Commons Commission by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell). I used to be a member of the Commission and, despite my regard for him, I was not wholly reassured by what he said. It is important that whatever we decide should not apply until the beginning of the next Parliament because there really ought to be a proper transitional period.

I now come to an issue that I know is not a comfortable one, but it is one that has to be addressed, and a specific motion is down for it. It concerns outside earnings.
30 Apr 2009 : Column 1092
Already we have a register and those of us who have any outside earnings register them without any qualms or worries. The register covers what we do, the bands of money that we earn, and for whom we do these things. We are moving down a very slippery slope here because we are moving towards a situation in which, over a generation, this House will become an assembly of full-time, permanent politicians who have no connection to or relationship with the outside world.

No one could suggest for a minute that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is not an assiduous, full-time Member of Parliament. I know full well that what she does in her constituency is deeply appreciated by her constituents and they are not happy that she is leaving them, but she has found time to write books.

Miss Widdecombe: Very good books.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Very good books, as she rightly says. The fact that she has done that is of no concern to anyone else. It enriches not only her personally—well, I sincerely hope that it does—but those for whom she works and whom she represents.

I should like to delete the reference to hours in motion 3. There is a lovely story about the painter Whistler. He was once in a court case accused of knocking off his pictures in an hour or half an hour, and he said, “That picture does not represent an hour’s work but a lifetime’s experience.” Often a Member of Parliament is in a position to give advice and may not take very long to give that advice, but it is of great value to those to whom it is given. As long as the register records the interest, that is fine.

If that advice is given within a context that involves the Member’s parliamentary duties, I do not mind extra details being given, but we have already made an exception for the profession of which the Leader of the House is an illustrious adornment. Barristers and solicitors will be allowed to withhold certain information. That is right and proper in view of the confidential relationship between the lawyer and the client, but I do not see why there has to be this intrusiveness in respect of everyone who has outside earnings. I should like to encourage people to do things outside the House.

I am in my office in the House, as a number of hon. Members present know, never later than 8 in the morning and frequently before half-past 7, as I was this morning, and I very rarely leave much before 10 at night. I give a service in my constituency of which I am quietly proud. If I can find time to do certain other things, to write articles and other things, that is for me and it is my concern. I hope that the House will take a broad-minded view and realise that it will impoverish this place if we merely have people who come in from a political background to be politicians and nothing else and have no contact with those outside in the world that we serve.

I end where I began. There is no higher calling than representing a constituency in Parliament. When I came here, I regarded it as a vocation and a way of life. Of course we must do all that we can to ensure that the public recognise that and we must not abuse the system, but we must provide the proper tools so that we can adequately do the job.

30 Apr 2009 : Column 1093
2.49 pm

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): The Leader of the House made the case for change, and she is right: change is necessary; it is vital, and we need to get on with it. The Prime Minister, all the leaders of the political parties and most Members recognise that, put simply, we cannot go on like this. The mood of the country is detached from the political classes. There is a view abroad that we who represent the people do not understand how they live and the difficulties they face. That is unhealthy; it is not good for democracy; and it is bad for the House. So change is necessary and we need to achieve it quickly. The issue for the House today is simply this: how do we best do it?

I was delighted that the Leader of the House accepted the amendment tabled by the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. The way forward is an independent, comprehensive review. We have tried to do that ourselves in the past but have not been successful. Any effort that we take will not have the support of the public outside—we need that independent element. We need to be aware that the tone out there is corrosive; it undermines our position, and it undermines our self-confidence. I know from talking to colleagues that a number of them are now disillusioned and are thinking of not standing at the next general election. It is bad for the public; it is bad for the House.

We must pass these matters to Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life and ask them to do a good and thorough job, but there are caveats: we must tell Sir Christopher’s committee speed is necessary. That said, he will have to look at the issue comprehensively and carefully and we will have to look carefully at his recommendations. The House is sovereign, but I would be extremely surprised if the House did not take those recommendations, even if they are uncomfortable, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) just said.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paddy Tipping: I will turn to the hon. Gentleman directly, and then I will take his point. He is a member of Sir Christopher’s committee, as is my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and Baroness Maddox. By definition, they have had to exclude themselves in a way from the inquiry. I say directly to the hon. Gentleman that I hope that he and his colleagues who represent the political parties on the committee are a source of advice and knowledge, because this is a difficult job. Sir Christopher’s committee will be worse off if it does not take the knowledge and understanding that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues who represent us on that committee can give.

Mr. Heald: I am a member of the committee, but I am not taking part in the inquiry. The hon. Gentleman is right that the committee will ask for advice on factual matters from time to time. Does he agree that the committee should take time to hear evidence to find out fully about the role of a Member of Parliament and how it differs in different parts of the country, and that this is not something to be rushed, although it must be done as quickly as possible?

30 Apr 2009 : Column 1094

Paddy Tipping: I agree entirely. We need an independent, thoughtful and comprehensive review, but the committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, needs to be aware that there is pressure and a mood outside for change. Change is necessary; it will have to come. I hope that the committee will balance that.

I am surprised that, having accepted the amendment today, the Government—my colleagues—seem to want to plough on with piecemeal change. The House has a straightforward choice today: do we want an independent, comprehensive report that will command widespread appreciation and support outside the House, or do we want to go forward, as we have been doing for some time, doing a bit at a time to try to respond to the changes? That is a wrong way to go forward, and I am surprised that the Government have accepted the amendment from the Standards and Privileges Committee and have decided to plough on. That is a bad decision.

I think that some of the Government’s proposals will be recommended by Sir Christopher’s inquiry, and it is interesting that they say that they accept that these are interim proposals. Why do we need to make decisions now when we can consider a comprehensive, thoughtful and independent report that will, we hope, command public confidence in the future?

Will my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House think again? We have a straight choice today. We all want change—it is vital and urgently needed—but we must consider carefully how to achieve it. Will we go forward in the future comprehensively and in a way that will generate public support, or, as we have done in the past, will we teem and ladle by doing a bit here and a bit there?

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): The idea that the committee can come up with something that commands public support really is hope over experience—we will not satisfy the public. Let us get on with it and do something sensible. The committee will just waste more time.

Paddy Tipping: I am optimistic for the future and for democracy. Let me say directly to my hon. Friend that we should not be pessimistic. People come into the House to make a difference. They are good people who listen to their community and want to bring about change. We should be proud of that and we should make that point to Sir Christopher’s committee.

I ask my colleagues to support the amendment tabled by the Standards and Privileges Committee—it has been accepted—but to be sceptical about the need for the further change for which the Government are pressing. We want to be able to rebuild confidence so that we can be proud of the people whom we represent and, more importantly, they can be proud of us. Let us make progress, but progress that is thoughtful, independent and comprehensive.

2.57 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): In the course of more than 20 years in the House, I have never felt the need to speak about Members’ allowances, and I do so only as I approach retirement. I am conscious, as we all are, that almost anything we say will be misconstrued or interpreted in the opposite way to how we intended to put it. However, I should draw the House’s attention to concerns that have been expressed to me by fellow
30 Apr 2009 : Column 1095
retiring Members and others. I love this place, so it is distressing that many of them are saying to me, “I bet you’re not sorry you’re going”, and, given the frenzied tenor of this discussion, I am increasingly starting to agree with them.

We desperately need—this exactly follows the wise words of the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)—the Committee on Standards in Public Life to take a cool and dispassionate look at the situation, and all its complications. To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), we then need a pretty strong moral commitment that we will do our best to accept the committee’s report, unless it contains something clearly ridiculous. It is important that we look at things objectively not only because a few newspaper headlines have dictated the week’s agenda, but because we need independent validation of what is appropriate and right.

I wish to make two specific points. The first relates to the only interest that I need to declare in this debate, which is characteristic of all my interests except my farming activities in that those interests are often not profitable—as is the case for others, many things I do are not for profit. I chair the executive committee of the Parliamentary Resources Unit, which is a pooled resource unit of researchers that is broadly for Conservative Members. In that capacity, I am worried about some of the specific implications of the proposals for staff. The unit has a management structure; we have a director and are appointing a deputy director. We have more than 12 members of staff and therefore need to manage them. In a sense, we Members of Parliament employ staff by proxy. If we are not able to go outside the research grades, we are likely to have a very difficult position. I just record that as an example of the detail.

That leads to me to say how strongly I agree with the comments made about the relationship with staff. We would all lose if we were to lose that personal link. I do not claim any particular virtue, but I can report that since I joined the House in 1987, I have employed the same constituency secretary, who is London-based, and the same part-time secretary in my constituency. They have worked for me for all that time. To refer to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, they are likely to want to retire, or change their arrangements, when I go. I really do not want that very intimate relationship—perhaps I should say personal relationship, in case that is misinterpreted—disturbed at this stage, overturning all the possibilities of pension and so forth. We need to look at that issue. We need lots of trade union and employment law input, and we need to get the measures right.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): At the moment, the salaries of our members of staff are put against our own names. Without doubt, many of our constituents think that that money goes straight into our pockets. What do we do to ensure that the salaries of members of staff are not marked against our names?

Mr. Boswell: The short answer is that we need to tell the truth about what is happening. Above all, we do not need to distort our arrangements and our relationship with our staff to meet a tabloid headline. Sometimes we have to take a stand.

Next Section Index Home Page