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30 Apr 2009 : Column 1096

I should like to raise one or two more general points that are, in a sense, indicators or markers to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who is seated on my right, is a member of the committee, but even if he is not formally participating in the debate, I hope that he will take notice. The committee should take note of issues of shared expenditure. Lots of us have complicated lives. We do things that are partly political and partly done for our constituents. We do things at home that are part of our office activity, and partly done on our personal account. We benefit from accommodation that is both personal to us—it is where we need to stay for the night when we are at Westminster late—and shared by members of our families. That whole area needs sorting out.

It has been suggested, in some of the more draconian ideas, that Members capital profits on their flats should be clawed back. I dare say that there is a capital profit on the flat that I have occupied since 1989, but I have not worked it out, as it is going down by the moment. However, there is no basis in principle that is clear. It is quite difficult to contemplate any sensible clawback from current or former Members. How, for example, will we run that past the property safeguards under the European convention on human rights? If we are to do that kind of thing, we have to declare what we need to do very clearly. We should start the system in a way that ensures that everyone is clear.

My third point goes wider than the debate. Nobody has used the words “legitimate expectation” in this debate, but the Prime Minister’s idea of cutting off the allowance year after four months and completely recasting it was absurd. I have never claimed the cost of the kitchen that I bought for my flat from public funds, but had I done so, would it have been all right to do so on 1 May, and all wrong on 1 August? That is not the right way to proceed. That is why I am so anxious that matters should be referred to the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life and properly phased in.

I shall conclude, because many Members want to speak. We should say that the best defence against abuses—there have been abuses, and, as the hon. Member for Sherwood said, there is a need for change; I can see that—is not yet more box-ticking, or even more rigorous accountancy. I accept that there have been failures in that regard, and we need to remove areas of gross difficulty. Those failures are to some extent, however, the function of a system that is too complicated. The best safeguard is the conscience of individual Members in acting responsibly.

Mr. Hogg: Perhaps the best safeguard will be transparency. Now that everybody is obliged to reveal everything, in my view rightly, that itself will be an antidote.

Mr. Boswell: That is hugely beneficial, but nobody should ever think that mere compliance with the rules represents the sufficient discharge of their responsibilities to the House or to their constituents. We must be absolutely straight in our dealings, but we must largely be the judges of that. We need independent input, first, on advice, because I am not sure that we have always received as much advice as would have been appropriate; and, secondly, on the right audit, filter and transparency, as my right hon. and learned Friend has just said.

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In doing all that, we must acknowledge, as the principles of the inquiry that the Commission has launched acknowledge, that we need adequate support in our work. However, it is wrong to keep legislating bit by bit, headline by headline. I am very struck by the remark in the issues and questions document from the Commission. Paragraph 1.12 states that

That seems to be the right message. We need to do it, but we need to do it together and coherently.

I mentioned at the beginning that I am deeply attached to this place. It is still the best way of running a society, and I do not want to leave it to a toxic combination of the affluent, who do not need the support, and the anoraks, who do not claim the support. We need to acknowledge change, but we must do so in a properly considered, independently validated, measured and coherent way.

3.7 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): It is a rather large understatement to say that we are in a bit of a mess, but most of us who care about our politics and the reputation of the House think that we need to sort this mess out. Certain people—well represented in certain newspapers—do not want us to sort this mess out at all, because it provides such wonderful daily copy. The last thing that they want is to see us get hold of the issue and resolve it. Some of them would no doubt be content for us to sleep on benches in St. James’s park—and if they were, they would still say that we were taking somebody else’s bench. We know that all that is true, but it should give us an added incentive to ensure that we take steps to clear this mess up. We know, too, that things will get a lot worse before they get any better, and that conditions our approach to the issue. We saw it coming, however, and in a sense we have only ourselves to blame. This issue has not come out of a clear blue sky; it has been around for a very long time.

I gave evidence to another inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, back in June 2002—that is, seven years ago. I looked up the evidence, because I could vaguely remember it, and I said:

Even then, for those of us who were in this place using and observing the system, it was not difficult to see that issues would come along and do us an awful lot of damage if we did not attend to them. So I told the Committee to get on with it, but of course it did not.

When we had our biggest recent scandal at the beginning of last year—in February 2008—I wrote to Sir Christopher Kelly to say:

However, he took the view that we were going to attend to these issues ourselves, and we failed to do so. I agree with everyone who has talked about the damage that that is now doing: it is almost impossible to overstate it. It is fundamentally corrosive, not to one party or another but to the whole of our political system, and indeed to the whole of the practice of politics; it contaminates everything else that we do. People rightly say, “If you can’t sort this out, if you behave in this way in relation to your own affairs, how can we trust you with anything else?” In a sense, that question is unanswerable.

In some ways, it should be entirely simple. People, on the whole, are fair-minded. They know that, to do the job, we have to come and spend some nights in London, employ staff, and travel between one place and another. One would think that it should be reasonably straightforward to construct a system that reflects those basic needs, but we failed to do so. There is no point in us all canvassing our own preferred options on any of these issues—we all have different views on how we might resolve them. We have reached the point where we have conspicuously failed to do that ourselves, and we now have to ask someone to help us.

Daniel Kawczynski: I think that we all agree that there must be some form of reform. However, given that the cost of maintaining all our offices and all the work that we do as parliamentarians comes to about £92 million, which is less than two thirds of the aid that we give to Tanzania, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cost benefits that we provide are very good for the British taxpayer?

Dr. Wright: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that by addressing that argument to his constituents he will convince them that nothing is wrong, he is not living in the same world as most of us.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Wright: I will give way once more.

Mr. Prentice: Is not the core issue whether we decide our own pay and conditions or hand it over to someone else to decide for us?

Dr. Wright: That will indeed be my core conclusion in a moment, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.

There is no point in our canvassing our preferred options on what we should do about this allowance or that allowance, because we have decided, rightly, that we have proved incapable of doing this, and we now need help urgently. When we give our evidence to Sir Christopher, we can say what we think about these things, but we can also be very clear about the principles involved, which are pretty straightforward. First, we should be compensated only for what we have actually spent. That was the fundamental objection to the idea of the daily allowance, in all its various versions that kept developing. Next, it has to be spent on essential items, by which I mean items with regard to which we can look our constituents in the eye and explain why they are essential for us to do our job. If we cannot do
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that, as in the case of some of the esoteric claims that have been around in recent times, there is no way that we can ever explain to our constituents why claims are essential to do the job. They may be very desirable to have, but they are not essential.

We need a system with the right set of incentives—incentives to live rather modestly. The problem with the current system is that the incentives are entirely of the wrong kind. They are incentives to live immodestly and exploit the allowances to the maximum, by having a larger house than necessary because the mortgage interest will be paid, and then by adding fixtures to the house because it will increase its value and the taxpayer will pay for them. Those are entirely the wrong incentives.

We must apply to any new system the principle that, as far as possible, it should be abuse-proof. Unfortunately, any system has a capacity to be abused. The problem with our system is that it invites abuse. In constructing a new system, we must ensure as far as we can that it diminishes the capacity for abuse.

Mr. Clelland: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Wright: I said that I would not give way again, but I shall do so one final time.

Mr. Clelland: I thank my hon. Friend. He made the point about the need for Members to be compensated on the basis of what they actually spend. While one might be able to see the merit in that, is there not a danger that we will all be driven down to the level of what the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) called the “anoraks”?

Dr. Wright: I hope not. If we have definable essential items that we claim for, I cannot see anything wrong with that system. That is what we think the system ought to be. Having established the principles, we should crack down ruthlessly on any evidence of abuse of any new system.

If the opportunity presents itself, I shall vote for the motions that I believe are right and desirable, while bearing in mind that Kelly may come to a different view. On some things, such as the staffing allowance, I shall abstain, because I am an agnostic. I do not know what is the best way to employ staff. By the way, we have the wrong target there. What concerns people about the staffing allowance is not who employs the staff but how it is abused. It is the abuse that needs attending to, not the cosmetic presentation of who employs the staff.

Unfortunately, we have failed to sort this out ourselves over an extended period, and it now has to be done. I remind the House that a former Clerk of the House wrote to The Guardian recently, saying that his great concern was that because we had the capacity to decide these things for ourselves, we had the capacity to subvert any recommendations that were put to us. He said that he had seen that many times in the past. He wrote:

That is what we do, as people have said, and it has brought us great difficulties. We must accept that this issue has needed sorting for a long time and is causing
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us and the whole system huge damage. We have failed to sort it out and we now have to turn finally to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life and say, “Will you please do it for us?” That should have happened a long time ago.

Sir Christopher has said in the past few days that he will give us not a menu of options to pick and choose from but a comprehensive set of recommendations. That is right, but the question is whether we accept those recommendations from an external, independent body. If it is possible to envisage things getting even worse, the worst outcome would be to get the Kelly recommendations and then start playing around with them. We should not canvass for our favoured schemes. Every party should say that it will not only wait for Kelly but accept Kelly. That is the only way that we will dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in.

3.19 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Amendment (j) is in my name and that of every other member of my Committee. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said and I commend the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) for his remarks a few moments ago.

Let me read to the House what it will agree if, as seems likely, the amendment is accepted:

The Government have said that they agree with that, and it would therefore be inconsistent for them to invite the House to reach conclusions before the Committee has reported. That would stand logic on its head and I invite them to think again. If they agree with my Committee about amendment (j), they should not proceed with the subsequent motions. Anything else is inconsistent and illogical and would defy what the House had agreed to.

I do not challenge the procedural possibilities, but it appears illogical to say that we must not make decisions and then proceed to make them.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab) rose—

Sir George Young: I give way to a fellow member of my Committee.

Mr. Mullin: I am most grateful. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if the Government are unwise enough to go ahead and press the motions to a vote, abstaining is the logical action for Members to take?

Sir George Young: Or, indeed, voting against, because hon. Members will have agreed not to make a decision.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend further agree that, if a substantive amendment, which, to all intents and purposes, replaces a full text, is not to be regarded as a replacement of that text, we must reconsider the House’s procedure, which
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is based on amendments as a form of scrutiny? For example, yesterday’s debate on the Gurkhas might have left us with both the Liberal Democrat motion and the Government amendment standing.

Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend makes a thoughtful procedural point, which I do not propose to explore in great detail.

Miss Widdecombe: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir George Young: May I begin to make the case for why my Committee acted as it did? I will give way to my right hon. Friend later.

My Committee thought long and hard before deciding to intervene in the debate. My Committee likes to cruise in the stratosphere above the turbulence of party politics, and it is no part of our agenda to pick a fight with the Prime Minister on the matter that we are considering. We are a group of colleagues, appointed by the House, to have regard to the reputation of the House. Our view is that that is best served by the action that we propose.

Indeed, far from disagreeing with the Prime Minister, we agree with him on the need for radical reform and we wrote to him on 31 March, welcoming his decision to invite Sir Christopher Kelly to conduct a thorough review of our allowances. We believe that that was the right way forward. Sir Christopher responded to the Prime Minister by rearranging his Committee’s programme to accommodate the request. He has drafted and, indeed, circulated a consultation document, asking for evidence on all the issues before the House by 5 June. At that point, I think we were on the right track.

Then, for reasons that have never been properly explained, the Prime Minister went on YouTube. I think that it would have been better to make an oral statement to the House, but perhaps I am old-fashioned. Some rushed decisions were announced. There was no consultation, even, we hear, with Cabinet colleagues. A new timetable for implementation was proposed and Kelly was pre-empted with conclusions about what should happen on key issues.

It is not surprising, given the complexity of the issues and the haste of the exercise, that the wheels came off the coach on the matter that had generated the most controversy, namely the additional costs allowance, or personal additional accommodation expenditure, as it is now known. The Prime Minister’s proposals to go on paying the money, but with no receipts, failed his own criteria of transparency and accountability.

So, today, we have “Hamlet” without the prince—decisions on some of the other matters referred to Kelly. If the reason for rushing things through was to allow the Prime Minister to say on 1 July that the ACA had been sorted, that alibi no longer exists. But rather than coming up with quick answers, we should come up with the right answers.

Miss Widdecombe: On the point that my right hon. Friend was making when I tried to intervene, which was about the inconsistency between his amendment being successful and proposals being pressed to the vote, has he received any indication from the Government about how they intend to proceed?

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