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30 Apr 2009 : Column 1102

Sir George Young: I only heard what the Leader of the House said in her speech, which was that she accepted my amendment, but that she was none the less going to invite the House to take a decision on subsequent resolutions. I could not follow the logic of that, but that is the only information that I have.

We have two reasons for believing that we should allow Sir Christopher to proceed before we take a decision: one of principle and one of practicality. On principle, it cannot be right for the Government to ram their motion through the House as they propose. They want the House to take decisions today on resolutions tabled on Monday evening. There has been no consultation with the parties, no consultation with the Committees that will have to operate and police the system, no consultation with Back Benchers generally and little opportunity for us to discuss the matter with our staff.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: In a moment.

That sits uneasily with how the Prime Minister said he would treat the House in his first statement as Prime Minister—to restore some of the independence that we had surrendered to the Executive and, to use the words in his Green Paper, to

The Prime Minister began his letter of 23 March to Sir Christopher Kelly with the following words:

When pressed at Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister again said that the matter was one for the House. He was right: it is a matter for the House, and we should do what we think is right without the Government playing the loyalty card or claiming a monopoly of opinion on how best to proceed.

Still on principle, what is the point of constraining Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee with interim arrangements that may have to be changed months later? Interim changes mean that there will be further, later changes. On issues such as the employment of Members’ staff, that is frankly unfair on those affected. On principle again, with some of the resolutions, the cart has been put before the horse. On Members’ staff, I am invited to express an opinion now, and then the Commission will consider the proposition. I would prefer the Commission or Kelly to consider the proposition, and then I will express an opinion. For a range of reasons, my Committee decided unanimously that the House should be urged not to adopt instant, piecemeal or poorly considered provisions. Doing so runs the risk of creating confusion and chaos where we need consistency and consensus. The key thing is to restore public confidence, which we best achieve by allowing Sir Christopher to proceed with his work.

I also have doubts about the practicability of some of the proposals. As an example of what will now be caught by the rules on financial interests, any hon. Member who receives a £30 fee for completing an opinion poll, even though the sum is donated to a local charity, will need to register that sum. Not only that, but they will be obliged each time to register the name of the organisation, its address and the amount of time
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that they spent on the phone. Also, if a colleague is presented with a bottle of wine after a speaking engagement, that becomes potentially registrable as earnings, as does the time spent at the function. That is because the Government, without any consultation, have abolished the de minimis threshold for categories 1, 2 and 3 in the register, which the House confirmed without a Division only two months ago.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): There is another interesting repercussion. It appears that the third motion is intended to stop directorships with huge fees. However, some professionals have to practise to maintain their profession. Therefore, if on a Sunday morning, instead of playing golf or sitting reading the news of the Government’s disasters—

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Or going to church.

Sir Paul Beresford: Indeed, or even after going to church. If, instead of doing those things, I happen to see a few patients—this point could affect hon. Members from any part of the House—I will have to declare that if rumour is correct. However, if I went to church or played golf, which would make no difference to my constituency actions, I would not have to declare it.

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend has made a powerful point right in the middle of my speech.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to the Chair of my Committee for giving way. Has there been any consultation with the registrar or the commissioner who would have to administer the proposed system? The practicalities that the right hon. Gentleman is outlining—and, indeed, many others—would be horrendous, and dealing with them would present real difficulties.

Sir George Young: Of course I had consultations with the registrar before I explained the implications of some of the resolutions before the House. Whether the Government have had similar consultations with the registrar, I do not know. I do not know whether it was the intention of the Leader of the House that she would have to register the bottle of wine that she might receive after making a moving speech at a dinner, but the time would be registrable.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): First, I just want to clarify that the Government did have discussions with the registrar, as would be appropriate. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong in his interpretation of how the proposals in the motion would work. They would not change category 5 in relation to gifts, benefits and hospitality. The change would relate only to directorships and remunerated employment.

Sir George Young: I said what I said after consultation with the Registrar of Members’ Interests.

I have no outside interests, but I am cautious about registering the hours as proposed. My personal view is that our constituents would be more interested, and surprised, to hear how many hours a week we work for them, rather than how many hours we do not.

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My Committee has been accused of trying to kick the ball into the long grass, and misrepresented as seeking to preserve our allowances for as long as possible. That is not the case. The Kelly inquiry is not the long grass; it is the best, and possibly the last, chance to get this right. For reasons of public interest, not self-interest, we believe that it would be a mistake to go ahead as the Government plan to do. We also believe that we should not pre-empt Kelly. Only the proposals that flow from an independent inquiry will command public confidence. Let Kelly and his Committee come to their own independent conclusions; then the House can decide. In the meantime, the Government should not dictate to them, or to us.

3.32 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): There is always a certain reluctance to talk about these matters, and I do not think that I have spoken in the House about Members’ pay and allowances before. It is worth looking back at the history. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) was right in what he said; indeed, we tabled an amendment to the motion, but it was not selected for discussion. I ask us all to have a sense of the history of these arrangements because we have long failed to grapple with them.

We all know that the central problem is the reluctance over many years to increase the salary of Members of Parliament to a sufficient level. We also know that Governments of all political persuasions have said, “It’s all right, we’ll give you some help through the expenses you can claim.” The mileage allowance is an example. I remember when Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister there was a rebellion among Conservative Members because she would not implement the pay rise that had been recommended by an independent inquiry. What happened? The next thing we knew was that we had the largest ever increase in mileage allowance, as long as we had a car of more than 2,000 cc. We all remember that, and we all remember the subsequent changes in the types of cars in the car park beneath the House.

There has been tension over these matters for a long time. Another tension exists, to which the House should pay careful attention. It is all very well for an independent body to decide how we should be paid and what our allowances should be, but we all know that normally, as soon as the committees have reported to the House, whichever Prime Minister has been in power at the time has said, “Oh, this is very embarrassing. We can’t possibly be seen to increase the salary of Members of Parliament.” Prime Ministers of all parties have failed to agree to the recommendations, and arrangements have been made with the Whips to water them down or modify them in some way. That was why my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and I tabled our amendment today.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made a clear point in this regard, but he did not take the final step which would be for the leaders of the three main parties to say that whatever happens with the Kelly report, they will accept it. That is the way to get real independence in the House and to free ourselves from the sort of criticism that we have brought on ourselves from the public. The challenge from Back-Bench Members is to tell the leaders of our individual parties that that is what we need.

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We have done that before, even on policy issues. I remind the House of the agreement on the Dearing inquiry into higher education. Even in the run-up to an election, the leaders of the three main parties said that they would hold off making decisions on the future of higher education until Lord Dearing had published his report. All three parties stuck to that agreement and we got a rather better policy initiative than we otherwise would.

Ms Dari Taylor: I totally agree with all my hon. Friend says about independence, but does he accept that the committee, and Sir Christopher Kelly in particular, must understand the life that we lead here? It is crucial that people understand the hours that we work and the type of life that we have here.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend anticipates what I was to say next, which is the only other point I want to make.

When I came into the House, we had a system that I thought worked very badly. I saw people from my part of the world, 200 miles from this House, renting the cheapest accommodation they could find in a trade union hostel or a cheap hotel. People came here and slept in their little beds in their little cells or their shabby little bedrooms. After four days—we sat late on four nights—they went back to their constituencies. That was corrosive of family life. If one does not have a decent place in one’s constituency and near this House, family life will be destroyed. It means that MPs say goodbye to their partners and come down here on their own. The rule was that you never saw your family. That is destructive of family life and it means that very strange people end up being MPs. We have seen a better cross-section of real people since we changed the rules. Let us take this issue seriously but let us give the message to Sir Christopher Kelly about the way MPs operate and the way we wish to have our lives in the future. We must stand up to ensure there is a real appreciation of how MPs work and live.

My last point is this. I have made myself relatively unpopular elsewhere by asking, “Who has stood up for the hardworking MP who works a 15-hour day and works on Select Committees?” Indeed, I have made myself very unpopular because I believe—I am looking at the Father of the House, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who knows that I have made this case many times—that there should be extra payment for those who work so hard on Select Committees. That would make me very unpopular out there, but I think it is right for people who do that extra work. Otherwise, we will end up with lots of unpaid deputy Whips and unpaid deputy Ministers. The independent Back Bencher who serves on Select Committees and does all the jobs in the House will be difficult to find.

The right thing today is to accept the amendment that supports the Select Committee’s view. I will vote against the other measures today reluctantly, because I agree with some and I hope that they are in Kelly. But I will vote against them, because it is wrong to anticipate what Kelly will produce. Kelly is undertaking an independent review, which we should accept. Let us put the spotlight on the leaders of the two Opposition parties, and on the Prime Minister, so they say, “Whatever it says, we will back it.”

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3.40 pm

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): It is said that politics is a vain calling—that people stand in this place and say, “Hear my views. Look at me, look at me.” I suspect that all Members of the House have looked at me in great detail and I still bear the scars. It would be a vanity on my part, however, to think that the Government’s proposals on the employment of staff are down to the experiences that have been well publicised in this place and in the media. Therefore, one must wonder: why the haste?

More than 200 close family members are employed by Members of Parliament. Many more employ lovers, who are not necessarily known to be related, and many more again employ in-laws because of the difference in their surnames. No doubt the total number of relatives employed by Members of the House is 250 rather than the lower estimate. Is that wrong? People will make their own judgments about my case, and they have done so. However, many Members of Parliament find it convenient to employ family members, not necessarily to supplement their income, because many MPs take a drop in salary when they come to this place—I halved my salary when I came back. Many Members employ family because of availability and reliability, and as many Members have experienced before me, family members are often employed for confidentiality and convenience. Is it just the money? I am not sure that that is the case, and it will be interesting to see how the Commission addresses the problems of central employment.

As I experienced during the investigation of two years into my personal activities and those of my family, the Standards and Privileges Committee, whose distinguished Chairman has spoken today, wanted to know whether there was a need for the person to be employed by the Member of Parliament, whether they were able to do the job—presumably two-year-olds would not apply—whether they were actually doing the job, and whether the reward for what they did was reasonable, which, one would expect, is a test that will apply to every Member of the House.

However, the standard of proof varies, and I say to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee that if his reports are contrasted, they will show that there is a difference in the standards applied, not only by the current Committee but by previous Committees, to the Members before them. The House will recall the treatment that led to the loss of Elizabeth Filkin’s services, in relation to the case of the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), and more recently the comparison between the investigation into my family and that into the employment arrangements of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman).

Interestingly, when my elder son Henry was being investigated, the commissioner, who is a polite and decent man, was extraordinarily thorough. However, levels of thoroughness are a human failing, for us all. In Henry’s examination, there were long-distance calls to Canada, with witness statements being taken. Cleverly, the commissioner even found a secretary who had worked in the office, and had long since left, but unfortunately she remembered seeing Henry and seeing what he did. By mere coincidence, there was even a photograph of him helping at a function. One tried to gather together the evidence. That compares interestingly with the later Committee report, for which some of the witnesses who
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had been reported in the press were not even contacted and asked for their opinion. By contrast, my son sat for two and a half hours giving evidence before the commissioner. One wonders whether Committees of the House, as we know from experience, bend over backwards to try to protect Front Benchers if they possibly can.

In my case, both commissioners found that my sons had worked, and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, when he was not busy trying to sort out computer contracts for his friends, took a particular interest in my case, as he was anxious that it should be prosecuted. The Crown Prosecution Service—

Sir Patrick Cormack: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the fact that the Member who is addressing the House accepted the punishment of the House, apologised unreservedly and paid back the money that was taken, is not this speech rather an abuse of that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I say to the hon. Gentleman that I see no point of order in the question. Every hon. Member is responsible for the remarks that they make in this Chamber and will be assessed accordingly. I call Mr. Derek Conway.

Derek Conway: I in no way question how the Standards and Privileges Committee conducted its case with me—I accepted fully what it said—but that does not prevent me, any other Member of this House or any member of the public from contrasting the different reports that the Committee produces. It found in my case that the issue hung on the level of reward. Henry, my eldest son, was paid at the second quartile of the lowest grade. That is relevant to the debate that the House has been having on the employment of staff, including those related to Members of Parliament. As I know from bitter personal experience, my son, who was at the second quartile of the lowest grade and was a part-time student, was judged to have been paid too highly. Therefore, one awaits with interest any inquiries that are made into the husband of the Home Secretary, who is paid at the top of the highest grade while being a full-time house husband.

Speculation about what Members of this House are doing and what is reported in the papers should apply to all Members, not just some. How these points in the salary scales are arrived at remains a mystery to me. In my case, the Committee decided that it would have been appropriate for my son to have been paid at the entry point of the lowest grade, with an annual cost of living and a 2 per cent. annual performance increase. That is not laid down by the House authorities anywhere; I have not seen it applied anywhere else. I do not think I am challenging the Committee by raising this, because I shall be raising it with the House authorities in the coming months.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I find it difficult to believe that an hon. Member who has accepted the findings of a Committee in a disciplinary case of his can subsequently come back to the House and call into question the judgments that that Committee has made. That seems to be what the hon. Member is doing.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: I do not think that a point of order is involved. I have made one ruling. Every hon. Member must be responsible for what they say in this Chamber and, short of an attack on or criticism of another hon. or right hon. Member, it is a matter of judgment for which every one of us will be held accountable. I have not heard anything that causes me to rule the hon. Gentleman out of order, but he is responsible for what he says and he must consider carefully what he does say.

Derek Conway: I am not challenging what the Committee is saying. What I am asking is that if Members are looking for guidance on what level of pay to set for their staff, should they look to the House authorities, to the Green Book or to personnel practice? The Committee’s different decisions in different cases do not necessarily help to provide that guidance, but they set a precedent—that is the point I wish to make. Interestingly, I think that although the Government are using great haste to try to resolve this matter, it will not end today. My inquiry went back eight years, so whatever the Government or the House decide today, this matter will not finish today. I have resigned myself to being the Admiral Byng of this Parliament, but that does not stop me developing a new hobby, and I believe that those Members of this House who have employed close family members should look a little more closely at the Committee’s decisions on levels of pay and how interest each year should be applied. I do not think for one moment that the inquiries into how Members have employed their staff will end with tonight’s debate.

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