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3.49 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): One underlying theme resonates throughout this debate, sometimes spoken, sometimes not, and I hope that the Kelly committee will determine its views on this absolutely. I am talking about the pay of Members of this House. I take a different view from many of those who have suggested that Members of Parliament are badly paid. I think that the level of remuneration is appropriate, but we will all have a dilemma if we hand over pay to an outside body. The principle of elected Members not determining their own pay is a higher and more important principle than the actual level of that pay. I hope that the level of pay would not go up if it were determined independently in the future. I also hope that all hon. Members would agree that if pay levels are to be determined independently, whether after Kelly or at some later stage, we should not then be able to vote on that decision and nor should Governments be able to do so in the future. That independence should be retained.

I am also strongly of the view that the level of expenses should be determined externally and not internally by the House. Two aspects of the terminology used in this debate cloud it dangerously. The first is the use of the word “allowances”. There is a fundamental difference between allowances and expenses, and the fact that Members are able to use the two words interchangeably demonstrates the confusion of this debate. I hope that the Kelly review will look at expenses and will determine that the concept of allowances has been part of the problem. If its view is that MPs are underpaid, it should say so, but that should not be hidden in allowances. The pretext of the allowance system that has been built up is precisely why people regard the issue with horror.

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The second term that has been used inaccurately today is “abuse”. There have been abuses, but it can be argued that even those examples were overuses rather than abuses, because they took place within the system. That is why those examples have not been referred to authorities outside the House such as, for example, the police. They have been examples of overuse, not abuse. The so-called abuses that we have seen in recent months—sometimes several are revealed in one weekend—are overuses of the system. There is a question about whether such usage is right or moral, which constituents will throw at all of us, but it fell within the system. Of course, the more extravagant our usage of the system, the more extreme the criticism, and that may well be appropriate, but it is the system itself that is rotten.

I shall give some theoretical examples. Under the system at the moment, it is possible—although the House refuses to release the information—for some 150 Members to claim an overnight allowance not for coming to Parliament, but for living in their constituency. Is that right? The Leader of the Opposition may be one such person. There is no question of abuse of the system, and nothing is being hidden, but is that right? Is it right that £24,000 of mortgage interest can be claimed by a wealthy Member of Parliament so that they can have an expensive house in a constituency that is not that far away from London? It would be appropriate for the Kelly committee to consider that issue. There are dilemmas, and legitimate arguments could be made on both sides. However, that is precisely the kind of dilemma that the committee should be considering.

A similar question arises about family members and spouses. Of course, it would be straightforward to say, “That should be banned,” but arrangements might well occur that were not in the public domain. Is that any different or any better? Honourable single Members might marry previously unmarried members of staff. Should those members of staff immediately be barred from working? That dilemma must be addressed by any simple solution.

It is much easier to deal with some of the other points. For example, under the current system it is possible for a Member who has owned their house in totality with no mortgage for many years to take out a mortgage and to claim that money back. Is that justified at the expense of the taxpayer? It seems to me that it is not. Let me give another, more difficult example—although I do not think that it is overly difficult. A Member might own a house at value X and claim the full amount. If the allowance goes up significantly, is it right that that Member, in the course of their duties, should feel that it is appropriate to buy a bigger, more expensive property and to claim the full amount? It seems to me, as the taxpayer is paying, that that is not appropriate. However, both of those examples have been allowed within the system, particularly since the big increase in the allowance in 2001. Such things are a use of the system and it seems to me that we need to get real about it.

If one maximised mortgage interest at £24,000 with a standard mortgage nine months ago, at today’s mortgage rates £16,000 would now be available. Is it justified that the maximum allowance should be based at £24,000—at £222? It seems to me that that is not justified. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) has left his seat, but there is a varied view on what is a reasonable
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standard of living and a reasonable property. There will never be any agreement here or among any other group of 600-odd members of the British public about what is reasonable. However, the British public perceive that £24,000 is not reasonable in order to carry out such duties. That is what underlies public concern, from what I hear.

John Bercow: As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, I am from that wing of the Tory party that pays mortgages and buys its own furniture. I always have been. However, I understand the distinction that he is making between expenses and allowances, and his focus on what might be described, for want of a better term, as contrived mortgages. Might one means by which to tackle this problem be for Sir Christopher to consider the imposition of a time limit—a span over which people could claim—that could not be exceeded, so that people could not claim for 40 years, long after most people out there would cease to have had a mortgage?

John Mann: All sorts of systems could be proposed. However, the critical point is that there should be a defendable cap on the amount of money that can be spent. I have suggested that that cap should be decided on a civil service basis. Civil servants in Sheffield or Leeds can claim £127.50 per overnight stay, or per 24 hours. That would, of course, get one into what I have described as the Travelodge in County Hall. In fact, apparently, it is the Premier Inn in County Hall. I was offered the opportunity to road test it—indeed, I already have done and those expenses will come out in a few months’ time for people to see. I do not suggest that Members should have to live in County Hall or any other Travelodge-type accommodation, but it seems to me that if the number of nights on which we have to be here on parliamentary duty is about 120, a civil service rate based on what a civil servant from out of London would require in order to come into London ought to be the cap. Whether the money is spent on buying or renting property or on staying in hotels is not important. The problem for us outside the House is the perception—the reality—that we can claim large amounts of consumer goods. People believe that parliamentarians claim too much money in the course of their duties, and we need to rectify that speedily.

We need to be able to defend what we do. People must perceive not that we are greedy but that we are tightening our belts. That is the price that we are going to have to pay for retaining systems that we could have changed. We are in a recession, so tightening our belts for the next few years will be appropriate. I hope that that is what we vote for, or what the Kelly committee asks us to do.

Several hon. Members: rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have a difficult decision to make, because there are many more hon. Members wishing to speak than there is time available, given the present limit on speeches. I shall probably be unpopular with some but bring joy to others if I now cut the time limit to five minutes in an effort to get the widest possible representation. I call Mr. Greg Mulholland.

4.1 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I begin by saying that I love this job, and that I am very proud to be a Member
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of Parliament? I can say that I genuinely try to do the job to the best of my ability, and I believe that the same is true for the vast majority of Members of this House.

Just a couple of weeks ago, however, I had one of those rare moments when I questioned whether I really wanted to carry on doing the job. That moment came on the day that the so-called MPs’ expenses league tables came out, when the story was all about our £93 million gravy train and how we all had our snouts in the trough. That hurt me, as I am sure that it hurt the vast majority of hon. Members to whom such remarks are grossly unfair.

As we all know, we have very little right of reply to such stories, but the problem was actually far harder for my wife. She told me that she was too embarrassed to go out that day because of what the neighbours would say. People presumably think that we keep the Jag around the back, and that we somehow hide the vast amounts of money that come rolling in. That is exactly the perception fostered by the media: one newspaper said that, by making an average claim for allowances of £144,000, we were effectively trebling our salaries. That is absolutely absurd, but how can we sort the problem out? I have to admit that I am feeling embarrassed again about the nature of the debate that we are having today, and about the farcical situation that we find ourselves in. I shall make that situation clear, as no one has done so up to now.

We face a very difficult choice. We are about to vote on a hotch-potch of recommendations that are not at all coherent, although some have more merit than others. Alternatively, we can refer the whole matter to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and get accused by the media and the public of kicking it into the long grass. What a choice that is. Why are we in this position? We are in it because the Prime Minister came up with a half-baked and entirely inappropriate set of proposals that sidelined the House of Commons. I think that all hon. Members would agree—even the majority of those on the Government Benches—with the view among people outside the House that this is another fine mess that the Prime Minister has gotten us into. I fail to see how we can get ourselves out of that mess today.

At least the nonsense of the proposed daily allowance has been rejected. That would have given us a clock-in culture, causing people to turn up to Parliament whether they were needed here or not. It would have penalised constituency-focused MPs but, most of all, it would not have been transparent. It would have allowed hon. Members who did not need the money to pocket it and to benefit from it.

We do have principles to follow—the seven principles of public life. The first states:

We sign claim forms to a similar end, saying:

Sadly, we have now thrown that out and have the nonsense about saying that the amounts claimed comply with the Green Book.

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On one area I disagree with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Yes, some of the things that he mentioned are uses of the system, but there have been abuses of the system. If the Prime Minister wanted to show true leadership, he would not have come forward with this half-baked set of proposals sidelining the House of Commons. He would have had the courage to sack those Ministers who have clearly been abusing the system. I am talking about misappropriation of public funds for personal gain. That is precisely what has happened in a number of examples, and it is unacceptable. The sad truth is that there have been abuses, and they have led simply to a slap on the wrist. Is it any wonder that the public have no confidence in us to make this sort of decision?

I shall be voting for some of the measures today because I feel that I cannot in conscience not do so, even though this is a farce. I shall be roundly rejecting the ludicrous suggestion that we can no longer employ our staff—our wonderful staff who serve our constituents with no praise for themselves. I am afraid that we are in a situation that we cannot get ourselves out of today, and the Prime Minister must accept the blame for that.

4.6 pm

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I want to speak today, more briefly than I had intended, about the fact that we cannot take any decision on expenses because we clearly have a vested interest and therefore a conflict of interest in the financial matters that concern us.

Today’s system has evolved over decades, and the problems should have been resolved decades ago. They have not been resolved because there is an assumption that we are honourable Members, but clearly the world outside this Chamber disagrees. We are getting into an ever bigger mess. We need to find today a credible and workable solution; the consequences of not doing so are potentially devastating.

When I knock on doors and hold surgeries, people say the same thing over and again: politicians are all the same, we are in it for ourselves, we are lining our pockets and our snouts are firmly in the trough. The most frightening thing they say, in large numbers, is that they are not going to vote. The only people who benefit from people’s disengagement are hate-preaching, anti-political parties such as the British National party. The BNP exploits the failure of mainstream politics. All mainstream politicians should take responsibility for that failure.

We have had plenty of opportunities and we have missed every one. Across the political spectrum, we must now accept that we have failed to do anything about it, and we must seek some professional help from an independent and credible public servant. Sir Christopher Kelly should be allowed to get on with his review of MPs’ expenses without interference from us, and his findings should be binding on the House.

We have recently received an invitation from Sir Christopher to send submissions to his committee for consideration. Attached to the invitation was an issues and questions document that outlined the scope of the inquiry. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) has just alluded to the seven principles of public life laid out on the first page of the document.
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It is worth in the brief time that I have left naming those principles one by one. The first is selflessness. As holders of public office, we should act only in the public interest. We should not do so to gain financial or material benefits for ourselves, our family or our friends. The interpretation of what constitutes the public interest might be open for political debate, but the principle of not being motivated by greed or to advance the interests of our family or friends is straightforward.

The second principle is integrity. We should not place ourselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that want to influence us. Being a politician, especially a Member of Parliament, is a privilege. There are not many of us in the country, and it is easy to become seduced by power and its trappings. We must remember why we are here—to serve and not to be served. By maintaining our integrity and remembering what we were elected to do, we can go some way towards doing the right thing.

The other principles are objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. I want briefly to talk about openness. We should not have tried to exempt ourselves from the Freedom of Information Act 2000, just to avoid personal embarrassment at the publication of our receipts. We took the decision to make those claims against the public purse; we must state why we made those claims, by explaining to people what we do. If people are still unhappy about the claims that we have made, we must take the consequences. At the moment, we retreat and hide. The only right response is to accept that scrutiny and be more open, not less. We should explain our actions and not hope that the media storm will blow over.

The publication of the receipts will be very embarrassing. Every last tiny receipt will be used in every piece of election literature for ever, and every current MP will be affected. It might seem unfair, but that has happened because, until now, we have been working in a system that is not open. It is now our duty as incumbent MPs who are responsible for the current system to do something about it for the generation that follows us, because that generation will be given a chance to uphold the principles of openness in public life.

4.11 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I am heartily sick of reading that we are collectively guilty before being proved innocent of dishonesty, greed and corruption. That is deeply offensive to the vast majority of MPs who have integrity and work long and hard in the interests of their constituents. The focus of the debate is entirely on what we receive, or, as the papers describe it so delightfully, what we trouser or pocket: other professionals receive remuneration in return for their services, but MPs have their snouts in the trough, as though we do not work at all and are entitled to nothing. No mention whatever is made of the demands of the job, the long hours, the seven-day working week, the complexity and range of knowledge required or the level of responsibility.

There is the constituency job and the one in Westminster. We forget weekends as others know them. We are on duty in a multitude of different ways, being involved in our local communities and organisations, and we are happy to be so. But heads must roll—the fourth estate
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demands it—and the tumbrels are rumbling. Outer- London Members have been chosen as the sacrificial lambs, and we are relatively small in number and we may not exert much pulling power as a group.

Upminster is just about as far from Westminster as one can get and still be in London. After working for 12 to 15 hours, it is not reasonable to be expected to arrive home after midnight and return early the next morning; it means having no personal time at all. The presumption that outer-London Members can commute is simply wrong. Nor is it reasonable or appropriate to expect us to live out of suitcase. It would be a thoroughly miserable existence.

If my accommodation allowance is discontinued, I shall have the following the options. I could give up my Westminster flat, which, incidentally, is an ex-Westminster council flat in a rather unlovely 1960s concrete block. It is nothing at all like the image that is created of second homes. It would not be the first choice to live in of many people whom I know.

I could keep my constituency home and commute to Westminster, but that would mean having to reduce my working hours substantially to what other professions would consider normal but would be part-time for a Member of Parliament. It would certainly not be compatible with Whips Office hours.

Alternatively, I could give up my constituency home and live in Westminster, so that I could continue to play a full parliamentary role. I would then have to visit my constituency daily on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. During recess, when most of my work is in the constituency, there would be an obvious problem of finding short-term furnished accommodation. None of those arrangements is acceptable.

If outer-London Members are excluded from future accommodation allowances, there will be a return to the days when only people with personal or family wealth could afford to represent outer-London constituencies. The current MP’s salary is not enough for an individual to run two homes, one of which is in central London.

Treating MPs collectively with contempt has become a national game, and we have become public enemy No. 1. We have a vocation, not a job, which involves a total loss of personal privacy and a salary that compares badly with the civil service, quangos, local government, the police, the judiciary, the health service and other taxpayer-funded public services—as well as the BBC, that politically neutral public broadcasting company. All those bodies have escaped the level of scrutiny to which Members of Parliament are being subjected. It is unjust that we have been singled out when many people in the publicly funded professions that I have listed earn four and five times as much as we do.

The inevitable changes must be thought through properly. It is quite right that we await the results of the independent Kelly report, although I have reservations about whether a committee made up of people who have not experienced life in Parliament can truly understand the strange life that we lead.

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