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4.38 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): I am standing down at the next election, so it would be very easy for me to say, “A plague on everyone’s houses” and let the House get on with it, but my comments will be about the defence of Parliament more than that of parliamentarians. That is why it is important for me to say that we need to hand the matter over to the Kelly committee and sign up to applying whatever Kelly comes back with. We cannot be the judge and jury on our own allowances and pay.

I shall limit myself to three points. The first is to take issue with the daily allowance idea, which was as offensive as it was absurd. To understand the absurdity, let us turn the matter around for a moment. The problem with life in this Chamber and the workings of Parliament is to be found not in the attendance of MPs but in the problem of getting the Government to turn up. If the daily allowance had been applied to the Government on the basis of the number of times that we were presented with substantive legislation on big issues, which we had the right to debate and vote on, there would have been large parts of the parliamentary year when the Government themselves would have been existing on jobseeker’s allowance. Getting the Government, rather than getting Parliament, to turn up is the central problem.

My second point is about scrutiny and the existing system. There is much to commend the existing system—the failure has been ours, through our scrutiny and our penalties. My long-time friend and mentor, Tony Benn, said on many occasions that parliamentary democracy is held in check between the polling station and the police station. Our failure to deal with the most obscene transgressions by our colleagues and to impose penalties, including the loss of the right to be a Member of Parliament and the right to refer matters to the police for criminal prosecution, has allowed us to be dragged into the current mess.

However, I do not want us to end up in a position that is simply a continuation of today’s. I would have disagreements with colleagues of all parties about many policy areas and I can think of a series of benchmarks against which I would want Members of Parliament to be judged, but I am very clear about the benchmark against which I do not want a single Member of Parliament to be judged, and that is this object that I am holding—the bath plug. I hope that hon. Members accept that that implies no particular relationship between the Home Secretary and me.

The bath plug did not vote to take us into an illegal war on Iraq; it would not vote to renew Trident; it did not introduce tuition fees; it would not privatise the Post Office, and it would not turn its back on climate change. Parliament addresses those issues, and to defend Parliament we, as parliamentarians, must go beyond the strictures of today’s limited debate and understand that our failure to tackle the big issues that affect people’s lives has degraded and devalued politics to the level of the bath plug.

If Parliament cannot rise to defend something bigger than ourselves, not only Members of Parliament but Parliament itself will go down the plug hole.

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I advise hon. Members that the winding-up speeches will start at 4.45 pm. Perhaps they will bear that in mind.

4.42 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). The debate has been good and stimulating and I want to add only three observations.

First, I note that Sir Christopher indicates he does not intend to focus significantly on MPs’ pay. He feels that it falls outwith his scope. My view is that it would make sense for him independently to consider pay, including, in the light of a series of comparators, the possibility of a significant increase in pay, accompanied by an absolute ban in future on outside interests. I think it would be good if Sir Christopher considered that.

Secondly, I agree with the Leader of the House that agreeing to Sir Christopher’s review should not, of itself, preclude any other decisions today. I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that a referral for overall long-term decision making is not incompatible with dealing with some of the simpler and urgent matters today. They are not mutually exclusive. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said as recently as 1 April that agreement on some matters was needed now and that we should sort it. I agreed with him then and I agree with him now.

My third point is perhaps an illustration of the second—that there are some matters on which we can act immediately. A case in point is the requirement to disclose much more information about outside interests. That is a compelling point. I declare an interest—I have one outside interest, which is listed in the register, but I am entirely open to the view that thou shalt declare more about it, and answer questions such as the following: “What exactly do you do? When were you appointed? What is your role? How long do you devote to it? How frequently do you visit the company concerned?” That seems perfectly reasonable. I acknowledge that there are those who believe it legitimate to spend day upon day or week upon week away from the House, earning vast sums of money, and that the public should not be entitled to know about it. They are entitled to that view, but I disagree with it.

4.45 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I thank all the speakers who have taken part in today’s debate.

We are all agreed that this debate is about a crucial issue that has gone on for far too long. We are agreed that it needs sorting out so that we can have a system that is transparent and open. We must have a new system that has the confidence not only of hon. Members but of the public. It is important that we decide on what is right, rather than seeking to gain short-term political advantage for one particular party.

We on the Conservative Benches agree with some of the measures that have been put forward on today’s Order Paper. However, there is an element of lunacy when there are motions that are inconsistent with each other. It is vital that we sort the issue out. As the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said so eloquently, we cannot go on like this. If the matter is not sorted and
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sorted quickly, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) will be right when he says that it contaminates everything else that we do, a point that was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who said that the issue has a corrosive effect on public trust.

Most of us present welcome the concession made by the Leader of the House in accepting the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who does a sterling job as the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. It is right that the matter should be considered by Sir Christopher Kelly and his Committee on Standards in Public Life, away from the political heat and the political climate.

My right hon. Friend made a typically eloquent speech in which he was not only thoughtful but quite rightly pointed out that it was wrong for the Prime Minister to give an oral statement on YouTube, rather than giving an oral statement to the House. When my right hon. Friend said that, he echoed the sentiments of many in the House, who felt that by doing that the Prime Minister was truly playing politics.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) spoke about the leaders of the three political parties working together. He is right to say that they should, but it is important that the Prime Minister consult them before he comes to his conclusion. It is not good enough for him simply to invite the leader of the Conservative party and the leader of the Lib Dems and tell them what he wants done. That is not consultation; it is bullying, and that is one of the reasons why we are in the mess that we are in today. I am pleased to say that that sentiment was echoed in all parts of the House. Indeed, it was summed up by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who said that the Prime Minister’s performance on YouTube was simply too horrible to watch.

There have been a number of speeches which I shall try to sum up in the few minutes that I have left, because I am keen to ensure that the Deputy Leader of the House also has a fair opportunity to sum up.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) made a typically valuable contribution to the House, in the light of his experiences from the Committees on which he serves, and it was appreciated by all who were privileged to listen to it.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was right to point out the need for allowances. It is important that the public recognise that we are not talking simply about a large sum of money that we trouser or about another way of increasing our salary. We need the allowances, but the important point is that they should be transparent and open to scrutiny by anyone.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) also spoke of the need for allowances, but added that if it were not for the benefit of allowances, entry to this House would be confined to those who are wealthy. That would be a retrograde step, because if this House is to be truly democratic, it must have people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. The allowances are there to ensure that that happens in the 21st century.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made a powerful speech, and her sentiments were echoed on both sides of the House. She rightly said that the vast majority of Members of Parliament were here to do the best possible job that they could, and that they should not be treated as corrupt. We simply come here to serve our constituents to the best of our ability, and to make what little contribution we can to our country. If we can make the world a better place, that will be a bonus.

The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) rightly touched on the issue of staffing, which was echoed by other Members. That is an important issue and it will need to be resolved. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) made a speech that touched on the credibility of Members of Parliament—again, a theme that had been previously addressed. He expressed himself eloquently, as he always does when he speaks from the Back Benches.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) eloquently summed up the view of many people. He said that we come here to do the best possible job that we can for our constituents and our country, and that there is a hell of a lot more to what we do than can be summed up simply by looking at a bath plug. We are here to do far greater things. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) spoke of the need to be more open, not less. The concluding comments came from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is capable of speaking at length but, when required to do so, can speak with brevity as well. He certainly did that today.

This is a crucial issue. It has been going on for far too long, and it is vital that Members of Parliament recognise that unless we resolve it quickly, we will lose every element of credibility with the public.

4.52 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will understand if I do not canter through all the contributions that have been made this afternoon. Instead, I will try to answer the specific questions that have been raised.

It has been clear throughout the debate that all hon. Members favour the idea of sending this important issue to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and of ensuring that its independence can reinforce the confidence that the public can have in the system of allowances that we have in the House. All hon. Members have already had a copy of the issues paper sent out by the Committee, and I am sure that they will want to commend the Committee for the work that it has started to do. They might also wish to reflect on the Committee’s comment on the rising tide of criticism of the present system. It states:

That is what everyone has been saying today.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has already made it clear that, because of the unanimity on the issue of referring the matter to the independent Committee, we are more than happy to accept the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the
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Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and by the other members of his Committee. I understand that some Members think we should therefore do nothing more today. I would merely note that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) has just said that this has gone on for far too long, and that we need to take action. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said that change was necessary and that we needed to achieve it quickly. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that we could not get away from the urgency of dealing with this matter. So I hope that we will move forward on the series of additional measures beyond that first one.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Bryant: I will not. The hon. Gentleman knows that I would normally want to be as generous as I can, but we have very little time, and I have a series of issues that I want to clear up. I apologise to him.

First, it is right that we move forward on two matters on which Members of all political parties in the House today agree: namely, putting the allowances claimable by outer-London MPs on the same footing as that for inner-London MPs, and reducing the threshold from £25 to zero for receipts for claims. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) was the last person in the debate specifically to mention the need for receipts for claims right down to zero. I also think it is only appropriate that we should be giving advance notice to all those affected by the changes in allowances claimable for outer-London MPs, which is what our measure today would do if carried.

I also hope that we will be able to move forward on the issues related to transparency. Virtually every MP who has spoken today has said that they believe in far greater transparency in the way we do our business. That means that we should be moving forward, so that not only the public but Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee can have a full understanding of precisely the level of remunerated employment and directorships enjoyed by MPs.

I do not like to disagree with the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, but I do disagree with his interpretation of our motion. We have made it clear that the new threshold of zero does not apply to gifts and hospitality—in other words, to category 5 in the register. That is why I very much hope that all MPs will feel able to support that motion.

I also oppose the amendment that would remove the registration of the amount of time than an MP devotes to additional responsibilities and remunerated employment outside the House. I believe it is legitimate for constituents to understand how much of our time we choose to commit to the House and how much we choose to commit to other remunerated employment.

On staffing, there are many issues on which the House can agree. First, our staff are absolutely vital to the work that we do. None of us could fulfil the modern job of an MP without staff. Secondly, the terms and conditions that our staff enjoy should at least be protected by any changes that may be made in the future. Thirdly, it must be a matter of personal appointment by the individual MP as to who comes to work in their office because the relationship between an MP and their staff is intrinsically a matter of trust. It should be for the MP to manage their staff as they see fit.

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Many other questions have been asked this afternoon and I will not be able to answer all of them. My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) asked about staff pensions. Questions about what contracts might need to be renegotiated have also been asked. We need to be absolutely clear that the motion merely asks the House of Commons Commission within the next six months to bring forward concrete proposals that I hope we could then put to the House for formal agreement.

In addition, many hon. Members who are to leave the House at the next election have been concerned that there will be changes to the winding-up allowance. There is no recommendation that there should be any change to the winding-up allowance. [ Interruption. ] I see the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is seeking an assurance on this point. I very much hope that I can provide precisely the reassurance that she needs.

Miss Widdecombe: For the staff?

Chris Bryant: For the staff, indeed.

I hope we will take several significant steps today. First, we should refer the matter of our allowances to the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life. Secondly, we should reform the structure of allowances for outer-London MPs. Thirdly, we should ensure far greater transparency on Members’ directorships and remunerated employment. Fourthly, we should ensure that receipts are provided for all claims. Fifthly, we should start the work on the employment of staff. The country and our constituents expect no less from us.

5 pm

The Speaker put the Question (Order, 29 April), That the amendment be made.

Question agreed to.

Amendment (j) accordingly agreed to.

The Speaker then put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, 29 April).

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


Alan Duncan: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In order for us better to understand our proceedings, I note that an amendment has been made to a motion without any opposition in the House—what might loosely be called unanimous support. May I ask whether there is any precedent for an amendment of exactly the same words not being allowed to be applied to subsequent motions?

Mr. Speaker: In order to help the hon. Gentleman, it was explained earlier that the following motions can be voted against. The House can negate them if it so wishes. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was very good at being a Home Office Minister, but she should let me do the chairing. She will find it easier.

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