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20 May 2009 : Column 1511

One of the reasons we have second home allowances is that Parliament holds in high regard the importance of Members being rooted in their constituencies. My hon. Friend has been able to explain that on television. He has also explained that we do not want a millionaires’ Parliament in which people become MPs only if they can afford it. Every time I switch on the telly and see him rather than me, it is a great relief.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The right hon. and learned Lady’s statement raises important constitutional and ethical issues, which will need to be teased out during the consultation. May I press her on one point? The two driving principles are transparency and independence. To achieve those principles, the case is made to move from self-regulation to independent regulation. It is proposed that the new authority should investigate complaints when a Member is alleged to have breached the code of conduct, but why did the Government stop there? What about the ministerial code of conduct? Is there not an equal need for independence and transparency in investigations of complaints of that code having been breached?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister has appointed Sir Philip Mawer to be independent in the reviewing of adherence to the ministerial code, and that is kept constantly under review. The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that ministerial standards are also part of the wider discussion that we need to have.

I do not want to look as if I am trying to ingratiate myself—far from it; it is far too late for that—but I do pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s work as Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee. We do not find demonstrations up and down the land chanting, “What do we want? The Standards and Privileges Committee! When do we want it? Now!” None the less, it does important work, and I pay tribute to him and all Members who serve on it.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. May I move on to the Standards and Privileges Committee? It looks as if it will have an adjudication role beyond what will happen with the other authority. Is she completely happy that this adjudicating body is made up of just 10 members of our profession? In what other regulatory body for which we pass legislation would we allow a profession to sit on its own as an adjudication panel over itself? Does she think that some lay members should also join members of our profession on the Standards and Privileges Committee?

Ms Harman: That is an interesting suggestion, which my right hon. Friend could make as part of the consultation. No doubt he will have to consult the Chair of the Committee as part of that.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): May I start by saying that you, Mr. Speaker, have always been extremely fair to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties in the House? We thank you for that.

Ending self-regulation in the House of Commons must be a priority. As I said at the leaders’ meeting yesterday, it is right for us to examine proposals for a parliamentary standards authority. Will the Leader of
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the House confirm today that the commitment to transparency that Mr. Speaker outlined in his statement on expenses yesterday evening will match the standards of the Scottish Parliament?

Ms Harman: Certainly, I think that even more transparency and openness apply to our system than at the moment obtain in a rather different system of transparency in Scotland. We are all committed to transparency. I should tell the House that the consultation on the parliamentary standards authority will be taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does this statement mean that from here on in, Members of Parliament will not take part in votes to increase their allowances or anything else? I fervently believe that this is a better day for Parliament. On one of the days when we had a debate on increasing the allowances by a considerable amount, some of us voted against, and some of us did not take the money either, but I believe that that was a bad day for Parliament, and I want to see the back of those days.

If there is to be regulation by other bodies, we should have assurances that never again will we have the business of allowances being put to free votes. Incidentally, to get the record straight, I should say that Mr. Speaker never cast a vote. Those free votes allowed people to increase their allowances by a massive amount, and we need to put an end to that. Do we have an assurance that it is all over, and that there will be no more free votes on allowances and pay?

Ms Harman: All of us have felt that it is not right that we should have to vote on our own pay and allowances. Every time we have to come to the House to debate our own pay and allowances, we have all felt that it is not right. We do not want to have to do that any more; we addressed the issue on pay, and we need to do that on allowances as well. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to ensure that we cut costs overall. That is also important.

I should also say that it is important not only that Members are able to be rooted in their constituencies—that important constituency link must be maintained—but that we have offices that help us to do our work professionally in responding to our constituents.

I receive many thousands of e-mails and phone calls from constituents. My office team do a very important job in keeping me in touch with my constituents and helping them when they have individual problems. Yes, we have to sort this matter out, but we have to do it on a set of principles, bearing in mind the importance of a professional office and a second home, and the importance of not having a millionaires’ Parliament. I agree with all the other things that my hon. Friend said as well.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Does the Leader of the House agree that although profound reform is necessary, a sovereign Parliament must think very carefully before setting up an independent external body to set and enforce the rules and to regulate Parliament itself, particularly as it is not at all clear from her statement to whom that external body will be accountable? Does she agree that all of us here, individually and
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collectively, are responsible to the electors for our actions, and that although we must take external advice, the essential decisions on regulation and rule setting must be taken by ourselves, not subcontracted to others?

Ms Harman: The question of conduct within this Chamber will remain a matter for the Speaker, and I am sure that people would agree that that is rightly the case. The question of suspension from this House must remain a matter for those of us who are democratically elected, not an unelected body. While it is right to delegate to a statutory authority the questions of setting the code of conduct, setting pay levels, setting allowances, administering the system and investigating any problems, the only thing that should come between us and our doing our duty as Members of Parliament in this House is either our constituents removing us at a general election or the House removing us, with democratically elected Members taking that action.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Sometimes it takes a big crisis to produce a big response. We have certainly had a big crisis, and I think that now we have had a big response, which is to be welcomed. It is being proposed today that we set up a new body. Can the Leader of the House tell us which bodies will be abolished as the new one is established, and how the members of the new parliamentary standards authority will be appointed?

Ms Harman: The responsibility of some existing bodies will change, and the responsibility of some others will be subsumed within the new authority. All these issues are a matter for consultation, which, as I said, will be led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a crisis can evoke a positive response. I pay tribute to him for his work on the Public Administration Committee. Perhaps I owe him an apology, because when we were in the lift I described him as an intellectual, and he rejected that. However, he has thought about these issues long and hard, and now that they are out of the shadows, we need his intellectuality to be brought to bear on them.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): May I say, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, how much we appreciate the kindness, fairness and courtesy that you have shown to us from the Chair?

I thank the Leader of the House for her comments. Can she clarify whether the body setting Members’ allowances will be totally independent as regards Members of this House?

Ms Harman: Yes, it will. I look forward to the participation of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on this issue as well.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I welcome the statement made by the Leader of the House. Does she agree that it would be wrong for this House to deflect blame for the current crisis on expenses on to ordinary members of the Fees Office on average salaries, many of whom have served this House with great dedication for many years? There may be questions to ask at the very top of the Fees Office, but the ordinary staff are not responsible for the culture around expenses that has flourished for too long. Just as it is wrong for Members of the House to
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think that they can hide behind the outgoing Speaker, it would be wrong for them to think that they can hide behind individual, averagely paid members of the Fees Office. The deserved disrepute into which our system of expenses has sunk is the responsibility of each and every one of us as Members of the House.

Ms Harman: I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be not only fruitless but wrong to seek to apportion blame anywhere. What we need to do is take responsibility and to sort this out. That is the responsibility of all Members of this House, even those who have been absolutely blameless, as I am sure the majority have been, in the way they have made their claims.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): The Leader of the House spoke of reform of the expenses system as being only one part of trying to restore people’s faith in politics and re-engage them in the political process. She referred to having a debate to discuss other opportunities for tackling this issue. The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill will come to this House after the recess. Will she take advantage of that by ensuring that amendments are tabled to help to re-engage people with politics right from the bottom up?

Ms Harman: As the hon. Lady will know, there are already provisions in the Bill to do that, but I am sure that as it proceeds through the House there will be further such opportunities.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): What did the Members Estimate Committee take into consideration when it arrived at the figure of £1,250 per month as a cap for mortgage interest? That is not for the whole mortgage; it is just to cover the interest. It strikes me that a person would have to be very rich indeed to be able to claim that maximum amount and arrange their finances to benefit from it to the maximum extent. I think that the public will find that very curious indeed. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to look at that issue, and perhaps at ending a system that allows people to profit from buying and selling houses that have been paid for at public expense?

Ms Harman: That figure was decided yesterday at the Members Estimate Committee meeting, the Committee on Members’ Allowances having looked at the average among different Members so that we could ensure that we lowered the amount, but we did that in the knowledge of the current situation for Members with regard to their obligations.

There is a particular issue for Members who entered the House in 2005 and had to take out quite big mortgages in order to find accommodation, because the property market was absolutely at its height, and who now find themselves with properties that they cannot put on the market. The intention was to get a situation that reduced the amount that could be spent on the mortgage but also recognised the circumstances of those who have recently come into the House.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): May I pay my own personal tribute to you, Mr. Speaker, for your great personal kindness? I have been most appreciative and wish you the very best for the future.

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I welcome the acknowledgement by the Leader of the House of the difficulties faced by Members from the new intake, and her acknowledgement of the fact that most Members deal with their expenses in an honest and straightforward way—that needs to be said, and I was pleased that she did so. I welcome the recognition of the need for change. I am particularly pleased with the idea that we should be regulated by an outside body, as I have been asking for that during the whole time that I have been in this House. However, some people have been caught out by the regulations announced yesterday, through no fault of their own, and are quite worried about the situation. Will the Leader of the House consider having an appeals process in the short term to allow those people to put their concerns and have them properly adjudged on the facts?

Ms Harman: The Members Estimate Committee has tried to take into account as many circumstances as we possibly can. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members of two things. First, we will ensure that the rules are as clear as possible so that people are not unsure about how their circumstances will be changed as a result of the “in principle” decision that was made yesterday. Secondly, this is only an interim arrangement until such time as Sir Christopher Kelly brings forward his proposals. We will try to make the position as clear as possible immediately, and it applies only for a limited period. I hope that that will reassure Members.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I totally agree with one of the final points in my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement: we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the right thing and ensure that those people who have been disengaged from the whole democratic process are now properly engaged. For many people, the exposure of the allowances has been a sad confirmation of what they have always believed. How can we use the establishment of the standards authority to ensure that the people whom we are supposed to be representing can have their views heard? They have very strong opinions on this matter.

Ms Harman: This is a question for all Members in all constituencies. My hon. Friend has often raised in the House the particular issue of the disengagement of young people. One important thing that we have done is agree that the Youth Parliament should come and sit in this House. The engagement of the UK Youth Parliament, whose members are themselves elected in all parts of the country, often on a bigger turnout than most of us, has a major role to play.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I welcome these long-overdue interim measures, but does the Leader of the House plan to make the House authorities the employer of MPs’ staff and to limit MPs’ second jobs? Then she will have implemented all the recommendations that have been listed in the early-day motions that I have tabled over recent years.

Ms Harman: When it comes to second jobs, I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. There are two issues to consider about remunerated work
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done by an MP for which they are paid outside this House and which has nothing to do with the House. One is whether it causes them a conflict of interest, and the second is whether it takes their mind off what their proper job should be, which is to represent their constituents or be in government. I very much agree with him on that matter. Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee will be looking at it, and I think that the hon. Gentleman and I will be very much on the same side of the argument. Let us hope that we prevail on that one.

The House has already voted on asking the Members Estimate Committee to look into the employment of staff, and that will be part of the wider discussion.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. She was right to remind all of us that we have a joint responsibility to restore public confidence in this House, and indeed in politics. Does she agree that in a free and democratic country with a free press, the press also have a responsibility to scrutinise and report accurately what happens in this House, and that those in the press and media who seek to abuse the facilities to indulge in personal and at times racist attacks are acting irresponsibly and not playing their part in restoring confidence in the political system?

Ms Harman: All of us in this country who are democrats want to be sure of two things: that our parliamentary democracy is as strong and confident as it can be, and that the public recognise that to be the case. I recognise that my hon. Friend has not only been a Member of this House for a considerable time but was involved in representations in the trade union movement before that.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your hospitality to me during my time in the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement, but there are two precise issues that I should like her to elaborate on. First, will the cap on interest payments for accommodation at £1,250 per month also apply to rental costs at the same amount? Secondly, she indicated that the restriction would prevent two Members who are married or living together as partners from claiming more than one second home allowance. Will that apply also to any other two Members who may wish to avail themselves of a property in London to try to ensure that they get additional payments?

Ms Harman: I think that the intention behind the MEC decision was to distinguish between hon. Members who are married or civil partners and those who are just good friends sharing. That might not always be easy to establish, but what we are talking about is marriage and civil partnerships, not one-night stands.

May I help the hon. Gentleman by running through the list of what is allowed? You, Mr. Speaker, set forth yesterday in outline what will be allowed for rent, ground rent, service charges, council tax and utility bills, but there will need to be clarification in writing so that hon. Members can be absolutely clear about what their circumstances are. That will be made clear following the MEC meeting this afternoon.

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