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The Prime Minister, in his statement to the House on 10 June, set out his concern that we should make progress on strengthening the role of the House in holding the Government to account. Today we will table resolutions for debate on Thursday that will establish a new parliamentary Committee for a time-limited period, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock
Chase, that will look into, and make recommendations on, enabling petitions from the public to find their way into debates and votes in this House. It will also look at strengthening Select Committees, and will consider, and make proposals for, the House choosing non-Government business.
Finally, the public are entitled to know who is making payments to their MP, how much is being paid, and what the MP is doing for that payment. Following the resolution of the House of 30 April, there will, from 1 July, be a new registration requirement, so that any payment to an MP for services, whether in cash or kind, will have to be registered. Guidance from the registrar of Members financial interests has been sent to all Members this morning. That will mean that for the first time, the public will be able to see all the payments that are made to Members. The public want to know who, other than them, is paying their MP. The Kelly committee is looking further into that, and will report on whether transparency is enough, or whether we need to do more.
The abuse by some Members of our allowance system has caused a high level of public concern. It has required this comprehensive range of actions to ensure that we can say to the public, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), We get it, and were sorting it.
Over the years, Mr. Speaker, you and I have often joked that we are frequently mistaken for each otherI am not quite sure why. Indeed only last night as I was walking through the Central Lobby, I was accosted by a Bishop who congratulated me on becoming Speaker. Whenever you made speeches in this House, I used to get stopped in the street the next day to be praised for what I had said. I always considered that to be a mixed blessing, but from now on, it is an honour.
This House needs to recognise two things. The first is the depth of public anger that we have faced over the last couple of months. The second is the need to have a Parliament that works and does not become so brow-beaten and rules-driven that it loses all the confidence and freedom it needs to do its job properly.
This statement is very simply a recapitulation of all the various decisions and processes that have been announced over the last few weeks. Internally, the Conservative party has taken a great deal of action and has led the way in bringing a far greater degree of transparency to what was an inadequate and murky system of allowances. We have introduced right to know forms for registering family members, strictly limited the things that can be claimed for under the second homes allowance and those on our Front Bench are now publishing online every receipt and relevant piece of correspondence that we have with the Department of Resources.
The Leader of the House and I attended the meeting of the party leaders where the changes that she has just described were discussed and agreed, and they were almost identical to the ones that the Conservative party had implemented. Across the House, we all feel that we have gone a long way to removing the perceived excesses and absurdities of the second homes allowance.
Despite the massive step towards transparency, publication last week of redacted receipts turned out to be an unmitigated PR disaster. Big black splodges, even if they were on top of completely blank paper, looked like censorship on a massive scale, even where they were not. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that only the barest minimum necessary to protect genuinely private information and anything necessary to prevent identity fraud will be redacted when the 2008-09 receipts are published in October?
May I say that Sir Thomas Legg is an excellent choice to undertake an audit of all claims from the last four years as he is a man of unimpeachable integrity? The reports of the Committee on Standards and Privilege enjoy an official status in this House and, although not strictly speaking judicial, their verdict is always taken as authoritative. What does the Leader of the House take to be the status, official or otherwise, of Sir Thomas Leggs inquiry and the report we expect from him in September? Where in law will it leave a Member who has been reported unfairly as having cheated and fiddled?
In her statement, the Leader of the House re-announced her intention to set up a temporary Select Committee to propose parliamentary reform. She has already proposed that the chairman should be the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). Will she confirm that this Committee should do its work and then report just once, probably in November as she originally proposed, and that in setting it up she will agree at the same time to abolish the Modernisation Committee, which has not met for months and is clearly redundant?
The Leader of the House has referred to the Committee on Standards in Public Life and also to todays imminent publication of the Parliamentary Standards Bill. Whereas the original Nolan report of 1995 outlined some clear principles about what Parliament should be and what it should mean to be an MP, many of those principles seem to have been completely ignored, distorted and even discarded during the hand-to-mouth reaction of the last couple of months. One such area is what she calls pay transparency. The Nolan principles made a clear and deliberate distinction between the payments and income that had a direct bearing on a Members parliamentary conduct and other such payments that definitely did not. The resolution of the House about outside earnings has led to a new code of conduct, published today, which many Members have already told me they think is unworkable. Is she satisfied that it is, in practice, workable as the resolution of the House has demanded?
In order to determine the rules that are made to govern our conduct, should we not define in advance a clear set of principles to determine what our Parliament should be? Could we not, for instance, as a bare minimum, say that Parliament should be the free association of elected individuals, unrestrained and untrammelled by any partial interests or rules beyond those wholly necessary for MPs to carry out their duties with honesty and integrity? Perhaps, in future, this House can take definite and further steps on that sort of basis to sort out the mess that it is in.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has undertaken in consultation with the Justice Secretary and me and as a member of the Members
Estimate Committee. I think that it is important for the public to be able to see that the whole House of Commons understands that we need to restore the reputation of all Members of the House and for us to work together to that end. I do not think that the public, who looked in dismay at the situation, would be further encouraged to see any party trying to take party political advantage of the situation. We simply need to work together to sort it out.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the redaction of receipts. It is obviously important to ensure that the fullest possible information, compliant with the Freedom of Information Act, is put into the public domain. If public money is paying for the allowances, the public need to know which MP has spent how much and on what.
The way in which receipts were submitted in the past few years means that it is necessary to blot out those items, such as telephone numbers on a telephone bill, that should not be put into the public domain. If we claim for something bought by one of our assistants, and the proof of that purchase is on their credit card account, we should not put the whole of their credit card number into the public domain. We have to cross out those things that have not been claimed for. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that only the barest minimum should be redacted. As he is a member of the Members Estimate Committee, like me, he is in a better position than most other Members of the House to discuss the matter with the new Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the status of Sir Thomas Leggs inquiry. As a member of the Members Estimate Committee, the hon. Gentleman took part in the discussion that supported the House authorities in contracting Sir Thomas Legg to carry out the inquiry. This work is being done on behalf of the House authorities, and the Legg inquiry will report to the House authorities. When the House is advised that money has been over-claimed, steps will be taken to get that back.
Ms Harman: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was asking where it left a Member if Sir Thomas Legg said that there had been an overpayment. The answer to that questioneven if he did not ask itis that Sir Thomas Legg will notify Members in advance of publishing his report that he has found that there has been an overpayment. That will enable them to say, Actually, I have got a copy of that mortgage invoice, and here it is. Members will be able to respond before the report is published and put into the public domain.
The hon. Gentleman made some suggestions about how the new parliamentary Committee should work. I agree that it is a good idea for it to be of limited duration and for it to focus on bringing together much of the work that has been done by hon. Members across a number of Committees so that we can focus and make
some progress on strengthening Parliament. I think that meeting over a limited period of time and reporting once sound like good ideas.
I could not quite work out whether the hon. Gentleman was in favour of the pay transparency of the new registration system. He asked whether it was workable. I can tell him that it is and that new guidance has been issued today. The new system will be workable if hon. Members approach it as follows: if they agree to do something for someone in return for money or a benefit in kind, they should register that. I think that that is fair enough.
Ms Harman: It is not registered entirely at the moment. Ironically, work that is not related to the duties of a Member of Parliament is not registered at all. A persons work as a doctor, dentist or barrister does not have to be registered at present, although all details of such income will have to be registered from 1 July.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) asked whether the code of conduct should contain principles. There are principles in the code of conduct, and I commend the work undertaken by the Standards and Privileges Committee to produce the new code of conduct, and the rules relating to the conduct of Members, that have been published in the House today.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Many Members are hoping to catch my eye, and a great many wish to contribute to the debate that follows. I therefore repeat what Mr. Speaker has said about brief, single supplementary questions. I call Sir Stuart Bell.
Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a fact that the institution of Parliament has been severely damaged by the actions of its Members, for which we all accept responsibility? Only by getting our Members to understand their responsibilities can that reputation be restored. My right hon. and learned Friend has talked about the new Bill coming before the House and said that it will become law before the summer recess. She seems to be confident that there will be some kind of consensus on the Floor of the House but, given the remarks by the shadow Leader of the House, may I tell her that I am less optimistic than she is?
Ms Harman: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his long years of work on the Members Estimate Committee. I believe that public confidence will be restored when it is clearly evident that we have clear rules, and that their operation is wholly independent of the House. Following the extensive cross-party talks that have taken placeand I should like to thank all those who took part in themI believe that we can achieve a consensus. The public expect us to act, and to do so swiftly. Although the normal extended parliamentary timetable is important for scrutiny, in this case I think that people would see it merely as a cover for us diving into the long grass and rustling around. We have to get a move on with setting up an independent parliamentary standards authority. It is necessary, and we should get on with it.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for her statement, and for my early sight of it. The public will welcome the fact that a shared view is emerging that fundamental reform is urgent and vital. However, I also suspect that people may be getting a little tired of party leaders trying to claim unique credit for that, whether on the lunchtime news or in this Chamber. I also wish that there was a shared view among hon. Members about the commitment to transparency and openness. I am not yet convinced that that is the case, and it may be something that we still need to work on.
That brings me naturally to the publication of expenses. As far as I am concerned, data protection is important but having acres of black space is a redaction to the absurd. In my published expenses, the address of my local newspaper was removed, apparently because I had put in a receipt for an advertisement that I had placed. That suggests that we need to look at the matter again, and urgently.
The Leader of the House knows that I have also given evidence to the Kelly committee. As she said, what is required is what is needed to do the job as a Member of Parliamentno more, no less. My view is that the right way forward is that basic accommodation costs only should be claimed, but we must wait and see what Kelly says. I ask her to confirm yet again that the Government will accept the recommendations of the Kelly inquiry, whatever they may be. Will she also confirm that she will accept the recommendations of the Committee to be chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and put those recommendations, whatever they are, before the House, rather than editing them in advance?
On the Parliamentary Standards Bill, the Leader of the House knows that we support the principle of external regulation. Has she given any further thought to registers held by the House, other than the Register of Members Interests, that should be covered by the Bill? Will she look again at the common law offence of misconduct in public office? The maximum penalties for the offence are life imprisonment and unlimited fines, which many of our constituents may feel is insufficient for many Members. Will the right hon. and learned Lady look at putting that on a statutory basis, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1997?
Lastly, I welcome the transparency that is being proposed on non-parliamentary income, but I feel there are still problems with the de minimis requirements and their connection with the advocacy rules. I do not want us to be in the position that no Member of the House can visit a factory in their constituency and accept a cup of tea and then say something in the House about the industry or their constituency. I do not think that the code of conduct and the guidance notes yet make the distinction that provides for those circumstances.
As I said, the House authorities will be looking again at the question of redactions. That exercise, which they undertook for the first time, involved 800,000 pages, so inevitably some things that Members are concerned about will fall either side of the line.
Before the 2008-09 receipts are published, Members will be able to look again at all those issues and discuss them with the Information Commissioner, and any Member who wants to can submit suggestions about the issues in principle.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there will be acceptance of the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life under the chairmanship of Sir Christopher Kelly. The hope is that we do not once again have to trawl through all the issues we went through last July and this January. There is the expectation that we will be able to accept the report and we certainly hope that will be the case.
I agree that we expect the proposals of the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase to come before the House through a resolution. That is the whole point. There is no point a Committee sitting, having a lot of good thoughts and making good proposals if nothing happens as a result. There is a commitment on the Labour Benches to seeing such proposals go forward.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the offence of misconduct in public office should be put on a statutory footing. That is being considered by my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, but it would not be a matter for the Parliamentary Standards Bill, which we have tried to keep narrow and focused.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the difficulty of transparency in the registration of pay. As he is a great champion of transparency on allowances, I ask him to apply that mindset to the question of transparency on pay. If somebody has a cup of tea when visiting a factory, nobody would regard it as payment for services. I think Members can distinguish payment for services from a donation. Different rules will apply to donations from those that apply to payment for services. We all need to make the rules work. This is long overdue: if people take money from their constituents for doing things, the public should know about it.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I fully support all the efforts being made by the Government both to clean up our act and for full disclosure. I have listened carefully to what my right hon. and learned Friend said, but does she accept nevertheless that the blacked-out information released officially last week was very embarrassing? It lost us further public support, was rather farcical and can be described only as a public relations disaster.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I very much welcome the bulk of what the right hon. and learned Lady announced, but can she confirm that what the Prime Minister announced on 10 Junea statutory code of conduct for Members of Parliamenthas now been abandoned as unworkable?
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