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29 Jun 2009 : Column 88

We are having this debate because the Prime Minister has panicked over the bad publicity in the past few weeks. He has been responsible for some of that bad publicity. I have been in the House for 39 years, and I have never known a time when morale has been so low, when Members in all parts of the House have been so depressed, and when their families have been so depressed. We owe it to those who sent us here to put our house in order as quickly as we can, as far as pay and allowances are concerned. When two or three Members gather together, the talk is not of recession, Afghanistan, health or education, but of pay, allowances and expenses. We need to get away from that, and to become a Parliament again, in the fullest sense of that word.

I could not help but think of Horace Walpole’s diaries of 1759—the annus mirabilis—in which he said that every time one went down to breakfast, one had to ask for news of the latest victory; it was a wonderful time of rejoicing. Some years ago, the Queen said that she had had her annus horribilis. We have had ours this year: every time one gets up in the morning, people ask what is in the paper and which colleague has been fingered. We need to move away from that, but not by panicking into bad and unnecessary legislation.

I repeat that it is right that we give the responsibility for the financial matters to an outside body. I have always felt that the salary, allowances and expenses for parliamentarians should be fixed at the end of a Parliament for the whole of the next Parliament, perhaps with some index for inflation. No Parliament should then be in the position even of being tempted to adjudicate on its own remuneration. I hope that Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee will come up with a recommendation along those lines.

However, we must concentrate this afternoon on the other clauses of this extremely hastily drafted Bill. It really is monstrous that it should be pushed through with such indecent haste. At the very least, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, we should have had another two days next week. We could quite easily have divided the Bill into two and dealt with its financial provisions this week, allowing for some proper scrutiny, in which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Hendon, as Chairmen of their respective Committees, could have taken part, and in which the privileges report—extensively quoted from earlier—could have been studied by Members. We could then have come back in the autumn—in September if the Government preferred, or in October—and dealt with the other aspects of the Bill if, by that time, we felt that a Bill of that sort were necessary.

At the heart of this debate is the very purpose of Parliament and the function of Members of Parliament. We are sent here by our constituents, and in the immortal words of Burke, we owe them not just our industry but our judgment. When we have fulfilled the term of the Parliament, it is up to them to decide whether they wish us to return. The privilege that we enjoy is not a personal privilege that belongs to me as the Member for South Staffordshire or to my right hon. Friend as the Member for North-West Hampshire; it is the privilege of the electors of North-West Hampshire and of South Staffordshire that enables us to speak without fear or favour in this House.

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All that is at risk because of this Bill. I have never known a time when the Clerk of the House thought it proper to send round the sort of letter that we received at the end of last week.

Sir Alan Beith: The Clerk’s memorandum was his very proper response to a request from the Justice Committee that he give evidence, which would be followed up by oral evidence taken tomorrow, meaning that members of the Justice Committee will not be able to take part in those proceedings tomorrow because they will be listening to the oral evidence from the Clerk of the House.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and we owe his Committee a real debt of gratitude, but what he has just said again underlines the absurdity of our proceedings. He and his fellow members cannot be present because they are listening to material evidence that is concerned with the very issues that we are discussing. The Justice Secretary and Lord High Chancellor is a reasonable man, so can he not just take that point on board?

Mr. Straw: I accept the compliment from the hon. Gentleman and thank him very much. At the time that the Justice Committee will be receiving evidence from the Clerk, we will be debating the lower-numbered clauses—clauses 1 to 5—and as far as I recall, they have raised no issues for the Clerk.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am starting to run out of time, so I simply respond by saying that that does not invalidate the proposition that I have made. It is all germane to this Bill and we should have a chance to reflect on what the Clerk says. However the Clerk produced this paper, I have never before seen anything like it circulated so widely beyond the Committee that commissioned or asked for it, and it makes some extraordinarily important points.

Thank goodness the Secretary of State has at least listened to the Clerk’s strictures on clause 6; we are grateful for that. Clause 8 is also significant, and the Clerk states that

That section is important, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire has already quoted what the Clerk said about clause 10:

I have already referred to the Clerk’s comments on our Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which have not been tagged for this afternoon’s debate but, frankly, should have been because they are highly relevant.

I end where I was not going to end, but I am tempted to do so by the perceptive, thoughtful and, frankly, very compelling speech of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, who talked about the implications of clause 5(8), which deals with outside interests. Those of us who have some outside interests have been put in a position recently whereby we are almost ashamed to talk of them. Well, I am not. I think it important that
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one should sometimes share these things with colleagues in the House, and I am tempted to do so by the frank way—no pun intended—in which the right hon. Member for Birkenhead shared his experiences.

For many years, I have been involved in helping to run an annual reward for responsible capitalism. It must be thought to be a good thing, as the first award was presented by the current Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Two years ago, it was presented by the present Chancellor and last year by the Foreign Secretary. It is a highly respectable and, I think, a good thing; the chairman of our judges is the former Lord Chief Justice, who succeeded the late great Lord Dahrendorf, who sadly died just a couple of weeks ago. I believe that this is immensely worth while and I think it good that Members of Parliament should be involved in it. I am proud to be involved with it. Where does my parliamentary interest begin and end? It is very similar to what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said about his egg timer in his conversation this morning.

It would be very sad indeed if the regulations that we pass and are supervised by this new body were so interpreted and applied that Parliament became an assembly of nerds, anoraks and the very rich. That would be an extremely bad development for Parliament. It is important that we have people who have interests outside—relevant interests, interests that help to inform their contributions to debate.

We are all answerable to our constituents for the time we spend on our parliamentary work and in our constituency. I do not think anyone would ever suggest that I was less than a “full-time Member of Parliament” or a “full-time constituency Member”, and yet I find a little time to do other things, and I believe that it helps me—and, I hope, indirectly—helps my constituents and the House. It is most important that we recognise this and that any body set up to look after our interests recognises it, too. I hope that the Kelly committee will recognise it.

Above all, I hope that the Government—or, if not this Government, a future Government—will put aside the oppressive parts of the Bill before us today. To have parliamentarians in a free country answerable in any way to an appointed quango is to diminish Parliament and to diminish those who sit in Parliament and to deter people from coming into Parliament in the future. What we want is an institution that truly attracts the best, and not just the best from the young but from those of all ages. A parliamentary intake that includes men and women in their 50s and 60s, as did the 1970 intake when I first entered Parliament, is all the better for that. It should not be composed only of those who come here motivated by the ambition to carry a Dispatch Box and be driven in a ministerial car—it is good that some should do so—as there is no higher calling than representing a part of the United Kingdom in this place. I fear that the Bill militates against that.

I thus beg the Secretary of State and Lord High Chancellor—both of them!—to recognise what has reasonably been said about the amount of time that Ministers have to spend, quite properly, on their duties, but to concentrate too on the financial part of the Bill and have it ready for Kelly so that his committee can indeed supervise and implement. Most of all, however, I beg the right hon. Gentleman to shy away from the establishment of an organisation that can in any way
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seek to dictate either directly or indirectly to the elected representatives of the people of the United Kingdom in Parliament assembled.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), I should give notice that the time limit on Back-Bench speeches will be reduced to 12 minutes thereafter.

7.30 pm

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who is the only man in the House who pronounces “Parliament” properly. I am still learning.

I want to make some general points about the establishment of an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. They will be much wider than the points that have already been made today, although those were extremely important. Like others, I am concerned about the fact that the Bill is being rushed through in this way. Given that it is being dealt with in a mere three days and that we were told only last week that it was to be debated, I do not think we are being given enough time to debate a measure with such potentially far-reaching consequences not just for the House but for those outside.

Understandably, we all feel that we must act decisively to deal with what has been revealed about our discredited expenses system. An absolute scandal has been caused by the way in which we make our claims and the way in which they are agreed, and we all understand the public outrage that that has prompted when we go back to our constituencies and talk to people about it. What angers them so much is that we make rules by which they must abide and then seem to make separate rules for ourselves, and what worries me about the Bill is that we seem again to be making rules for ourselves that are different from the rules that we require our constituents to observe. They used to be more lax, but now they are much more severe. We should not make rules that are different from those applied outside the House.

What got us into this mess in the first place was our failure to recognise that, as many other Members have pointed out, what we do here is about representation. Much of the expenses scandal has concerned the way in which we represent people. Like a number of other Members, I have taken the opportunity to talk to people about what we do on their behalf, and I have been staggered by how little they know about it. It has been good to go out and discuss that, but it is clear that we have not been good enough at doing it. Unless people know what we do here in their name, how on earth can they understand the basic facts that we need second homes, that we need to furnish them, and that we need travel expenses?

When I intervened on the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), I was trying to make the point—I do not think I made it very clearly—that if people really do not understand what we do here on their behalf and find it hard to comprehend how they
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influence the decisions that we make, we are putting the cart before the horse if we discuss tweaking the expenses system, how we are paid, who pays us and how much we are paid. If Parliament is about anything, it is about our representing people in constituencies in the United Kingdom. We should be talking to them about what we do, but we should also be hearing from them what they want us to do. Until we know what sort of Parliament the people out there want this to be, it will be much more difficult for us to create an appropriate system of remuneration and reimbursement. We have had any number of opportunities to go out and talk to people, but we have failed at every turn.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): The hon. Lady attaches great value to giving the public an opportunity to talk to us and learn about what we do. Will she explain to whom the new authority will be accountable? It is being vested with a vast panoply of powers, and will handle huge sums of public money. If a member of the public is not confident that the money is being handled competently, or even thinks that the chairman of the authority is being rather lavish in his expenses claims, to whom will that person be able to make a complaint? It seems to me that we are replacing a very imperfect system of representative democracy with a system that will be accountable to nothing and no one.

Natascha Engel: That is at the heart of what I was going to say. There is currently a very good and direct link between the people whom we represent, their Members of Parliament, and the system under which we exist. The people still have a direct say, and the ability to vote us in or out every four or five years. Setting up what is effectively a quango will remove that next step of accountability.

I think that all Members would agree that the administration of our expenses and our pay should be put into independent hands. I have no problem with that. However, it is vital to establish the way in which such a body would be independent, to whom it would be accountable, how it would be paid, and how it would claim its own expenses. I am happy to discuss those questions, but we should not go much further at this stage, especially in a climate in which everything that we do to try to improve the position will be scrutinised in far more detail than before. Nevertheless, I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said.

In focusing on the establishment of a new body, we seem to be overlooking the bodies that already exist. For instance, we have any number of committees. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) gave a long list of committees, along with their different functions. He also mentioned the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. There is clearly a conflict between the present roles of those committees and the roles that they will have following the establishment of the Parliamentary Standards Authority, and that worries me very much.

There is, I think, a level of complexity and detail that is not entirely necessary. Last week, when we had another opportunity to make things a bit better, the Fees Office published massively blacked-out receipts and claim forms. That did not just make us look ridiculous; it was another smack in the face for people outside. One of the things that we could do today is decide that addresses could be
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exposed. We could regain overnight people’s trust in what we do and the way in which we make claims by revealing the houses where we claim and where things are delivered.

Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Lady may not recall that the present position is a result of a statutory instrument laid on the very last day before the summer recess by the Justice Secretary—interpreting, theoretically, a motion passed by the House, but bearing very little relation to the substance of that motion.

Natascha Engel: I was making a point of principle. I think that everyone agrees that, today and this week, we are trying to address public outrage at a discredited and abused expenses regime, but I also think that there are better ways of doing that than adding another layer of complexity to what is already a very complex system.

One of the most popular words that we have used in recent weeks is transparency, but complexity and a lack of clarity lead to a lack of transparency. We should have another look at what all the different committees do and what the commissioner does. We have undoubtedly got a problem. Despite all the committees we have, we have not prevented the abuse of the expenses system. Therefore, although we obviously must do something, we must also be much clearer about what we want at the end of it, rather than just tinkering about with what we have and creating new levels of complexity. It would help if we were clear about what we wanted, and then proceeded from there. We want a much clearer and simpler, and thereby a much more transparent, system. As a part of that transparency, we should agree to get rid of the blacking-out of addresses. I hope that that answers the question of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).

The people who have elected us do not merely want us to stand up for their beliefs. Although I may hold different views from those of some of my constituents, many of them want me to represent my views here in Parliament. What they fundamentally want from every Member of Parliament, however, is for us to be honest. That goes back to the point about our creating an extra level of complexity. We must not fudge the fact that what people really want is for us just to be honest. We must do what they want in that regard by, for example, publishing as much as we can. Regardless of what the law may be, we can choose to publish all the addresses that we want. That must be done collectively, however.

Another point that Members have made today bothers me. We only recently decided that the review of MPs’ expenses should be handed to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We have heard today from any number of Members who gave evidence to that committee this afternoon, yet here we are trying to legislate on a Bill that will have consequences for the outcome of that committee. That worries me. I also made a submission to the committee. It prevents the committee from being as considered and thoughtful as it would like to be if we are either pre-empting its outcome or saying to it, “Whatever you do, we have already legislated for this. Therefore, whatever comes out of your review could be in some way restricted.” I think that that is wrong, and I wish that we had allowed the Kelly committee to report before we had moved on to consider this Bill.

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Mr. Straw: May I reassure my hon. Friend on this? We have worked out the structure of this authority in such a way as to fit in with the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee, which will come to this House first. The Bill deals with structure, administration and adjudication in respect of the allowances system, and Sir Christopher’s committee is principally concerned with the content of those allowances. There is no reason, particularly given the timing, why those two should conflict. We have got to do this now for reasons that I think my hon. Friend understands.

Natascha Engel: I do not entirely agree with that. The motivation for introducing the Bill is to address the problems that have been very well documented and to say to the people outside this Chamber, “We understand and agree with your outrage, and we are doing something about it.” On the timing, I do not think that there is any mad rush. We do not need to have something on the statute book within a week. We want to take responsibility and accept the consequences of what we have done, but agree that we need to sort this out for the next generation. Regardless of whether they have made a claim, every incumbent MP is tainted by this expenses scandal. We need to make sure that, as far as possible, the next Parliament can start afresh.

Democracy is a messy business and Parliament is messy, and there is no system that is not open to abuse in some way—and there are some very creative people in Parliament. However, we need to accept collective responsibility for what we have done, and say to the next generation, “The systems that put the checks and balances on Parliament are as good as we can make them.” Therefore, I do not think there is any mad hurry, and that instead we need to do things in sequence.

The Sir Christopher Kelly committee should be given the time to interview as many people and to take as many submissions as it wants, and to go out and talk to members of the public and ask them what they want, and take some submissions from them. I do not know how many members of the public made a submission to the Kelly committee, but I would like to know. I suspect that a lot of parliamentarians made submissions to it, however. All of this is about saying, “This is the sequence in which we are doing this job. This is the right way to do it.” We should not push forward in an unseemly hurry just to make it look like we are doing something. We have done that time and again before, and every single time we have really messed it up.

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