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8.36 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Legislation is certainly needed to restore public trust in Parliament, but this is a grossly inadequate Bill. Almost every hon. Member who has spoken has agreed with both points—except, I am afraid to say, the Front-Bench spokesmen. They, and the Government Front-Bench team, in particular, are infected with a toxic combination of pre-election fever, panic fuelled by the leaks on expenses and the public’s reaction to them, and a mistaken belief that just by doing something we can somehow insulate ourselves from the political damage that has been done.

That is why we have what the Secretary of State has called emergency legislation. The Bill contains serious legal, constitutional and practical flaws and, even more importantly, fails to ensure the delivery of the two reforms that are essential for the restoration of public trust. For those reasons, I shall not support the Bill if there is a Division.

The two essential reforms are, first, that the setting of MPs’ pay and pensions should be removed from MPs’ direct control, because we should no longer be expected or allowed to set them directly by a resolution of the House; and, secondly, that the use to which allowances are put should be subject to full transparency—as much as is practicable under the law.

I have been a vigorous advocate of both changes for many years, and I proposed them to the democracy task force, on which I sat. It was chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), and its members included the former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). It was plain to us that, whatever the Senior Salaries Review Body might recommend, as long as we MPs vote on each change to our remuneration, the public will believe that we are just feathering our nests. Until full transparency is in place, the public will also continue to believe that we misuse allowances once we get them.

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The Bill does at least take the setting of allowances out of our hands, but it leaves salaries to be set by resolutions of the House. That is what has led to problems almost every time the Government have sought to table such motions. If we are to legislate, we should at least be allowed to do it properly so that it covers pay and pensions. I have tabled an amendment to achieve that—at least, on pay.

Mr. Grieve indicated assent.

Mr. Tyrie: I am pleased to have a nod of support from my party’s Front-Bench team, and to have had one when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) in the hope that I could generate support for that amendment.

The Bill hands allowances to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which can then vary them without resolutions of the House. However, that alone will not restore public trust unless it is accompanied by a requirement on IPSA to ensure that allowances are subject to the maximum practicable scrutiny. That could be achieved through an amendment to clause 3, but there has not been one yet and I have not had the time to table one. If we have learned anything from the past few weeks, it is that transparency can and should do most of the heavy lifting by limiting unjustifiable claims and bolstering public confidence.

A good number of the legal and constitutional flaws have already been flagged up. Clause 6 was a casualty, dead on arrival, and clause 10 looks pretty vulnerable given some of the things I have heard. Several other clauses, particularly those that create double jeopardy, might well follow.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is right to identify clause 10 as extremely controversial. A lot has been said tonight about its undesirability, and one of the ironies is that if it were to go, the entire architecture of the Bill’s regulatory structure—the punitive aspects—would go with it. My hon. Friend may agree that that encapsulates the lack of proper thought given to that aspect of the Bill.

Mr. Tyrie: I agree with every word of that. It is consonant with what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said on the same point. He listed a number of other serious flaws in the Bill.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) said, we have had so little time to consider the Bill or hear the views of outside experts; it is difficult to know just how bad the Bill is on the basis of the first few days in which we have had the chance to consider it. The sensible course now must be to await Sir Christopher Kelly’s report and then—only then—to create a new framework for allowances that accommodates his recommendations. That, of course, might mean coping with several more months of awkward publicity, but that is certainly preferable to coping for years with what could turn out to be seriously defective legislation at the heart of our democratic process.

It might also mean amendment of Sir Christopher’s recommendations. It must be mistaken to say in advance, as all the major parties appear to have, that we will implement all Sir Christopher’s recommendations before they are even published. The Liberal Democrats have adopted a particularly absurd variation by saying that they will accept his recommendations

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They then suggest that we should pass a resolution of the House within the next few days to ensure that that is achieved.

Of course we should lean heavily in favour of Sir Christopher’s recommendations, but his proposals could contain flaws or the odd shortcoming, and our job is to make sure that he has things right before we legislate. I am sure that he would expect us to do that, too, just as I am sure that he is annoyed by the pre-emption of his report embodied in the Bill. His proposals should be subject to proper scrutiny by examination in Parliament, including by a Select Committee, before they become effective.

The Government’s almost panic-stricken determination to rush the Bill through the House in three days illustrates so much of what is wrong with how we now make our laws. It exposes the shallowness of the Government’s professed commitment to improve how the House scrutinises legislation and the Executive. And, if we allow the Executive to get away with this, that will confirm the public’s suspicions that Parliament counts for little these days in the face of an increasingly presidential Government.

The Lord Chancellor described the Bill as “emergency legislation”. We certainly have a crisis, but I do not think that we have an emergency. I hope that the House of Lords will now scrutinise the Bill carefully and at a more measured pace. I particularly hope that it will attach a sunset clause; anything called “emergency legislation” probably warrants one. That would force us to consider in a more measured way what was needed for the longer term once we had the Kelly report. It would also give us the opportunity to implement Sir Christopher’s recommendations, some of which may well have a bearing on the shape of the Bill, and to consult others, including the public. Only with the support of the public will it be worth legislating in the first place.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. May I say to the House that after the next speaker has finished I propose to reduce the time limit on Back-Bench speeches to eight minutes?

8.44 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I very much enjoyed the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who conducted himself in a typically measured and cautious way. I may be about to be less cautious in my response to the Bill.

The real test for the Bill is to ask whether it will make Parliament work better, whether it will make better MPs, and whether it will really address the anger that British people feel about MPs. I would submit that it will not, as currently drafted. Our expenses claims are not the sole source of the despair about politics and politicians in our country: the disillusionment of voters has far more profound causes. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) spoke about the role of MPs. Why does Parliament exist? It exists, and it has always existed, to protect the public interest and the freedom of the citizen. It does so in three ways: by holding the Executive to account to prevent the abuse
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of power; by ensuring that legislation is well drafted and fit for purpose; and by scrutinising public spending to ensure value for the taxpayer.

That is what we should be doing in this House for our constituents, but are we collectively doing a good job? In recent decades MPs have become increasingly ineffective, and much of the public anger now directed at MPs over expenses must be attributed to that wider failure. I have come to support the principle of independent regulation of MPs’ expenses, as I set out in a supplementary letter to the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who raised the question with a group of MPs who were giving him informal evidence. However, it is perfectly possible for the Bill to achieve the objective of independent regulation without compromising fundamental constitutional principles that have underpinned our democracy for more than 300 years.

Mr. Straw: I know that it is commonplace to say that MPs have become less effective than they were, but all the evidence, including evidence given before the Committee that I chaired three years ago, shows the reverse. On every single measure, MPs are more effective, more assertive and more independent. Aside from the important issue of time spent in this House, where I accept that there is a problem, they have become more effective.

Mr. Jenkin: I invite the Justice Secretary to listen to my arguments.

The Bill further undermines MPs’ independent capacity to represent the interests of their constituents in the national interest. As the Justice Secretary said, the House of Commons already sits shorter and shorter hours. Recesses seem to get longer and more numerous. An increasing number of decisions are taken other than in Parliament—in Whitehall, in Brussels, or in the courts, and increasingly not even in our own courts. Legislation increasingly passes through the House of Commons without being scrutinised, this Bill being a case in point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester remarked. Ministers have more and more order-making powers, and there is more and more delegated legislation. Ministers have become legislators in their own right, not least when they sit in the EU Council of Ministers. More and more public money is voted through without any semblance of debate.

At the state opening of Parliament, we slam the door of our House in the face of the sovereign’s messenger to signal the hard-fought independence of the House of Commons from the Crown, but these days such a ceremony is becoming an ironic charade, as today’s Prime Ministers have more unfettered power and control over Parliament than any monarch for at least 300 years. The powers of the Crown are vested in the Prime Minister, and he virtually controls Parliament. Only the Government determine the timetable for the House’s business, only the Government have the power to determine changes to Standing Orders, and only the Government can table a motion to suspend the time limit on sittings.

Before the second world war, the Government payroll was perhaps a little more than 50 MPs, and a sitting MP who accepted ministerial office was subject to what today’s radicals would call “recall”—that is, they had to resign and fight their seat in a by-election. Today, the payroll has nearly trebled to more than 140 MPs, and ministerial office is just one of the bribes and threats
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that a modern Prime Minister can hold over MPs without consequence. The proposal for the regulation of MPs without the regulation of Ministers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) pointed out, graphically underlines the disparity in power that now exists between Parliament and the Executive whom we are meant to be holding to account.

With Parliament so powerless, the voters share that sense of powerlessness. It fuels the anger and outrage about our expenses, the failure of the whole political class, the loss of control over issues such as immigration, the reams of meaningless and unaccountable laws, the endless taxation and waste and the untouchable tyranny of officialdom. That is why the British National party now wins seats in European elections.

It is ironic, at a time when everyone seems to agree that the House of Commons has become too weak and the Government too strong, that the Government should bring forward this Bill to regulate Parliament with a new quango, new criminal offences specific to MPs and, according to the Clerk of the House, new limitations on parliamentary privilege that will have what he calls a “chilling effect” on free speech.

The Bill of Rights of 1689 came about as a reaction to a long period of monarchical rule during which Parliament was either ignored or did not sit at all. It limited the royal prerogative and established key rights for Parliament, not least the right of free speech. This Bill threatens to turn the clock back, not forward, and to put MPs more in fear of the apparatus of the modern state, not make them stronger or more independent.

As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) pointed out, the unworkable requirements for the declaration of outside interests are not neutral but designed to cow MPs by creating a sense that outside earnings are invidious. The role of MP need not be a full-time job—as has been asked, how else do so many MPs also have time to serve as Ministers? MPs are becoming more like party drones than independent tribunes of the people. They should be representatives, not party delegates. They should represent their constituency at Westminster, not their Westminster party in their constituency. MPs today are expected to behave more and more as employees of some kind of corporation, not to exercise their individual judgment according to conscience. That is why we should not have a job description. Mine is written every time I stand in front of my constituents for re-election.

Some day, this House must demand back from Government what successive Governments have taken away. A competent Government need a strong Parliament to hold them accountable, and there is certainly no evidence that weaker Parliaments have made Governments any better. The Justice Secretary perhaps started a process of reversal with his concession about clause 6, but he will need to make many, many more concessions before the Bill wins my confidence. I shall certainly vote against the time limit on consideration of the Bill, which exemplifies everything that has gone wrong with the governance of our nation.

Ultimately, we need a new House of Commons with fresh blood and a fresh mandate to reclaim the rights and powers that should not be the property of our
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rulers but belong to the people, and should be safeguarded in this House by the representatives they send here to safeguard their freedoms.

8.53 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): It is a pleasure, if something of a challenge, to follow the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). I agree with a couple of his points, one of which is his appeal to ensure that the matter of second jobs is not used to turn this into a House of Stepford Members, where people behave in a standard, robotic, stylised way because they all come from one think-tankish gene pool. He also made the useful point that people’s confidence in Parliament is not just about expenses. We need to remember that people are asking basic questions about the worth of Parliament.

Here in the Chamber last Wednesday, some of the things that were said in the debate on Iraq, when points about Parliament’s role in determining the details of an inquiry were ducked and evaded, gave people room to question the worth of Parliament. On the same day, there was a debate in Westminster Hall on Equitable Life. People from all parts of the country have written to us about that predicament. It seems to be the will of the majority of MPs that that be addressed, but when people see the Government question that will, and question the word and work of the parliamentary ombudsman, they will again question the worth of Parliament. So those issues need to be addressed.

Like some others who have spoken in the debate, I took part in the discussions downstairs that the Secretary of State for Justice chaired, during which, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said, the right hon. Gentleman was very reasonable. Unlike some Opposition Members, I believe that the Government are approaching the matter not in a blind panic, but with a clear purpose. Some Members have asked why the measure is needed, suggesting that worst of the expenses scandal is over. We do not know that. The publication of last year’s claims is still to come and we do not know what new confections and conflations may appear.

If we recess in July, without doing anything other than change the Speaker, people will be scandalised and say that we simply do not get it. If we say that we will leave matters till the autumn, what will happen over the summer, as more newspapers drill into all sorts of aspects of expenses and so on? What will happen if the main parties’ conferences, which are held in the autumn, instead of being used to set out stalls for the forthcoming election, are again seized by concerns and disputes about parliamentary expenses, with parties perhaps contending with each other about who is to blame for not dealing with the problem? People will then regret not passing decisive legislation now to tackle some of the problems.

It has also been suggested that we can do nothing until Christopher Kelly reports. I do not accept that. If we all agree, as we say we do, about the principle of an independent parliamentary standards authority, and independent oversight, administration and management of payments and allowances, let us be mature enough to put it in place.

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We have to await Kelly’s findings before we take action on some issues. Clearly, we need to introduce legislation that is Kelly-compatible or Kelly-ready. I accept that some parts of the Bill go too far and are too pre-emptive or prescriptive and will perhaps require Kelly to make particular recommendations. We should not fetter Kelly’s discretion. Clearly, the Government have already reflected that view in taking action on clause 6. During the discussions downstairs, I suggested that the Bill should be entitled, “Parliamentary Standards (Finances) Bill” or “Parliamentary Standards (Allowances) Bill”.

Mr. Grieve: The Government are right that the matter needs to be addressed urgently. Public disquiet is clearly great, and there has also been great anger. If the Bill were confined to the process of setting up, in anticipation of Kelly, a system whereby our allowances and eventually our salaries were tackled outside the House, by an independent authority, it would go through quickly and command widespread acceptance. However, the Bill contains punitive regulatory provisions, which have constitutional implications. From what has been said so far, the House clearly takes the view that there has been insufficient time to consider them.

Mark Durkan: I accept the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, but if the Government are to make adequate provision, the Bill must cover more than the Opposition suggest. If Sir Christopher Kelly reports in the autumn, we will say that we need time to digest the contents and to prepare legislation. Meanwhile, many Members will scream that a general election is needed urgently. On the one hand, some hon. Members claim that we must take time to do things properly, while on the other, they scream that they want a general election urgently. They also say that they want the matter resolved before the end of the Parliament, so that it is not a problem in the general election campaign or for the new Parliament, which would have to legislate on expenses.

People cannot have it every which way, but that is what they seem to be trying to achieve in this debate. The Government are right that we need clear legislation to be ready to plug in properly to the various Kelly recommendations. That legislation needs to be fully in place and fully activated, hopefully well before a general election. All the preparatory work—not just the preparatory legislative work, but the work to set up the authority and to scope out its requirements—needs to follow the passage of the legislation, which is why that legislation needs to be in place before the recess.

Alan Duncan: Given where the hon. Gentleman sits for and what he has said about outside interests, what is his view on those Members, whose work here many would say should be a full-time job, who also sit in another Parliament or Assembly, doing work that many in those legislatures would also say should be a full-time job?

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