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16 Jun 2010 : Column 154WHcontinued
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. When he mentions the "outrageous conduct" of Members of the previous Parliament, does
he not agree that it is a fundamental principle of British justice that someone is innocent until they are proved guilty?
Mr Straw: Of course I accept that point. The truth of the matter was-we know this-that quite a number of our former colleagues, although they were of course a minority, were being unjustifiably imaginative, to say the least of it, in their expenses claims, especially for second homes and associated expenses. Because of variable decision making by the Fees Office, bluntly the system came crashing down and confidence in the body politic was brought to the lowest ebb that I have ever seen in my political lifetime.
It was because of that situation that the party leaders agreed in May 2009 that we should set up a separate authority, and the House endorsed that decision. It then fell to me as the Justice Secretary at the time and to a team of very good officials to try to hold discussions with the other parties and to bring forward what became the-
Jim Sheridan: Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr Straw: If my hon. Friend will allow me, no, I will not give way. We brought forward what became the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, which gained Royal Assent at the end of June last year.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North and, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and others have said, there was and is, I believe, widespread agreement that we could no longer continue with a system-
Mr Donohoe: Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr Straw: No. We could no longer continue with a system of allowances whereby we set the allowances ourselves. And yes, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) is absolutely right to say that all of us felt humiliated by that situation, and still do. It was and is a collective humiliation, but we cannot place responsibility for that on the board or the staff of IPSA. I am afraid that we have to look to ourselves.
There is now, however, this other factor, which hon. Friends and other colleagues have referred to this morning, that almost every one of those who transgressed the rules is now outside this House, so the 400 returning Members and certainly the 260 new Members are now paying the price and the penalty not for their own offences, because they have not committed those offences, but for the offences of predecessors who have now left the House. That is a point that I continually make to members of the IPSA staff and board. They have got to recognise that, collectively, the Members of the new Parliament are not the culprits; those culprits, with perhaps one or two minor exceptions, have left Parliament.
Helen Goodman: Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr Straw: No, I am afraid I cannot, as my time is very limited.
I just remind the House that we had to set up IPSA, because that was a requirement put on us by all parties in the Commons, in double-quick time.
Mr Bacon: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Straw: No, I am afraid that I need to make very quick progress.
Mr Bacon: You are not making any progress.
Bob Russell: You are defending the indefensible.
Mr Straw: No. I am just putting on the record-[Interruption.]
Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order.
Mr Straw: I am just putting on the record what Parliament itself agreed. We then had to get an interim chief executive of IPSA appointed in September and a board appointed in November. In addition, the Committee on Standards in Public Life itself decided that it wanted to second-guess what the new IPSA board was doing. That led to further pressure on the establishment of that board. All the time there was that imperative, and I do not remember any colleague from any part of the House saying that we should not have pushed forward with that timetable to try to get the new system established, at least in embryo, by the beginning of this calendar year, with a view to it coming into force at the general election.
Mr Straw: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan).
Jim Sheridan: If my right hon. Friend had known then what he knows now, would he have done anything different?
Mr Straw: My view is that the basic structure of the Act is probably satisfactory, and I have heard no suggestion to the contrary. I just remind Members that, if we are going to have an independent authority-
Mr Kevan Jones: Jack, sit down.
Mr Straw: No. If we are going to have an independent authority, we have got to give it some independence.
There are two fundamental problems. One is the structure of the allowance system that the authority has decided on; that is something that it decided on. Having done that, the second problem is the system of administration.
Mr Straw: I have only two minutes left.
So far as the structure of the allowance system is concerned, my view is that the authority has failed to take account of the reality of Members' work and it needs to change that. It has failed to take account of the fact that we are in a wholly different position from most people, because we do not have an office provided for us; we are expected to provide that office ourselves, and we have to do so. That is why I believe the authority has made an error in assuming that a system for incidental expenses, which could operate for staff in a normal organisation, can be brought in to operate for the complete administration of an office. None of the people
who are running that system has ever been in the position of having to run a complete office system altogether.
Secondly, there are major problems about the treatment of families. I have no interest in that issue; my family is grown up. But the fact that travel for spouses and children over the age of six is not properly supported is unacceptable.
I make two final points. First, on the administration of the system, I strongly believe in and support what the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) said about the importance of direct payments. There was no scandal that I can remember about the system of office administration-none whatever. It would have been sensible for IPSA simply to have taken over the direct payment system, which is transparent anyway. By the way, it is not the IT system that will stop abuse of the system in future; total transparency alone will do it. The elaborate system set up to stop abuse is not needed. Unless people are suicidal, there will be no more abuse.
As I perceive it, IPSA staff and Members of Parliament have been talking past one another. IPSA made an error in not ensuring that high-grade staff were available at an early stage to talk people through the system.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I hope that all members of the board of IPSA have sought to register themselves and make claims in order to see how the system operates, rather than looking over somebody else's shoulder. I think that that would be instructive for them. Ensuring personal contact and a phone system that is not Kafkaesque in its operation is critical, as is, above all, responding to the entirely legitimate concerns and complaints raised by hon. Members from all parties.
Colleagues may recall that an amendment to the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 was made in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which was passed just before Parliament dissolved. The amendment established a general duty on IPSA to
"have regard to the principle that members of the House of Commons should be supported in efficiently, cost-effectively and transparently carrying out their Parliamentary functions."
I hope that the board of IPSA is applying itself not only to its duties to administer the allowance system but to its clear statutory duty to support the conduct and work of Members of Parliament.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I do not have a great deal of time. I will try to address as many of the issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members as possible as I go along, but I may not be able to take many interventions if I am to make progress. For those Members who have mentioned it, I will also try to set out exactly what the Government's role is in policy on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, IPSA's own responsibility and, to respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), what other avenues of accountability exist to ensure that the system is run in a sensible and cost-effective manner.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on securing this debate and on how he has conducted it. He reminded us why we are here and emphasised the importance of transparency and accountability for the costs that we incur while doing our jobs, including for the IPSA staff trying to administer the system. He described that well, setting a tone for the debate that I hope will be reflected in the coverage of it. He cannot be accused-to use the words of another hon. Member-of not getting it. He absolutely does get it, and his interest seems to lie in ensuring that a workable, sensible system is in place to enable Members to do their jobs.
Ian Paisley: Will the Minister give way?
Mr Harper: Let me make some progress. The fact that there are some 47 Members in Westminster Hall today-the largest number I have ever seen-indicates the concern that exists on both sides of the House. I am sure the IPSA board will pay attention to that, listen to this debate and take note.
To start off on a good foot-before I go on, probably, to disappoint everybody-it is worth saying for the benefit of those who did not see the coverage this morning that at its board meeting yesterday, IPSA made a number of changes that I think Members will welcome. IPSA has agreed to make one-to-one, hands-on help with the expenses system available to MPs who need it. IPSA has recognised the system's complexity and will deal with it. As the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) mentioned, IPSA has also said that it will offer MPs one-on-one advice surgeries with IPSA officials who understand the scheme.
Mr Bacon: If it is a bad system, it will be like the Rural Payments Agency, which finally sent people to meet farmers face to face. What we want is a system that works. As a colleague said, a credit card system, which would be totally transparent, would be much simpler, cheaper, more efficient, more effective and more economical.
Mr Harper: If my hon. Friend will let me get to the end of my list, he may hear some positive news. To pick up that point, IPSA has also said that in its review of the scheme, it will consider a direct payment system. It is therefore incumbent on Members-[Interruption.] I am sure that IPSA will have listened to the advice from my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) about a credit card system. There are alternatives, but I think IPSA recognises that a direct payment system for office costs is a sensible venture, and it will consider that system during its review in the autumn.
Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?
Mr Harper: I will give way once more, but then I need to make some progress.
Mrs McGuire: Does the Minister have any idea how much it has cost to reinvent the wheel on direct payment of office costs? Many of us already had such a system in place under the previous Administration and did not handle any cash in our offices.
Mr Harper: The right hon. Lady makes a good point. Under the old system, with which Members of the old Parliament will be familiar, no money passed through our hands. That system was completely transparent. I think IPSA will want to bear that in mind as it conducts its review. Members ought to tell IPSA what they think was powerful about the old system-[Hon. Members: "How?"] I am sure that they will, and I am sure IPSA will listen.
In the four minutes remaining to me, I will explain clearly to Members the methods for accountability and what the Government are and are not responsible for.
Jim McGovern: Will the Minister give way?
Mr Harper: I will not take any more interventions. I have only four minutes.
The shadow Secretary of State, who was responsible for taking some of the measures through the House, explained clearly the history behind them, the reason why they were introduced and the consequences of moving to an independent system. He also explained why it was necessary. The details of IPSA's internal workings are for the chairman of its board and its senior management to explain, not the Government. I will not discuss individual details of how the expenses scheme works.
However, the Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has an oversight role. It must agree IPSA's budget and lay it before the House. Members will be aware that the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, an analogous body, answers both written and oral questions in the House from Members. I understand that at its first meeting on 30 June, the Speaker's Committee for IPSA will consider whether that is a suitable model for enabling IPSA to answer Members' questions about its internal workings.
My hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Norfolk, an experienced and well-respected member of the Select Committee on Public Accounts during the last Parliament, made the point that IPSA is subject to audit by the National Audit Office and therefore also by the Public
Accounts Committee. I would expect the new Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform to take an interest in the matter as well. Those bodies will deal with the scrutiny oversight arrangements and ensure that IPSA is discharging its duties in a sensible way.
Sir John Stanley: Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he answer the fundamental question that I put to him? Does he agree that it is necessary and desirable that the Standards and Privileges Committee should consider the interface and boundary between the authority of IPSA and Members' parliamentary privilege of freedom from obstruction?
Mr Harper: It is not for a member of the Government to tell the Standards and Privileges Committee-when it is set up-what it should consider. The Chairman and members of that Committee are perfectly able to decide that. However, it is worth remembering and reiterating the point made by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, IPSA has a statutory duty to ensure that it supports Members in carrying out their parliamentary functions efficiently, cost-effectively and transparently. IPSA is legally obliged when running the scheme to ensure that it is helping us do our jobs as Members of Parliament. That was put into the Act from the beginning.
As I am about to run out of time, I will just make the point that the Government support the independent system of regulating our parliamentary expenses that has been in place since the election. We want to enable IPSA to get on with doing the job it is legally obliged to do in order to help us do our job of serving the public, but we will keep its role and functions under review. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall North for securing this debate. It has been helpful, and I am sure that members of the IPSA board will take note of all the concerns raised. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who was here earlier, has been speaking with IPSA regularly about any concerns raised by Members regarding their ability to do their job, and I know that he will continue to do so.
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