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"The decision to give Sinn Fein Members the right to claim for the full range of expenses without taking up their seats in Parliament was a political one, taken in the light of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland."
That is an interesting comment. I would have thought that such a decision should be taken in the interests of the whole House, not in the interests of the political process in Northern Ireland. The report continued to say:
"Removing it would also be a political decision."
When I raised the matter recently in business questions, along with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and others, the Leader of the House replied that it would now be a matter for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. IPSA has stated:
"The Oaths Act 1978 established the position that MPs who do not take the oath may not receive a salary; a Government motion passed through the House of Commons in 2001 established the position that MPs who do not take the oath may claim expenses related to their Parliamentary business. IPSA regards itself as obliged to follow these motions and intends to do so unless the House decides otherwise."
It is therefore clear that IPSA will administer whatever system is put in place by the House, but it remains for the House to decide whether abstentionist Members are entitled to allowances and Short money. Even the administration of Short money is still a matter for the House authorities, rather than IPSA.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Is my right hon. Friend aware that while other Members had to pay back money following the review of allowances, one Sinn Fein Member who claimed £18,000 last year for travelling to London, despite having come to London only once, has not had to pay back one penny?
Mr Dodds: My hon. Friend is right to highlight that matter, which was previously raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). In the public mind, that beggars belief, and people cannot understand why some Members receive allowances to carry out parliamentary duties in London when they do not attend the House in London. I read in the news today that a Sinn Fein spokesperson has again attempting to justify that by saying:
"We negotiated the right to have offices and costs and expenses so that we can properly and thoroughly represent those who vote for us."
Well, the fact is that Sinn Fein Members do not properly and thoroughly represent those who vote for them, or those who do not vote for them, because they do not come here. One of the main roles of an MP is to be in the House, taking part in its activities and debates. If Members do not do that, they should not be entitled to the rights, privileges, costs, offices and allowances that come with being an MP.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) mentioned the question of money. When everything is taken into account-from Short money to allowances-it is clear that Sinn Fein Members will claim between £3 million and £4 million over the course of this Parliament unless something is done about it. That is absolutely unacceptable.
The situation with Short money is even more untenable. The motion on Short money that was passed on 8 February 2006 created a special and distinctive scheme specifically for Sinn Fein-for Opposition parties
"represented by Members who have chosen not to take their seats".
"expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the employment of staff and related support to Members designated as that party's spokesman in relation to the party's representative business."
For the rest of us in the House, whether Labour Members, Liberal Democrats, those representing smaller Northern Ireland parties or Members of any other party, all the funds granted as Short money must be used to support parliamentary business only. We have no equivalent extension for "representative business". That term is so wide that it is meaningless; the money can be used for virtually any activity one cares to think of. I am sure that there are Members in the House who would love to be provided with public money under such terms so
that they would not have to account for whether it is spent on activities that fall within the category of parliamentary business.
We now know the scrutiny that is rightly given to the expenditure of such moneys, and yet we have a resolution passed by the House, which was introduced by the Labour Government, that allows for a fund that gives Sinn Fein hundreds of thousands of pounds over the course of a Parliament to carry out all sorts of activities, while other parties that might have won far more votes cannot access public money for the same activities. That points once again to the absurdity of the current arrangements.
"There is not a case for Sinn Fein Members not to take their seats. I think that at the moment we let them off the hook, so I would like to re-examine the argument and see if we can find a new way of doing this."-[Official Report, 23 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 291.]
There will be an enormous backlash not only among Members, but among the wider public, if we go down the route-I hope that the Prime Minister is not suggesting this-of once again setting aside the proper rules and procedures of the House to try to accommodate Sinn Fein. As I have already illustrated in my remarks, that will be to no avail anyway, because Sinn Fein Members will pocket that as a concession and claim their expenses and allowances having once again diminishing the British status of Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland, but they will not in turn take their seats.
I appeal to the Government to deliver on the promises they made in the run-up to the election and for the Secretary of State or the Leader of the House to come forward with a motion to implement what I believe is a sensible proposal: to make all Members in this House truly equal. There is nothing to stop Sinn Fein Members coming to this House and receiving allowances and Short money, but they should be required to do what the rest of us do by representing their constituents properly in this House.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on securing the debate and on the way that he introduced it. We are fully aware of the strong views held on all sides of the argument, but he has expressed his view on behalf of his party extremely well. I am also pleased that he has the support of his colleagues who intervened-the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson). The matter of allowances for elected Members who do not take their seats has always been controversial. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I cover the same history that he mentioned in his remarks, but it is crucial to our understanding of where we are in relation to allowances.
The matter was first raised by Sinn Fein in 1997 with the then Speaker, now Baroness Boothroyd, who clearly and explicitly upheld the long-standing convention that Members who did not take their seats should not have access to the House's facilities on the grounds that the House does not permit what she described as "associate
membership." That decision was subsequently upheld by her successor as Speaker, now Lord Martin of Springburn, following the 2001 election.
In December 2001, the House debated and agreed a motion to permit elected Members who had not taken their seats to have access to the House's facilities, including allowances, to support them in their representative work on behalf of their constituents. On 8 February 2006, a similar decision was taken on representative money, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and which is analogous to Short money. That resolution provides for the payment of
"expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the employment of staff and related support"
to parties represented by elected Members who choose not to take their seats, and by statutory requirement, political parties whose Members do not take their seats are not eligible to receive policy development grants. As the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out, Members who do not take their seats cannot have parliamentary duties; none the less, they are the elected representatives of their constituents and have representative duties in which the provision of allowances is intended to support them, on the basis that the House previously agreed.
As we are all aware, there has been a much wider debate on allowances over the past year. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recognised when it reported in November that the decisions on allowances for elected Members who did not take their seats were political, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out. The previous Government promoted the arrangements specifically-it would appear-to support the political process in Northern Ireland and to encourage Sinn Fein to play a greater role in mainstream politics.
The right hon. Gentleman brought up the position adopted by parties in previous debates and before the general election. There are Members who have always opposed the decisions on the grounds that all MPs elected to serve at Westminster should carry out their full duties in representing their constituents, and that includes participating in the business of the House. They have always seen this as primarily a House of Commons issue and agreed with Speaker Boothroyd at the time on "associate membership" of the House. He also said that some Members have always taken the view that the matter should be subject to a free vote-that is, it is for individual Members rather than the parties.
Since the decisions were taken, circumstances in Northern Ireland have changed considerably. We have a new devolutionary settlement, which is at the heart of the peace process. Northern Ireland is now firmly set on the political path, with Sinn Fein Members playing a full role in the Assembly. Though dissident republicans continue to try to undermine those who are committed to the political process, there is no question-I hope and pray-of a return to the troubled decades of violence. As a result, it is time for us to look again at the issue. It is clear that there are real and strongly felt issues of principle under discussion.
The Belfast agreement is clear: Northern Ireland is, and will remain, part of the United Kingdom until or unless a majority of the people of Northern Ireland vote otherwise. Sinn Fein has accepted the consent principle set out in the agreement, and there is therefore
no good reason why its Members should not take their seats at Westminster. Whatever arguments were made in 2001 and 2006, they were made in a different political context. Northern Ireland has moved on. The principle for the future must be that all elected Members should take their seats and play as full a role as possible as Members of the House.
"All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."
It is time that all the animals on the farm were equal, and Sinn Fein has to be equal to the rest of us. If we are accountable to a process as democrats, Sinn Fein is equally subject to it. Reassurance from the Deputy Leader of the House is good news, but can he give us a time scale on how this will work?
Mr Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I cannot set out a clear timetable, but if he listens to what I have to say in my later comments, I hope that he will be reassured that the Government take the matter very seriously.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister already made his position clear, although not, I suspect, as clear as the right hon. Member for Belfast North would wish. In answering the question from the hon. Member for South Antrim on Wednesday on allowances, he stated:
"My views about this issue are on the record, and they have not changed. I would like to see if we can make the argument. There is not a case for Sinn Fein Members not to take their seats. I think that at the moment we let them off the hook, so I would like to re-examine the argument and see if we can find a new way of doing this."-[Official Report, 23 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 291.]
In addition to the changes in Northern Ireland, there have also been shifts in the parliamentary landscape that will need to be considered. The creation of IPSA was an essential step in cleaning up politics by bringing to an end the discredited system of self-regulation. Allowances, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, are, of course, now a matter for IPSA, not for the House. However, the right hon. Member for Belfast North is correct in what he said about IPSA's approach; I understand that it intends to observe the status quo by continuing to pay allowances, but not salaries, to Members who do not take their seats. Last Wednesday, IPSA set out its position as follows:
"a Government motion passed through the House of Commons in 2001 established the position that MPs who do not take the oath may claim expenses related to their Parliamentary business. IPSA regards itself as obliged to follow these motions and intends to do so unless the House decides otherwise."
A question was raised on how IPSA interprets those decisions in terms of the criteria applied to individual expenses claims. I assume and hope that IPSA will apply exactly the same criteria to a claim from a Sinn Fein Member as it would to any other Member of the House.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab):
I want to ensure that the Deputy Leader of the House is aware that it is not only Members from Northern Ireland who feel strongly about this; many Labour Members voted against the original decisions. I welcome the move that he appears to be
making, but we need to do this quickly, because it is just not fair. The new coalition Government were elected on one thing more than any other-fairness.
I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, and to those of his hon. Friends and others. I will ensure that the arguments raised are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister. The Government will listen to all sides of the debate, but we are mindful of the very strong views that have been expressed in the debate today and the real issues of principle at play in relation to financial assistance for those MPs who do not take their seats.
Over the coming months, Ministers will be talking to all Northern Ireland parties to address how to take the issue forward in light of the views and clear issues of principle we discussed today. The right hon. Gentleman has my assurance of that. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on expressing his views clearly and precisely. I will ensure that they are communicated to my right hon. Friends who will deal with the matter in the future.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Mr Benton. This is a timely and important debate, as we can see by the number of hon. Members who wish to participate. I am sure that they will be pleased to hear that I intend to be brief, simply so that I give others the opportunity to speak. All I ask in turn is that they might be equally brief to ensure that we give the Minister ample opportunity to reply, because this is definitely one of those debates in which the answers are even more important than the questions.
The expansion of Milton Keynes has always been a key issue in my constituency. I remember as long ago as 2003 sitting in the kitchen of one of my local councillors, David Hopkins, and discussing how best to tackle the then Government's dictatorial approach to expansion. It was at that meeting that the slogan "I before E"-or infrastructure before expansion-was born. That phrase is now used by many others, including even the Prime Minister.
The slogan is good because it says two things. The first, which is obvious, is that we need infrastructure before expansion. Secondly, it says that we in Milton Keynes are not opposed to expansion per se. All too often the Opposition have liked to portray some in the House as nimbys as a justification for their centralist housing strategies, but the people of Milton Keynes certainly are not nimbys. However, I believe strongly that if any development is to be sustainable, it must have the support of local people.
The success of the I before E campaign has been such that the principle is now accepted by all political parties, but issues around expansion continue to be a major concern for Milton Keynes council and for people in the city and rural areas. Since 2004, when the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, stated that the south-east must build 1 million more homes, of which the Milton Keynes share would be an extra 70,000-in effect, the move would have enlarged Milton Keynes to a size equivalent to Bristol-there have been concerns that the decision was made without any cast-iron guarantee of an improvement to key infrastructure. Since then, various quangos with ever-changing names have had control over when, where and how Milton Keynes should expand, often against the advice of experts and, more importantly, against the wishes of local people, whose views have been ignored.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and understand exactly where he is coming from. Central Government diktat originally provided for a town the size of Lichfield right in the middle of our green belt, but we managed to get it down to half as much, as we ourselves had assessed was needed. We welcome the change of Government and of strategy, but there are still issues. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some areas do need a regional strategy and that it is important that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater? For example, we need to think about regional provision for Gypsies. I hope that when the Minister gives his comments-
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