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Fuel inflation risks strangling the economic recovery in our most marginal rural communities, but we cannot afford to do what we would like to do to address that. I therefore urge the Government, in accepting the constraints under which they are operating, to look carefully at the options.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that we need a sustainable solution, one that will work in bad times as well as good, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to what is clearly a problem for many rural constituencies, including my own?
George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is vital that we should not go for some short-term gimmick, and that we make a sustainable, serious commitment to helping rural communities and the rural economy.
My constituents and many in other rural constituencies have been encouraged by the Prime Minister's continued espousal of the benefits of a fair fuel stabiliser. I defer to Ministers and experts in the Treasury on determining the right mechanism for that. We have a duty to make some gesture towards ameliorating this problem, and my plea to the Ministers and Treasury experts is that, whatever mechanism we go for, we focus on two groups in most urgent need: the rural small businesses on which we rely for economic growth and for the jobs in the rural economy on which we all ultimately depend; and the very lowest-paid employees who are struggling to get on and make something of their lives by earning a living. In my constituency, the average income is £17,500, and such people are hit hardest by this serious problem. I urge Ministers to do all that they can in the forthcoming Budget.
Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): There has been a change since the general election. We spent the last Parliament trying to persuade the Labour Government to do something about this problem, and they steadfastly refused to do so. Now, we hear warm words from the new Government, but unfortunately we have yet to see any real action. That is the problem. Those on both Front Benches talked about the practicalities of this or that measure, and how they would have to look into them further, and I could hear the sound of things being thrown furiously at television screens up and down the country by people who are suffering now because of high fuel prices. It will be no good if it takes a year for any action to be taken, because, in that time, many of the businesses that are suffering now will no longer be in operation. That is important to the local economies of the areas concerned.
The Minister and others have talked about the need to pay down the deficit and to encourage growth. That is all true, but the growth in rural areas comes through small and medium-sized enterprises-the very businesses that are suffering most, as a result not only of fuel duty but of higher VAT and all the other factors affecting the economy. High fuel costs are strangling small businesses which have to transport goods into and out of their businesses by road, as there is no alternative. People have talked about transporting goods by rail, but in many areas such as my own, there is no realistic prospect of that happening. I have a rail line in my constituency;
it goes up the whole of the east coast. Unfortunately, however, there are no freight depots on it. It is therefore impossible to use it for those purposes, and those businesses have to use the roads.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Does he agree that those same areas are also being hard hit by the rise in domestic oil prices? Are they not facing a double whammy in that regard?
It is not only the businesses but their employees and the other people who live in the rural areas who are suffering in many ways. My constituency comprises small towns and villages, and many people have to travel to get to work. They have to use their cars to do so.
Many of my constituents have to travel to work, and they have no alternative to their car. There are bus services, but if we look at how people work today-many work split shifts and might have one or two jobs to make ends meet-we see that it is very difficult for them to get to their work places by bus. This places a great deal of pressure on family budgets. If we are talking about creating work and getting people back into it, we must make it easier for people to travel.
As I mentioned in an intervention, The Guardian this morning features an article saying that bus routes are about to be slashed, and I understand that the rural bus rebate given to local authorities is also going to go. All that will cut back even further people's ability to get to work by bus. I will now give way to the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) before he jumps up again.
Jim McGovern: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I must say first that I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) criticised me for repeating a point and for not having been here earlier. I did explain why I was not here, but my main point is for the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir). I am sure he is aware that Stagecoach, a company owned by Brian Souter and one of the biggest donors to the Scottish National party, has said that the fuel price increases will help its business.
There is another problem with cars. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) made the point that many people in rural areas have old
vehicles and cannot afford to buy new ones. That brings several problems. Those vehicles are not only less reliable, but use more petrol than modern vehicles do and cost more to maintain and more to run in road tax and other things. People are suffering seriously by having to travel to work by car.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) talked about what the devolved Administrations could do. The devolved Scottish Administration has introduced a business bonus to help with the costs of running small businesses. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the ending of the Severn bridge toll. There is a huge cost in fuel for transportation, which is really hitting small businesses.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) mentioned the green argument, and I would like to address some of the related issues. Strangely enough, I agreed with a lot of what he had to say-I shall surely not make a habit of it!-but it seems to me that there is nothing green about strangling local economies in rural areas. Some say that people can move on to drive electric cars. I would like to see an electric car that would take me around my Angus constituency, never mind Argyll or Caithness and Sutherland, but the range is simply not available.
The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who is no longer in his place, mentioned home fuel oil. I appreciate that it is taxed differently from petrol, so it is a different issue, but he is quite correct to say that throughout rural Scotland, the escalating price of home fuel oil-used in many hard-to-treat homes that are otherwise unable to get central heating or any heating at all-is a huge problem, which is also hitting many people. These costs is devastating the rural economy.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen also mentioned supermarkets giving discounts on petrol, but in some ways this is a somewhat insidious practice. The Minister talked about people going to petrol stations, but in many rural areas such stations have ceased to exist. One of the hidden costs of living in rural areas is that people often have to travel many miles to fill up their vehicles with petrol in the first place. Cars cannot be driven right until the orange light comes on; if they are, they are unlikely to get to a petrol station for a fill-up and will be stranded somewhere along the line. If supermarkets offer discounts, people travel long distances to get there to fill up their cars, which has a knock-on effect on business in rural areas.
The key point is that the fuel issue is at the centre of the rural economy. Unless we sort this problem out, there will be no rural economy. We will not see a recovery of businesses that are strangled by rising fuel prices. Businesses will not survive for much longer if the price continues to rise as it has recently.
I think it was the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) who talked about the Barnett formula. Frankly, that is completely
irrelevant to this argument. If we had a fuel duty stabiliser, it would apply throughout the country. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Gentleman is thinking about the derogation, which is a completely different matter: we are talking about two different systems here.
We have pushed for a fuel duty stabiliser to give certainty about the price, to allow hauliers, for example, to be able to quote in advance for a contract and know what the fuel prices are going to be. This will also allow people to look at their family budgets and know what they have to spend to get to work on a weekly or monthly basis. We need to remember that our constituents are not getting pay rises-in some cases, they are getting pay cuts-so they cannot cope with these rising prices, which impact directly on family budgets. For all those reasons, we need action now. It is all very well to talk about the problem and to look at the practicalities, but if this drags on into next year, I am afraid that many businesses will fail to survive.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): There are two issues in the debate, which I would like to try to disaggregate. One is the high premium paid in rural areas and the specific circumstances that apply to it. The other is the general high cost of fuel in the country. Let me deal with the two separately.
Briefly, on the derogation for rural areas, it exists because there is a premium to be paid in those areas. Many Members have provided the arguments, so I will not go over them all again. However, I would point out that it exists not simply because there is a premium. I have researched the issue over many years, so I can tell hon. Members that I have often found that a certain petrol station in Sloane avenue is in the top three or four for prices. That shows that it is not simply a matter of high prices; the problem is that there is high price, a premium and a lack of public transport, coupled with the other deprivation typically seen in the more remote rural areas. It is not high prices alone, but the combination of all those factors that counts.
Secondly, as a number of hon. Members mentioned, I wrote a paper on this subject and it dealt with all the elements that cause worry-imperfectly, I am sure, but the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who was the Exchequer Secretary at the time, took it seriously and her officials looked at it, so it was reasonable enough. I would like to think that the imperfections contained in that scheme are currently being ironed out and that we will shortly know what the Government intend to put forward.
I want to deal more fully with the other question of the generally high price of fuel. I commend to anyone who has not yet had a chance to read it the note produced for this debate by the Library. Among other things, it contains some very interesting facts. For example, it points out that for a number of years, the cost of motoring has actually gone down in this country in real terms, whereas the cost of public transport has by comparison gone up. One of my successors as Liberal Democrat transport spokesman often used to point that out.
It is also interesting to look at the percentage of tax take. It has varied from a high of about 89% at one point in the '90s down to the high mid-50s and now back up to 63%. That is the total tax take percentages. The tax take in real terms today is about equivalent to that of 1997-98. We need to get our facts right and look at the issue in perspective.
We need to take account of some of the external factors. They must include the fluctuation in the oil price, which has once more hit $100 a barrel. A number of economists believe that that is merely a resumption of the upward trend that existed before the recession. It is entirely possible that the price will rise further, in which event we shall have to deal with the consequences of a high fuel price for our economy.
I congratulate the Government on giving thought to the introduction of a fuel stabiliser, although I have some doubts about the practicalities. There is only one thing worse than a stabiliser that works, and that is a stabiliser that does not work, so if we are to have one, let us ensure that it works. However, we might consider how the Government could, as it were, be removed from the equation. There are a number of possibilities, and I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to investigate them.
The first possibility involves VAT. When the last Government reduced it to 15% they also increased duty by 2p, and that remained when VAT rose again. Thus a relationship was established between VAT and duty. I suggest that the reverse should apply: that VAT on fuel should be 5%, in line with VAT on heating fuel, and that the duty should be altered to an amount that the Government considered appropriate. That would remove the variability that comes from the market. It would not affect the Treasury, and it would not have some of the deficiencies of the stabiliser. It is an imperfect mechanism, but it would be of some small comfort to know that when the price at the pump rose, it would be largely a result of what the oil companies were doing rather than what the Government were doing.
Albert Owen: I agree with the principle of a stabiliser. However, the Government talk of having "inherited" the duty increase. In 1997, the Labour Government inherited a Conservative proposal to raise VAT on domestic fuel and then "disinherited" it. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting, as I am, that the Conservatives should "disinherit" the duty increase? That would help people in his area and in mine.
Let me make another point about the current regime. I happened to note that if the escalator were introduced, it would be based on the retail prices index. Perhaps the Minister would consider basing it on the consumer prices index, which would be in line with the rest of Government thinking.
Finally, let me express a view on an issue that I studied in some detail when I was my party's transport spokesman. I believe that the whole way in which we tax fuel is wrong. In my opinion we should not tax it at all, but should adopt a proper method of variable road user charging. Through that mechanism, we could both raise the amount of money that we wish to raise and incorporate
all the fairness that we seek. It would require those who are most able to find alternatives, and who use the most congested roads, to pay the most, while allowing those with the most need-most of whom live in the least congested areas-to pay the least, and it has been suggested by most academics in the field of transport.
I have a funny feeling, Madam Deputy Speaker, that when I first raised the issue of road user charging in a Westminster Hall debate in 2001, it was you who responded from the Dispatch Box. I hope that the Government will seriously consider introducing such a system, because it would enable us to escape from the groundhog day of the fuel duty debate which comes round at least once a year, and adopt a sensible method of charging for road use that would be both green and economically efficient.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to have the opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the Plaid Cymru and SNP group. Our combined parties have campaigned on this issue for a number of years, not least in tabling amendments to Finance Bills in 2005 and 2008. It is somewhat disappointing that, in our first Opposition day debate of the Session, we must once again highlight the need for Government intervention to stabilise fuel prices.
Fuel prices are driven by the global price of oil and by domestic taxation. In the case of global oil prices, the trajectory is likely to go in only one direction, as oil is a finite resource. It is already being traded at over $100 a barrel. As the world economy recovers, the price will rise further as a result of increasing demand, especially from the emerging countries and, in particular, China. Volatility will only be exacerbated as we reach peak oil. Oil prices will also inevitably increase as a result of the long-term deflationary policies of the United States Government. Oil is traded in dollars, and a weakening dollar pushes up oil prices as producer countries try to make up for the shortfall of a currency whose value lessens. I echo the call of the French President, Mr Sarkozy, for a long-term agreement between oil-producing and consumer countries to offer more stability on prices.
Fuel prices are obviously influenced by domestic taxation, and it is with that element that we are concerned today. Duty on fuel in the UK represents about 65% of the price of fuel at the pump, if my sums are correct. Clearly, the higher the price of wholesale oil, the higher the tax receipts raked in by the Treasury. As is shown by an excellent House of Commons Library research paper, petrol duty in the UK is the second highest in the European Union, and the duty on diesel is by far the highest. While most other countries impose different levels of duty on road petrol and diesel, the UK's rates are exactly the same, which means that the UK's diesel prices are far higher than those of our European partners.
There are three general reasons for the need for a mechanism to stabilise fuel prices via control of duty. First, the volatility of fuel prices has far-reaching social and economic consequences, and we therefore need a mechanism to dampen the peaks and troughs. Secondly-as we have heard in a number of notable speeches today-surges in prices have a disproportionate effect on some sectors of the economy, some sections of society, and some geographical parts of the state. Thirdly, green
taxes must be linked to clear environmental criteria, because otherwise the public will believe they are just another cash cow and there will be a loss of support for environmental taxation. That would be a disaster, in view of the challenges that we face as a nation and, of course, throughout the world.
Let me stress that we are not arguing for the introduction of something new and untested. Many OECD countries have mechanisms to regulate the price of fuel. France has a fuel regulator, and Canada even has a regional fuel stabiliser. If we were to adopt a similar system in the United Kingdom, I should like to advance a special case for south-west Wales.
"We will consult on the introduction of a 'Fair Fuel Stabiliser'. This would cut fuel duty when oil prices rise, and vice versa. It would ensure families and businesses and the whole British economy are less exposed to volatile oil markets, and that there is a more stable environment for low carbon investment."
We have had a very interesting debate, featuring many positive and informative contributions. The hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), in his usual ultra-detailed opening remarks, made a comprehensive case for the need for a stabilising mechanism. I urge those who missed the beginning of the debate to read his speech, and I hope one day to be able to rival his knowledge of these matters. He made the specific point that rising fuel costs constituted a significant economic head wind. Given the recent deliberations about the Government's lack of a growth strategy, I humbly suggest that that is one idea that they should fully embrace.
The Minister defended the Government's position admirably by blaming the previous Administration, but while we welcomed her comments about the rural derogation pilot and look forward to further progress her suggestion that the devolved Governments could intervene to reduce the burden on families was somewhat weak. Much as I should like the Welsh Parliament to have the taxation powers that would enable it to intervene, this is a matter for the United Kingdom Government. They need to take the necessary responsibility and introduce proposals of their own, rather than blaming the previous Administration and placing the onus on the devolved Governments without giving them any power. That seems to have developed into a growing theme in recent months.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) confirmed that the Labour party opposes any stabilising mechanism. I am sure that colleagues who will fight Welsh Assembly elections and Scottish parliamentary elections in a few months' time will remind electors of Labour's policy.
As usual, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) spoke with great authority. He concentrated on the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises
to the Welsh economy. I echo his views and look forward to his support in the Lobby later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) made a strong case for the food processing industry in her constituency. She discussed the added burden that that industry faces as a result of spikes in the price of oil.
The hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) made a staunch defence of the Government's position. We would welcome a derogation pilot in England, as he suggested, because if it worked in remote parts of England it would work in Wales and mainland Scotland, too.
Albert Owen: The hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) is not in his seat, but he said that only areas with devolved Administrations have been proposed for the pilot. The Isles of Scilly are, as we all know, in England. Wales has been left out, but surely the Isle of Anglesey would be the ideal place to experiment with such a derogation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) discussed how fuel prices in his constituency have reached the £1.50 a litre mark. Having visited his beautiful constituency last week as a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I can inform my hon. Friend that his effort on that issue is appreciated.
The hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) highlighted how the rising fuel price hinders economic growth, especially outside south-east England and in those sectors of the economy that the UK Government are depending on, if they are serious about their stated aim of rebalancing the economy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr Weir) highlighted the huge problems caused to small businesses in his constituency. He pointed out the impact on disposable income for working families in his valid contribution.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) made an informative speech. He made a powerful argument about changing the VAT rate for fuel, and I hope that Ministers will consider his ideas.
In their joint economic declaration last week, the devolved Administrations specifically called on the UK Government to take action to counteract rising fuel and transport costs. The Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all highlighted how rising fuel costs form a significant economic headwind that undermines efforts to rebuild after the recent downturn. The declaration called for the postponement of the proposed duty increase planned for April this year. I am sure that all the Celtic Governments support the need for a fuel duty stabiliser.
In closing, I want to refer to those bodies that have contacted us to support our motion. We have received overwhelming support from many diverse organisations, such as the Farmers Union of Wales, NFU Cymru, the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Countryside Association. That diversity reflects our point that ordinary families, businesses and workers across the UK acutely feel the effects of volatile fuel prices, although rising fuel duty will inevitably hit rural communities hardest.
Gareth Vaughan, president of the FUW, has written to say how "grossly unfair" it is that we in the UK pay more than any other country for our fuel, because of the "extortionate level of tax" imposed by the UK Government. He added that
"bearing in mind that there is a difference of as much as five pence per litre between rural and city garages in Wales already, the added fuel duty coupled with rising oil prices will be devastating to rural communities all over the UK."
"The Road Haulage Association welcomes Plaid's and the SNP's support for a fuel duty stabiliser"
"the volatility of fuel prices is a major issue for hauliers and, increasingly, for their customers."
"Every extra penny spent at the pumps is a penny not being spent elsewhere in the economy...Small businesses want to grow...and create employment but the cost of fuel puts the brakes on their ability to drive the recovery."
"Lives and livelihoods up and down the country are suffering in the face of unsustainable and crippling fuel costs. This cost is unsustainable and...as part of the Fair Fuel UK Campaign, the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association, along with backing from the RAC, are asking government principally to scrap the fuel duty rise planned in April and introduce a methodology for stabilising fuel prices."
It is not only organisations and individuals outside this place who have backed our campaign. In introducing his plans for a fuel stabiliser in 2008, the then shadow Chancellor-the current Chancellor-described the stabiliser as
"a common sense plan to help families, bring stability to the public finances and help the environment by making the price of carbon less volatile".
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): This has been an interesting debate, and I thank all hon. Members who have contributed. Fuel prices are undoubtedly of significant concern to hon. Members and the wider population.
It is fair to say that the issue is not new. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has referred to this debate being like "Groundhog Day". He is a long-standing participant in debates on this subject, and he is influential in setting out the arguments for a rural derogation, to which I shall turn later. He also set out further proposals that may influence this debate in the years to come.
At the moment, there is a particular concern about fuel prices. We have heard today from hon. Members from all parties and from all parts of the United Kingdom about the difficulties that their constituents face because of rising fuel prices. It appears to cost more every time that people fill up the car, and the public understandably want us to do something about that.
Mr Binley: I have a message for the Economic Secretary from hauliers in my constituency, such as Wrefords and Butts. They understand what the Government need to do to put the deficit right, but they urge him to do something that was in our manifesto, namely bring forward a stabiliser. They do not understand why we have not done it already.
Mr Gauke: I will turn to the stabiliser in a moment. My hon. Friend has touched on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) also raised, which is the deficit that we face. It is only by coming up with a credible plan to balance the books that we have managed to create the confidence needed for a recovery. To get there, we have had to make some tough decisions, such as raising certain taxes, including VAT, and cutting public expenditure in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party to all our plans.
One of the few things that we inherited that would reduce the deficit were the previous Government's plans to increase fuel duty. We heard quite a lot from the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), about VAT. It is worth pointing out that the Labour Budgets of 2009 and 2010 involved the following increases in fuel duty: in September 2009, there was a 2p increase; in 2010, there was a 2.76p increase; and there are 1p increases in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. In total, the increase is about 9p a litre. We cannot dismiss those increases without knowing how we can fund any shortfall.
"would love to see tax reductions...but when you're borrowing 11% of your GDP, it's not possible."
So although I sympathise with the points made by hon. Members from all parts of the House, our decisions on tax must be viewed in that context, where every penny we increase fuel duty by raises an additional £500 million and if we cut fuel duty, that money will have to come from somewhere else.
The two particular areas we have debated today are the fuel stabiliser and the rural fuel duty rebate, which this House has debated on a number of occasions and is clearly of close interest to a number of hon. Members. The Government have made no secret of the fact that we are considering such a rebate. People in rural areas do face particular challenges on petrol and diesel, as fuel prices there tend to be more expensive because of relatively high transport costs-a number of hon. Members have made that point. A lack of alternatives means that people in rural communities have little or no
choice but to use the car, which is why we have announced our intention to introduce a rural fuel duty pilot. It will deliver a duty discount of up to 5p a litre on all petrol and diesel which, as the Economic Secretary said at the start of today's debate, would save some drivers in rural areas upwards of £500 a year.
Mr Gauke: As the Economic Secretary stated, the Government are engaged in informal conversations with the European Commission and we hope to be able to bring together our representations in a formal submission to take this forward, but this matter is not as simple as the hon. Gentleman might like it to be. We are considering the exact scope of the scheme, although the inner and outer Hebrides, the Northern Isles and the Isles of Scilly will certainly be included. May I say to him, and to other hon. Members such as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), that we can go ahead only when we have got clearance from the European Union? It is important to set out proposals that will achieve that clearance and we can then obtain the unanimous support of the 27 EU member states, which is what we require. Productive discussions are ongoing and we will of course update the House whenever we have any further progress. I hope that we will be able to provide a further update at the time of the Budget. Hon. Members should note, as, to be fair, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) did, that at least this Government are trying to make progress on this area. The hon. Member for Bristol East did not even make it clear today whether she supports our even trying to do something on this issue, and that is a remarkable position.
The fuel stabiliser proposal was raised by a number of hon. Members, and the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), in particular, has taken a close interest in it for many years. There is an argument that higher oil prices will automatically lead to higher tax revenues. The Conservative manifesto said that the Office for Budget Responsibility would seek to review this policy to see what we could do in this area. We did ask the OBR to examine how the oil price affects our economy in order to determine how the Government could share the burden of high oil prices and see whether a fair fuel stabiliser could work in practice. The OBR's assessment was that increases in tax revenue received from oil and gas production can be easily offset by things such as higher inflation, which would lead to higher benefit payments and a further drain on the Exchequer. The reality, as set out by the OBR, is that there is no sudden windfall for the Exchequer as a consequence of higher oil prices. None the less, we recognise the strains that this situation causes and we continue to examine a range of options, including the fair fuel stabiliser. It is right that we must ensure that whatever we do is not only fair, but affordable.
This Government understand the problems people are facing and are taking every action possible to help those most in need, but we also know that we have to act responsibly and ensure that we tackle the record
national debt. The increases in fuel duty result from the previous Government's proposals. Some people argue that we could abandon those proposals, but it is not clear whether that is the position of the Labour party. We need to strike a difficult balance, but our priorities are clear. We must get the economy back on its feet and we must have a private sector leading the recovery and creating new jobs. In contrast to our predecessors, we are seeking to address the genuine concerns that exist about rising fuel prices and we are determined to settle on a proposal that is fair, sustainable and fiscally responsible.
That this House notes the dramatic increase in the world oil price to over $100 per barrel; further notes that there has been a significant impact on fuel prices in the UK as a result; recognises the impact this has on households and business; notes that the previous administration's rises in fuel duty that have taken effect
during the past year have further increased prices; further notes that the Government inherited the largest deficit in UK peacetime history, that the previous administration had no credible plan to deal with the deficit, that the Government has been clear that everyone will make a contribution to tackle the deficit but that the most vulnerable will be protected, and that the Government is considering a fair fuel stabiliser that could support motorists and businesses when oil prices are high; further notes that the Government in addition is taking forward swiftly its commitment at EU level to introduce a pilot scheme that would deliver a discount of up to 5 pence per litre in duty in remote rural areas such as the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Northern Isles and the Isles of Scilly; and further notes that the Chancellor will update the House on all fiscal matters at the time of the Budget.
The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for your ruling earlier this afternoon that the phrase "rank hypocrisy" is unparliamentary language. I should therefore like to withdraw the phrase, which I used earlier today, and apologise to the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who may have felt that it was directed at him. Under no circumstances would I wish to accuse him of any activity that was in any way covered by the use of unparliamentary language.
Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Rumours are rife in the Press Gallery, and more widely, that the Government are planning to announce the result of their talks with the banks on bonuses and lending, otherwise known as Project Merlin, to TV stations and via a press release this evening. Do you agree with me that if the Government are doing private deals with the banks, they should have the courage to come to the House, that the House should be the first to hear about it and that announcing the outcome behind the backs of Members of this House would be totally unacceptable?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for both her point of order and her advance notice of it. The Procedure Committee published its report on ministerial statements only last week, reaffirming the principle that important statements should be made first to this House. As a former Minister, and indeed an experienced parliamentarian, she will be aware of her options for taking up the matter. The Table Office will be open until the rising of the House, and it will not have escaped her notice that the Leader of the House is in his place and has heard what she has said.
(1) this House agrees with the recommendations in the Tenth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, on Registration of income from employment (HC 749); and
(2) accordingly the resolution of the House of 30 April 2009 relating to the Registration of Members' Financial Interests be amended, by leaving out paragraph (2) and inserting:-
"(2) That such a payment shall be registered
(a) where its value exceeds one tenth of 1 per cent. of the current
Parliamentary salary; or
(b) where the total value of payments from the same person, organisation or company in a calendar year exceeds 1 per cent. of the current Parliamentary salary."
Hon. Members will recall that the Leader of the House is one of my predecessors as Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee. I know that he will be as pleased as I am that time has been found to take forward two sets of proposals in which he played an important part in a former life, particularly as one of them was agreed in the 2008-09 Session.
The more recent of the two reports seeks to make a simple but welcome change to the rule requiring Members to register each payment they receive for work carried out outside the House. As we note in the report, it might not have been the intention of the House when it agreed the original resolution in April 2009 to require Members to register bottles of wine or bunches of flowers, but that has been the effect. The problem is that when a Member receives a bottle of wine, a bunch of flowers or maybe even a ballpoint pen as a thank you for giving a speech or hosting an event, it might be intended as a gift, but it has the characteristics of a payment. A gift is given in its own right, without the expectation of anything in return. Where something is given in return for a service rendered, however, it is a payment, and therein lies the difficulty. As we state in our report, the Committee considered whether it might be possible to draw a line between the circumstances in which the bottle of wine or bunch of flowers is clearly a gift, and those in which it is clearly a payment. We concluded that, wherever such a line is drawn, the distinction is unlikely to be sufficiently clear and so the risk that Members would unintentionally fall foul of the rule would remain.
The Committee therefore favours a threshold, but to preserve confidence in the register we propose that it should be set at quite a low level. The level we propose is 0.1% of a Member's salary for individual payments, which is £66, and 1% of a Member's salary for the cumulative total of payments from the same source in the same year, which is £660, which we think is proportionate. By linking it to Members' pay, the House will ensure that we do not have to keep resetting it.
I want to emphasise that we do not take issue with the intention behind the resolution of April 2009, which was that the public should be able to know how much MPs are paid for other employment and who pays them. We simply want to make the rules more workable
and to catch only the sorts of payments that are relevant to the central purpose of the register, which is to show whether a Member has received a material benefit that might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes.
There are, of course, other recommendations that we could have made, two of which are particularly worth mentioning. The first is the requirement to register the hours worked. I know that that requirement has not been universally popular in the House, but any proposal to amend it would require proper consideration. I will of course listen to any comments made in today's debate and discuss them with my colleagues in the Committee. The second requirement, which is mentioned in the report, relates to the threshold that applies for gifts. The threshold is currently 1% of the salary, or £660, and was set in 2001. I think that the Committee needs to consider whether that remains the right level and intend to invite it to do so later in the Session.
Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): I should declare an interest, as I speak quite a lot for colleagues, although so far I have never been given anything-I am not sure what to make of that. The right hon. Gentleman is not only Chair of the Committee, but a long-standing member of it, so he has considerable experience of these matters. On a serious point, does he not agree that if we all lose sight of common sense when it comes to declaring interests, we really will run out of road. We really must return to some form of understanding that, although codification of these matters is now deemed necessary, because of events that we all deeply regret, it does nothing for the standards of this House or for what it might think of itself if we have to codify the value of a gift given to a Member who makes a speech on behalf of a colleague.
Mr Barron: I will not say whether I agree or disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I have said that I will bring all points made in the debate to the Committee's attention, and we will decide on that basis whether to look into these matters.
Mr Speaker: Order. Just before the right hon. Gentleman continues, I note that he has referred to matters that are in motion 3. I make no complaint about that, but it leads me to think that, for the purposes of his speech, he is conflating the two separate motions. As I say, I make no complaint about that. No request was made that the motions be taken together, but if it is for the convenience of the House, the Chair is very happy that they be taken together. [Hon. Members: "Aye."] I get the impression that that is the position. I am grateful. So we shall also consider the following:
(1) this House agrees with the recommendations in the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges of Session 2008-09, on All-Party Groups (HC 920); and
(2) accordingly the resolution of the House of 17 December 1985, as amended on 10 March 1989 and 29 July 1998, be further amended by leaving out paragraph 3 and inserting:-
"3. Groups whose membership:
• is open to all Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords, and
• includes at least 20 Members (each of whom must be a Member of the House of Commons or House of Lords), comprising: at least 10 Members who are from the same political party as the Government, and at least 10 who are not from the Government's party (of whom at least six must be from the main opposition party), and
• includes at least one officer who is a Member of the House of Commons be required to register the following information on the Register of All-Party Groups:
(a) The full title of the group. If persons other than Members of the Commons or Lords are allowed full membership (i.e. voting rights) the term 'Associate Parliamentary Group' must be included in the group's title. If such persons are not allowed full membership the term 'All-Party Parliamentary Group' must be included instead. The rest of the group's title should simply reflect the group's subject so that the latter is obvious from its title alone.
(b) A brief summary of the group's main purpose.
(c) The names of the group's officers. At least one officer must be an MP; each of the other officers must be a Member of the House of Commons or House of Lords.
(d) The names of exactly 20 qualifying Members (each of whom must be a Member of the House of Commons or Lords), comprising: 10 Members who are from the same political party as the Government, and 10 who are not from the Government's party (of which at least six must be from the main opposition party).
(e) The contact details of the group's registered contact, who must be both an officer of the group and a Member of the House of Commons, and is the person ultimately responsible for the group's compliance with the rules of the House.
(f) Any relevant gainful occupation of staff to the group who hold a parliamentary pass (relevant gainful occupation means any occupation that is advantaged by the privileged access afforded by the pass).
(g) The source and extent of any financial benefit (e.g. donations) and the source and nature of any non-financial material benefit (e.g. provision of goods or services) received by the group from a single source outside Parliament, if the value of the benefit equals or exceeds the financial threshold for registration (currently £1,500) in a calendar year. Once the group has made that initial registration, any further donation received from the same source in the same calendar year should be registered if its value exceeds £500.
(h) The website address of any organisation registered as the group's secretariat.
(i) If a consultancy is registered as the group's secretariat, the names and website of the consultancy plus the name of any client of theirs who is specifically paying the consultancy to act as the secretariat must also be registered. The consultancy must either publish on its website its full client list or agree to provide such a list on request, otherwise it is not allowed to act as the group's secretariat.
(ii) If a charity or not-for-profit organisation is registered as the group's secretariat, the former's name and website must also be registered. The charity or not-for-profit organisation must agree to make available on request a list citing any commercial company which has donated either as a single sum or cumulatively more than £5,000 in the course of the 12 months prior to the month in which the request is made, otherwise it is not allowed to act as the group's secretariat.
(i) The address of the group's website, if it has its own website.
(j) The date of the group's inaugural election of officers and of any Annual General Meeting held thereafter.
(k) Affiliation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, if the group is affiliated to either or both."
I now turn to the report on all-party groups, published in July 2009. The proposals set out in the report are a package, most of them originally
recommended by the previous Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer, to whom I pay tribute. In summary, the proposed changes will require each group to register the website address of any organisation acting as its secretariat, where the secretarial assistance is more than £1,500 a year; in the case of a charity providing such support, require the charity to make available on request a list of commercial donors who have donated more than £5,000 to it in the previous 12 months; in the case of a consultancy providing such support, require the consultancy to publish on its website its full client list or provide such a list on request; require groups to register their website address; require groups to include on their website details of their sponsors and providers of secretarial services; and require each group to nominate an MP, who must also be an officer of the group, to act as the main point of contact for the group and also as the person who is ultimately responsible for ensuring its compliance with the rules.
In my view, those are sensible tidying-up changes that will increase public confidence in the Register of All-party Groups. The Committee's report also proposes tightening the rules for the registration of all-party groups by aligning them with those for inclusion on the separate approved list maintained by the Commissioner's office. This means that groups will no longer qualify for inclusion on the register unless they comply with the more extensive requirements of the approved list, such as the need to provide the names of 20 qualifying Members.
Taken as a whole, the changes should improve the scheme's operations, providing clearer rules for those running the groups and those compiling the register, and greater transparency and ease of use for those who wish to consult the register.
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I am just interested in knowing the right hon. Gentleman's general approach. Does he not realise that we had the least corrupt system of any Parliament, perhaps in the world? The more rules and regulations we bring in, the more the registry office will be snowed under. The absurd rule that it has to register every payment is, frankly, ridiculous; it cannot cope at present. The more rules we have, the more people will break them and the more corruption will be driven underground. We should have a general approach, because the public want to know broadly what we earn when that might affect our behaviour-in other words, a fairly large sum. That is where we should be-with as deregulatory an approach as possible.
I just spoke about the Committee report of July 2009 on making all-party groups more transparent, so that we know exactly who runs those organisations and what moneys go into them. That seems to be an obvious thing for us to do. The report has been waiting for our attention since July 2009, and I hope that the House will commend both reports, so that they can go ahead and make us better at what we do. We might want to look at the issues that were raised in the two interventions, and if we do, we will ask the House and individual Members for their view. On that basis, I commend the reports to the House.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) on securing this debate about two modest but important improvements to the rules on the registration of Members' financial interests and on the registration of all-party groups. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, as the new rules relating to all-party groups were produced under his chairmanship of the Standards and Privileges Committee back in July 2009.
The Committee's proposal to reintroduce a sensible de minimis threshold for the registration of income from employment will remedy a problem that arose with the rule changes that the House agreed to on 30 April 2009. Under those new rules, Members are required to register every single payment they receive for remunerated employment of any kind, however small its value. The problem is that, for the House's purposes, "remunerated employment" means any benefit of any kind which a Member might receive in exchange for providing a service.
The test is not whether there is a formal employment relationship in law, or whether there is some kind of contractual obligation on either side, but whether the Member would have received the benefit if he or she had not provided some kind of service. This includes any small gift to a Member who addresses a school assembly, opens a village fete or makes, as the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) said, a speech at a constituency function. I am very sad to hear that he has never received any sort of thank you-not even a meal, from the sound of it. I find it extraordinary that he should go so unrewarded for his labours, but nevertheless any gift-
Anyway, any small gift received under those circumstances must be registered, and that has led to a large number of registrations of things that most of us would regard as gifts-tokens of thanks for some small service. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) has been commendably thorough in her registrations, which include a Scottish Bible Society cloth bag worth £2.95, some branded pens and pencils from a local recycling company worth £5 and a Girl-Guiding centenary pencil to the value of 35p. No one will honestly feel that her judgment has been clouded by the generosity of those gifts, but nevertheless she has complied with the strict requirements that the House places on us all.
My examples would not be complete if I did not mention that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has registered a gift of a pair of hand-knitted, yellow socks, which I am very sad to see he is not wearing today. He was given them when he opened a wool shop in his constituency, and I understand that the owners even went to the trouble of contacting his office to establish his shoe size.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I am quite awed by the thoroughness of many right hon. and hon. Members, but will the hon. Gentleman help me? I do not drink wine-I tried it once and did not much care for it-but when I addressed The Spectator dinner just before Christmas the organisers sent me half a dozen bottles of wine. I have not the faintest idea how much they are worth, so how does one find the price if not of a Scottish Bible Society bio-recyclable-degradable bag, then of things like a bottle of wine? Can the hon. Gentleman give some advice or assistance to those of us who are innocents in the area?
Mr Heath: The rather straightforward and dull response to the hon. Gentleman is, consult the registrar if in doubt. The registrar has an omniscience that transcends any normal Member, in that they know the value of all things. They will I am sure be able to find out the value of that wine gift, which I suspect, being from The Spectator, is a rather fine half case of wine. I am sure he fully deserved to be paid in such kind.
Nicholas Soames: The hon. Gentleman is himself beginning to stray-I am sure without realising it-into an area where common sense has completely departed. Surely it is important that common sense is exercised in all such matters, but it is absolutely impossible to codify the situation without it looking completely ridiculous.
Mr Heath: It is because there is a danger of the situation looking completely ridiculous that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley and his Committee have come up with the proposed changes. There clearly is a gradation. If the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) were, in response to his speaking at an event for The Spectator, given several cases of Chateau de Quem, it might well be considered that that would have an effect on his judgment, whether he consumed them or not-but a half bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale might not be considered to have the same effect.
There is a need for common sense. That is precisely why the right hon. Gentleman has come forward with the proposal for a sensible de minimis requirement worth about the £65 mark. Most people can judge whether what they have received is likely to be in that region. Judging from my experience, I am very rarely given a token that comes to anything like that value. I think that if I were given something of more than that value, it would suggest that I was involved in paid employment of some kind-doing it for some remuneration-and that it should be declared. One must use a level of common sense.
I do not want this debate to become merely an insight into the life of a constituency MP. The purpose of the register is to provide information about any material benefit that a Member receives and which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her conduct in the House. The trivial nature of these registrations and the effort and expense involved in registering them does nothing, I would suggest, to contribute to the purpose of the register. I welcome the Committee's proposal to introduce a sensible de minimis threshold of 0.1% of a Member's salary, which currently works out at about £65. That is a sensible compromise between ensuring clarity and accountability while not over-encumbering the register with things that are frankly of little or no concern to any reasonable member of the public.
Turning to the rules on all-party groups, this motion implements recommendations made by the Committee in July 2009. I will not repeat the details of the rule changes, which the right hon. Member for Rother Valley has already outlined to the House. The Government welcome these proposed changes. The House will be aware of the valuable work that is done by all-party groups on a vast range of issues-for example, the armed forces, the BBC, beer and cider, clean water, underground space and shipbuilding. There can scarcely be a country in the world, nor-as the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) told a debate in Westminster Hall last week-a condition of the human body that is not covered by an all-party group. As the House will be aware, some groups are campaigning bodies, some are concerned with building relationships with other countries, and some are essentially social groups. The examples that I have here suggest that the parliamentary choir and the rugby club might fall into the latter group, although I have my doubts as to whether they do not also, to an extent, have a campaigning purpose.
I would not wish for one moment to frustrate the work of these groups or to place unnecessary obstacles in their way. However, it is important for the House to have robust registration requirements in place in order to protect its reputation, the reputations of hon. Members, and those of the groups themselves.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Although the recommendations are entirely worthy and should be supported, the one issue that remains-the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) may be able to reflect on it when he winds up-is that groups often appear to be overlapping or duplicating, and we are always spawning more groups than we can manage properly to attend or service. Might it be possible, informally if not formally, for the registrar to ensure, when somebody seeks to register a group, that the activity is not already covered somewhere else, so that we do not end up duplicating activities?
Mr Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. He is absolutely right to say that there is a degree of overlap and proliferation among all-party groups. It would certainly be helpful if the registrar were able to give guidance on where there is any likely overlap. I would not be happy for the registrar to be in a position to veto the formation of a new all-party group that might have a different view or complexion as regards a particular matter, but knowing that somebody already deals with a specific subject might be helpful at an early stage in a group's formation in order to prevent duplication.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab):
I declare an interest in that I am chairman of the all-party group on Georgia, having been asked to take it over from my good friend Bruce George, the former right hon. Member for Walsall. Apart from that, I am not really active in any of these groups. Several colleagues are, however, and they have to overlap; otherwise, the group dies because if it does not have its officers it ceases to exist. Yet they are pilloried in the press as junketeers and all the rest of it. Is there any mechanism that allows them to send a statement to these reptiles that in fact an all-party group for no-man's land somewhere can be of
importance-that these groups can help our ambassadors, chambers of commerce and investment? How do we push back this endless sneering that any involvement with any country outside Britain is something that no right hon. or hon. Member should take part in?
Mr Heath: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. All-party groups that deal with overseas countries are often of huge value in increasing understanding and maintaining contacts with parliamentarians in those countries and, indeed, their civil societies. He mentioned that Members are often members of several different groups. That, to me, is not duplication. It is not an obstacle; it is simply showing a breadth of interest. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) was referring to the situation where more than one all-party group has an overlapping interest, which is not quite the same thing.
All-party groups, particularly some of the overseas groups, are of value. But-and there is a but-there is a need for transparency in the way that they operate and the degree to which they may or may not provide benefit to Members. First, many, but by no means all, groups provide a forum for commercial interests and campaign groups to lobby hon. Members. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that in a free society, and lobbying is one of the routes by which hon. Members can come to a better understanding of some of the policy issues that confront us in this House. However, the public rightly expect to know who is lobbying whom, and on whose behalf and with what outcome. That is the crucial aspect. That is why the Government are working towards increasing transparency and openness in the activity of lobbyists by introducing a statutory register. These proposals also contribute to that objective.
Secondly, as the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) said, Members receive hospitality, including in some cases overseas travel, through some of the groups. Of course, Members are still under a duty to register any registrable interest personally, but there is a legitimate public interest in the publication of full details about the groups under whose auspices such benefits may be received.
Finally, although all-party groups are independent of the House, they carry something of its brand. They can use the word "parliamentary" in their titles, and they have access to the facilities of the House. I am sure that in the public mind, the distinction between an all-party group and a Committee of this House is unclear, at best. The House therefore has a legitimate interest in ensuring that the groups observe the highest standards of transparency.
I should like finally to touch on an issue of drafting. The motion refers to Members who are from the same political party as the Government and those who are not from the Government's party-singular. I have been advised by the Clerks that this is already being interpreted in motions relating to all-party groups, as it is in other resolutions of the House, as meaning all those parties making up the Government in the situation of a coalition. This is the advice that has been given to Members since the start of the Parliament by those operating the system, and it is working without any problem to date. While it would have been possible to amend the motion so that it reflected more accurately
the current position of the coalition Government, it would have put it at odds with other resolutions in use around the House. For that reason, the motion is not being amended and is being put to the House in a form consistent with other resolutions of the House.
On behalf of the Government, I thank the right hon. Member for Rother Valley and other members of the Standards and Privileges Committee for their work. I am pleased to support the motions and commend them to the House.
Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): I begin by thanking members of the Standards and Privileges Committee, both past and present, for the work they have done to bring these two motions before the House. We have heard from Members about the need for common sense in our procedures. The motions are an attempt to introduce some consistency and common sense into our registration procedures. It is very easy for the House to set out general principles, but it is often quite tricky to bring forward the motions that put those principles into practice. In this case, the Committee has done a good job, and I support the proposals.
One of the motions deals with the registration of all-party groups. I must declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group on stroke and as secretary of the parliamentary friends of CAFOD-the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development-group.
It is interesting to look back on how the Committee's consideration of these matters arose. Originally, there was a report on lobbying and all-party groups by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The Committee rightly looked at his recommendations to work out how they could be put into practice and which it was most sensible to put into practice. Having looked back at the original suggestions, I am bound to say that some of them were unworkable.
The Committee has attempted to make the way in which assistance to groups is registered transparent and to prevent the register from increasing to such a volume that it is unusable or that it requires corrections every other day. Hence, it suggests that we stick to the current principle that benefits worth less than £1,500 in a calendar year are not registrable. The onus is put on consultancies that work with all-party groups to be transparent about their clients, either through a published list on their website or by making such a list available to people who ask for it. It also places requirements on charities.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): Perhaps this is a question that I should have asked the Deputy Leader of the House. How does the hon. Lady envisage the £1,500 limit working for people who give pro bono advice to parliamentary groups? Will they have to compute a value for that advice, or will it be taken on face value that it is not charged and therefore is not declarable?
Helen Jones: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question. It is quite easy to put a value on secretarial support and staff time. Pro bono advice is a more difficult area, and I cannot give him an answer on that off the top of my head. He is right to raise it, and it needs to be discussed, perhaps by the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Registrar of Members' Interests.
I am grateful to the Committee for considering how charities should operate in this regard, and for making it clear that it does not want to put an insupportable burden on charities that work with all-party parliamentary groups. The Committee does ask charities to make available lists of commercial companies that have donated more than £5,000. That is a sensible proposal.
As we have heard, there are proposals on making websites available. There are also recommendations to align the rules relating to the Register of All-party Groups with the rules relating to the approved list, so that only groups that meet the criteria for inclusion on the approved list should be permitted to register. The Opposition believe that those suggestions are sensible and proportionate. They meet the requirement of transparency, while not imposing unnecessary burdens, particularly on charities.
The House tried in 2009 to deal with the registration of income from employment, when it decided that all income from other employment should be registered, whether or not it exceeded 1% of the parliamentary salary in any year. The then Standards and Privileges Committee said that the rule would probably have to be reviewed in this Parliament. In particular, it suggested that there be consideration of a de minimis rule. Members who were in the House at the time will remember that there was a debate on whether, for instance, a bottle of wine given to someone after a speaking engagement would become registrable as remuneration for employment. The then Chair of the Committee thought that it would, and the Minister replying thought that it would be counted as a gift or hospitality and therefore would be subject to the de minimis rule for gifts. That difference was not over the intention of the rule, but about how it would be interpreted in practice.
It is clear that the advice given to Members has led to the registration of things such as pots of honey and bunches of flowers. I do not believe that such things would be regarded by any of our constituents as remuneration for employment. Frankly, if anyone is working for a pot of honey, I dread to think how many employment laws are being broken in the process. I will not even try to enumerate them, because it is so long since I practised law.
I also think that the registration of such things is perceived as an insult to those who gave them, who simply thought that they were making a generous gesture or rewarding hospitality; they did not in any sense think that they were rewarding a Member of Parliament. It has been common for my constituents to load me with flowers-I am sure that other hon. Members are given flowers wherever they go. My constituents do not believe that they are paying my wages in doing so. They believe that they are making a kind and thoughtful gesture. That is how it should be dealt with.
The Committee has recommended that registration should apply only to payments of more than 0.1% of the parliamentary salary and of more than 1% of the parliamentary salary for multiple payments from a single source. There are Members who think that the registration threshold is still too low. I suggest that we will have to consider that in the future. I understand why the Committee made this recommendation.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she is being very generous in giving way, and I do not want to prolong this debate. I have a feeling that the threshold may be too low, particularly as parliamentary salaries are likely to be frozen or have very small increases in the coming years, whereas the inflation on gifts will be 4% or 5%. The fiscal drag of bringing registration into the system will become greater and greater. If we are not careful, it will lead to the situation that she described of the register becoming too full to be used.
I understand why the Committee made these recommendations: they are simple, easy to operate and do not need constant updating. I suggest that the House needs to let the rules bed in and then see how they are working. We have to get to a situation where what we register is what can reasonably be thought to influence hon. Members. I argue strongly that if anyone in this House can be influenced by the gift of a pencil, a pot of honey or a bag, they probably should not be here. I do not think that any of our constituents believes that we can be influenced by such things. We can look again at the operation of the rules over time, but for the moment, they are the sensible way forward. I thank the Committee for its work and I commend the motions to the House.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): The report by the Standards and Privileges Committee on all-party parliamentary groups makes three reasonable suggestions that I support. First, a list of commercial companies that donate more than £5,000 to an APPG should be available on request. However, I see the case for a lower threshold-possibly £500-to ensure that APPGs are as transparent as possible. Secondly, a charity that supports an APPG should have its website listed on the Register of All-party Groups so that people can access relevant information. Thirdly, publications by APPGs should carry the names of their authors and the organisations that provide secretariat services to the group, plus the names of any relevant client or sponsor. Parliament should be transparent and I believe that these reforms will help us to move in that direction. However, I am concerned about which organisations can become an APPG's secretariat and the parliamentary access that it affords.
Last week at business questions, I asked the Leader of the House for an urgent statement on iEngage, an extremist group that seeks to influence Government and discredit moderate Muslims. It has been appointed secretariat to the new APPG for Islamophobia. It defends mosques that host terrorist preachers, schools that teach anti-Semitism and homophobia, individuals such as Daud Abdullah who have pressed for terrorist attacks on the British Navy, and the invitation of hate preachers to Britain. When those revelations emerged, the elected chair of the APPG, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), and the vice-chair Lord Janner, stood down in protest.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): I am sorry to trouble my hon. Friend, but perhaps I can give him notice that I will make a passing comment on that matter if you call me to speak later in the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. There may be more than one side to this.
Robert Halfon: I look forward to it, and I had a feeling that that was the case from the e-mail that my hon. Friend sent me. Because he is counter-intuitive on so many issues, I urge him to be counter-intuitive on this one and not to go along with the tide of taking the soft way on Islamism.
I received a letter from the Serjeant at Arms today informing me that iEngage has not yet been issued with a parliamentary pass. I am grateful to her and her office for their prompt and professional response on the matter, but at the same time, there is still some confusion in the House records, as the register of APPGs on the parliamentary website on Friday 4 February, last week-I have it here-was still indicating that iEngage's head of research, Shenaz Bunglawala, had been granted a Commons pass in her capacity as the secretariat to the all-party group on Islamophobia.
Simon Hughes: To follow up on what the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said, I am sure that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has done his research and understands that I remain an officer of that group. I will therefore seek to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it is important that the latter's comments, which are his opinion, are not necessarily regarded as factually and objectively accurate. I am very happy to engage in the debate, but there are certainly at least two sides to the story, if not more.
Robert Halfon: My later remarks will show that I am not just giving an opinion, I am giving hard facts. I urge my right hon. Friend, who is a progressive individual, to look at the organisation in question properly and support progressive Islamic groups that do not hold the views that iEngage does. We should judge organisations by the company they keep. Just as he would condemn somebody who spent their time supporting fascism, even if they did not commit fascist acts, he should not support Islamist groups that support extremism.
Stephen Pound: I am listening with great interest and, I have to say, with very little knowledge of the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes. The subject to which he is speaking seems so important that I ask him whether it would not be more appropriately addressed in a full and separate debate of the House rather than in the context of the motions before us.
Robert Halfon: I did ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for a debate and a statement last week, and he suggested that I bring the matter up in this debate. As this matter is about the secretariat of an APPG, I think the current debate is the right forum for bringing it up.
"acts as the group's secretariat",
a role that involves taking minutes of its meetings and heavily influencing its reports and speaker programme. The Serjeant at Arms has clarified to me in absolute terms that no pass has been issued. In an e-mail to me a few hours ago, she stated:
"We have spoken to the ex-Chairman and ex-Deputy Chairman of the APPG. It was iENGAGE who claimed they had a Parliamentary pass, but there is no evidence whatsoever to support this claim. As I said before, no application has been made and no pass issued for anyone connected to iENGAGE."
Mr MacShane: I think it is appropriate for this matter to be discussed in the debate, because it is a great worry to many people that an organisation with a very clear ideological purpose should be seeking to infiltrate the House of Commons and act as a secretariat. My Muslim constituents are worried about that. I do not know Mrs Bunglawala, but I have certainly heard Mr Bunglawala say at a meeting that he cannot condemn the lapidation-stoning to death-of women, because thus it is written in the Koran. He is entitled to that point of view, but I do not think it should be propagated. As the Prime Minister rightly says, and as I have been saying for some time, we have to keep ultra-Islamist ideologues out of our campuses and keep them from poisoning young minds. If there is even a hint of suspicion-and there is more than that-that it is now the secretariat of an all-party group, it is quite appropriate for the matter to be raised tonight.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I think that we are in danger of straying into security matters. I would like us try to keep to the motion. I know that it is broad, but we are in danger of going down an avenue that could possibly lead to security matters about who is and who is not issued with a pass. I would therefore appreciate it if we stuck to the general motion.
Robert Halfon: I will do my best, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) for his remarks. As he does so often on the issue that we are considering, he hits the nail on the head. The Prime Minister's comments at the weekend fit very much with his line of thinking.
I oppose Islamophobia in all its forms as vehemently as I oppose anti-Semitism, chauvinism or any bigotry. I was recently on an all-party group delegation to northern Iraq in the predominantly Muslim state of Kurdistan, which is a beacon for the prosperity and security that can be achieved when Christians, Muslims and Jews live harmoniously together. I am an active member of the APPG on Kurdistan and secretary of the APPG on Azerbaijan because I want to support progressive Muslim nations.
However, the problem with iEngage and its aggressive approach is that the views that it publishes and defends and the well documented history of its officers and trustees undermine any attempt to tackle anti-Muslim bigotry. Indeed, iEngage supports precisely the sort of extremist groups that fuel prejudice and anti-Muslim hatred, and grossly misrepresent Islam.
Shortly after my request for an urgent statement on iEngage, I was attacked online in what appeared to be a co-ordinated effort. That included a verbal assault from Inayat Bunglawala, who until recently was iEngage's head of policy and research.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants to get things on the record, but we are dealing with a motion, and I think that we are straying away from the relevant points to which we should be sticking, and getting into issues about individual groups. The motion is about the future of all-party groups, and I am not sure where the connection is. I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants to make his points, but we are in danger of straying way off where we should be.
Robert Halfon: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I had originally planned to make a point of order about the subject this afternoon, but the Speaker's Office asked me whether I still wanted to do that, given that I would be raising the matter tonight, and I said no. The Speaker's Office was therefore well aware that I intended to raise the issue, and because it is about an APPG and its secretariat, I feel that it is relevant to tonight's debate.
Sir Peter Bottomley: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. For us to stick to the terms of the motion, passing references to individual matters may be fine, but if we are induced-rather than "provoked"-into going into such issues in detail, the debate will change its character and its usefulness. If the advice to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) was that he could mention the subject, that is fine, but to go on at great length will lead to the rest of us trying to do the same thing.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is quite right. Hon. Members could start raising other issues, and I am therefore frightened that the debate will not be the one that we should hold, and that we will be drawn into other subjects. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the issue that he needed to raise, but the debate must not stray from the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. You may wish to raise the issue, but you cannot. We must stick to the motion. I am trying to be as helpful as I can, but we are being tested. Please, if you can relate the matter directly to the motion, do that, then we can continue, rather than drawing other Members into a subject that we should not be discussing tonight.
Simon Hughes: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I remain an officer of the group, and there is an issue about who should comprise the secretariat. There will be a meeting for colleagues in both Houses to discuss the matter, which will be reviewed. I hope that that will be an appropriate forum for discussing the way in which the group will be looked after, and that we can take the subject away from the wider debate to an appropriate place for people who have an interest.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Is not one of the key issues that the hon. Gentleman highlights the dilemma of whether a group of Members of Parliament, as an APPG, appoints a secretariat, and the danger that, in some instances, a secretariat-particularly a professional one-can essentially scout around for Members of Parliament to create the all-party group that the secretariat wishes to run? Should not Members of Parliament appoint a secretariat, not the other way around?
The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said that what I said was just my opinion. If I am not allowed to continue in that vein, I cannot answer his query and those of others on why I said what I have said. I need to give evidence to show why I am so worried that the proper procedures have not been adhered to in relation to secretariats of that particular group. I therefore hope you will allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker to elaborate a little bit.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I am not going to be tempted down that avenue. We have said that we have a debate before us, and I want to make sure that everybody is aware that we stick to it. The motions are about the new rules and the future of groups. We are talking about an issue that has happened, and I believe that that discussion ought to take place in another forum-the appropriate forum. The detail that we are getting down to is not for here, tonight. This debate is not about that.
"If a charity or not-for-profit organisation is registered as the group's secretariat, the former's name and website must also be registered."
It also states that such an organisation must announce what it is and tell us about the details of its website. One cannot argue a general case without adducing evidence and examples, and the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) is doing exactly that. There really is no point in debating these things-
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not a point of order. I have got to say that the debate must relate to the motion before us, but it is not at the moment. As much as advice might be given from right hon. and hon. Members, I am making the ruling. The debate must be related to the motion before us-that is the end of that. If the hon. Member wishes to continue on the motion before us or to relate the two motions together, that is fine.
Robert Halfon: In conclusion, although I support all-party parliamentary groups, I call on members of the all-party group on Islamophobia to think seriously about their choice of secretariat and the message that that sends. I ask the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Serjeant at Arms to consider how the House might vet the secretariat of APPGs-perhaps by a special committee-before they are placed on the approved list, especially when there are security concerns.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):
I commend the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for bringing an important matter to the attention of the House. I am sure that many will want to pursue the issues that he raised in many different places, not least the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on just
one word that he used. He referred inadvertently to the all-party parliamentary group "for" Islamophobia, but I think it is the all-party group "on" Islamophobia. Sometimes even prepositions are important.
I confess that motion 2 is on the Order Paper perhaps because several right hon. and hon. Members think that I got the matter wrong when I was a Minister. I see the Leader of the House winking at me now, possibly because he agrees that I got it wrong. I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) for his stewardship of the Standards and Privileges Committee. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said earlier how important it is that my right hon. Friend is not only a long-standing Member of the House but a long-standing member of that Committee, and that that is an important element in his work. For that matter, he was also the Chair of another Select Committee.
The answer that we have come up with in the motion is, I believe, the wrong answer. I do not intend to press it to a Division, but I believe that we have the wrong answer, and I shall explain why. There is no great problem with the rules as they are currently drafted. The Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House disagree with me, as they did when I was a Minister, but I believe that they have presented the nature of the problem wrongly.
The Deputy Leader of the House was absolutely right about the entry of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). There was no need for her to record the receipt of Girlguiding centenary merchandise, flower festival flowers and all the rest of it. Nor was it necessary for the Leader of the House himself to record that he was presented with a bottle of 2008 Beaujolais Villages valued at approximately £10-incidentally, it can be bought in most places in Rhondda for about £6.50-after he spoke at Bishop Wordsworth's Church of England grammar school for boys for 45 minutes. If that was honestly the advice that hon. Members were given by the registrar, I think it was inappropriate advice.
A distinction should be made to identify clearly those cases in which a reasonable person would think that somebody was being given remuneration for providing a service, and in none of those cases would it seem to a reasonable person that somebody was being remunerated. I would use this rule: if I had not been given that bottle of wine, pen or whatever, would I still have made the speech? Would I still have opened the Girlguiding centre or whatever? The honest truth is yes, I would. It would not have made the blindest difference to me. That is the rule that a reasonable person would follow. I know the registrar, I have always followed her advice and I respect her enormously, but she might have used a legalistic understanding of the rules that would not in all honesty be followed by any of our constituents.
Let us imagine for the moment that the registrar is right and that all those cases should have been registered. Has it done any great harm that they have been registered? I do not believe it has done any harm to anybody. There is a greater sense of transparency, and I do not think that that is a problem. However, let us say for argument's sake that we should not make a distinction between gifts and remuneration. There is an argument for that. It could be argued that any gift we receive for doing something-after speaking at a meal, for example-whether
to the value of £400, £500 or whatever should be considered in exactly the same way. However, that is not the proposition before us this evening. The proposition is that a gift should be registered if it has a value in excess of 1% of salary, and that remuneration should be registered if it has a value in excess of one tenth of 1%. [Interruption.] I think that the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee is disagreeing with me. If he wants to intervene, I am happy to give way-but he does not. I can see an argument for not making a distinction at all and for having exactly the same level for gifts and remuneration. However, I cannot see an argument for introducing a new concept at £65.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman might have just answered my point. To people reading and listening, talking in money terms is as relevant as percentages and tenths of percentages. Out there, people just want to know how much money we are getting or what the monetary value is.
Chris Bryant: That is another good point. To be honest, I think it makes more sense to have a fixed amount. The old rule used to be £125 for registration. At the moment, the limit is zero, but if the motion is passed tonight, it will move to something in the region of £65 or £66. I would prefer the number to be fixed, so that it is perfectly intelligible to every member of the public.
We all use a layer of common sense. I am chair of the all-party group on Russia. As hon. Members might know, I have adopted a very hawkish attitude towards the Russian Federation. I believe that there are many abuses in Russia and, as chair of the all-party group, I have tried to advance that argument. Now, I must confess that I was given a bottle of vodka by the Russian embassy at Christmas. I did not believe it to be a remuneration for the questions I had asked or the tenor of the debate I had conducted in the House, so I did not even bother to ask the registrar whether I should have registered that bottle of vodka. I have always been a bit suspicious about some gifts so, as it happens, I have not even opened that bottle of vodka, which is still sitting precisely where I put it when it arrived. I suspect that I will probably not get any more bottles of vodka from the Russian embassy.
If one pursued the Deputy Leader of the House's logic, one could argue that if a Member is invited to dinner by an embassy and, somehow or other, they speak at that dinner-whether or not they are actually the speaker at the dinner-that is remuneration. However, I just do not think that that meets the common-sense test. I honestly believe that the proposition before us this evening is the wrong proposition. I can see an argument for perfect equality between gifts and remuneration, but I cannot see the argument for what is before us this evening.
Finally, on all-party groups, I agree with the hon. Member for Harlow in that when I became the chair of the all-party group on Russia, a large number of people suddenly started ringing me offering to work in the secretariat. I am sure that some did so with perfectly good intentions; I am also sure that some did so with not-so-pure intentions, because they wanted to grind an axe in relation to Britain's attitude towards Russia. The more that all-party groups can assert some genuine
independence, the better. That is why the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is important to look at the process for providing an all-party group with a secretariat.
Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): If an example were needed of why we need these rule changes, it is that we are having a short debate today in which a number of Members have already disagreed about what the existing rules actually are. A de minimis level is sensible, because it takes one beyond what is arguable. Members of Parliament do not want to go to bed at night wondering whether they should or should not have declared something, whether it be a box of chocolates or a pencil sharpener. The fact that the level is £65 makes things fairly clear. It also removes some of the burden placed on the registrar and her staff, who are put under quite a lot of pressure by this House because of the rules that have had to be applied. Indeed, if we are not careful, we will fill the Register of Members' Financial Interests with a lot of extraneous rubbish and people will not be able to see the wood for the trees. De minimis levels are therefore sensible. I hope that what the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) has brought to the House today will be the first of a number of such thoughts on a number of issues that we have to clear up, because we have gone from having too liberal a position to making a rod for our own backs and creating difficulties for the registrar. I welcome this resolution and commend the Standards and Privileges Committee for bringing it to the House.
The issue of all-party groups is one that ought to receive a lot more scrutiny. We all know of examples of all-party groups that are run by particular organisations. Sometimes public affairs companies are employed by charities or other organisations to run a group. I am a member of a number of all-party groups, including some that I do not think I have ever joined, but which claim me. I think that we are all in the same situation. Sometimes people say, "You haven't been to the all-party group meeting," and I wonder which one it is, when I joined it and how I can get out. It is a little bit like joining the mafia, Mr Deputy Speaker: once you give a half-hearted "Well, possibly" to somebody, you get put on a list and you are there for evermore. If I sat down and honestly listed all the all-party groups of which I think I am a member and all those of which I actually am a member, I am perfectly sure that they would be very different lists.
One thought for the Chairman of the Committee is this. Having to put in writing the fact that we were going to join an all-party group might be one way of testing the numbers joining such organisations. Realistically, we know that Members put friends, colleagues, neighbours or anybody they can find in a weak moment on to all-party groups, but the attendance for some of them is very poor. What the motion says about declarations is perfectly right. They should be transparent. We should see who is behind all-party groups and their grand titles, but if we are going to take them seriously, we should have some way of registering the real interest of Members of Parliament. If, God forbid, we made it mandatory to publish which members of an all-party group had attended its meetings, nobody would join them, because none of us has any time to go to any of them. Whenever I get the
all-party "Whip" and I read about all the all-party groups, I think that anybody who was a member of even half of them would not have time to do anything else if they went to all the meetings. So there has been some inflation in that area. Certain organisations use the authority of an all-party group to produce campaigns. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) made a serious point, and I hope that the Chair of the Committee will take that back. Perhaps an Adjournment debate would be a legitimate forum in which colleagues could pursue that issue.
We know that all-party groups have grown rapidly, and that they now exist for all body parts and all parts of the globe, as the Deputy Leader of the House said. There ought to be a much stronger test for an all-party group. We ought to be able to see who its members are, and the resolution before the House will mean that any provision of secretarial support, finance or back-up-whether in the form of champagne receptions or anything else-should find its way into the register so that we know what is going on. I welcome what has happened, and I hope that this is the start of a process whereby we can get some common sense back into the rules.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I welcome this short debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) for his work and that of his Committee. I also thank the Leader of the House, who started the work on this subject earlier. I support both the motions. I made my first point during an intervention on the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). It was that, in due course, we might want to talk about payments in sums rather than percentages, for the sake of greater transparency. I am happy that we are starting where we are, however. The proposal will create a reasonable division between the more substantial gift and the single gift-the bottle of wine, the pair of socks-given as what the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) described as a courteous thank you. I had visions of her making a kind of royal procession round Warrington with her arms full of flowers-all, I am sure, gratefully given and received. Also, we should not over-regulate. There is a balance to be struck, and we seem to be going in the right direction.
I want to make two further points, about all-party groups. The first follows the theme pursued by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms). I, too, have always felt that there was a danger that these groups could proliferate. We can sign up 20 people relatively easily, but getting them to come to meetings is a wholly different ball game. Of course it is right that there should be an all-party group with an interest in Russia. It is a very important country for us to take an interest in, and elections are held to decide who the officers of that group will be. For example, I am a member of various all-party groups, and I have served as an officer in many of them. I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine, which is next to Russia. It is a very big, important country-the second largest European country-and we have a duty to take an interest in such a developing democracy. It is relevant not only to democratic issues but to energy issues and the like. There are all kinds of different all-party groups.
Secondly, on the subject raised by the hon. Memberfor Harlow (Robert Halfon), we have had an all-party group to deal with anti-Semitism for many years, and rightly so, because it is a plague and a scourge on our country. It is therefore unsurprising that there is now a newly formed group on Islamophobia. The hon. Member for Rhondda rightly pointed out that it is a group "on" Islamophobia, not a group "for" it. Islamophobia is also a scourge. The Prime Minister spoke about it only this weekend in his speech in Munich. Whatever we might think about the tenor and balance of that speech, this is a real issue in many of our constituencies. I see the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), nodding. His city, as well as mine, has seen faith-based prejudices that are directed at other faiths, and there are other prejudices that we also need to counter.
"The contact details of the group's registered contact"
"Any relevant gainful occupation of staff to the group who hold a parliamentary pass"
"The source and extent of any financial benefit (e.g. donations) and the source and nature of any non-financial material benefit (e.g. provision of goods or services) received by the group from a single source outside Parliament"
above a certain amount will have to be publicised, so that people will know exactly where the servicing is funded from. That is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Rhondda made the perfectly good point that, because these groups have a certain status, and because they can use parliamentary logos such as the portcullis, there is an interest in being associated with them. The Chairman of the Committee also knows that very well.
Lastly, the website address should be publicised. The rules are much more explicit than in the past, so if a consultancy or a for-profit organisation is acting as the secretariat, we must know what the consultancy is and what it does-it must supply the information. Similarly, if it is a charity or a not-for-profit organisation, the rules are explicit that it
"must agree to make available on request a list citing any commercial company which has donated either as a single sum or cumulatively more than £5,000 in the course of the 12 months prior to the month in which the request is made".
Given your clear rulings earlier, Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope I have already made a helpful intervention to calm the House. A group has been set up-properly-on Islamophobia. In a meeting at which I was not present, a secretariat was appointed. I had agreed to be elected as an officer; other officers have now resigned. The secretariat has been a controversial issue and there are campaigns on both sides of the argument. My office has been in touch with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow to ask for information to back up what he is saying, although I have not yet received it. I will be happy to receive it. There will be a meeting for all colleagues who wish to come. I have no prejudice in favour or against a particular organisation being the secretariat, and I now regard it as my duty to try to
proceed carefully and with consensus, but I am not going to allow myself to be bullied into having or not having a particular organisation because it might have some views that are difficult for others to accept.
All parties are debating how to manage organisations that deal in these difficult areas of faith-based issues, which apply in your constituency, Mr Deputy Speaker, as in mine. Some people think we should go to meetings or events with people whose views we may disagree with or who might have more extreme views than we would normally tolerate. I have been to some such events. I attended a Global Peace and Unity event last year in order to speak on behalf of my party, and a Minister attended to speak on behalf of the Government. The co-chairman of the Conservative party was asked not to go, because it was not thought that a Conservative representative would be appropriate. These sort of debates will carry on.
We have to take advice and to act in the best interests of Parliament and the wider community. All I hope I can do is to assure those who take an interest in our proceedings that agreement to tonight's motions will lead to better procedures. All-party groups will not lack controversy, just as our debates on the Floor of the House do not lack it. It is right that there is a place for controversial issues to be discussed, but I hope that they will be discussed on the basis of facts and an understanding of the severity of some of the issues dealt with by all-party groups. I hope that this debate has pointed people in the right direction. I hope that the last group I mentioned will know where it will go next-legitimately, properly and appropriately. More generally, I hope that people will understand that we have processes for these issues and that the processes are good ones.
Finally, my understanding, like that of many colleagues who have been involved with these matters, is that all pass holders are security checked for this House. Whatever their status, all staff and anybody who comes in must be checked, and not just by the House authorities, as the matter is then referred outside. That provides the protection. I assume that any colleague who has any worries about any pass holder in any organisation will follow the appropriate procedures, which are well known to Members. The inquiries must be made. Passes have been removed if people have held them inappropriately; and people have been prevented from being here if it is inappropriate for them to work here. We have to assume that the authorities continue to do a good job. We have not had problems regularly in the past. I trust the authorities to be vigilant; that is what we pay them to do. I think they serve us well in doing that.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) and others. I am not certain that security vetting solves all problems. The number of people who have been assassinated by their own bodyguards suggests that there might be a weakness in that.
It is worth bearing it in mind that the person working as the secretary for the all-party parliamentary group on Russia, prior to my becoming
the chairman, is supposedly being thrown out of the country by the Government, yet managed to get a security pass here.
Sir Peter Bottomley: I recall that about 25 years ago, the London representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation was assassinated for being too moderate. Many people who take part in public affairs are at risk, which is one of the risks that an open society faces in peacetime just as it does at times of war.
Let me say to the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) that, although I do not intend to try to divide the House on the first motion, I think it would be better to specify 0.2% or 0.3% of the parliamentary salary. A long time ago, when I was a Minister, I visited a country in south-east Asia and was presented with a tin bowl. I saw the same bowl in a shop priced at the equivalent of £130 in local currency, so I gave it to my private secretary. At the airport on my way home, I saw it again priced at £65, so I asked for it back. [Laughter.]
There will be boundary problems of that kind whatever limit is set, but my general view is that a limit of £130 or £180 would be better, and that it would even better to make the limit the same as that applying to gifts presented to Ministers. As for the question of Members' including on their websites gifts whose value was below the minimum, the Registrar could advise us if we tried to include details that were not required according to the interpretation of the rules.
In view of your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall not add to what has already been said about the motion on all-party groups. If it is possible for me to attend the meeting of the all-party group that has been mentioned, I will happily do so.
Let me, in passing, pay tribute to some people in my constituency. When I was involved with students from the Three Faiths Forum, I was delighted that the senior Jewish woman in my constituency was willing to meet us, as were representatives of the local Islamic society and mosque, the Salvation Army and the Worthing Churches Homeless Projects. It was immensely valuable that people were able to share that experience, and learn along with members of other faiths and people with different views. I also pay tribute to members of my local mosque, who have been pleased to attend the holocaust memorial event in Worthing. I hope that its organisers will at some stage focus on the massacre at Srebrenica. It should be borne in mind that the most recent modern massacre in Europe was a massacre of Muslims, both secular and otherwise, by people claiming membership of other religions.
I have no strong views on the issue of all-party groups, but there seems to have been a bit of "creep". Paragraph 13(b) on page 5 of the All-Party Groups report by the Committee on Standards and Privileges, the eighth report of Session 2008-09, HC 920, states that in future such groups should have to
"register any commercial company with a direct interest in the work of the APG which contributes materially (say more than £5,000 or 5%, whichever is the lower) to meeting the central costs of the charity."
"The charity or not-for-profit organisation must agree to make available on request a list citing any commercial company which has donated either as a single sum or cumulatively more than £5,000".
Perhaps the Minister who replies to the debate will tell us whether the movement from the requirement for a "direct interest" to no qualification was deliberate, and, if it was not, whether it could be considered when the resolutions are before the House.
Let us suppose that, for instance, the Army Benevolent Fund were to provide the secretariat for an issue-based all-party group. I am not saying that it should do so. Given that it has raised millions of pounds for our armed forces, I think that it would be going too far to have to list every commercial company that has given it money for that purpose, whether by gift aid or otherwise. At one stage I was chairman of the Church of England children's society. A fair amount of money was donated to us by commercial companies for events and other purposes. I think that we might be putting a burden on some charities and not-for-profit causes if the resolution followed the motion-which will obviously be accepted-rather than the committee's report.
Let me return briefly to the issue of earnings as opposed to gifts. For a number of years I have tried to avoid having any outside earnings. I failed in the current year, because I wrote an obituary for a friend and, rather to my surprise, received a cheque from the newspaper that kindly published it. I have given the money away, but it clearly constituted earnings, and I think that I am obliged to declare it. I believe that the sum was £300. A long time ago, between 1979 and 1984, I was personnel director of a fairly major commodities trading company. I should have been very prepared to declare the salary that I received for that.
On another occasion, I was an adviser to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. I gave it advice that it did not take and did not want, but its founder asked whether I would do more work for it, which I did, although it did not take any notice of what I said. That relationship came to an end in time.
What is clearly employment or something done for the purposes of an organisation for which one is paid should be declared, and what one is doing outside ought to be. However, I have a warning. Let us suppose that Peter Thurnham, who was a colleague at one stage in this House and who bought two machine tools when he was unemployed and set up an engineering business, entered the House of Commons when the business was on its feet. How would he calculate the time that he was putting into the business? That seems to be a very difficult thing to do. When James Callaghan was a farmer after being Prime Minister, how much time did he put into it? When Michael Foot was writing his biography of the founder of the health service, how much time did he put into it? If I, for example, had to put in the number of hours that I spent on the obituary, I would have to guess. It is obvious that we have to be prepared to put down rough and ready figures, which will not be easy.
The key point is to back a system where people will feel embarrassed if they know that they are doing something wrong, rather than having an enormous box-ticking exercise. I hope that when we ask the Committee on Standards and Privileges to review the matter and it conducts a consultation, more people will agree that 0.1% is too low and could be at least doubled or trebled without disadvantage to the House or to the interests of the public.
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