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Viscount Falkland: My Lords, we on these Benches-particularly me, because I do not often see Liberal Democrats at race meetings-find the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, very appropriate. It would be a suitable tribute to Her Majesty for the service she has given to the country and the support she has given to racing. Would the Minister not agree that the future of British racing, which is a model, is somewhat in doubt at the moment because of the funding problems and the internecine disagreements within racing? To do this properly, as I get the impression that the Government intend to do, would be a real shot in the arm and racing might be back on an optimistic route for the future, which, at the moment, it is not.
Lord Mandelson: My Lords, I am not sure I share the observation that horseracing in this country is down in the dumps. That is certainly not my perception of it, although I do not have as close a contact with the industry as perhaps I should and would like. Noble Lords will understand that the British Horseracing Authority is responsible for the regulation and governance of the sport. It is in touch with the stakeholders and will know what to do and who to call in order to take forward the noble Baroness's excellent idea.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what representations were made by either Stephen Byers or on his behalf to the Secretary of State for Transport and his department in relation to the National Express rail franchises; and if they will institute an urgent investigation into the allegations in the Sunday Times of 21 March 2010.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Lord Adonis): My Lords, there is no truth whatever in the suggestion that Stephen Byers came to any arrangement with me on any matter relating to National Express. It is equally untrue to suggest that National Express was allowed by the Government to avoid any of its rail contract obligations when the company's east coast subsidiary announced its intention to default on its franchise on 1 July last year.
Stephen Byers had a brief conversation in the House of Commons with me last June about the east coast main line. We discussed his experience in dealing with rail franchise difficulties when transport secretary. As regards the situation then facing National Express, I told him that despite the company's difficulties, I had
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I told Mr Byers that such a move would undermine the rail franchise system and would not be in the best interests of taxpayers. This is precisely the policy that I pursued and announced to Parliament on 1 July last year when National Express indicated its intention to default on its east coast franchise. The Government declined to renegotiate the east coast contract. I required National Express to pay the full amount that was due for its failure to meet its contractual obligations under the east coast franchise, and I took every step that was legally possible in relation to the other National Express franchise contracts. This included my Statement to the House on 26 November that the company's profitable East Anglia franchise would be terminated three years early, with all profits foregone.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State for his personal explanation and for his response to my Question. When did he first become aware of the allegations which have been printed this weekend, and what communication has he or his department had with Stephen Byers since then? Will he also tell the House why Mr Byers was under the clear impression that he had, as he put it, a deal with the Secretary of State?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I became aware of the allegations when the production company behind the programme to be broadcast this evening contacted me last Tuesday or Wednesday; I cannot recall precisely which day. I have had no communication with Mr Byers since. I have not the faintest idea why Mr Byers said what he said to the undercover reporter, but I notice that he has withdrawn unreservedly the comments that he made.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, setting aside the particular problem of the allocation of rail franchises, do the Government now think it is time to ban the revolving door through which former Ministers and senior civil servants take up very lucrative retainers, consultancies and directorships, and rapidly transfer their allegiance to commercial companies where they are thought to have knowledge and access to their former colleagues? Is it not time to have at least a five-year interval between having such appointments in the Government and taking up these particularly lucrative consultancies?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point about the need to examine further the rules on appointments which former Ministers and Members of both Houses can legitimately take up. However, on the question posed to me by the noble Baroness, I stress that I am accountable to this House for my actions as a Minister. The opening words of the Ministerial Code are:
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, it would be hard to argue for one moment that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was responsible for some of the things that are alleged in the Sunday Times report. However, I strongly support the argument put by my noble friend Lord Tyler that there is an absolute necessity for once again being much clearer about the rules that link the position of Ministers, particularly Ministers who have recently left office, with possible future commercial appointments. The position has become very unclear, very weak and very fuzzy. Does the Minister not agree that it is important to protect honourable Ministers such as himself by making these rules much clearer and more transparent than they are today?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I have done nothing for which I owe the House an explanation or any apology. The fact that comments that are entirely unsubstantiated have been made does not, I hope, reflect on my personal conduct in this matter.
Lord Harrison: My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now received. In so doing I thank my noble friend the Minister and all the other parties for finding consensus on this issue, which I will bring back to this House at a later date.
Baroness Young of Hornsey: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Unless, therefore, any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as there is no speakers list for this afternoon's debate on the House Committee's report on financial support for Members of the House, it may be helpful if I say a few words about the expected running order. The debate will be opened by the Chairman of Committees, who will be followed by my noble friend the Leader of the House, the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza. At that point, the House may wish to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, before other noble Lords rise to speak. With the leave of the House, my noble friend the Leader of the House will reply at the close of the debate.
The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, as with the previous debate on this issue in December, I will open today's debate and the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will close it. As before, I should like to make a general declaration of interests on behalf of all noble Lords taking part today. I claim travel expenses under the scheme and I am a paid office holder. I am sure that many noble Lords taking part in today's debate will have similar interests as claimants under the Members' reimbursement scheme. Therefore, it is not necessary for noble Lords to begin their speeches with a declaration of interests.
The committee's report on financial support for Members, specifically the declaration of principal residence and publication arrangements, should mark a significant step forward for the House following a difficult period. I do not intend to spend much time talking about the background to this report, which will be familiar to the House, but it might help if I briefly set out the timeline of recent events.
In June of last year, the House Committee asked the Prime Minister to commission the independent Senior Salaries Review Body to review the financial support available to Members of this House. The SSRB reported on 23 November and its report was debated by the House on 14 December. The Motion which the House approved after that debate accepted the principles and architecture of the SSRB's report, and called for the establishment of an ad hoc group of Members to consider and consult on the issues in the report, and to advise the House Committee on their implementation.
On the following day, 15 December, the House Committee appointed the Members of the group with-I am very pleased to see him in his place this afternoon-the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, as its chairman. It was envisaged at that point that in light of the Wakeham group's recommendations, the House Committee would make a report to the House setting out recommendations for a new scheme of financial support based on the principles and the architecture of the SSRB's report. The Leader of the House would then table the necessary Motions in the House for agreement before the end of the current Parliament.
In the event, it has not yet been possible for the group to finalise its report to the House Committee. In view of the limited time available in the last few weeks of the current Parliament, it will not now be possible to put a comprehensive package of proposals to the House before the end of the Parliament. On behalf of the House Committee, I should like at this point to put on record our appreciation of the work that the group has carried out so far on what are difficult and complex issues, not least the extensive consultation that the group has carried out with Members.
Despite the delay in implementing the package as a whole, the House Committee believes that we should make as much progress as we can now, given the commitment in December to bring the new scheme in at the beginning of the new Parliament. Therefore we propose that the House should agree to the introduction from the start of the new Parliament of new arrangements for the designation and certification of principal residences
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In addition, the committee recommends that the House should agree to new proposals for quarterly publication of information relating to Members' expenses from 1 April this year. We believe that these two changes, coupled with the new arrangements relating to the code of conduct agreed by the House only last week and the appointment of an Independent Commissioner for Standards in the new Parliament, will constitute a significant move forward for the House. The House Committee will make a further report in the new Parliament with further proposals for the new system of financial support.
I turn now to the detailed recommendations of the report before the House. The report recommends a new definition for "main or principal residence", which is significantly clearer and more robust than the current one. I should stress, as I did on 14 December, that the new and improved definition does not constitute any criticism whatever, implied or explicit, of those Members who have legitimately claimed allowances under the current scheme.
The committee's report invites the House to agree to the SSRB's main recommendation on principal residence: that all Members seeking to claim financial assistance with overnight accommodation within London sign a declaration stating the location of their principal residence and giving confirmation that it is outside Greater London. The ad hoc group has indicated informally that it agrees with this important SSRB recommendation.
The committee also recommends that the required declaration should include a statement of where Members spend most of their time-particularly where they spend most nights-when the House is not sitting. This time includes weekends during term time. That place should be the Member's principal residence. Such a statement may also include any other circumstances which the Member deems relevant to his or her designation. Guidance on what these circumstances might be will be made available to Members by the Finance Department as soon as possible.
The House Committee believes that this recommendation strikes an important balance between the clear need for a robust and clear definition and for a definition which recognises that active Members may need to spend up to 150 days a year in their London accommodation-or perhaps more if they live a considerable distance away-in order to play a full part in the House. That is the reality for many of us and, for those of us primarily resident outside Greater London, means that some aspects of our lives inevitably revolve around us being inside Greater London. Therefore, for example, it seems to me entirely reasonable that an active Member should use a London address for correspondence because they are in London for most working days.
In advance of today's debate, a number of Members have sought clarification of the meaning of the reference to where they spend most nights. It may be helpful for me to clarify at this point, for the record, that this wording means most nights when the House is not sitting, not most nights over the year.
The report also states that Members seeking to claim for overnight accommodation in London must support the declarations on their principal residence by providing the Finance Department with copies of documents from an approved list to verify that their principal residence is outside London. The declaration should be made on an annual basis and should be revised if the Member's circumstances change. A further important recommendation is that all principal residence declarations should be made publicly available on the parliamentary website. Such a change would be an important and necessary step forward in transparency, as would the recommendations for other new publication arrangements, which I shall explain in a moment.
On audit arrangements, the SSRB recommended that fees and expenses paid to Members should continue to be externally audited by the National Audit Office and that the audit process should also check Members' eligibility for financial assistance with overnight accommodation. Again, the Wakeham group has indicated informally that it supports this recommendation and that it should extend to auditing Members' declarations of their principal residencies and to the supporting documentation which I have just mentioned.
Therefore, in addition to the publication of Members' declarations, we invite the House to agree that the Accounting Officer should introduce a system of regular audit checks of the declarations of principal residence, both internally and via the National Audit Office. If the House agrees to the report, the administration will prepare standard declaration forms and communicate the new arrangements to Members in the next week or so.
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