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House Of Commons

Volume 78: debated on Monday 29 April 1985

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Research And Secretarial Staff

27.

asked the Lord Privy Seal what is the average number of secretaries per hon. Member; and if he will make a statement.

The average number of secretaries per hon. Member is 0.9. This figure includes only those secretaries who have passes for the Palace of Westminster.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving that fascinating figure. Does he agree that some hon. Members receive much more constituency mail than others? Does he think that that is due rather to popularity than to notoriety? Is he aware that secretaries of hon. Members with heavy mail need extra help? Will he consider initiating a typing pool to which the odd tape could be sent for typing up, say once or twice a week?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right in saying that the work load varies as between hon. Members and as between various times of the year in respect of all hon. Members. I hope that the present allowances cover the secretarial requirements of hon. Members. 1 would not wish to encourage any into thinking that further provision could be made along the lines that have been suggested.

Is the Leader of the House aware that what he has just said is completely wrong and that an increasing number of hon. Members on both sides of the House no longer treat this place as a gentleman's club but as a place of work? Is he further aware that, to provide an efficient service to constituents, there should be adequate secretarial and research facilities? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that this matter will be considered again during this Parliament?

I do not think that the facilities of the Palace have ever—at least in the recent past—suggested that it was a gentleman's club. I have already said that the decisions arrived at last year for the secretarial allowance should be given a reasonable run before reconsideration.

Has my right hon. Friend noted during his years in the House that the work output of hon. Members can vary greatly? Does he think it right that, if an hon. Member has a high profile in his constituency and therefore attracts a great deal of work, he sometimes has to pay for extra secretarial work out of his own funds? Does he think that that is proper? If not, does he have any proposals to do anything about it?

No, I have no proposals. I think that the salary and the secretarial allowance are based on a standard figure. The House has had plenty of experience of working within the secretarial and research allowances and, last year, voted on the level of those allowances.

Is the Leader of the House aware that when I was a Euro-MP I received about £30,000 for secretarial and research allowances and was able to keep a researcher and a secretary fully occupied? [Interruption.] Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my research shows that I now do seven times as much correspondence as when I was a Euro-MP? I do not doubt that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have bigger postbags than me, but is it not ridiculous that the allowances for hon. Members do not enable us to employ two good members of staff to cope with all the work that we have to do?

The House took a view last year on the appropriate level of pay. What the hon. Gentleman has just said reflects as much upon what happens at Strasbourg as on what happens here.

Written Questions

28.

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether, in view of the increased numbers of questions tabled for written answer in the last few years, and the increasing cost of answering them, he will bring forward proposals to limit the number of such questions which can be tabled by hon. Members.

I have no immediate plans to do so, but I note the hon. Gentleman's concern.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my figures show that during the last Session there were more than 42,000 written questions, compared with 21,000 four years ago, and that the cost of answering them came to £1·68 million? Is he also aware that there is some evidence that the system is being abused by outside bodies? I can tell him that there are two Conservative Members now in the House who are in the pay of drug companies. During the present Session they have tabled 70 written questions to the Department of Health and Social Security compared with a total of 23 from those two hon. Members in the last four years. Does that not demonstrate a prima facie case of gross abuse whereby the taxpayer is asked to foot the bill for the research of private companies outside the House?

I have a good deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's concern about the increasing use of written questions which, if they are adjusted on a sittings day basis, have risen from 139 for the Session 1980–81 to 188 in the current Session—an increase of about 43 per cent. I suggest that the specific matters mentioned by the hon. Gentleman touch more on the declaration of interests of hon. Members and that he should refer his remarks to the corresponding Select Committee.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that another factor responsible for the explosion in the number of questions is the increase in the number of hon. Members' research assistants? Is he aware that one hon. Member of whom I know has had at least five research assistants at one time, most of them provided by American universities?

The Services Committee has recently reported on this matter. I hope that its report will be available to the House fairly shortly.

Research And Secretarial Staff

29.

asked the Lord Privy Seal what information he has about the number of research and secretarial staff available to elected numbers of national assemblies in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and the United States of America, respectively.

The information I have received suggests that there is a considerable variety in the provision made for the funding of Members' personal staff.

Does the Leader of the House agree that virtually all the Assemblies in the countries listed provide their elected Members with more support than we have? Does he also agree that last year's decision by the House is one which many hon. Members on both sides of the House now regret? Would not the position be different if we had a trade union acting on behalf of our interests?

I do not think that I am immediately convinced of the last point made by the hon. Gentleman. However, he is right to say that many Parliaments provide more secretarial and research facilities for their Members. It was a matter touched upon by the Top Salaries Review Body in its 20th report, but I have to repeat what I said when I was last asked about this a few weeks ago: I rest upon the vote taken by the House last year.

Why do some hon. Members seem to manage quite well on the allowances when others who do no more work do not seem to manage adequately? Why are we concerned about public expenditure in every area except when it affects our own allowances?

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. There is such an extraordinary variety of response because, mercifully, the House of Commons is a very varied institution.

Does the Leader of the House realise the intense danger to the House of being regarded by people as increasingly irrelevant? Is not that sense of irrelevance growing, not least because the power of Back-Bench Members has been declining so dramatically? If hon. Members on both sides of the House want to see the power of Back Benchers increased, is not one way of doing that to make sure that they have sufficient facilities to do their job properly? It is not being said that they must do it. We are asking for that service, and the House deserves it.

If this place is regarded as being so irrelevant, I am surprised that people of such distinction still try to make their way here, not least people in the Brent constituency. If there is one way in which the House of Commons will be cocooned, it will be if it cocoons itself with research assistants.

Late-Night Sittings

30.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will take steps to seek to reduce the number of late-night sittings.

Business is already planned to take account of the many demands upon parliamentary time, whilst seeking to avoid late-night sittings wherever possible.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, with the House sitting on average until 12.52 am and with the number of late-night sittings this Session being the highest for the past 11 Sessions, something should be done as a matter of urgency, especially because of the number of Government Bills being passed—60 in 1983–84? Will my right hon. Friend try to speed up decisions on this matter so that the House stops work at 12 midnight?

I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. I am told that to date, this Session, the House has risen on average at 12.43 am, which is not very different from previous years.