Skip to main content

House Of Commons Members' Fund

Volume 300: debated on Monday 10 November 1997

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That Mr. John Butterfill, Dr. Vincent Cable, Mr. Barry Gardiner, Dr. Nick Palmer, Dr. Howard Stoate and Ms Gisela Stuart be appointed Managing Trustees of the House of Commons Members' Fund in pursuance of Section 2 of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act l939.— [Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

10.15 pm

I would have expected an explanation of the proposed composition of a body that touches on the interests of all hon. Members. When I have said just a few words on the subject, I hope that one might be forthcoming. It seems rather odd, to say the least, not to have a balance of representation on such a body, which represents the interests of Members in the widest possible context.

We are used to deputing colleagues with certain specialist knowledge of to deal with various matters, but here we have a matter that touches on the interests of Members themselves. I am seeking an explanation because I am puzzled that the proposed Labour Members dealing with the House of Commons Members' fund all appear—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much conversation in the Chamber.

The proposed Labour Members all appear to have been elected recently. I do not wish to criticise them as individuals; indeed, I am rather impressed that they are prepared to take on the onerous responsibility dealing with a matter as potentially sensitive as the House of Commons Members' fund so early in their parliamentary careers. However, Members would have expected a spread of experience on such a body so that the Members dealing with the matter could have offered knowledge, experience and perhaps a length of service in the House.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) is a proposed trustee. That pleases me enormously, not least because my hon. Friend entered the House at the same time as I did in 1983. His wide range of experience in the House and outside will enable him to make a real contribution to the deliberations that will take place from time to time on the House of Commons Members' fund. That is encouraging.

On the other hand, although I am encouraged by the presence of my hon. Friend, I am somewhat at a loss to understand why the Government, given the opportunity to offer a range of experience, have failed to do so. At the very least, surely we are owed an explanation. I am not saying that I wish to divide the House—

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene? [Interruption.] I am glad that I am now beginning to arouse some interest among Labour Members, which is a rarity.

Order. All the right hon. Gentleman needs to worry about is that I am interested in what he is saying—and I am listening—and that he keeps to the point.

I hope that I have kept very much to the point. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would agree that this matter bears very much on Members' interests. I am very much encouraged to see—I suspect that it is largely because of such interests—the large number of Members who are unusually present on the Government Benches. This is certainly a novelty. It may be—

Order. Let me warn the right hon. Member that this is a very tight subject. He must stick to it. How many Members are in the Chamber is of no consequence to this debate. He knows the subject, he has risen to speak on it and he must speak to it.

Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you are right. Indeed, you are, by definition, right. I am talking about Members and I confess that I allowed myself to stray to Labour Members. As you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the point is very narrow, but it is important.

What disappoints me about the way in which the matter has been offered to the House is the fact that the Government have not been prepared even to offer the simplest, almost elementary, explanation of the composition proposed for the body that deals with the House of Commons Members' fund. I suspect that, if we had had that explanation, the matter could have been dealt with in a very straightforward way. Given that it has been presented to us on the Order Paper and moved formally, should the House be surprised if Members such as myself—I do not know whether any of my hon. Friends share my concern about the matter—wonder at the very least why we are not being offered a range of experience among Members on the body? Is it too much to ask that Members from different election intakes are represented? The House of Commons Members' fund deals with matters in which all Members have an interest. I should have preferred Members of greater experience on the body.

I have no doubt that if we are given a reasonable explanation, we shall be prepared to accept it. In the absence of a reasonable explanation, we may want the matter to be deferred, thought about again, taken away and dealt with, no doubt in the usual expert and, very often, companionable way, through the usual channels. I regret to say that, if I am not given that reassurance, we may want to divide the House not only to make the point that this is the wrong way in which to bring such a matter before the House—it is almost insulting—but to get more reassurance that the Members who are being proposed to deal with the fund will have a greater range of experience than those who are currently proposed.

I hope that, in those very few words, I have been able to encourage someone on the Government Benches to come forward and give us the explanation. I await that with eager anticipation.

10.22 pm

Despite the fact that I sense irritation from Labour Members who do not want to discuss this matter, it strikes me that it is sufficiently serious for us to spend some time on it. It would be wrong simply to nod it through without giving it decent consideration.

If I understand you correctly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are dealing only with the first of two motions on the Order Paper. I am sure that it will be necessary for the House to have a sensible and rational debate subsequently about the contributory pension fund, but, for the moment, we are talking solely about the Members' fund. It is a fund to which every hon. Member contributes and which all of us one day—Heaven forbid—may wish to use. We should therefore take it seriously. Some answers to some questions should be given before we vote on the matter. I shall pose a number of questions to which I would like answers before I decide whether to divide the House on the issue.

First, why are we being asked to approve six trustees? I notice that when we come to debate the next motion, we will be asked to approve eight trustees and the House should be told the reason for the difference. We should be told why six will be adequate for the task. If six trustees are considered adequate, we must reassure ourselves that the work load for those six people is right. If there is much work to be done, we will need more than six. Secondly, may we be told the exact work load of the trustees? What will the trustees decide and how often will they have to meet?

Order. The motion is only about the membership of the body, not its work load. The House is being asked to approve the membership and the individual names.

I understand that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope that you will understand in return that to make up my mind about whether the membership level is right, I need an understanding of the task facing the six people. Otherwise, I will find it difficult to vote one way or the other. We need to get to grips with the work load.

Order. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the matter is covered by an Act of the House. If he wants to know the work load and the commitment, he should read the Act. We are considering only the six names before us.

I am grateful for that advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When some of my friends speak subsequently, I will have a chance to read the Act. After I have read it, it may be necessary for me to seek to intervene to clear up such matters. For the moment, I fully understand your ruling and I will therefore talk about whether it is right for us to approve the six names.

Does the hon. Gentleman object to the name of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill)? If he does not, to which members of the body has he taken exception?

If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself for a moment, I have it in mind to come to exactly that point. In due course, I will no doubt solve his worries. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene again?

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I have noticed that only one of the six names was a Member of Parliament before I May this year. I wish to make it clear that I mean no criticism of individuals. I am sure that all the other five are deeply worthy Members of Parliament, but they lack any understanding of the working of the House before 1 May. We must understand that the people who will apply for help from the Members' fund are those who were Members in the past, not those who serve at the present.

Lest the House imagine that my hon. Friend is being uncharitable, I ask him to agree that one hon. Member from this year's intake would be appropriate—perhaps even two—to bring a fresh perspective on matters. I share his objection that so many new Members will mean that the body is unrepresentative and that that is taking an unnecessary risk with something as sensitive as the matter before us.

Like the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), my right hon. Friend anticipates some of the points that I wish to make as my speech progresses. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need a fresh view on these matters, and one would not object to one, two or maybe three new Members on the Committee.

Does my hon. Friend accept that some new Members take the view that there is a world of difference between a fresh view and a view without foundation, and that many of us would not wish to see too many new Members on the Committee?

My hon. Friend is right, and he is exactly the sort of new Member that I would wish to see on the Committee. I commend him to the Government as a potential replacement for some of the names that they have put forward to represent the Labour party view.

Can my hon. Friend explain the precedent for the matter? Has this body typically consisted of entirely new Members or has it been more balanced?

To the best of my knowledge, the fund was treated with the respect it deserves when there was a Conservative Administration. Trustees with experience and knowledge—and who could recall the service of those people who would be applying for help from the fund—were appointed. It is a poor show if the best that Labour can do is to put forward four very worthy people with no knowledge of the workings of the House before 1 May and no direct experience of the former Members who might be seeking help from the fund.

Is my hon. Friend aware that three of the trustees during the last Parliament were Privy Counsellors, all of them distinguished Members with a long record of service? This is a departure from the precedent of the last Parliament, and my hon. Friend is right to insist on an explanation from the Government.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. If the Labour Government cannot bring themselves to provide people with experience, understanding and compassion, it suggests that they have nothing but contempt for what happened before 1 May. That worries me greatly because of the nature of the fund, which is all about care and compassion for former Members from all parties. We now have a Labour Government who treat the care and compassion of former Members with contempt. If I am wrong, no doubt the Government will give me a good explanation of why these four new Labour Members are the right people to appoint to the Committee. If I receive a good explanation, I shall be happy to accept it.

It is not only the Labour party which has taken this view—we have one name from the Liberal Democrats. Before 1 May, there were one or two Liberal Democrat Members—perhaps they have a few more now. It is surely not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Liberal Democrats could show care and compassion to former Members by putting up the name of someone with long service in this House. I have no disrespect for the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who I am sure is a worthy person who will do a first-class job. But why has the experience of the past been ignored by the Liberal Democrats?

At the serious risk of prolonging a particularly tedious and pointless debate, may I point out that the Liberal Democrat Member who has been nominated has wide experience outside the House, has knowledge of the issues to be dealt with by the Committee and is thoroughly suitable? When it comes to establishing a Committee—

Yes, it is an intervention, and the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) gave way to me.

Interventions must be very brief. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is verging on speaking about the qualities of hon. Members. As far as I am concerned, each and every individual in the House is a caring individual, so let us hear no more about qualities.

I understand your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We need to pursue the question of experience. I entirely understand the inexperience of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and I was enjoying his intervention. I was rather disappointed that you cut him short, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I wanted to hear what he had to say. What he said—and it is important that we see it in Hansard in the morning—is that the Members' fund is pointless, and that it is pointless for us to consider the problems that arise for former Members of Parliament. If that is Liberal Democrat policy I am glad that I gave way and got it on the public record.

Labour Members are clearing out, either because they cannot face criticism or because they have gone to look up the answers—

Order. I stated earlier that who is or is not in the Chamber is absolutely irrelevant and does not matter. The motion is very tight—it refers to six names—and I do not want to hear about anything else from the hon. Gentleman or anyone else who cares to make a contribution.

I was doing my level best to focus the attention of the House, or at least of the few Labour Members who are still here and the larger number of Conservative Members, on those six hon. Members. It is crucial that we are told why only one of the six has any experience of the workings of the House and of Members of Parliament before 1 May this year. It is a serious matter which calls for experience, and new Members, however well intentioned, do not have that experience.

Much has been said about the new Members, but we have heard nothing about them specifically. Mr. Deputy Speaker has told us that the motion concerns six individuals. Could we hear some more, at some length, about their curricula vitae?

Order. It is not for the hon. Gentleman to direct another hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend made a fair point. As I understand it, others of my hon. Friends want to address the detailed points about the individual trustees. It is for me to raise the general questions in advance. I believe that I have done that. I have set out the questions that the Government must answer to satisfy me. There are many other questions and I should be grateful if the Leader of the House could answer them all.

10.38 pm

Conservative Members' contributions have been extremely interesting. They are obviously preparing to be former Members, or they would not be so interested in the provisions of the pension fund.

I treat with great seriousness the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). That is a new constituency for him. I remember talking to him when he was not so sure about his future in the House—we discussed redundancy payments—but that is not a matter for this evening. I know that he is concerned about these issues.

I take seriously any reservations that hon. Members have about the membership of such bodies. If Conservative Members have concerns, they could have raised them with their Front Benchers and the usual channels with whom such arrangements are made. For my part—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you clarify for the House that the motion, which the Order Paper states can be debated for up to one and a half hours, is debatable and, therefore, that it is in order for hon. Members to raise these matters and to ask legitimate questions about them? The Leader of the House seems to be implying that that is not the case.

Of course, the motion is debatable. That is why I allowed the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) to speak and that is why I am allowing the Leader of the House to speak. The right hon. Lady is in perfect order at the moment.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I was saying, I have looked at the list of those nominated from the Labour Benches and have been extremely impressed by the expertise of the new Members whom we have been able to nominate. I would have had every confidence in those Labour Members. If the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and his Conservative colleagues do not have confidence in the person whom the Opposition have nominated through the usual channels, I am perfectly willing to take the matter back to the usual channels and look at it again. On that basis, perhaps it is best that I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.