In accordance with the business of the House order that was agreed yesterday, the six motions on Members’ allowances, financial interests and Members’ staff will be debated together in a single debate. At the end of the debate, and no later than 5 o’clock, I will put successively the Questions on each motion and any amendments selected that are then moved. My selection of amendments is available in the usual way.
I beg to move motion 1,
(1) That this House welcomes the Prime Minister’s decision of 23 March 2009 to invite the Committee on Standards in Public Life to inquire into Members’ allowances;
(2) That it is necessary to recognise the additional costs incurred by hon. Members as a result of the need for them to undertake parliamentary duties both in Westminster and their constituency;
(3) That, in the opinion of this House, any new arrangements relating to Members’ allowances ought to—
(a) take account of hon. Members’ attendance at Westminster,
(b) be transparent and accountable, and
(c) reduce the existing annual limits on the allowances which hon. Members may claim, producing overall cost savings;
(4) That, to resolve this matter urgently and in a way that will command maximum public support, it would be desirable for the House to have an opportunity to consider any recommendations from the Committee as early as possible.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment (j) to motion 1, in paragraph (1), leave out from ‘allowances’ to end of the motion and add
‘; believes that in order to command maximum public support for change the House should defer its conclusions until after the Committee has reported; and further believes it would be desirable for the House to have an opportunity to consider any recommendations from the Committee as early as possible.’.
Amendment (l) to motion 1, at end of paragraph (3)(a) insert
‘but not permit a per diem allowance.’.
Amendment (d) to motion 1, leave out paragraph (3)(c).
Motion 2—Members’ Allowances (Greater London)—
That, with effect from 1 April 2010, no distinction shall be made for the purposes of the rules governing Members’ allowances between an hon. Member who represents an inner-London constituency and an hon. Member who represents any other constituency the whole of which falls within 20 miles of the Palace of Westminster.
Motion 3—Registration of Members’ Financial Interests—
(1) That, for the purpose of complying with the Resolution of the House of 22 May 1974 relating to Registration of Members’ Financial Interests, in respect of interests falling within Category 1 (Directorships), Category 2 (Remunerated employment, office, profession, etc) or Category 3 (Clients), hon. Members shall furnish the Registrar with the following particulars—
(a) the precise amount of each individual payment made in relation to any interest,
(b) the nature of the work carried out in return for that payment,
(c) the number of hours worked during the period to which the payment relates, and
(d) except where disclosure of the information would be contrary to any legal or established professional duty of privacy or confidentiality, the name and address of the person, organisation or company making the payment;
(2) That such interests shall be registered whether or not their value in any given year exceeds one per cent. of the current Parliamentary salary;
(3) That the provisions of this Resolution shall apply whether or not the interest in question depends essentially upon, or arises out of, the hon. Member’s position as a Member of Parliament; and
(4) That the provisions of this Resolution shall come into effect on 1 July 2009.
Amendment (g) to motion 3, leave out paragraph (1)(c).
Motion 4—Members’ staff—
(1) That, in the opinion of this House, staff who work for an hon. Member should be employed by the House, as a personal appointment and managed by the hon. Member; and
(2) That the House of Commons Commission shall consider this decision and make recommendations for its implementation, including any transitional provisions which may be necessary, by 29 October 2009.
Amendment (a) to motion 4, leave out paragraph (1).
Amendment (f) to motion 4, after
‘managed by the hon. Member’,
‘, and should be entitled to join the House of Commons Staff Pension Scheme’.
Amendment (g) to motion 4, leave out from
‘managed by the hon. Member’
to end and insert,
‘if the hon. Member concerned requests it.’.
Amendment (b), leave out ‘this decision and’, and insert
‘the benefits or otherwise of an arrangement by which staff who work for an hon. Member might be employed by the House, as a personal appointment and managed by the hon. Member, and, if appropriate,’.
Motion 5—Members’ Allowances (Evidence of Expenditure)—
That, in respect of any claim for payment made by an hon. Member after 1 July 2009 in relation to any allowance or expenditure for which documentary evidence is required, such evidence shall be required regardless of the sum concerned.
Motion 6—Members Estimate Committee (Amendment of the Green Book)—
That Standing Order No. 152D (House of Commons Members Estimate Committee) shall be amended in line 10 by inserting after ‘House’ the words ‘and the Guide to Members’ Allowances known as the Green Book’.
This is an opportunity for the House to debate matters that all hon. Members care about and know to be important. None of us wants a situation in which someone can be an MP only if they have enough money to afford the costs that inevitably come with a constituency that is far away from London. That is why we all agree that we must have financial recognition of the cost of working in London and in a constituency.
We all want to be sure that we can do our work effectively on behalf of our constituents, which is why we agree that it is necessary to have a team of staff so that we can do our work. We all recognise that Parliament has legitimacy because each of us is democratically elected, but we also know that the institution of Parliament needs to command public confidence, and it is evident that the public do not have confidence in our allowance system. That lack of confidence undermines not only the institution of the House of Commons, but every one of us Members.
We made changes in July last year and January this year. I think that those changes did a great deal to put our allowances on a better footing and to make the audit of our claims fully robust. I pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House who worked hard to shape those changes. However, it is clear that the lack of public confidence is such that we need to go further. The Prime Minister has said this, and the leaders of the major Opposition parties have also called for immediate action. Today’s debate and the motions before the House offer us an opportunity to take that action.
The first motion will enable the House to endorse the inquiry that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is conducting at the request of the Prime Minister. It is a major step for the House to endorse a thorough and external review of the structure of our allowance system by an independent body, and we should all be grateful to Sir Chris Kelly and his committee for undertaking it.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the right hon. and learned Lady has said to the House that we should endorse the Christopher Kelly inquiry. I entirely agree with that, so why are we to anticipate and pre-empt it? Surely out of courtesy alone we should allow Sir Christopher and his committee to conduct their investigations and make their recommendations, and then vote on them. We are pre-empting the committee today.
We are not pre-empting the Kelly inquiry. There are a number of actions that we can take now. If hon. Members will let me get on with my speech, they will hear how I suggest that the House should vote on the motion and the amendments. Hopefully they will then be reassured that there is no question of us wanting to pre-empt the Kelly inquiry, for which the Prime Minister called, and which we hope that the whole House will support. I do think that there are actions that we could take now without having to wait for the Kelly inquiry. That is not about pre-empting it; it is about taking certain actions now.
There is one glaring omission from the motions on the Order Paper. It relates to a measure that I think would command support from all parts of the House: the Prime Minister’s suggestion that those who have grace and favour accommodation, paid for by the state, should not be able to claim the additional costs allowance. Will the right hon. and learned Lady explain why that is not on the Order Paper? If her intention is that the issue should be dealt with by the ministerial code of conduct, I say to her that that is not sufficient, because it does not allow for complaints from members of the public to be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards and Privileges Committee.
Before we move off the point about giving guidance to the Kelly committee—that, I take it, is what the first motion does—there seems to be a contradiction in the first motion. Paragraph (2) recognises that Members of Parliament
“undertake parliamentary duties both in Westminster and their constituency”.
Indeed they also undertake such duties outside Westminster and their constituency, which is not mentioned. The motion goes on to say that
“any new arrangements…ought to…take account of hon. Members’ attendance at Westminster”.
Why is that?
I ask my hon. Friend to bear with me. I will answer his question as I get on with my speech. The first motion invites the House to express the opinion that new arrangements should take account of attendance at Westminster, be transparent and accountable, and reduce the cost to the public. The amendment in the name of the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), welcomes the inquiry but deletes that opinion, invites the Kelly committee to get on with its work, and asks that we consider the recommendations as soon as they have been made. In the consultation paper that Sir Christopher Kelly recently issued, “Review of MPs’ Expenses—Issues and Questions”, he said that he will indeed consider whether the payment of allowances should be linked to attendance and a flat-rate daily payment. In that consultation paper, the Committee on Standards in Public Life says, on the issue of a flat-rate allowance:
“The Committee will consider this proposal alongside other options for reforming the current system.”
Sir Christopher Kelly also says that he will look at how we ensure best value for the taxpayer. In the light of that, it does not seem necessary for me to divide the House on the amendment, and I am minded to accept it. The important thing is that we endorse the Kelly inquiry, that it presses on with its work, and that we take the further steps in the other resolutions, to which I now turn.
I want to understand what the right hon. and learned Lady just said. The first amendment— amendment (j), which is in the name of the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee—in effect postpones consideration of the motions until after the report of Sir Christopher Kelly, and rightly so. Does she accept that if the amendment is carried, the question should not be put on any of the other motions, because all the matters in the other motions are covered by the remit of Sir Christopher Kelly?
Let me just clarify to the House: we propose to accept, and not put to the vote, the amendment in the name of the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, because it endorses the Kelly inquiry, and I think that it is important for the House to endorse that inquiry. The three issues raised in the rest of the motion, which is deleted by the Chair of the Select Committee’s amendment, are about linking allowances to attendance, transparency and value for money for the public. Christopher Kelly has already said, in his consultation paper, that he will take those issues forward in his inquiry. That being the case, and as the motion was only an opinion, I do not think that it is necessary to put the amendment to the vote. We will accept the amendment. The first motion will therefore be important, because it means the whole House, I hope, endorsing the Kelly inquiry. I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg); there are actions that we can and should take now. We have further motions on the Order Paper today, with which I would like to press forward.
We seem to be treading rapidly into the realms of complete and utter lunacy. If the right hon. and learned Lady wishes, very sensibly, to accept the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his colleagues on the Standards and Privileges Committee—it seems to be the view of the House that it should be accepted—it will be binding on the House; it will be part of a resolution. In that case, logically, everything else would fall, and we would leave everything to that Committee.
—not a car crash, but a point for Mr. Speaker. We have just heard that the Leader of the House is to recommend that the House, without a vote, endorse an amendment that says that Sir Christopher Kelly’s report should be waited for. She went on to say that the House should, in effect, pre-empt Sir Christopher’s decisions in a number of particulars. Surely that is inconsistent, and surely all the other motions are predicated on the amendment that is to be carried.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I do not regard motions 2 to 6 as directly contingent on motion 1, or in direct contradiction to it. [Interruption.] Order. Let me speak. As a result, motions 2 to 6 can be moved if the Government so wish. The motions are a separate series of propositions on which the House can decide. If the motions are moved, that is what will happen.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the light of the clarification in your ruling, it would be open to the House, having agreed to amendment (j), to realise that it could give effect to an equivalent amendment for all the other motions by simply defeating the remaining motions, would it not?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving way, and for agreeing to accept my amendment before I even made my speech on it. However, from what she says, it sounds as though it is a pyrrhic victory, because even if the amendment is to be carried, she invites the House to make conclusions. My Committee could not have been clearer: we wanted the House to defer its conclusions until after Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee reported. We tabled exactly the same amendments to all the other motions, so that there could be no doubt whatever about our intentions. I have to say that it sounds somewhat inconsistent to accept the amendment and then plough on as if it had not been accepted.
The right hon. Gentleman’s Committee has tabled amendments saying that we should not go ahead now to deal with the question of outer-London Members’ eligibility for the additional costs allowance—to take action now on them. [Hon. Members: “No!”] Look, let me just get on with my argument—[Interruption.]
Order. Let the Leader of the House speak. She has said that she has accepted an amendment from the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). Usually, people are pleased when the Government accept an amendment. It seems that there is a displeasure in some quarters, but I have made the ruling and what I have had to say is quite clear. Let the right hon. and learned Lady speak, because she is not the only one who wants to speak today.
Other Members will have an opportunity to speak, and all Members will have an opportunity to vote; I just want to have an opportunity to set out why I argue that we should press on with the action that is identified in the other motions.
The next motion, motion 2, would mean that from April next year there would be no distinction between Members from inner and outer London. All Members representing constituencies within 20 miles of Westminster would be treated as London MPs. The 20-mile limit is drawn from the Green Book. Whatever the Kelly report recommends on the additional costs allowance, I think, and I invite the House to decide now, that the distinction between inner and outer-London Members is no longer sustainable. Whatever the Kelly committee’s proposal is to deal with the extra costs of constituencies outside London, and the proposal will then be debated in the House, we ought to decide now that all London MPs—inner and outer-London MPs—should be treated the same. In that case—
I shall not give way any more. Members might—[Interruption.] No. Members will have an opportunity to disagree with my argument in their own speeches, but I ask them at least to give me the opportunity to set out why I think that we should take that action now.
In that case, I think—
I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady, because I know that she is under a lot of pressure from all parts of the House. On the logic of her position, however, the first motion talks about Members’ allowances in general, refers to
“any new arrangements relating to Members’ allowances”,
and is, therefore, a complete, all-embracing point about allowances in general. So if the reference to allowances in general is referred to Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee, surely it is only logical and honest to say that the other motions should be dropped.
As I have said, whatever the Kelly report recommends on the additional costs allowance, we should decide now that the distinction between inner and outer-London Members is no longer sustainable. The House will have a chance to vote on that, and, in that case, I think it only fair that our outer-London colleagues know that they will be put on the same footing as us in inner London, so that they have time—until April next year—to make changes to their arrangements if they need to. So we should get on and make that decision.
There is also an issue in respect of the accommodation allowance for those Ministers—currently the Prime Minister and the Chancellor—who use London grace and favour accommodation.
I was dealing with the question of grace and favour accommodation. The Prime Minister has already decided that no Minister using grace and favour accommodation in London will be able to claim the accommodation allowance. That will be done by amending the ministerial code and will be effective from 1 July. There are mechanisms for complaints about a breach of the ministerial code, so such complaints would not be on the same track as other complaints about allowances.
The third motion would, by requiring Members to declare all their earnings from outside employment, enable the Kelly review to make its proposals about outside employment with full knowledge of its extent. I believe that the motion is necessary to assist the Kelly committee. An amendment proposes that there would be no need to register the amount of time a Member spends earning money on outside interests, but I think that, if the public elect a Member, they have a right to know how much time that Member devotes to making money rather than to representing their constituents. So I am not minded to accept the amendment.
The motion would help Sir Christopher to make decisions about outside interests in the full knowledge of their extent; otherwise, he would be asked to make decisions without fully knowing about outside interests because they would not be fully registered. If the House agrees with the motion, however, everything will be out in the open and he will be able to make recommendations, having been put fully in the picture.
The fourth motion is about our staff. The reality is that the staff allowance is nothing to do with our salary; it is to pay our staff. Yet because it is accounted for as part of our allowance, the public see it as part of our pay, which it is not.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. I am extremely concerned about that issue, because a range of employment legislation refers to the relationship between an employee and an employer. It would be much better if the matter were fully investigated before the House expressed an opinion; otherwise, we may end up saying that a Member’s staff should be employed by somebody completely different—without our being fully aware of the situation’s implication either for those staff or, indeed, for the Member.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that, after the inquiry, there will be proper consultation with all staff representatives, and that the results of that consultation will be available to the House before the matter returns here and we make a decision on it?
I shall give that assurance, and the Deputy Leader of the House has already begun meetings with the various staff associations and the trade unions.
Motion 4 would allow the House to express the view that Members’ staff should be employed by the House, while ensuring that we would appoint and manage them, and would ask the House of Commons Commission to look into how that could be done. It would help us to move towards a prompt change in the arrangements if the Commission could get to work on the practical issues alongside the Kelly inquiry.
Motion 5 would provide that, in respect of all claims where documentary evidence is required, there should no longer be a £25 cut off. There would need to be receipts for all claims. I really do think that that is something sensible which we could decide for ourselves now.
Finally, motion 6 would allow the Members Estimate Committee, which already has the power to amend resolutions of the House, to amend the Green Book. It has been a great concern for us to see the reputation of the House suffer over the issue of our allowances—[Interruption.]
We all know that much of the criticism that has been ladled out to everybody has been simply unfair, but we can and should respond with sensible actions. Today, we have the opportunity to make a number of changes and to support the Kelly inquiry. I am sure that the public will understand that the Kelly committee will need some time to deliberate, but they will also expect us to take action now, where we can. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we support the steps necessary to protect the reputation of Parliament and reassure the public.
I am concluding my comments.
I hope that we can do as much as possible today by agreement. It would be good if the public could see that we are able to discuss these issues in a way that is calm and measured, and looks to defend the public interest. We all want the reputation of the House to be restored; today is an opportunity to make a start on that. If the House does as we ask, we will have endorsed the Kelly inquiry, sorted out the outer-London allowances, ensured that all claims are backed with receipts, ensured that the public can see all MPs’ outside earnings, and taken steps to ensure that it is clear that our staff are employed on parliamentary business. That will all go some way to restoring the public confidence that this House needs and, I believe, deserves. I commend the motions to the House.
We are living in very feverish economic and political times. At a moment like this, the House can either look absolutely absurd or lift its level of debate and discussion to something that properly understands what this place should be. The boot that is on one foot at the moment can, in due course, change, and the balance of advantage in this place changes with it. We must therefore appreciate that this Parliament needs to work through those changes and set standards to which everyone will adhere.
We are a representative democracy. We are elected here to do our public duty, but we are also private individuals. We do not have a presidency—we have a Parliament. Those who say, “Look, the Senate can exist with 100 people and the House of Representative with 435”, or whatever it is, forget that it takes a billion quid to be elected President. Yet it is from our Parliament that all our Ministers are drawn. We are the pool of talent from which the legislation is made and from which the Executive are formed. That is how we are, and it means that this place has to work to accommodate both those needs.
In the midst of all this—inevitably, as in all politics—is the conflict between personal interest and public duty. A lot of people misunderstand what interest is—it is not just being interested in something but being linked to it and perhaps able to influence it. In this House, the real influence, or interest, of the Back Bencher is very limited. The Back Bencher has power only if he or she acts collectively. It needs to get to the point where either the ayes have it or the noes have it. But Ministers, who take executive decisions, can change things with a stroke of their own individual pen, and therefore need different rules.
We do need rules for how we behave and for how we handle money. In my view, the rules must be fair, they must be lasting, and they should not in any way be based on partial political advantage. We have a conflict, perhaps, between not being corrupt and not turning this place into somewhere that is so over-sanitised that we become merely robotic fodder. This House recently set out a whole new book of rules. On page 5, it says that they are rules that
“should be designed to last for the lifetime of a Parliament and not changed midterm.”
They only came into effect on 1 April, and now it is the thirtieth.
In the past, we have had problems with how our remuneration—our package of reward—is shaped. On the last occasion when there was this sort of fever, the then Prime Minister, now Sir John Major, set up the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Lord Nolan, to whom I spoke often—he is about 6 ft 6 in, so it was quite hard work—set out some original principles designed to govern us for a very long time. Frankly, some of those principles have gone wrong, particularly at a local level where local and parish councillors feel that they can hardly express an opinion without having to withdraw it; that has become absurd and needs review. However, the principles set out to govern us still endure, and we should not forget what they were.
There is another problem with our salaries and allowances. In the past, because no one quite dared make the stand that was perhaps necessary to protect this House as we would all wish, it was decided instead to disguise them. I mean no embarrassment to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) by quoting what he said in the Evening Standard today; in fact, a lot of people will agree, even if they do not say it so baldly. He said that the Prime Minister—frankly, I think that this could apply to all Prime Ministers—
“refused to accept any of the pay awards made by the independent salary review bodies…For short-term headlines as the man who kept down the pay of politicians, he stored up deep resentments as MPs turned to the allowance system to live decently in both constituency and London.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way in the course of his reasoned and interesting speech. In line with his call to courage, has he considered the case for doing away with the expenses system altogether—bar travel, which has to exist as an expense—and allowing an independent salary review board to consider what salary would be reasonable for us if those other expenses were abandoned? I accept that there are people in the Chamber who do not agree with that, but I am asking whether he has considered it, and the Kelly review should be encouraged to do so too.
Let us be honest: many models could be advocated, one of which is completely to do away with the second home allowance and pensions, increase MPs’ salaries, and let us sort it out for ourselves. However, anyone who was brave enough to propose such an increase in salaries at the moment would be likely to walk into a firing squad.
What my hon. Friend quoted from the comments of the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) in the Evening Standard is doubtless true, but I hope that, in a public-spirited and cross-party way, he will be willing to concede that what is said of the Prime Minister’s attitude has also been true of previous Prime Ministers, and it is also true—this is absolutely critical—of current party leaders. As long as these matters are driven by people who have inherited or earned wealth, or much higher salaries than those of Back Benchers, it will be difficult to make progress other than by an independent review.
I have been in the House for somewhat longer than the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that the problem has been the cowardice of successive Prime Ministers in failing to take the recommendation of an independent body, face it up with the public and in this place, and give the award that was recommended? Unless an independent body makes the judgment and we accept it without any qualification, we will never free ourselves from this tawdry debate.
That is the crux of the whole argument about whether we should determine our own remuneration and allowances or contract it out. Crucially, in deciding one way or the other, we should not have one foot in and one foot out and be for ever chopping and changing by contracting it out and then calling it back in again. That, I think, is the crux of the argument that might emerge today.
I shall canter on, if I may, in order not to delay the House too much. The honest truth is that scrutiny of our expenses has intensified, because that is the way of the world, but the model that is being scrutinised was designed for salary rather than for genuine allowances. That is unacceptable in the modern age. We have to set higher standards, but we have to do so honestly and openly.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, not least for that kind recognition. I hope that he will not use quite the language that he just has, because it implies that a great many hon. Members claimed allowances not because they were justified for costs that they were incurring but in order to augment their income. I am sure that I speak for a great many Members who have honestly and always claimed only those amounts that were necessary to reimburse the costs that they have incurred in carrying out their duties.
I fully accept what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I am grateful to him for correcting me. I hope that what he has said will be understood not just by the House but by those who observe our proceedings.
We should appreciate that as of 1 April there is a much stricter regime for this House, basically requiring all receipts. We are also introducing a regime of audit and assurance. I chair the Members Estimate Audit Committee, and we are making very significant progress and ensuring that all the standards that we set are akin to those of any public body or the most strictly regulated plc. That is what we should strive for.
In the 34 years that I have been here, never once has it been suggested to me, by the Whips or by anybody else, that expenses or allowances—call them what we will—should be part of my salary. If anyone had suggested that, I would have told them where to get off. When I sign a form each month for allowances, I do so on the basis of money that has been spent. Otherwise, I would be a thief and totally dishonest.
I will not go into all the details, but looking back over the years, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that at the start, the second home allowance was often just paid once a month without receipts, which is an unacceptable system in the modern age.
It is quite clear that as time has gone on, we have moved gradually, intermittently and sometimes contradictorily between setting our own terms and giving the responsibility to another body. I believe that it is right that we should not set our own terms and conditions. Indeed, the Prime Minister believed only a few weeks ago that the current issues should be referred to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. So it was that he wrote to the chairman of that committee on 30 March. It is now only a month later—30 April—and things seem dramatically to have changed.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and members of his Committee have tabled an amendment suggesting that everything should be referred to the committee chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, and the Leader of the House has now said that she is prepared to accept that. I shall come to the procedural consequences of that in a moment, but that committee, the successor to the Nolan committee, is empowered to look into all these things. So, in quantum rather than in principle, is the Senior Salaries Review Body, which is examining our pay and pensions. Those bodies are best equipped to come up with a conclusion and a clear overall picture.
I introduce a small element of caution. All hon. Members will have received notification from that committee about the basis on which it intends to conduct the review. It states at the beginning that it has to do “what the public want”. To be fair, that is part of a longer sentence that says more besides, but the whole point of that committee is that it should set itself above the fever and anger of the day-to-day world and embrace the highest possible principles that should govern our proceedings. It is the Committee on Standards in Public Life, not the committee for public opinion on public life.
We have seen a lot of political goings-on over the past few days, and I do not want to score political points and make—[Hon. Members: “But—”] No, there is no “but”. I am going to examine the motions. Motion 1 is an all-embracing statement of principle that talks about allowances in general. Based on his amendment, my right hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, says that we should defer our conclusions, and he means that in the plural and overall. Having heard your ruling, Mr. Speaker, I can accept that our procedures allow for votes on the other motions that will follow, but let us be honest—if that amendment is accepted and we then go on to vote on all the other motions, the House will look absolutely absurd.
I note that there is nothing about grace and favour homes, and the motion on London is clear and the debate familiar. On financial interests, I have referred to what I think should be the overall governing principles, but the mood of the day is the mood of the day. But let us admit it—timesheets are absurd. The Leader of the House lives a very busy life. She is also the deputy leader of the party, chairman of the Labour party, the Minister for Women and Equality, the Lord Privy Seal and the Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. I would love to see her timesheets. The notion that in life and in the modern world of work one can keep timesheets—let us face it, they are designed for one thing only, which is the subsequent embarrassment of those who have to publish them—will not do much good for us or anybody. If someone is seen to earn a lot of money from a company and work a few hours, everyone will be phoning up the company and asking, “Why do you employ this person at such a rate?” If anyone is getting a little bit of money for a large number of hours, they will be asking, “Why isn’t that person a full-time MP, and why are they earning tuppence?”
Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me if I do not? I want to race on and let others speak.
A much bigger issue is staff. I am very perturbed by what I sense to be the concern of all our staff about what the proposal would mean. It is not entirely logical that everything that is thought to be wrong with who employs whom, and what their employment contract is, would automatically be solved by creating a massive human resources and personnel department in the House of Commons. The Leader of the House says in one motion that we have to cut the cost of politics. I have seen, and the House will know, how much it costs to publish 1 million redacted receipts. If on 1 July, or whenever, 3,000 contracts suddenly have to be transferred to the House of Commons, the resource implications will be absolutely massive. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is assiduous in ensuring that he knows what is going on in all the highways and byways of the parliamentary estate, and with its people and premises and so on. He went to a meeting with staff yesterday, and I think that he would readily admit that the tone surrounding what they thought might be in prospect was not a happy one.
As I am retiring, I have obviously had several telephone conversations with the Department of Resources in the past week. My staff have an expectation of what their status will be and what will happen to them at the end of this Parliament. In talking to the Department of Resources, I found that the fact that it would become the employer of nearly 2,000 people means that its status would be very different from ours. We are small employers of two, three or four people. It will have to take into account a whole range of matters such as equal pay, which will require a large HR department.
My hon. Friend has a lot of experience in employment matters, and that is the basis of the experience that she has brought to the House. It is the sort of experience that this House will need in future if we are going to be any good at what we intend to do.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that if we defer the question of fair, direct employment of staff and allow the continuation of the fiction that we are passing £130,000 through our own pockets, because we think that it would be bureaucratically inconvenient, the public will feel that we have not taken their concerns seriously?
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to base decisions that affect people’s lives on what he describes as a “fiction”, rather than the facts that matter, I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree with his approach to politics and decisions.
The crucial amendment on which we will vote at 5 o’clock is (j), which would defer everything until the Committee on Standards in Public Life has reported. I sense that the mood of the House is that it should be accepted. If the Government have said that they accept it, it is more likely than not to go through, unless they change their mind again. We are experiencing the control of everything in the House by the Executive, who are in some difficulty. We simply say that we do not want to score political points, but we want the House of Commons to work in the long term. We also want to ensure that a feverish shambles does not become an even greater shambles. The option in the amendment, which the Government now support, is to defer everything, and not make piecemeal changes. Although those changes were said to be an interim solution, they are not, because “interim” does not appear in anything before us today. Three hours’ debate in the current political climate is no basis on which to make lasting changes.
I leave as much time as possible for Members to contribute, but I hope that they understand the importance of their vote at 5 o’clock.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak early in the debate and to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of House. I also speak as a member of the House of Commons Commission and of the Members Estimate Committee.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s graceful approach in accepting the amendment. That was sensible, and fitted the tone of the documents, which I have read carefully, that Sir Christopher Kelly issued. It was appropriate for the Prime Minister to write on 23 March to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life to request an inquiry into Members’ allowances. The Members Estimate Committee, assisted by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), conducted a six-month inquiry last year. As has been mentioned, the Senior Salaries Review Body held a review, which lasted a year. The House did not accept its conclusions and recommendations, just as it did not accept ours last year. The point has been made—perhaps more flamboyantly than I would make it—that no Prime Minister since Edward Heath has accepted a recommendation from a Senior Salaries Review Body about Members of Parliament’s salaries.
The question of staff has been raised. Last year, the Members Estimate Committee considered what would happen to our staff if they became House of Commons employees, and its two-volume report includes a large section on that. As the law stands, any member of staff who becomes a member of the staff of the House of Commons also becomes a member of staff of the Commission, and cannot be a political servant or can be only politically neutral. Any change in that procedure would require a new unit and possibly legislation.
That is a pertinent point. The Leader of the House said that the House of Commons Commission would examine the matter carefully between now and 29 October. My right hon. and learned Friend was asked whether it would take evidence and representations. I assure hon. Members that, under the chairmanship of the Speaker, the Commission will consider every aspect, take evidence and receive submissions before the matter comes back to the House after 29 October.
I hope that the House of Commons Commission will also avail itself of a lawyer experienced in employment law. When we heard that the change was originally to be made on 1 July, it showed that the Government clearly had no idea about the legislation that they had created or the rights of employees.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. We have examined proper advice on employment law and we will do that again. However, I assure hon. Members that the most complete analysis and investigation of that serious matter will be undertaken. Members of the Commission, under Mr. Speaker’s chairmanship, are well aware that 2,000 members of staff work for Members of Parliament inside and outside the House, and their interests need to be taken into account.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously experienced in such matters. Is there no way of maintaining the arrangements broadly as they stand, while altering the way in which the money is reported and accounted? The problem is not the way in which we employ our staff, but that the public are misled into believing that the money comes to us, rather than to our staff.
The hon. Gentleman’s point touches on what the shadow Leader of the House said. There is a perception in the public domain that the salaries of Members of Parliament’s secretaries and assistants are part of our income. I was on a TV programme with Andrew Neil, who said to the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), “You’ve spent £133,000 this year. How did you do that?” The right hon. Gentleman replied that most of it was spent on salaries. Conveying that message is one of the impossibilities that we are currently experiencing. That is one reason for the Government’s proposal. However, when considering our staff, we must be careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
My hon. Friend makes her point, which is a matter for the Government, not me as a member of the House of Commons Commission. I simply say that, between now and 29 October, staff salaries and their relation to Members of Parliament will be carefully considered.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously basing his argument on the fact that we cannot convince the public? According to him, they are too dim to understand. However, we remunerate our staff for the job that they do; it is nothing to do with money coming into our pockets. Do we genuinely intend to alter the lives of our staff and all those who work for us simply because of a perception?
Will my hon. Friend reinforce on behalf of the Commission the assurance that the Leader of the House gave that, as part of the process, the Commission will engage with and take evidence from representatives of our staff in their various guises and ensure that that evidence is reported properly to the House before any decisions are made?
I have only 10 minutes to spend on the subject and I should like to make some progress.
The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the Green Book and that it is only a month old. The Green Book is a book of principles and governance and it carefully states what we are doing about governance and audit. The hon. Gentleman knows that we held a meeting yesterday about audit, which is a significant part of our allowances and how they are supervised. The Members Estimate Audit Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), comprises hon. Members. Three outside independent members also advise the House accounting officer. We also have the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office, with overall audit of the accounts and processes. There will soon be an operational assurance unit, managed separately from the section in the Department of Resources, which will administer payments. The unit’s role will be to give advice to Members and to ensure compliance with the rules and the maintenance of standards.
Does my hon. Friend accept that hon. Members’ staff do a fantastic job on a day-to-day basis, sometimes in difficult circumstances? Does he think it fair that we should be transferring staff to the House without any consultation with them? What assurances and guarantees can he give that their salaries, bonuses and redundancy payments will not suffer?
My hon. Friend makes a point similar to that which the Opposition made earlier about the anxiety among staff, even if we have a general election and there are changes in the membership of the House, about what would happen to them. As I am indicating, at this moment in time, anyone who becomes a member of the House of Commons staff or the House of Commons Commission is politically neutral. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will need to look at that issue, which is also one that we will look at carefully.
On a couple of occasions I have asked the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who answers questions on behalf of the House of Commons Commission in the House, whether it would be possible for our staff to join the pension scheme for House staff. When my hon. Friend is looking into the pros and cons of transferring staff across to the House of Commons, will he look into their pension entitlement, too?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and value his experience in this place. However, can he please tell me and the House whether consideration has been given to whether staff contracts, which are quite different from each other in many cases, will all need to be renegotiated under the proposal that our staff cease to be employed by us and become employed by the House authorities instead?
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) makes another point, from a sedentary position, which I have already made to the authorities. There is such a thing as TUPE—the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, which we passed through this House many years ago. As we can see, the consideration of the anxieties of staff is extremely important.
Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that the many hon. Members who, like me, supplement their staffing allowance by transfers from, say, the incidental expenses provision or their own resources will still be allowed to do so in future?
On the subject of consultation, when my staff heard about the proposal last week, I had to admit that it was sprung on me. They said, “How were you going to consult us?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, because I don’t know enough about it.” I still do not know at what stage my staff will be consulted or whether it will be me or someone else who consults them. On the employer-employee relationship, according to the proposal, I will still be allowed to hire and fire. If I am still allowed to hire and fire and the employee goes to a tribunal, will it be me or the House who will respond?
I have been talked out on the Floor of the House. This is a debate of the utmost importance—constitutionally, for this Chamber and for Members of Parliament. We belong to the future, as well as the past. We must remember that point, because it is extremely important—a sovereign people and a sovereign Parliament.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) is absolutely right: this is a debate of great constitutional and practical importance. Unfortunately, it more resembles a Whitehall farce, given the way that the House has proceeded on the matter over the years—constantly debating it and giving more hostages to fortune, but never reaching resolutions that satisfactorily address some of the basic issues or give confidence to the public that the system meets the need.
Need is an important part of this debate. We should not walk away from the fact that Members of Parliament need expenses in order to do their jobs on behalf of their constituents. We need to make that absolutely and abundantly clear. Paying staff, renting offices and providing accommodation for Members of Parliament whose constituencies are a long way from London is part of the responsibility of the House, in order to enable Members to do their jobs properly.
But—and it is a big “but”—there are criteria that should apply to that provision of finance. It should be based on genuine need and provide what is necessary for right hon. and hon. Members to do their jobs as Members of Parliament, but not a penny more and not a penny less. That is a significant point. That provision needs a system that is transparent, so that the public can see that the money is being used effectively and properly. It also needs accountability and external audit that goes beyond what is available in the House, so that there is a guarantee that matters are being properly dealt with.
We cannot get away from the urgency of dealing with the issue. As I have said, it is a matter on which we have had endless debates. The public are sick and tired of us sitting in this Chamber and talking about our allowances, rather than the big problems that face this country. They simply do not understand why, if we purport to run the country, we cannot run our own affairs properly.
I absolutely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Does he therefore agree we should not have to wait to be told to do what is right? Getting rid of the outer-London allowance for MPs is the right thing to do. Publishing details of second incomes that may influence hon. Members’ activities in this House or how they vote is also the right thing to do in the interests of openness and scrutiny of this House. We do not need anyone to tell us how to do that; we should get on and do it now. Does he agree?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) has made it clear in what he has recently published that there ought to be matters we can agree as a matter of urgency—matters that are self-evident; matters that are clear abuses of the present system that we can remove. That is why we need the twin-track approach, dealing both with the more complex issues, about which it is quite proper to ask for Sir Christopher Kelly’s and his committee’s advice, and with those matters which I would have hoped—although I am almost doomed to disappointment in this respect—the House could see are matters that are in our hands and which we can deal with urgently today.
That is why, although the Leader of the House has accepted the amendment standing in the name of the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), I do not take the view that we should not proceed with the other motions. We have opinions on them; nevertheless, they are matters that we can quite properly discuss in the House today.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the worst abuses has not been covered today, and that is the use of grace and favour homes? Expenses are there to cover additional costs. There are no additional costs for those living in Downing street and they should not be claiming for constituency homes.
My hon. Friend knows that I tabled an amendment to that effect, because I thought it was a glaring omission in today’s proposal. However, that amendment has not been selected, so we cannot debate it. The Leader of the House says that her solution—the Prime Minister’s solution—is to deal with the issue through the ministerial code of conduct. That is not sufficient. There should be a rule that governs the right to those allowances. The reason I say that is that the issue should be a matter about which members of the public can make complaints and which could be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and, if necessary, brought before the Standards and Privileges Committee.
Under the Government’s present proposal, it would simply be a matter for the Prime Minister. Keeping everything within the bunker at No. 10 would not be satisfactory under the rules of the House, and I therefore ask the Leader of the House to think again. If she will not do so, I will certainly make such a proposal to Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee in due course.
The hon. Gentleman says that he sees merit in taking action on some of these issues now, notably the less complicated ones. I agree with him, and that is a view shared by a number of Members in all parties. Does he recall that, as recently as 1 April, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that agreement on action on a number of these issues was needed now, and that this matter needed to be sorted out?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I am a little disappointed to sense that these matters could be left in their entirety to the committee. I regret what I take to be the current view of the Conservative Front-Bench team, because there was a sense of urgency a few weeks ago. That was clear from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam said at the time. He put forward proposals—they might not command the support of every Member, but they have mine—to reduce the additional costs allowance to cover only basic accommodation costs such as rent, council tax and utility bills, and nothing else. There would be none of this John Lewis list or any other incidentals. That system would be clearly understood by the public, and we could act quickly to adopt it. I understand that other Members have different views, however. I also understand that the Leader of the Opposition put forward proposals of his own. They were not entirely irreconcilable with our own, and there was a suspicion that we might have reached an agreement. I shall come back to the provenance of the arrangements in a moment, because the subject is instructive about how the Government do business.
What are the concerns that the public have been expressing very loudly in recent weeks? If any Member has not heard them, they cannot have talked to many of their constituents recently, because these are real concerns. People are talking about inappropriate purchases being made at the taxpayer’s expense. Whether such purchases are typical, common or fair is neither here nor there—that is what people are concerned about. They are also concerned about the abuse of definition in relation to our identifying our principal place of residence, and about the fact that, for some hon. Members, it seems appropriate to change that definition every now and then, according to the potential income involved. That gives rise to a great deal of concern. Concern is also being expressed about unnecessary accommodation, and the possibility that people are claiming for accommodation that they do not need because they have alternative arrangements of one kind or another.
The public cannot understand why we cannot deal with these issues. Frankly, I cannot understand why we cannot deal with them even under the present system, because it is clearly stated on the forms we sign every time we submit a claim that the costs have been occasioned by parliamentary duties, although that definition seems to be remarkably wide in some cases. Nevertheless, that is the question that the public are asking.
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Every single one of us wants our expenditure to be seen to be accountable, clear and absolutely necessary. I have had incredible letters from some of my constituents about the way I am apparently spending public money. I have written back, faithfully and factually, yet those same people still write letters of abuse. Even if we state our case accurately here today, we are still not going to get away with it. There will still be a sense that we are overpaid and underworked; that is common to many people’s responses.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is perhaps a counsel of perfection to say that we will ever get away from that entirely. Every time we see a clear abuse of the system in the pages of a newspaper, it affects not only the person who has been named but every single Member of the House. Every Member of the House is considered to be a crook. That is unacceptable, and it is something that we have to deal with as a matter of urgency.
Given the public concern, it was nothing short of an act of genius for the Prime Minister to come up with a solution that absolutely failed to meet those concerns. The process has been quite extraordinary. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam put forward his proposals and, whether people agreed with them or not, they were real proposals that addressed the issues and would have made a real difference to the way the House is perceived. The Leader of the Opposition also put forward proper proposals. They were not identical to ours, but they addressed the same issues and tried to find a way forward. At that time, we had nothing at all from the Prime Minister.
The last time we debated this matter, the Prime Minister did nothing whatever to get the proposals from the House of Commons Commission through; he did not even bother to turn up. He showed no sense of leadership. This time, he waited until the very last moment, then reluctantly agreed, when pushed several times by my right hon. Friend and by the Leader of the Opposition, that it would be a good idea to have a meeting of the three leaders to see whether there was a possibility of consensus. Yet before that meeting, which he did nothing to arrange, had even happened, he came up with a set of proposals that had apparently been written on the back of a fag packet. He did not appear to have discussed them with members of his own parliamentary party. He put them out to the press before he even had the agreement of the Cabinet, which emerged to find them already in the public domain.
As an afterthought, the Prime Minister rang round the leaders of the other parties to try to arrange a meeting that very evening, because he thought it would be a good idea to get their imprimatur for his proposals. At that meeting, he was completely belligerent and refused to accept any amendment to his perfect proposals. And he wonders why there is no consensus! Then, last week, he made his announcement to the public in a YouTube appearance that had all the awfulness of a David Brent performance. It was quite astonishing—and this was the Prime Minister addressing an issue that affects the House in an extremely important way.
The Prime Minister proposed an attendance allowance, but would it address the question of transparency? No. It would provide cash in hand with no accountability. Would it be related to real costs? No, because it would be given to every single Member of Parliament, irrespective of their needs or arrangements. Would it even be workable? No, it could not have worked within the present arrangements. The Prime Minister failed to understand that, in proposing a system that already exists for the European Parliament—doesn’t it work wonderfully there!—he was proposing that the gravy train of Europe should come to Westminster. Incidentally, that also happens at the other end of the corridor. We hear apocryphal stories of noble Members leaving the Rolls-Royce running outside while they nip in to sign in, before going home having claimed their allowance for the day. Is that the system we want? No. That is why it had to be rejected. Eventually the message even got through to the bunker, and it was not put on the Order Paper today. There is, however, a vestigial reference to it in motion 1—I will return to that in a moment—because the Prime Minister can never be completely gainsaid. He must have his way, so if he cannot have it through a vote in the House, he must find an alternative.
Let me go through the matters for consideration. The grace and favour issues are not there, and I have explained why that is wholly unacceptable and should be remedied. I hope that the House can agree to some motions—our motion 6, which is a technical motion, and motion 5 on evidence of expenditure, which adds to transparency and accountability.
Motion 3 deals with the registration of interests. I know that that matter is a bit difficult, but it is a basic principle. I have thought about the questions that it has been suggested would arise. Whether people are being paid far too much for too little in their outside employment or are spending too long at their outside employment are legitimate questions to ask Members of the House. If they are not full-time Members of the House, what are they doing with their time? How does their loyalty to their constituents square with their loyalty to their shareholders or employers?
There is no objection, but it is a matter of transparency—[Hon. Members: “Yes, there is.”] There is no objection within the rules of the House as presently constituted. However, our constituents are entitled to know how we apportion our time and the extent to which we are prepared to provide our time for their benefit rather than for our own. That is the question.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and when he started I thought that I would be on his side. However, he is making me angry, because he has said not one good thing about the work—the hard work—of parliamentarians on both sides of the House, in Committee and in constituencies. I share the criticisms, but, for goodness’ sake, cannot someone on the Opposition Benches get the balance right rather than picking up every negative comment, and say something good about the House—about the all-party aspects, the hard-working, good legislators, and the work in Select Committees? Come on, please say something good about our colleagues.
Clearly the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said. If he is not prepared to listen, I find it difficult to answer him.
Motion 2 deals with Greater London; surely we can go ahead with this necessary reform. I do not claim exclusive credit for my party colleagues, but I am pleased that not a single Liberal Democrat Member who serves a Greater London constituency claims the allowance. Those Liberal Democrat Members can commute perfectly happily within London, and it is not unreasonable to expect other Members to do so. I notice that the starting date in the motion has been changed by the Leader of the House, to give a little more leeway. We do not need to wait for a transparently appropriate measure to be introduced. The measure is already in place for central London, and it is an anomaly that it did not extend to the greater metropolis.
The Kelly committee may come to the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined, but the matter is being imposed in isolation. Those Members, including me, as I fully declare, who have never been in London, and whose constituencies are in Surrey—the old border of my constituency went down to Guildford—have suddenly been lumped in, without any consultation about the impact on us. I have served for 22 years, and I speak on behalf of all the other Members on a cross-party basis. The matter should not be imposed without full consideration.
The number of parameters to consider is not enormous, and I notice that the Leader of the Opposition accepted the proposition at an early stage. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) will disagree and vote against it, but the proposition is properly put forward.
Motion 4 is very significant, and many Members have made interventions on the matter. There are arguments for putting members of staff directly on the payroll of the House of Commons, but there are many imponderables, and many serious questions need to be asked about the process. Sadly—I will upset the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee again—some Members do not behave as we would wish in their employment of their staff. There are some mill owner MPs who exploit their staff, who might be extremely grateful for the protection of the House. Equally, however, there are issues about transfer of staff, about what happens at the dissolution of a Parliament, and about pensions. The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) is keen on a move to the House of Commons pension scheme, and I understand that entirely, but a huge cost is involved in that, and the House must be aware of that cost—I think that it would double the House of Commons pension bill. Given that we are talking about savings in this context, we really ought to be aware of that before we agree to his approach, and issues relating to the political restrictions that might apply would need to be addressed before we could make progress.
Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that it is fair, just and sustainable that the staff of the House, who provide a very good service to us, are in a public sector final salary pension scheme with a notional contribution by the employer of about 25 per cent. of earnings, whereas our staff are entitled to join only a stakeholder scheme, which provides considerably poorer benefits and whereby they get only 10 per cent. of their salary paid in by the employer?
Serious questions need to be asked about that and about the whole of the public sector’s pension schemes. The hon. Gentleman knows that Liberal Democrats have very serious concerns about the sustainability of public sector pensions as a whole, including those of Members and servants of this House. All I am saying is that one cannot sign a blank cheque for a very large sum without understanding the consequences. May I say to Labour Members who are very concerned about this matter that that is why I have tabled two amendments to motion 4—amendments (a) and (b)—at which I invite them to look carefully?
The consequence of those two amendments would not be to remove the progress being made on this by the House of Commons Commission, which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough mentioned; it would be to ask the Commission to examine the benefits and disbenefits before it moves to implementation, so that this House does not agree to something and instruct the Commission to go ahead with it. Instead, the Commission would examine all the consequences of it, report back to the House and, on that basis, make recommendations. In the first instance, I ask the Leader of the House to accept this sensible pair of amendments, but if she does not do so, I ask hon. Members to support them, because they are a sensible precaution to take, in order to avoid yet another car crash on this matter.
That leaves me with motion 1 to discuss. We have heard what the right hon. and learned Lady has to say, and I hope that that will not remove any of the urgency that all of us identify as necessary on this. The one great benefit of accepting the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire is that it would remove this vestigial inclusion of the requirement to take account of hon. Members’ attendance at Westminster. I was going to have to ask a lot of questions about that, because if it simply meant that if a Member never attended Westminster they would not get accommodation, that would be exactly fair. If it was a per diem attendance allowance by the back door, which I suspect it was intended to be, I would be wholly against it, for all the reasons that I have indicated. It is not good enough for the Leader of the House to say that it makes no difference now, because it is already in the paper produced by the Committee on Standards in Public Life; it is there as one issue to be looked at among many. In the form in which it was presented to us in motion 1 the provision was an instruction to the Committee, which is why it was unacceptable. If we accept the amendment, that becomes redundant and we look forward to the proposals.
I hope that we can make some progress today, because we need to do so. However, I fear that the process to date has been so farcical and absurd that it will instil little more confidence in the eyes of the public until we have the report of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee, until it does the job that we have asked it to do and until we agree the recommendations, so that we actually have a proper externally audited arrangement that bears scrutiny. At the moment, we do not have such an arrangement.
It should be clearly understood that the reputation of the House has been much damaged by the controversy about second homes. We can debate today whether we should go to Kelly or otherwise but, as has been said, there is a strong feeling among the public that we are on the make, that what we claim is somewhat dishonest, that it is all part of our salary and so on. It would be wrong of us not to recognise that that feeling has grown in recent times.
We did not do ourselves any favour when some decided to promote a private Member’s Bill that would have exempted the House of Commons from the freedom of information legislation. What sense did that make? The Labour Government should be much praised for introducing the Freedom of Information Act 2000—the previous Government absolutely refused to introduce such legislation—but a few years later we tried to claim that it should apply to all public bodies, but not to ourselves. No matter what excuses were made or promises were given that we would still disclose how much we claimed, the general feeling was that we had something to hide. It is sometimes forgotten that that private Member’s Bill was passed by this House—thanks to the Whips on both sides—but it fell in the Lords, because no one was willing to pick it up. The Lords did us a great favour on that occasion.
It is right that non-London Members should be able to claim for what is described as a second home. Indeed, it would be wrong if we could not claim. In case anyone thinks that I am taking a holier than thou attitude, I should say that I claim for rented accommodation—the rent, the council tax and upkeep. Obviously, not a penny goes into my pocket, but neither am I out of pocket. That is perfectly legitimate. Some hon. Members claim that some people will never understand how such an arrangement can be justified, and that may be so, but fair-minded people would do so. The reason why fair-minded people are not in favour of the present arrangements is that they believe that most of us are being dishonest and that what we claim is not what we have actually spent. There have been one or two cases publicised that, to many people, do not seem to make much sense or have much logic, and they have undermined the position on second homes.
The legend has grown up that because of inadequate salaries—I do not know whether anyone will argue today that our salaries are inadequate, and I doubt whether many members of the public would take that view—the allowances were introduced and we were tipped off, presumably by the Whips, that we could use that money for our own purposes. I do not know who suggested that in the first place, but in all the years that I have been here no one has said to me that we should claim money and put it into our own pockets. I do not know why that legend has grown up. I work on the assumption that the large majority of hon. Members, in the past as well as now, are honest people and that when they make a claim to the Fees Office each month, they do so on the basis of the money that they have spent. We are not crooks or dishonest, and the few cases that have come to light in no way contradict that. The allowances have never been a substitute for our salaries.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House that we should accept the amendment from the Standards and Privileges Committee. There is a lot to be said, especially as far as motion 1 is concerned, for the matter being considered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I hope that it will be able to make recommendations in the very near future. I also hope that we will accept its recommendations, because there is little sense sending the issue to that committee and then rejecting its findings.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) echoed my concern about what is called the Westminster allowance. It is true, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House said, that that will be considered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but I hope that it does not recommend it. It is nonsense—absolute nonsense. What would the public say about our being paid for coming in to do our job? That is what it amounts to, and I see no reason or justification for its ever being proposed in the first place.
What would happen when we were doing our parliamentary duties outside Westminster—for example, with Select Committees that went outside Westminster or with the Council of Europe and so on? Just imagine the number of exceptions that we will have to make. There would be a whole list of them, from A to Z. What about those Members who were genuinely ill? Would they be paid? What about those on maternity or paternity leave? What would happen with the attendance allowance then? As I have said, the proposal is complete nonsense and the sooner we chuck the whole idea the better.
The hon. Gentleman is making all the points that I could have made. There was one exception in the proposal, of course. Ministers did not have to attend Westminster. They only had to think a ministerial thought in the day and they could collect the allowance.
That is a good point.
I started off by talking about the public concern and the unease that is felt. Our responsibility is to try to rectify the situation as quickly as possible and to convince the public—or at least those who are willing to be convinced, as I believe that most will be—that our system is perfectly in order and that we should claim allowances.
It is interesting to note a point that was mentioned to me by my secretary after she had spoken to a close friend of hers who keeps in touch with events and so on. Her friend was surprised to find out that the bulk of the allowances goes on staff costs. The general feeling has grown up that all this money is used for second homes and so on, when we know that the large majority of the money that we claim is for staff costs. Surely that is perfectly justified. It would be odd if we had to pay our secretaries and researchers—not that I have a research assistant—out of our own pockets. It is all clear, and it is all perfectly right, proper and legitimate, but we must persuade the public of that. At this moment, the public are not so persuaded. The sooner they are and the sooner we can put our house in order, the better it will be.
When I first came to this House in 1970 I felt, and I still feel, that representing a part of the United Kingdom in the Parliament of the United Kingdom is as high an aspiration as any man or woman can have. No one should be prevented from standing for election to Parliament because he or she is either too poor or too rich. It is therefore clearly important that we should have allowances—we did not have them at all in those days—that enable Members to have a home either in the constituency or in London, depending on where their main residence is. I do not want to enter in detail into the argument over London Members, save to say that I do not believe that it is the duty of this House to pass resolutions that retrospectively oblige colleagues to cancel contractual obligations. It is very important that we should recognise that.
That is why I believe very strongly that we ought to accept the spirit of the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. I believe that it addresses all the issues properly. We have appointed Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee to look into all these matters and they should not feel constrained or trammelled in any way. It is important to recognise that the matters that have been referred to Sir Christopher Kelly include the whole business of outside earnings as well as everything else. I do not know, any more than any other colleague in any part of this House knows, what Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee will recommend. I hope that when the recommendations are made, we will be able speedily to accept them even if some of them are somewhat uncomfortable for us, as they may well be. What we should not be doing this afternoon is putting the committee under any constraints by passing any of the other resolutions. We are dealing with a very short period of time—only a few months—and we want to get this matter right.
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far, but does he agree that we should accept all the recommendations brought forward by the Kelly committee without amendment? If we amend them, we will once again be determining the parameters of our pay and conditions.
I very much hope that we will be able to accept all those recommendations, but we are a sovereign House and will have to debate them. I hope that they will be sensible, constructive and prudent, and that we will be able to accept them. The hon. Gentleman may not have heard me, but I said earlier that some of the recommendations could be uncomfortable—for me, for him or for others—but that we should wait for them. When we receive them, they should speedily be brought before the House, and I hope that they can be implemented as quickly as possible.
I want to address two issues in particular, the first of which concerns our staff. The recommendation on the Order Paper that all our staff should be centrally employed has aroused very real concern in all parts of the House. It is an idea whose full consequences have not been thoroughly thought through. The relationship between Members of Parliament and those who work for them is extremely important. It is right that Labour Members should be able to employ people who to some degree share their political views and prejudices, and the same is true for Conservative Members. It would be very difficult for a member of the Labour party to employ someone who was a card-carrying Conservative, and the reverse would be equally difficult. It is very important that Members of Parliament are able to select who works for them. I last advertised for a member of staff about 18 months ago, and I received something like 100 applications.
It was a very good joke, of course, as all his jokes are. However, I hope that he would accept that all hon. Members should have that untrammelled right to appoint their staff. I do not want the House of Commons to be turned into a vast employment agency that hires, fires and allocates staff.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) intervened earlier to ask what would happen to her staff, who are making plans based on the knowledge that she is retiring from the service of the House of Commons. Their loyalty to her may be such that they may not wish to carry on working in the House of Commons for another Member of Parliament.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as I was going to make exactly that point. I am retiring at the next election, and all the members of my staff have indicated to me that they wish to stay with me during the wind-up period and then leave the House. It would be very unfair to them to force them to transfer at the last minute to a different set of conditions, and that is why we need to get the transitional arrangements sorted out.
I completely agree. I have tabled an amendment, which Mr. Speaker has selected, that at the very least would allow staff to choose whether they should be individually or centrally employed. We shall see whether we vote on that later, because I want to hear what people have got to say, but it would be quite wrong to rush through such a change.
Earlier, I listened to the remarks made on behalf of the House of Commons Commission by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell). I used to be a member of the Commission and, despite my regard for him, I was not wholly reassured by what he said. It is important that whatever we decide should not apply until the beginning of the next Parliament because there really ought to be a proper transitional period.
I now come to an issue that I know is not a comfortable one, but it is one that has to be addressed, and a specific motion is down for it. It concerns outside earnings. Already we have a register and those of us who have any outside earnings register them without any qualms or worries. The register covers what we do, the bands of money that we earn, and for whom we do these things. We are moving down a very slippery slope here because we are moving towards a situation in which, over a generation, this House will become an assembly of full-time, permanent politicians who have no connection to or relationship with the outside world.
No one could suggest for a minute that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is not an assiduous, full-time Member of Parliament. I know full well that what she does in her constituency is deeply appreciated by her constituents and they are not happy that she is leaving them, but she has found time to write books.
Very good books, as she rightly says. The fact that she has done that is of no concern to anyone else. It enriches not only her personally—well, I sincerely hope that it does—but those for whom she works and whom she represents.
I should like to delete the reference to hours in motion 3. There is a lovely story about the painter Whistler. He was once in a court case accused of knocking off his pictures in an hour or half an hour, and he said, “That picture does not represent an hour’s work but a lifetime’s experience.” Often a Member of Parliament is in a position to give advice and may not take very long to give that advice, but it is of great value to those to whom it is given. As long as the register records the interest, that is fine.
If that advice is given within a context that involves the Member’s parliamentary duties, I do not mind extra details being given, but we have already made an exception for the profession of which the Leader of the House is an illustrious adornment. Barristers and solicitors will be allowed to withhold certain information. That is right and proper in view of the confidential relationship between the lawyer and the client, but I do not see why there has to be this intrusiveness in respect of everyone who has outside earnings. I should like to encourage people to do things outside the House.
I am in my office in the House, as a number of hon. Members present know, never later than 8 in the morning and frequently before half-past 7, as I was this morning, and I very rarely leave much before 10 at night. I give a service in my constituency of which I am quietly proud. If I can find time to do certain other things, to write articles and other things, that is for me and it is my concern. I hope that the House will take a broad-minded view and realise that it will impoverish this place if we merely have people who come in from a political background to be politicians and nothing else and have no contact with those outside in the world that we serve.
I end where I began. There is no higher calling than representing a constituency in Parliament. When I came here, I regarded it as a vocation and a way of life. Of course we must do all that we can to ensure that the public recognise that and we must not abuse the system, but we must provide the proper tools so that we can adequately do the job.
The Leader of the House made the case for change, and she is right: change is necessary; it is vital, and we need to get on with it. The Prime Minister, all the leaders of the political parties and most Members recognise that, put simply, we cannot go on like this. The mood of the country is detached from the political classes. There is a view abroad that we who represent the people do not understand how they live and the difficulties they face. That is unhealthy; it is not good for democracy; and it is bad for the House. So change is necessary and we need to achieve it quickly. The issue for the House today is simply this: how do we best do it?
I was delighted that the Leader of the House accepted the amendment tabled by the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. The way forward is an independent, comprehensive review. We have tried to do that ourselves in the past but have not been successful. Any effort that we take will not have the support of the public outside—we need that independent element. We need to be aware that the tone out there is corrosive; it undermines our position, and it undermines our self-confidence. I know from talking to colleagues that a number of them are now disillusioned and are thinking of not standing at the next general election. It is bad for the public; it is bad for the House.
We must pass these matters to Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life and ask them to do a good and thorough job, but there are caveats: we must tell Sir Christopher’s committee speed is necessary. That said, he will have to look at the issue comprehensively and carefully and we will have to look carefully at his recommendations. The House is sovereign, but I would be extremely surprised if the House did not take those recommendations, even if they are uncomfortable, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) just said.
I will turn to the hon. Gentleman directly, and then I will take his point. He is a member of Sir Christopher’s committee, as is my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and Baroness Maddox. By definition, they have had to exclude themselves in a way from the inquiry. I say directly to the hon. Gentleman that I hope that he and his colleagues who represent the political parties on the committee are a source of advice and knowledge, because this is a difficult job. Sir Christopher’s committee will be worse off if it does not take the knowledge and understanding that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues who represent us on that committee can give.
I am a member of the committee, but I am not taking part in the inquiry. The hon. Gentleman is right that the committee will ask for advice on factual matters from time to time. Does he agree that the committee should take time to hear evidence to find out fully about the role of a Member of Parliament and how it differs in different parts of the country, and that this is not something to be rushed, although it must be done as quickly as possible?
I agree entirely. We need an independent, thoughtful and comprehensive review, but the committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, needs to be aware that there is pressure and a mood outside for change. Change is necessary; it will have to come. I hope that the committee will balance that.
I am surprised that, having accepted the amendment today, the Government—my colleagues—seem to want to plough on with piecemeal change. The House has a straightforward choice today: do we want an independent, comprehensive report that will command widespread appreciation and support outside the House, or do we want to go forward, as we have been doing for some time, doing a bit at a time to try to respond to the changes? That is a wrong way to go forward, and I am surprised that the Government have accepted the amendment from the Standards and Privileges Committee and have decided to plough on. That is a bad decision.
I think that some of the Government’s proposals will be recommended by Sir Christopher’s inquiry, and it is interesting that they say that they accept that these are interim proposals. Why do we need to make decisions now when we can consider a comprehensive, thoughtful and independent report that will, we hope, command public confidence in the future?
Will my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House think again? We have a straight choice today. We all want change—it is vital and urgently needed—but we must consider carefully how to achieve it. Will we go forward in the future comprehensively and in a way that will generate public support, or, as we have done in the past, will we teem and ladle by doing a bit here and a bit there?
The idea that the committee can come up with something that commands public support really is hope over experience—we will not satisfy the public. Let us get on with it and do something sensible. The committee will just waste more time.
I am optimistic for the future and for democracy. Let me say directly to my hon. Friend that we should not be pessimistic. People come into the House to make a difference. They are good people who listen to their community and want to bring about change. We should be proud of that and we should make that point to Sir Christopher’s committee.
I ask my colleagues to support the amendment tabled by the Standards and Privileges Committee—it has been accepted—but to be sceptical about the need for the further change for which the Government are pressing. We want to be able to rebuild confidence so that we can be proud of the people whom we represent and, more importantly, they can be proud of us. Let us make progress, but progress that is thoughtful, independent and comprehensive.
In the course of more than 20 years in the House, I have never felt the need to speak about Members’ allowances, and I do so only as I approach retirement. I am conscious, as we all are, that almost anything we say will be misconstrued or interpreted in the opposite way to how we intended to put it. However, I should draw the House’s attention to concerns that have been expressed to me by fellow retiring Members and others. I love this place, so it is distressing that many of them are saying to me, “I bet you’re not sorry you’re going”, and, given the frenzied tenor of this discussion, I am increasingly starting to agree with them.
We desperately need—this exactly follows the wise words of the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)—the Committee on Standards in Public Life to take a cool and dispassionate look at the situation, and all its complications. To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), we then need a pretty strong moral commitment that we will do our best to accept the committee’s report, unless it contains something clearly ridiculous. It is important that we look at things objectively not only because a few newspaper headlines have dictated the week’s agenda, but because we need independent validation of what is appropriate and right.
I wish to make two specific points. The first relates to the only interest that I need to declare in this debate, which is characteristic of all my interests except my farming activities in that those interests are often not profitable—as is the case for others, many things I do are not for profit. I chair the executive committee of the Parliamentary Resources Unit, which is a pooled resource unit of researchers that is broadly for Conservative Members. In that capacity, I am worried about some of the specific implications of the proposals for staff. The unit has a management structure; we have a director and are appointing a deputy director. We have more than 12 members of staff and therefore need to manage them. In a sense, we Members of Parliament employ staff by proxy. If we are not able to go outside the research grades, we are likely to have a very difficult position. I just record that as an example of the detail.
That leads to me to say how strongly I agree with the comments made about the relationship with staff. We would all lose if we were to lose that personal link. I do not claim any particular virtue, but I can report that since I joined the House in 1987, I have employed the same constituency secretary, who is London-based, and the same part-time secretary in my constituency. They have worked for me for all that time. To refer to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, they are likely to want to retire, or change their arrangements, when I go. I really do not want that very intimate relationship—perhaps I should say personal relationship, in case that is misinterpreted—disturbed at this stage, overturning all the possibilities of pension and so forth. We need to look at that issue. We need lots of trade union and employment law input, and we need to get the measures right.
At the moment, the salaries of our members of staff are put against our own names. Without doubt, many of our constituents think that that money goes straight into our pockets. What do we do to ensure that the salaries of members of staff are not marked against our names?
The short answer is that we need to tell the truth about what is happening. Above all, we do not need to distort our arrangements and our relationship with our staff to meet a tabloid headline. Sometimes we have to take a stand.
I should like to raise one or two more general points that are, in a sense, indicators or markers to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who is seated on my right, is a member of the committee, but even if he is not formally participating in the debate, I hope that he will take notice. The committee should take note of issues of shared expenditure. Lots of us have complicated lives. We do things that are partly political and partly done for our constituents. We do things at home that are part of our office activity, and partly done on our personal account. We benefit from accommodation that is both personal to us—it is where we need to stay for the night when we are at Westminster late—and shared by members of our families. That whole area needs sorting out.
It has been suggested, in some of the more draconian ideas, that Members capital profits on their flats should be clawed back. I dare say that there is a capital profit on the flat that I have occupied since 1989, but I have not worked it out, as it is going down by the moment. However, there is no basis in principle that is clear. It is quite difficult to contemplate any sensible clawback from current or former Members. How, for example, will we run that past the property safeguards under the European convention on human rights? If we are to do that kind of thing, we have to declare what we need to do very clearly. We should start the system in a way that ensures that everyone is clear.
My third point goes wider than the debate. Nobody has used the words “legitimate expectation” in this debate, but the Prime Minister’s idea of cutting off the allowance year after four months and completely recasting it was absurd. I have never claimed the cost of the kitchen that I bought for my flat from public funds, but had I done so, would it have been all right to do so on 1 May, and all wrong on 1 August? That is not the right way to proceed. That is why I am so anxious that matters should be referred to the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life and properly phased in.
I shall conclude, because many Members want to speak. We should say that the best defence against abuses—there have been abuses, and, as the hon. Member for Sherwood said, there is a need for change; I can see that—is not yet more box-ticking, or even more rigorous accountancy. I accept that there have been failures in that regard, and we need to remove areas of gross difficulty. Those failures are to some extent, however, the function of a system that is too complicated. The best safeguard is the conscience of individual Members in acting responsibly.
That is hugely beneficial, but nobody should ever think that mere compliance with the rules represents the sufficient discharge of their responsibilities to the House or to their constituents. We must be absolutely straight in our dealings, but we must largely be the judges of that. We need independent input, first, on advice, because I am not sure that we have always received as much advice as would have been appropriate; and, secondly, on the right audit, filter and transparency, as my right hon. and learned Friend has just said.
In doing all that, we must acknowledge, as the principles of the inquiry that the Commission has launched acknowledge, that we need adequate support in our work. However, it is wrong to keep legislating bit by bit, headline by headline. I am very struck by the remark in the issues and questions document from the Commission. Paragraph 1.12 states that
“the reforms so far have been restricted in focus and piecemeal in implementation. We believe it is time to conduct an open, thorough and independent public inquiry to lay this matter to rest for the foreseeable future and remove the corrosive effect it is having on public trust in the integrity of our politicians.”
That seems to be the right message. We need to do it, but we need to do it together and coherently.
I mentioned at the beginning that I am deeply attached to this place. It is still the best way of running a society, and I do not want to leave it to a toxic combination of the affluent, who do not need the support, and the anoraks, who do not claim the support. We need to acknowledge change, but we must do so in a properly considered, independently validated, measured and coherent way.
It is a rather large understatement to say that we are in a bit of a mess, but most of us who care about our politics and the reputation of the House think that we need to sort this mess out. Certain people—well represented in certain newspapers—do not want us to sort this mess out at all, because it provides such wonderful daily copy. The last thing that they want is to see us get hold of the issue and resolve it. Some of them would no doubt be content for us to sleep on benches in St. James’s park—and if they were, they would still say that we were taking somebody else’s bench. We know that all that is true, but it should give us an added incentive to ensure that we take steps to clear this mess up. We know, too, that things will get a lot worse before they get any better, and that conditions our approach to the issue. We saw it coming, however, and in a sense we have only ourselves to blame. This issue has not come out of a clear blue sky; it has been around for a very long time.
I gave evidence to another inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, back in June 2002—that is, seven years ago. I looked up the evidence, because I could vaguely remember it, and I said:
“My guess is that any future difficulties with Members of Parliament are far more likely to occur around issues to do with the allowances that they now get…. If you have lax rules, I am afraid you will have lax use of money and I can see this on a number of fronts going to happen. I can see, for example, not long before newspapers start running stories talking about the huge capital gains that MPs have made on their London houses… Unless you get hold of these issues now and think about them, they will come and hit us later on”.
Even then, for those of us who were in this place using and observing the system, it was not difficult to see that issues would come along and do us an awful lot of damage if we did not attend to them. So I told the Committee to get on with it, but of course it did not.
When we had our biggest recent scandal at the beginning of last year—in February 2008—I wrote to Sir Christopher Kelly to say:
“I write because I am concerned that you have not already announced that the Committee on Standards in Public Life will be conducting an immediate inquiry into the whole system of MPs’ allowances…If this is not something for your Committee to respond to, in view of the reasons for its existence, I do not know what is”.
However, he took the view that we were going to attend to these issues ourselves, and we failed to do so. I agree with everyone who has talked about the damage that that is now doing: it is almost impossible to overstate it. It is fundamentally corrosive, not to one party or another but to the whole of our political system, and indeed to the whole of the practice of politics; it contaminates everything else that we do. People rightly say, “If you can’t sort this out, if you behave in this way in relation to your own affairs, how can we trust you with anything else?” In a sense, that question is unanswerable.
In some ways, it should be entirely simple. People, on the whole, are fair-minded. They know that, to do the job, we have to come and spend some nights in London, employ staff, and travel between one place and another. One would think that it should be reasonably straightforward to construct a system that reflects those basic needs, but we failed to do so. There is no point in us all canvassing our own preferred options on any of these issues—we all have different views on how we might resolve them. We have reached the point where we have conspicuously failed to do that ourselves, and we now have to ask someone to help us.
I think that we all agree that there must be some form of reform. However, given that the cost of maintaining all our offices and all the work that we do as parliamentarians comes to about £92 million, which is less than two thirds of the aid that we give to Tanzania, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cost benefits that we provide are very good for the British taxpayer?
That will indeed be my core conclusion in a moment, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.
There is no point in our canvassing our preferred options on what we should do about this allowance or that allowance, because we have decided, rightly, that we have proved incapable of doing this, and we now need help urgently. When we give our evidence to Sir Christopher, we can say what we think about these things, but we can also be very clear about the principles involved, which are pretty straightforward. First, we should be compensated only for what we have actually spent. That was the fundamental objection to the idea of the daily allowance, in all its various versions that kept developing. Next, it has to be spent on essential items, by which I mean items with regard to which we can look our constituents in the eye and explain why they are essential for us to do our job. If we cannot do that, as in the case of some of the esoteric claims that have been around in recent times, there is no way that we can ever explain to our constituents why claims are essential to do the job. They may be very desirable to have, but they are not essential.
We need a system with the right set of incentives—incentives to live rather modestly. The problem with the current system is that the incentives are entirely of the wrong kind. They are incentives to live immodestly and exploit the allowances to the maximum, by having a larger house than necessary because the mortgage interest will be paid, and then by adding fixtures to the house because it will increase its value and the taxpayer will pay for them. Those are entirely the wrong incentives.
We must apply to any new system the principle that, as far as possible, it should be abuse-proof. Unfortunately, any system has a capacity to be abused. The problem with our system is that it invites abuse. In constructing a new system, we must ensure as far as we can that it diminishes the capacity for abuse.
I thank my hon. Friend. He made the point about the need for Members to be compensated on the basis of what they actually spend. While one might be able to see the merit in that, is there not a danger that we will all be driven down to the level of what the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) called the “anoraks”?
I hope not. If we have definable essential items that we claim for, I cannot see anything wrong with that system. That is what we think the system ought to be. Having established the principles, we should crack down ruthlessly on any evidence of abuse of any new system.
If the opportunity presents itself, I shall vote for the motions that I believe are right and desirable, while bearing in mind that Kelly may come to a different view. On some things, such as the staffing allowance, I shall abstain, because I am an agnostic. I do not know what is the best way to employ staff. By the way, we have the wrong target there. What concerns people about the staffing allowance is not who employs the staff but how it is abused. It is the abuse that needs attending to, not the cosmetic presentation of who employs the staff.
Unfortunately, we have failed to sort this out ourselves over an extended period, and it now has to be done. I remind the House that a former Clerk of the House wrote to The Guardian recently, saying that his great concern was that because we had the capacity to decide these things for ourselves, we had the capacity to subvert any recommendations that were put to us. He said that he had seen that many times in the past. He wrote:
“Members of Parliament are distinct from other elements of the public service, such as judges, army officers and senior civil servants, in having this ability to overturn, or covertly sabotage, the findings of the independent review body.”
That is what we do, as people have said, and it has brought us great difficulties. We must accept that this issue has needed sorting for a long time and is causing us and the whole system huge damage. We have failed to sort it out and we now have to turn finally to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life and say, “Will you please do it for us?” That should have happened a long time ago.
Sir Christopher has said in the past few days that he will give us not a menu of options to pick and choose from but a comprehensive set of recommendations. That is right, but the question is whether we accept those recommendations from an external, independent body. If it is possible to envisage things getting even worse, the worst outcome would be to get the Kelly recommendations and then start playing around with them. We should not canvass for our favoured schemes. Every party should say that it will not only wait for Kelly but accept Kelly. That is the only way that we will dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in.
Amendment (j) is in my name and that of every other member of my Committee. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said and I commend the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) for his remarks a few moments ago.
Let me read to the House what it will agree if, as seems likely, the amendment is accepted:
“That this House welcomes the Prime Minister’s decision on 23 March 2009 to invite the Committee on Standards in Public Life to inquire into Members’ allowances; believes that in order to command maximum public support for change the House should defer its conclusions until after the Committee has reported; and further believes it would be desirable for the House to have an opportunity to consider any recommendations from the Committee as early as possible.”
The Government have said that they agree with that, and it would therefore be inconsistent for them to invite the House to reach conclusions before the Committee has reported. That would stand logic on its head and I invite them to think again. If they agree with my Committee about amendment (j), they should not proceed with the subsequent motions. Anything else is inconsistent and illogical and would defy what the House had agreed to.
I do not challenge the procedural possibilities, but it appears illogical to say that we must not make decisions and then proceed to make them.
Does my right hon. Friend further agree that, if a substantive amendment, which, to all intents and purposes, replaces a full text, is not to be regarded as a replacement of that text, we must reconsider the House’s procedure, which is based on amendments as a form of scrutiny? For example, yesterday’s debate on the Gurkhas might have left us with both the Liberal Democrat motion and the Government amendment standing.
May I begin to make the case for why my Committee acted as it did? I will give way to my right hon. Friend later.
My Committee thought long and hard before deciding to intervene in the debate. My Committee likes to cruise in the stratosphere above the turbulence of party politics, and it is no part of our agenda to pick a fight with the Prime Minister on the matter that we are considering. We are a group of colleagues, appointed by the House, to have regard to the reputation of the House. Our view is that that is best served by the action that we propose.
Indeed, far from disagreeing with the Prime Minister, we agree with him on the need for radical reform and we wrote to him on 31 March, welcoming his decision to invite Sir Christopher Kelly to conduct a thorough review of our allowances. We believe that that was the right way forward. Sir Christopher responded to the Prime Minister by rearranging his Committee’s programme to accommodate the request. He has drafted and, indeed, circulated a consultation document, asking for evidence on all the issues before the House by 5 June. At that point, I think we were on the right track.
Then, for reasons that have never been properly explained, the Prime Minister went on YouTube. I think that it would have been better to make an oral statement to the House, but perhaps I am old-fashioned. Some rushed decisions were announced. There was no consultation, even, we hear, with Cabinet colleagues. A new timetable for implementation was proposed and Kelly was pre-empted with conclusions about what should happen on key issues.
It is not surprising, given the complexity of the issues and the haste of the exercise, that the wheels came off the coach on the matter that had generated the most controversy, namely the additional costs allowance, or personal additional accommodation expenditure, as it is now known. The Prime Minister’s proposals to go on paying the money, but with no receipts, failed his own criteria of transparency and accountability.
So, today, we have “Hamlet” without the prince—decisions on some of the other matters referred to Kelly. If the reason for rushing things through was to allow the Prime Minister to say on 1 July that the ACA had been sorted, that alibi no longer exists. But rather than coming up with quick answers, we should come up with the right answers.
On the point that my right hon. Friend was making when I tried to intervene, which was about the inconsistency between his amendment being successful and proposals being pressed to the vote, has he received any indication from the Government about how they intend to proceed?
I only heard what the Leader of the House said in her speech, which was that she accepted my amendment, but that she was none the less going to invite the House to take a decision on subsequent resolutions. I could not follow the logic of that, but that is the only information that I have.
We have two reasons for believing that we should allow Sir Christopher to proceed before we take a decision: one of principle and one of practicality. On principle, it cannot be right for the Government to ram their motion through the House as they propose. They want the House to take decisions today on resolutions tabled on Monday evening. There has been no consultation with the parties, no consultation with the Committees that will have to operate and police the system, no consultation with Back Benchers generally and little opportunity for us to discuss the matter with our staff.
In a moment.
That sits uneasily with how the Prime Minister said he would treat the House in his first statement as Prime Minister—to restore some of the independence that we had surrendered to the Executive and, to use the words in his Green Paper, to
“rebalance power between Parliament and the Government”.
The Prime Minister began his letter of 23 March to Sir Christopher Kelly with the following words:
“As you are aware, the pay and allowances for MPs are a matter for the House of Commons.”
When pressed at Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister again said that the matter was one for the House. He was right: it is a matter for the House, and we should do what we think is right without the Government playing the loyalty card or claiming a monopoly of opinion on how best to proceed.
Still on principle, what is the point of constraining Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee with interim arrangements that may have to be changed months later? Interim changes mean that there will be further, later changes. On issues such as the employment of Members’ staff, that is frankly unfair on those affected. On principle again, with some of the resolutions, the cart has been put before the horse. On Members’ staff, I am invited to express an opinion now, and then the Commission will consider the proposition. I would prefer the Commission or Kelly to consider the proposition, and then I will express an opinion. For a range of reasons, my Committee decided unanimously that the House should be urged not to adopt instant, piecemeal or poorly considered provisions. Doing so runs the risk of creating confusion and chaos where we need consistency and consensus. The key thing is to restore public confidence, which we best achieve by allowing Sir Christopher to proceed with his work.
I also have doubts about the practicability of some of the proposals. As an example of what will now be caught by the rules on financial interests, any hon. Member who receives a £30 fee for completing an opinion poll, even though the sum is donated to a local charity, will need to register that sum. Not only that, but they will be obliged each time to register the name of the organisation, its address and the amount of time that they spent on the phone. Also, if a colleague is presented with a bottle of wine after a speaking engagement, that becomes potentially registrable as earnings, as does the time spent at the function. That is because the Government, without any consultation, have abolished the de minimis threshold for categories 1, 2 and 3 in the register, which the House confirmed without a Division only two months ago.
There is another interesting repercussion. It appears that the third motion is intended to stop directorships with huge fees. However, some professionals have to practise to maintain their profession. Therefore, if on a Sunday morning, instead of playing golf or sitting reading the news of the Government’s disasters—
Indeed, or even after going to church. If, instead of doing those things, I happen to see a few patients—this point could affect hon. Members from any part of the House—I will have to declare that if rumour is correct. However, if I went to church or played golf, which would make no difference to my constituency actions, I would not have to declare it.
I am grateful to the Chair of my Committee for giving way. Has there been any consultation with the registrar or the commissioner who would have to administer the proposed system? The practicalities that the right hon. Gentleman is outlining—and, indeed, many others—would be horrendous, and dealing with them would present real difficulties.
Of course I had consultations with the registrar before I explained the implications of some of the resolutions before the House. Whether the Government have had similar consultations with the registrar, I do not know. I do not know whether it was the intention of the Leader of the House that she would have to register the bottle of wine that she might receive after making a moving speech at a dinner, but the time would be registrable.
First, I just want to clarify that the Government did have discussions with the registrar, as would be appropriate. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong in his interpretation of how the proposals in the motion would work. They would not change category 5 in relation to gifts, benefits and hospitality. The change would relate only to directorships and remunerated employment.
I said what I said after consultation with the Registrar of Members’ Interests.
I have no outside interests, but I am cautious about registering the hours as proposed. My personal view is that our constituents would be more interested, and surprised, to hear how many hours a week we work for them, rather than how many hours we do not.
My Committee has been accused of trying to kick the ball into the long grass, and misrepresented as seeking to preserve our allowances for as long as possible. That is not the case. The Kelly inquiry is not the long grass; it is the best, and possibly the last, chance to get this right. For reasons of public interest, not self-interest, we believe that it would be a mistake to go ahead as the Government plan to do. We also believe that we should not pre-empt Kelly. Only the proposals that flow from an independent inquiry will command public confidence. Let Kelly and his Committee come to their own independent conclusions; then the House can decide. In the meantime, the Government should not dictate to them, or to us.
There is always a certain reluctance to talk about these matters, and I do not think that I have spoken in the House about Members’ pay and allowances before. It is worth looking back at the history. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) was right in what he said; indeed, we tabled an amendment to the motion, but it was not selected for discussion. I ask us all to have a sense of the history of these arrangements because we have long failed to grapple with them.
We all know that the central problem is the reluctance over many years to increase the salary of Members of Parliament to a sufficient level. We also know that Governments of all political persuasions have said, “It’s all right, we’ll give you some help through the expenses you can claim.” The mileage allowance is an example. I remember when Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister there was a rebellion among Conservative Members because she would not implement the pay rise that had been recommended by an independent inquiry. What happened? The next thing we knew was that we had the largest ever increase in mileage allowance, as long as we had a car of more than 2,000 cc. We all remember that, and we all remember the subsequent changes in the types of cars in the car park beneath the House.
There has been tension over these matters for a long time. Another tension exists, to which the House should pay careful attention. It is all very well for an independent body to decide how we should be paid and what our allowances should be, but we all know that normally, as soon as the committees have reported to the House, whichever Prime Minister has been in power at the time has said, “Oh, this is very embarrassing. We can’t possibly be seen to increase the salary of Members of Parliament.” Prime Ministers of all parties have failed to agree to the recommendations, and arrangements have been made with the Whips to water them down or modify them in some way. That was why my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and I tabled our amendment today.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made a clear point in this regard, but he did not take the final step which would be for the leaders of the three main parties to say that whatever happens with the Kelly report, they will accept it. That is the way to get real independence in the House and to free ourselves from the sort of criticism that we have brought on ourselves from the public. The challenge from Back-Bench Members is to tell the leaders of our individual parties that that is what we need.
We have done that before, even on policy issues. I remind the House of the agreement on the Dearing inquiry into higher education. Even in the run-up to an election, the leaders of the three main parties said that they would hold off making decisions on the future of higher education until Lord Dearing had published his report. All three parties stuck to that agreement and we got a rather better policy initiative than we otherwise would.
I totally agree with all my hon. Friend says about independence, but does he accept that the committee, and Sir Christopher Kelly in particular, must understand the life that we lead here? It is crucial that people understand the hours that we work and the type of life that we have here.
My hon. Friend anticipates what I was to say next, which is the only other point I want to make.
When I came into the House, we had a system that I thought worked very badly. I saw people from my part of the world, 200 miles from this House, renting the cheapest accommodation they could find in a trade union hostel or a cheap hotel. People came here and slept in their little beds in their little cells or their shabby little bedrooms. After four days—we sat late on four nights—they went back to their constituencies. That was corrosive of family life. If one does not have a decent place in one’s constituency and near this House, family life will be destroyed. It means that MPs say goodbye to their partners and come down here on their own. The rule was that you never saw your family. That is destructive of family life and it means that very strange people end up being MPs. We have seen a better cross-section of real people since we changed the rules. Let us take this issue seriously but let us give the message to Sir Christopher Kelly about the way MPs operate and the way we wish to have our lives in the future. We must stand up to ensure there is a real appreciation of how MPs work and live.
My last point is this. I have made myself relatively unpopular elsewhere by asking, “Who has stood up for the hardworking MP who works a 15-hour day and works on Select Committees?” Indeed, I have made myself very unpopular because I believe—I am looking at the Father of the House, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who knows that I have made this case many times—that there should be extra payment for those who work so hard on Select Committees. That would make me very unpopular out there, but I think it is right for people who do that extra work. Otherwise, we will end up with lots of unpaid deputy Whips and unpaid deputy Ministers. The independent Back Bencher who serves on Select Committees and does all the jobs in the House will be difficult to find.
The right thing today is to accept the amendment that supports the Select Committee’s view. I will vote against the other measures today reluctantly, because I agree with some and I hope that they are in Kelly. But I will vote against them, because it is wrong to anticipate what Kelly will produce. Kelly is undertaking an independent review, which we should accept. Let us put the spotlight on the leaders of the two Opposition parties, and on the Prime Minister, so they say, “Whatever it says, we will back it.”
It is said that politics is a vain calling—that people stand in this place and say, “Hear my views. Look at me, look at me.” I suspect that all Members of the House have looked at me in great detail and I still bear the scars. It would be a vanity on my part, however, to think that the Government’s proposals on the employment of staff are down to the experiences that have been well publicised in this place and in the media. Therefore, one must wonder: why the haste?
More than 200 close family members are employed by Members of Parliament. Many more employ lovers, who are not necessarily known to be related, and many more again employ in-laws because of the difference in their surnames. No doubt the total number of relatives employed by Members of the House is 250 rather than the lower estimate. Is that wrong? People will make their own judgments about my case, and they have done so. However, many Members of Parliament find it convenient to employ family members, not necessarily to supplement their income, because many MPs take a drop in salary when they come to this place—I halved my salary when I came back. Many Members employ family because of availability and reliability, and as many Members have experienced before me, family members are often employed for confidentiality and convenience. Is it just the money? I am not sure that that is the case, and it will be interesting to see how the Commission addresses the problems of central employment.
As I experienced during the investigation of two years into my personal activities and those of my family, the Standards and Privileges Committee, whose distinguished Chairman has spoken today, wanted to know whether there was a need for the person to be employed by the Member of Parliament, whether they were able to do the job—presumably two-year-olds would not apply—whether they were actually doing the job, and whether the reward for what they did was reasonable, which, one would expect, is a test that will apply to every Member of the House.
However, the standard of proof varies, and I say to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee that if his reports are contrasted, they will show that there is a difference in the standards applied, not only by the current Committee but by previous Committees, to the Members before them. The House will recall the treatment that led to the loss of Elizabeth Filkin’s services, in relation to the case of the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), and more recently the comparison between the investigation into my family and that into the employment arrangements of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman).
Interestingly, when my elder son Henry was being investigated, the commissioner, who is a polite and decent man, was extraordinarily thorough. However, levels of thoroughness are a human failing, for us all. In Henry’s examination, there were long-distance calls to Canada, with witness statements being taken. Cleverly, the commissioner even found a secretary who had worked in the office, and had long since left, but unfortunately she remembered seeing Henry and seeing what he did. By mere coincidence, there was even a photograph of him helping at a function. One tried to gather together the evidence. That compares interestingly with the later Committee report, for which some of the witnesses who had been reported in the press were not even contacted and asked for their opinion. By contrast, my son sat for two and a half hours giving evidence before the commissioner. One wonders whether Committees of the House, as we know from experience, bend over backwards to try to protect Front Benchers if they possibly can.
In my case, both commissioners found that my sons had worked, and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, when he was not busy trying to sort out computer contracts for his friends, took a particular interest in my case, as he was anxious that it should be prosecuted. The Crown Prosecution Service—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the fact that the Member who is addressing the House accepted the punishment of the House, apologised unreservedly and paid back the money that was taken, is not this speech rather an abuse of that?
I in no way question how the Standards and Privileges Committee conducted its case with me—I accepted fully what it said—but that does not prevent me, any other Member of this House or any member of the public from contrasting the different reports that the Committee produces. It found in my case that the issue hung on the level of reward. Henry, my eldest son, was paid at the second quartile of the lowest grade. That is relevant to the debate that the House has been having on the employment of staff, including those related to Members of Parliament. As I know from bitter personal experience, my son, who was at the second quartile of the lowest grade and was a part-time student, was judged to have been paid too highly. Therefore, one awaits with interest any inquiries that are made into the husband of the Home Secretary, who is paid at the top of the highest grade while being a full-time house husband.
Speculation about what Members of this House are doing and what is reported in the papers should apply to all Members, not just some. How these points in the salary scales are arrived at remains a mystery to me. In my case, the Committee decided that it would have been appropriate for my son to have been paid at the entry point of the lowest grade, with an annual cost of living and a 2 per cent. annual performance increase. That is not laid down by the House authorities anywhere; I have not seen it applied anywhere else. I do not think I am challenging the Committee by raising this, because I shall be raising it with the House authorities in the coming months.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I find it difficult to believe that an hon. Member who has accepted the findings of a Committee in a disciplinary case of his can subsequently come back to the House and call into question the judgments that that Committee has made. That seems to be what the hon. Member is doing.
I do not think that a point of order is involved. I have made one ruling. Every hon. Member must be responsible for what they say in this Chamber and, short of an attack on or criticism of another hon. or right hon. Member, it is a matter of judgment for which every one of us will be held accountable. I have not heard anything that causes me to rule the hon. Gentleman out of order, but he is responsible for what he says and he must consider carefully what he does say.
I am not challenging what the Committee is saying. What I am asking is that if Members are looking for guidance on what level of pay to set for their staff, should they look to the House authorities, to the Green Book or to personnel practice? The Committee’s different decisions in different cases do not necessarily help to provide that guidance, but they set a precedent—that is the point I wish to make. Interestingly, I think that although the Government are using great haste to try to resolve this matter, it will not end today. My inquiry went back eight years, so whatever the Government or the House decide today, this matter will not finish today. I have resigned myself to being the Admiral Byng of this Parliament, but that does not stop me developing a new hobby, and I believe that those Members of this House who have employed close family members should look a little more closely at the Committee’s decisions on levels of pay and how interest each year should be applied. I do not think for one moment that the inquiries into how Members have employed their staff will end with tonight’s debate.
One underlying theme resonates throughout this debate, sometimes spoken, sometimes not, and I hope that the Kelly committee will determine its views on this absolutely. I am talking about the pay of Members of this House. I take a different view from many of those who have suggested that Members of Parliament are badly paid. I think that the level of remuneration is appropriate, but we will all have a dilemma if we hand over pay to an outside body. The principle of elected Members not determining their own pay is a higher and more important principle than the actual level of that pay. I hope that the level of pay would not go up if it were determined independently in the future. I also hope that all hon. Members would agree that if pay levels are to be determined independently, whether after Kelly or at some later stage, we should not then be able to vote on that decision and nor should Governments be able to do so in the future. That independence should be retained.
I am also strongly of the view that the level of expenses should be determined externally and not internally by the House. Two aspects of the terminology used in this debate cloud it dangerously. The first is the use of the word “allowances”. There is a fundamental difference between allowances and expenses, and the fact that Members are able to use the two words interchangeably demonstrates the confusion of this debate. I hope that the Kelly review will look at expenses and will determine that the concept of allowances has been part of the problem. If its view is that MPs are underpaid, it should say so, but that should not be hidden in allowances. The pretext of the allowance system that has been built up is precisely why people regard the issue with horror.
The second term that has been used inaccurately today is “abuse”. There have been abuses, but it can be argued that even those examples were overuses rather than abuses, because they took place within the system. That is why those examples have not been referred to authorities outside the House such as, for example, the police. They have been examples of overuse, not abuse. The so-called abuses that we have seen in recent months—sometimes several are revealed in one weekend—are overuses of the system. There is a question about whether such usage is right or moral, which constituents will throw at all of us, but it fell within the system. Of course, the more extravagant our usage of the system, the more extreme the criticism, and that may well be appropriate, but it is the system itself that is rotten.
I shall give some theoretical examples. Under the system at the moment, it is possible—although the House refuses to release the information—for some 150 Members to claim an overnight allowance not for coming to Parliament, but for living in their constituency. Is that right? The Leader of the Opposition may be one such person. There is no question of abuse of the system, and nothing is being hidden, but is that right? Is it right that £24,000 of mortgage interest can be claimed by a wealthy Member of Parliament so that they can have an expensive house in a constituency that is not that far away from London? It would be appropriate for the Kelly committee to consider that issue. There are dilemmas, and legitimate arguments could be made on both sides. However, that is precisely the kind of dilemma that the committee should be considering.
A similar question arises about family members and spouses. Of course, it would be straightforward to say, “That should be banned,” but arrangements might well occur that were not in the public domain. Is that any different or any better? Honourable single Members might marry previously unmarried members of staff. Should those members of staff immediately be barred from working? That dilemma must be addressed by any simple solution.
It is much easier to deal with some of the other points. For example, under the current system it is possible for a Member who has owned their house in totality with no mortgage for many years to take out a mortgage and to claim that money back. Is that justified at the expense of the taxpayer? It seems to me that it is not. Let me give another, more difficult example—although I do not think that it is overly difficult. A Member might own a house at value X and claim the full amount. If the allowance goes up significantly, is it right that that Member, in the course of their duties, should feel that it is appropriate to buy a bigger, more expensive property and to claim the full amount? It seems to me, as the taxpayer is paying, that that is not appropriate. However, both of those examples have been allowed within the system, particularly since the big increase in the allowance in 2001. Such things are a use of the system and it seems to me that we need to get real about it.
If one maximised mortgage interest at £24,000 with a standard mortgage nine months ago, at today’s mortgage rates £16,000 would now be available. Is it justified that the maximum allowance should be based at £24,000—at £222? It seems to me that that is not justified. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) has left his seat, but there is a varied view on what is a reasonable standard of living and a reasonable property. There will never be any agreement here or among any other group of 600-odd members of the British public about what is reasonable. However, the British public perceive that £24,000 is not reasonable in order to carry out such duties. That is what underlies public concern, from what I hear.
As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, I am from that wing of the Tory party that pays mortgages and buys its own furniture. I always have been. However, I understand the distinction that he is making between expenses and allowances, and his focus on what might be described, for want of a better term, as contrived mortgages. Might one means by which to tackle this problem be for Sir Christopher to consider the imposition of a time limit—a span over which people could claim—that could not be exceeded, so that people could not claim for 40 years, long after most people out there would cease to have had a mortgage?
All sorts of systems could be proposed. However, the critical point is that there should be a defendable cap on the amount of money that can be spent. I have suggested that that cap should be decided on a civil service basis. Civil servants in Sheffield or Leeds can claim £127.50 per overnight stay, or per 24 hours. That would, of course, get one into what I have described as the Travelodge in County Hall. In fact, apparently, it is the Premier Inn in County Hall. I was offered the opportunity to road test it—indeed, I already have done and those expenses will come out in a few months’ time for people to see. I do not suggest that Members should have to live in County Hall or any other Travelodge-type accommodation, but it seems to me that if the number of nights on which we have to be here on parliamentary duty is about 120, a civil service rate based on what a civil servant from out of London would require in order to come into London ought to be the cap. Whether the money is spent on buying or renting property or on staying in hotels is not important. The problem for us outside the House is the perception—the reality—that we can claim large amounts of consumer goods. People believe that parliamentarians claim too much money in the course of their duties, and we need to rectify that speedily.
We need to be able to defend what we do. People must perceive not that we are greedy but that we are tightening our belts. That is the price that we are going to have to pay for retaining systems that we could have changed. We are in a recession, so tightening our belts for the next few years will be appropriate. I hope that that is what we vote for, or what the Kelly committee asks us to do.
Several hon. Members: rose—
Order. I have a difficult decision to make, because there are many more hon. Members wishing to speak than there is time available, given the present limit on speeches. I shall probably be unpopular with some but bring joy to others if I now cut the time limit to five minutes in an effort to get the widest possible representation. I call Mr. Greg Mulholland.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I begin by saying that I love this job, and that I am very proud to be a Member of Parliament? I can say that I genuinely try to do the job to the best of my ability, and I believe that the same is true for the vast majority of Members of this House.
Just a couple of weeks ago, however, I had one of those rare moments when I questioned whether I really wanted to carry on doing the job. That moment came on the day that the so-called MPs’ expenses league tables came out, when the story was all about our £93 million gravy train and how we all had our snouts in the trough. That hurt me, as I am sure that it hurt the vast majority of hon. Members to whom such remarks are grossly unfair.
As we all know, we have very little right of reply to such stories, but the problem was actually far harder for my wife. She told me that she was too embarrassed to go out that day because of what the neighbours would say. People presumably think that we keep the Jag around the back, and that we somehow hide the vast amounts of money that come rolling in. That is exactly the perception fostered by the media: one newspaper said that, by making an average claim for allowances of £144,000, we were effectively trebling our salaries. That is absolutely absurd, but how can we sort the problem out? I have to admit that I am feeling embarrassed again about the nature of the debate that we are having today, and about the farcical situation that we find ourselves in. I shall make that situation clear, as no one has done so up to now.
We face a very difficult choice. We are about to vote on a hotch-potch of recommendations that are not at all coherent, although some have more merit than others. Alternatively, we can refer the whole matter to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and get accused by the media and the public of kicking it into the long grass. What a choice that is. Why are we in this position? We are in it because the Prime Minister came up with a half-baked and entirely inappropriate set of proposals that sidelined the House of Commons. I think that all hon. Members would agree—even the majority of those on the Government Benches—with the view among people outside the House that this is another fine mess that the Prime Minister has gotten us into. I fail to see how we can get ourselves out of that mess today.
At least the nonsense of the proposed daily allowance has been rejected. That would have given us a clock-in culture, causing people to turn up to Parliament whether they were needed here or not. It would have penalised constituency-focused MPs but, most of all, it would not have been transparent. It would have allowed hon. Members who did not need the money to pocket it and to benefit from it.
We do have principles to follow—the seven principles of public life. The first states:
“Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.”
We sign claim forms to a similar end, saying:
“I claim reimbursement of these costs which I incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the performance of my parliamentary duties”
Sadly, we have now thrown that out and have the nonsense about saying that the amounts claimed comply with the Green Book.
On one area I disagree with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Yes, some of the things that he mentioned are uses of the system, but there have been abuses of the system. If the Prime Minister wanted to show true leadership, he would not have come forward with this half-baked set of proposals sidelining the House of Commons. He would have had the courage to sack those Ministers who have clearly been abusing the system. I am talking about misappropriation of public funds for personal gain. That is precisely what has happened in a number of examples, and it is unacceptable. The sad truth is that there have been abuses, and they have led simply to a slap on the wrist. Is it any wonder that the public have no confidence in us to make this sort of decision?
I shall be voting for some of the measures today because I feel that I cannot in conscience not do so, even though this is a farce. I shall be roundly rejecting the ludicrous suggestion that we can no longer employ our staff—our wonderful staff who serve our constituents with no praise for themselves. I am afraid that we are in a situation that we cannot get ourselves out of today, and the Prime Minister must accept the blame for that.
I want to speak today, more briefly than I had intended, about the fact that we cannot take any decision on expenses because we clearly have a vested interest and therefore a conflict of interest in the financial matters that concern us.
Today’s system has evolved over decades, and the problems should have been resolved decades ago. They have not been resolved because there is an assumption that we are honourable Members, but clearly the world outside this Chamber disagrees. We are getting into an ever bigger mess. We need to find today a credible and workable solution; the consequences of not doing so are potentially devastating.
When I knock on doors and hold surgeries, people say the same thing over and again: politicians are all the same, we are in it for ourselves, we are lining our pockets and our snouts are firmly in the trough. The most frightening thing they say, in large numbers, is that they are not going to vote. The only people who benefit from people’s disengagement are hate-preaching, anti-political parties such as the British National party. The BNP exploits the failure of mainstream politics. All mainstream politicians should take responsibility for that failure.
We have had plenty of opportunities and we have missed every one. Across the political spectrum, we must now accept that we have failed to do anything about it, and we must seek some professional help from an independent and credible public servant. Sir Christopher Kelly should be allowed to get on with his review of MPs’ expenses without interference from us, and his findings should be binding on the House.
We have recently received an invitation from Sir Christopher to send submissions to his committee for consideration. Attached to the invitation was an issues and questions document that outlined the scope of the inquiry. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) has just alluded to the seven principles of public life laid out on the first page of the document. It is worth in the brief time that I have left naming those principles one by one. The first is selflessness. As holders of public office, we should act only in the public interest. We should not do so to gain financial or material benefits for ourselves, our family or our friends. The interpretation of what constitutes the public interest might be open for political debate, but the principle of not being motivated by greed or to advance the interests of our family or friends is straightforward.
The second principle is integrity. We should not place ourselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that want to influence us. Being a politician, especially a Member of Parliament, is a privilege. There are not many of us in the country, and it is easy to become seduced by power and its trappings. We must remember why we are here—to serve and not to be served. By maintaining our integrity and remembering what we were elected to do, we can go some way towards doing the right thing.
The other principles are objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. I want briefly to talk about openness. We should not have tried to exempt ourselves from the Freedom of Information Act 2000, just to avoid personal embarrassment at the publication of our receipts. We took the decision to make those claims against the public purse; we must state why we made those claims, by explaining to people what we do. If people are still unhappy about the claims that we have made, we must take the consequences. At the moment, we retreat and hide. The only right response is to accept that scrutiny and be more open, not less. We should explain our actions and not hope that the media storm will blow over.
The publication of the receipts will be very embarrassing. Every last tiny receipt will be used in every piece of election literature for ever, and every current MP will be affected. It might seem unfair, but that has happened because, until now, we have been working in a system that is not open. It is now our duty as incumbent MPs who are responsible for the current system to do something about it for the generation that follows us, because that generation will be given a chance to uphold the principles of openness in public life.
I am heartily sick of reading that we are collectively guilty before being proved innocent of dishonesty, greed and corruption. That is deeply offensive to the vast majority of MPs who have integrity and work long and hard in the interests of their constituents. The focus of the debate is entirely on what we receive, or, as the papers describe it so delightfully, what we trouser or pocket: other professionals receive remuneration in return for their services, but MPs have their snouts in the trough, as though we do not work at all and are entitled to nothing. No mention whatever is made of the demands of the job, the long hours, the seven-day working week, the complexity and range of knowledge required or the level of responsibility.
There is the constituency job and the one in Westminster. We forget weekends as others know them. We are on duty in a multitude of different ways, being involved in our local communities and organisations, and we are happy to be so. But heads must roll—the fourth estate demands it—and the tumbrels are rumbling. Outer- London Members have been chosen as the sacrificial lambs, and we are relatively small in number and we may not exert much pulling power as a group.
Upminster is just about as far from Westminster as one can get and still be in London. After working for 12 to 15 hours, it is not reasonable to be expected to arrive home after midnight and return early the next morning; it means having no personal time at all. The presumption that outer-London Members can commute is simply wrong. Nor is it reasonable or appropriate to expect us to live out of suitcase. It would be a thoroughly miserable existence.
If my accommodation allowance is discontinued, I shall have the following the options. I could give up my Westminster flat, which, incidentally, is an ex-Westminster council flat in a rather unlovely 1960s concrete block. It is nothing at all like the image that is created of second homes. It would not be the first choice to live in of many people whom I know.
I could keep my constituency home and commute to Westminster, but that would mean having to reduce my working hours substantially to what other professions would consider normal but would be part-time for a Member of Parliament. It would certainly not be compatible with Whips Office hours.
Alternatively, I could give up my constituency home and live in Westminster, so that I could continue to play a full parliamentary role. I would then have to visit my constituency daily on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. During recess, when most of my work is in the constituency, there would be an obvious problem of finding short-term furnished accommodation. None of those arrangements is acceptable.
If outer-London Members are excluded from future accommodation allowances, there will be a return to the days when only people with personal or family wealth could afford to represent outer-London constituencies. The current MP’s salary is not enough for an individual to run two homes, one of which is in central London.
Treating MPs collectively with contempt has become a national game, and we have become public enemy No. 1. We have a vocation, not a job, which involves a total loss of personal privacy and a salary that compares badly with the civil service, quangos, local government, the police, the judiciary, the health service and other taxpayer-funded public services—as well as the BBC, that politically neutral public broadcasting company. All those bodies have escaped the level of scrutiny to which Members of Parliament are being subjected. It is unjust that we have been singled out when many people in the publicly funded professions that I have listed earn four and five times as much as we do.
The inevitable changes must be thought through properly. It is quite right that we await the results of the independent Kelly report, although I have reservations about whether a committee made up of people who have not experienced life in Parliament can truly understand the strange life that we lead.
Does my hon. Friend recall that the last time we had a set of independent recommendations on allowances, the poor souls involved were so deluded that they proposed that we should lose thousands of pounds for every member of staff whom we employed on the parliamentary estate, and Members on both sides of the House had to reject the recommendation? The recommendation was independent, but it was based on misunderstanding, so we must have the flexibility to challenge any misunderstanding.