House of Commons
Wednesday 20 May 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Duchy of Lancaster
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
I believe that social enterprise does have a bigger role to play in delivering public services. Therefore, in addition to the several hundred millions of pounds of investment that the Government are providing, we have also established a ministerial group to look at how we can fast-track public service contracts to third sector organisations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating Emma Wilson, the dynamic chief executive of Local Care Direct, which has 14 health centres across west Yorkshire and is opening a 15th centre in my constituency of Wakefield on 1 June? May I invite the Minister to come and see the fantastic work that Emma is doing in our area and look at how we can roll it out across the board? Dynamic individuals such as her have a real part to play in helping us to deliver our public services.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right to say that Local Care Direct and its management team are an inspiring example of what can be done as a result of the innovation and energy of the social enterprise sector. That is why the Department of Health has established £100 million of funding to help to back social enterprises such as Local Care Direct, why the Department for Children, Schools and Families is providing £100 million to a youth sector development fund, and why the Department for Work and Pensions is setting aside £100 million for social enterprises that want to create 15,000 jobs during this recession.
In the past year, unemployment has risen by 182 per cent. in my constituency. Biggleswade Baptist church is now operating a debt advice centre, and I suspect that there will be many more of those. Does the Minister believe that social enterprise has an important role to play in providing debt advice and counselling during what would appear to be a protracted period of recession, and how are the Government planning to help it provide that?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that social enterprises have an extraordinarily important role to play in providing debt advice, not least because they are often able to provide services in communities in a manner that it is difficult for Government to match. In February, the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), announced £42 million of extra help to support charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises that are seeking to do more, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided for £20 million on top of that in the Budget. If there is anything more that we can do to help social enterprises in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to get their hands on some of that money, I would of course be more than delighted to help.
What plans does my right hon. Friend have to assist charities and social enterprises in bidding for contracts from the future jobs fund set up by the Department for Work and Pensions—organisations such as the Prince’s Trust and the Groundwork trusts, and, at a local level, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers Cymru, which is based at Forest Farm in my constituency?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work to champion the causes of those organisations. As a Government, we are absolutely clear that we will not repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, when too little help was provided to those losing their work, particularly the young—those under 25. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set aside £1 billion in the Budget to ensure that extra help is available to those under the age of 25 who have been out of work for more than 12 months to ensure that none of them needs to stay out of work, out of training or miss out on a volunteering opportunity. We think that social enterprises have a critical role to play in delivering that programme; that is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced £100 million of funding for social enterprises to set about the job of giving people new opportunities during this downturn.
Would the Minister like to put on record his thanks to the faith-based organisations throughout the country that are doing such a great job? That is further to the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about the Baptist church, but it applies across the denominations, with Catholic and Anglican churches advising on drug rehabilitation and other social programmes, and indeed entrepreneurship programmes. Will he give a commitment to the House that where there is clear evidence of discrimination against churches, his Department will investigate and ensure that it is dealt with, whether that discrimination comes from local authorities or other public sector bodies?
I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking. If we want to come through this recession as quickly as possible and in a way that best protects families and businesses, we have to ensure that we are not only delivering help to families and businesses but doing everything in our power to ensure that communities are strong, because it is on the foundation of strong communities that we will build a different kind of future for this country. Faith-based organisations have an enormously important role to play, so it is important that they are eligible for the extra assistance that we are providing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in arguing that the funding that we are providing through the Cabinet Office should not be cut back, and never should be in future.
The Minister has referred to the fact that the Chancellor is trying to boost the economy, and therefore demand. He knows, surely, that the voluntary sector prospers best when demand is increasing, and that it plays a significant and progressive part in providing services. However, may I remind him that until we have a serious council house building programme to fire up that part of the economy, it will be very difficult for the voluntary sector to make real contributions to the housing market generally?
My hon. Friend has championed this cause, certainly for the short time that I have been in the House. He is absolutely right that the renewal and regeneration of housing is critical to the future that we want to see in this country. However, there cannot be traditional housing projects as they might have looked 20 or 30 years ago. We know now from pioneering housing associations that there is far more that associations themselves can do not just to build houses and give people homes that are safe and secure but to equip people with skills and connect them with jobs.
Is not the biggest barrier to the expansion of the role of social enterprises in providing public services the lack of appropriate finance for expansion? Would not the quickest way to fill that gap be the rapid establishment of the social investment bank? Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? She said yesterday at an all-party group:
“I’d like to say we have a plan for a social investment bank but we don’t.”
I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was referring to the fact that the consultation on how the social investment bank is to be set up has just been launched. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, legislation enabling that bank came into force only in November 2008. Because the Financial Services Authority will regulate the fund, it is of course vital that it oversees how the regulations are drawn up.
The Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill was published way back in 2007, so the social investment bank has been a long time in gestation. There is an urgent need for it to progress. Why is it taking until this summer for there to be even a consultation paper on it? Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster undertake that when it is established, it will be an institution that is genuinely independent both of the Government and of Government non-departmental public bodies, so that it really commands confidence in the sectors that it is set up to support?
May I simply underline that the necessary legislation came into force only in November 2008? The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not prejudging the results of the consultation, although the issues that he raises are useful input. I believe that he would agree, however, that a social investment bank is not some kind of silver bullet in securing a more effective social enterprise sector in future. We know also that local authorities’ contribution will be critical, which is why it is so important that we now ask the third sector’s opinion about local authorities and their support for social enterprises. He will be as interested as I am to see the results. When we looked at how the sector rates local authorities, we found that of the bottom 25 rated councils in terms of commitment to the sector, I am afraid to say that 17 were Conservative.
Funding for charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises has doubled over the past decade to £11 billion, and therefore social enterprises face the downturn with unprecedented strength. We do believe that extra help should be available, which is why the Department for Work and Pensions is setting aside £100 million, why we set aside £42 million in February and why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set aside an extra £20 million in the Budget.
The west Lancashire furniture recycling organisation helps people in my constituency by offering recycled goods and also provides employment and volunteering opportunities to those who face barriers to employment. In the past 18 months it has recruited 11 employees, five of whom were long-term unemployed or on incapacity benefit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such social enterprises are integral to the social and economic strength of our local communities?
The social enterprise that my hon. Friend highlights has been an inspiration to many in the social enterprise sector and beyond, and we have been very keen to learn some lessons from its experience. It is part of a growing pattern of success, and indeed the sector as a whole grew its work force by some 20,000 in the last year for which figures are available. We are determined to help the sector do more, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions set out £100 million of support to help the social enterprise sector, including enterprises such as she highlights, create 15,000 jobs in the year or two to come.
Does the Minister agree that, although many charities, citizens advice bureaux and faith-based organisations do excellent work in trying to get information to tens of thousands of people in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK about the benefits to which they are entitled, there is still a hard core of people whom the information appears not to reach? Does he also agree that we need to be much more innovative and dynamic in trying to reach those communities to ensure that they get what they are entitled to?
My view is that social enterprises can reach much further than many public services; they can reach communities to which public services have traditionally found it hard to connect. They can also often innovate in finding new ways of bringing public services together. That is one of the most important prizes that the groups to which the hon. Gentleman referred bring to the table. That is why cutting back the Cabinet Office budget by £100 million, as is proposed in some quarters, would be a grave error. It would diminish our impact on getting on with that sort of job.
I am encouraged by the Minister’s comments. Crazy Hats, a charity in my constituency, which deals with breast cancer and helps those who are recovering from it, wants to create a drop-in centre in my constituency for the whole of north Northamptonshire. Is that the sort of thing that the Minister would encourage? Could he point us in the direction of any funding?
That is precisely the sort of thing that the Government would like to flourish. For that reason, the Department of Health has set aside £100 million to invest in social enterprises. It sounds as though the organisation that the hon. Gentleman highlights is exactly the sort of enterprise about which the Department of Health would like to hear more. The fund is administered by Futurebuilders, and that would, therefore, be the first port of call for the hon. Gentleman.
Would my right hon. Friend consider having a discussion with the devolved Parliaments? We should consider best practice, and not reinvent the wheel throughout the UK. Will he consider holding a meeting with the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland so that we can talk about how best to take social enterprise forward?
The Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), is having such conversations. Pioneering examples of what social enterprises can do differently are to be found in every part of the country, and it is vital that we ruthlessly exploit good ideas rather than constantly try to reinvent them.
The Minister’s predecessor launched the £70 million community builders fund in July 2008 with great fanfare. It is there to help our social entrepreneurs and people who want to show leadership in keeping our communities strong. They need support at this time more than ever. Will the Minister confirm that, almost a year later, not one penny has been invested from the fund? Will he explain why not and tell us when the fund will deliver something more than a press release?
When those funds are announced, it is important to appreciate that not only Ministers like me are in charge of writing the cheques. It is important to give an arm’s length organisation the task of running the fund and understanding how the money is best deployed. Sometimes going through the process of contracting for that delivery partner can take time. We make no excuses for getting the right partner in place to get the money flowing, but we will not subscribe to the hon. Gentleman’s view that we should somehow wean social enterprises, charities or voluntary groups off public funding, because we know that it is vital to their success.
Open Source Software
The Government’s policy is to use open source when it gives the best value for money. We are taking positive action to ensure that Departments and our IT suppliers do that. We published our new action plan on 24 February, including guidance on specific actions for Departments. The Chief Information Officer Council is driving the implementation.
The Government have talked a good game for some time about open source software, but have done very little. What more can the Parliamentary Secretary do to encourage Departments to implement real change and reduce the horrific cost and genuine inconvenience of software licensing?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Indeed, I read the transcript of his Westminster Hall debate last year, and I know that he proposes some positive ideas, which the Government should take up. The Government are taking up open source solutions—50 per cent. of Government websites use open source software and we are about to deploy Linux-based platforms, which will go to 300,000 NHS workers. In the spirit of open source, I ask the hon. Gentleman, who is a renowned expert in the field, to come and meet our officials, share some of his ideas with us and help us improve what we do.
Would my hon. Friend put this debate into perspective? Does he agree that most of the chief information officers would agree that open source has its place, but that open standards are a much more important part of the debate?
They are a very important part of the debate. There is no doubt that open standards and interoperability are the means by which we will improve our IT sourcing. When we talk about open source, we should remember that it is only free to acquire and that we also must invest to maintain and sustain our systems.
Open source and open standards are important, but I have noticed that BT offers a free laptop, a free website and free help to all our charities. The open source and all the things for charities are available for free, so is there a way that we can round it all up in one place, on the direct.gov site?
I have already mentioned the strength with which the social enterprise sector faces this downturn. I should add, of course, that social enterprises can also benefit from the measures that we have put in place to help all businesses, including the £10 billion working capital fund and the £75 million capital enterprise fund.
That is good news. Phoenix is a social enterprise in Swindon that works with people recovering from mental health problems by offering them work in a mailing and assembly service. I should declare an interest, because I have used the service, paying for it through my office costs allowance, and excellent value for money it was. What can my right hon. Friend do in a recession to help secure longer-term funding for social enterprises, so that they can help more people?
The social enterprise that my hon. Friend highlights is part of a sector of some 55,000 social enterprises that creates a turnover of around £27 billion. That enterprise, flair and innovation will be especially valuable in helping to get Britain through this downturn faster and in a way that protects families and businesses. That is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has set aside £100 million to help social enterprises get people back to work. It is also why the Cabinet Office is managing a clear set of ambitions to help ensure that those with learning disabilities or mental health issues are part of social enterprises’ work, because we know that those people, too, have a right to help and a contribution to make, and we are determined to unlock it.
Given that much financial support for social enterprises comes from local authorities, as we have heard, and given that most local authorities are tightening their belts in this recession, as they should, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that they do not take the easy option and slash their budgets for social enterprises, thus leaving a lot of disadvantaged and vulnerable people in this country without proper assistance?
It is important that we do a couple of things. It is important that we continue to invest in training those in charge of procurement and commissioning in local authorities. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that the budget for that would, I am afraid, be cut if we sliced £100 million off the Cabinet Office budget. It is also important for us to introduce a bit of transparency, which is why we have asked the social enterprise sector to rate local authorities. We published those statistics earlier this month. I am pleased to say that eight councils in the top 25 were Labour councils. I am afraid that only one was Conservative, but I know that the hon. Gentleman will be anxious to turn that situation around.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the fine work that social enterprises and charities do across all our constituencies, such as The Hinge, in Goole, which works with young, vulnerable and homeless people. That is a client group that, sadly, is likely to grow through this recession. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that there will be fast-track funding to help social enterprises deal with that difficult and growing client group?
First, may I praise my hon. Friend for the charitable work that he does? Organisations such as The Hinge will have an enormous contribution to make over the coming months, and the strength that they could acquire in that time could serve them well in regard to their long-term contribution to the sector and to the communities that they work in. That is exactly why different Departments right across Government are putting in place significant amounts of funding to help the sector over the next two or three years. That funding would be cut if we took the advice of some in the House. Once the money is in place, it is vital that we get rid of any impediments to getting deals done, which is why I am bringing Ministers together to clear those road blocks out of the way much faster.
Would the Minister accept that the country and the Government cannot do without charities, churches and volunteers? We have a deprived estate in Macclesfield, the Moss estate. The local churches—with the support of my own livery company, the Worshipful Company of Weavers, which has invested a great deal in the project—are putting a great many volunteers and community workers into that estate to help to reduce the deprivation and exclusion and the other problems that often go with exclusion.
I am very grateful for that example, because I was not aware of the contribution that the livery companies were making to this agenda. The hon. Gentleman underlines my point that we will get through this recession faster, and in a way that protects families and businesses better, if we build our work on strong communities. It is the faith-based organisations, charities, voluntary groups and, I now know, livery companies that are knitting those communities together.
Real Help for Communities Programme
I am pleased to tell the House that the £16.5 million modernisation fund and the £15.5 million targeted support fund are both up and running, and have received more than 500 applications and expressions of interest to date. The volunteer brokerage scheme for unemployed people went live on 6 April, and nine regional roadshows have been fully subscribed. Last month, the Prime Minister appointed Dame Stephanie Shirley as the Government’s first giving and philanthropy ambassador. [Interruption.]
Yes. Of the £15.5 million targeted support fund, which opened to applications on 29 April, Bradford will get £410,892, which will be delivered by the Bradford and district community empowerment network. If my hon. Friend has any organisations that he wants to steer in the network’s direction, I recommend that he do so.
The Real Help website and documentation should be—and, indeed, are—really helpful, but I cannot help but think that MPs and the Government have perhaps not done enough to promote awareness of these services to the sectors that could really benefit from them. What can the Minister and Back Benchers do to make them more accessible?
I am writing to all Members affected by the funds, which will be all Members of the House in England affected by the Real Help Now action plan. In addition, the Office of the Third Sector has already held nine regional roadshows, which have been fully subscribed. Business Link is a free business advice and support service, and it is also available to the third sector. In Scotland, Business Gateway Scotland provides a similar service, giving advice on what help is available to businesses and the third sector.
Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration
The Government value the role and work of the parliamentary ombudsman. They also believe that Members of Parliament have an important role to play in assisting constituents with concerns about their dealings with Government Departments and public bodies.
One of the great achievements of a previous Labour Government was to introduce the parliamentary ombudsman system, against the resistance of elements of the Conservative party. Is it not now time to give citizens direct access to the ombudsman, as has been recommended by successive occupants of the office?
I have known my hon. Friend for longer than nearly any other MP, and his former agent, Jack Fleming, from the time of the former Labour Government of the 1970s, would have been proud of my hon. Friend’s work to improve the machinery of government. Sometimes, I have to say that it seems that we have been discussing the ombudsman for that long as well. We know that 134 MPs said that they wanted to remove the MP filter, but I cannot honestly say to my hon. Friend that that is the settled will of the House. To be honest with him, I would also have to say that there is no settled view in Government either, but I undertake to take soundings from Members again to ensure that their views are properly reflected when we come to make our decision.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our condolences to the family and friends of Royal Marine Jason Mackie, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. He and others who have lost their lives have served our country with distinction for the good of the Afghan people and for the good of democracy around the world. They deserve our profound gratitude for their service, which should not ever be forgotten.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Mr. Speaker, there will be a further opportunity to acknowledge your contribution and achievements in this House, but let me say briefly on behalf of all Members that your record of service to this House and this country has been outstanding over 30 years, and you have shown unfailing personal kindness to all Members on all sides of the House.
May I also personally express my thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, and associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks and expressions of condolence to the serviceman who lost his life?
There is widespread concern throughout the country and on all sides of the House about the Government’s plans for the privatisation of Royal Mail. In that light, will the Prime Minister now reconsider those proposals?
We have put before the House—and our proposals are now in the other place—the problems that Royal Mail has to face up to. It is losing 5 million letters a year—[Laughter.] I mean it is losing 5 million letters in comparison with the number that were delivered in previous years. There is an £8 billion pensions deficit. I want to reassert to the House the need for new investment in Royal Mail—[Interruption.]
May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s remarks about those brave servicemen and women who have died in the cause of Afghanistan? A few weeks ago, the House debated the issue of the Gurkhas. Is my right hon. Friend in a position to give us any indication of what progress has been made on it?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we have a great deal of sympathy and support for those Gurkhas who wish to come into this country. Many of them have served our country and our Army with huge distinction over the years. We were the first Government to say that those after 1997 should be able to have residence and settlement in this country, and 6,000 have done so. We have also equalised pay and pensions, while at the same time raising the Gurkhas’ pensions back in their own country. We said that we would listen to the voice of the House after the debate held a few weeks ago, and we are also listening to the views of the Home Affairs Committee, which has had hearings. The Home Secretary will make a statement tomorrow. I believe it is possible for us to honour our commitments to the Gurkhas, and to do so in a way that protects the public finances. That will be part of the announcement to be made tomorrow.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Jason Mackie of Armoured Support Group The Royal Marines, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday? Some of his family live in Bampton in my constituency, and I know that the whole country will join in their sorrow.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said about the Gurkhas and the statement that will be made tomorrow.
May I too join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to you, Mr. Speaker? I will never forget the kindness that you showed me and the advice that you gave me when I was a new Back Bencher in 2001. I know that everyone wants to thank you for the public service that you have given to the House and the country.
This morning the Prime Minister said that a general election would cause “chaos”. What on earth did he mean?
So there we have it: the first admission that the Prime Minister thinks he is going to lose!
I know that the Prime Minister is frightened of elections, but how can he possibly believe that in the fourth year of a Parliament, in one of the oldest democracies in the world, a general election could somehow bring chaos? Have another go at a better answer.
I am not going to support a programme of Conservative public spending cuts. But look here: the House has got to have some humility about what has happened in the last few days. We have got to recognise—all of us, in all parts of the House—that mistakes have been made by Members of Parliament in all parties. Having had the humility to recognise that, we also have a duty to sort the problem out. The only way to sort out the system is to go ahead and sort out the system, and that is what we are proposing to do.
Yesterday we had good all-party talks involving the House of Commons Commission and all parties, and we made a great deal of progress. There is a lot of work still to be done, but I should have thought that what the public want us to do first of all, as this Parliament, is to sort out the problems and deal with them. And secondly, what they want is a Government who will deal with the economic recession.
Does the Prime Minister not understand that the best way to show some humility is to ask the people who put us here? The Prime Minister is so hopelessly out of touch. How can the answer to a crisis of democracy be an unelected Prime Minister? In past months, during this economic crisis, there have been elections in India, South Africa and New Zealand. They all have new Governments with a new mandate. The United States had an election in the middle of a banking crisis. Was that chaos? Is President Obama the agent of chaos?
I notice that at no point does the right hon. Gentleman enter into the policy issues that are at stake here. At no point does he want to talk about what would be the effect of a Conservative Government in this country cutting public spending in schools, hospitals and public services generally, or about what they would do in leaving people on their own in this recession. Our duty is not only to clean up the system in the House of Commons—and every Member has a responsibility to work on that now—but to take this country through the difficulties of the recession, and not say to people that unemployment is a price worth paying.
The Prime Minister says that he wants to talk about the issues. How better to address the issues than in a general election? The Prime Minister rightly says that the economy is the big issue. One of the biggest issues in our economy is the lack of confidence. Why is there so little confidence? Because there is no confidence in the Government.
The Prime Minister says that he wants to get on with the work. The fact is that the Government are not doing any work. They cannot even organise a car scrappage scheme. We will not end the paralysis just by electing a new Speaker, or even by setting new rules; we must give the public their voice, and the country the chance of a fresh start. Is it not the case that the only way that can happen is through a general election?
I repeat: what would cause paralysis is Conservative spending cuts that would make it impossible for our economy to move forward. Look at what we are doing to help the unemployed at the moment: 100,000 people who are unemployed are being helped back to work, and every month 200,000 and more are getting back into work. The Conservatives have refused to support the money that is necessary for the unemployed. Look at our housing scheme, helping people to avoid mortgage repossessions—and again, the Conservatives have refused to support that scheme. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the country would be longer in recession, with more debt and deficit, with more businesses going under and with more unemployment, if ever we had the misfortune of him ever being in power.
People will just hear the arrogance of a Prime Minister who will not let the people decide. The Prime Minister talks about paralysis—but this is what one of his own Members of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), has said about Government paralysis:
“Week after week MPs have been turning up but with…no serious work to do…there is no legislative programme to speak of. Even the debates are put on to fill in time…The whole exercise is vacuous.”
Can the Prime Minister not see how badly we need a fresh start? Two years ago he promised us a fresh start. Remember what he said outside Downing street, talking about a Government of “integrity and decency”? Well, that died with Damian McBride. He promised to renew trust in Parliament. Where is that promise today? He promised prudence; he promised economic stability; he promised a big house building programme. None of these things are happening. The Prime Minister calls elections “chaos”; I call them change. Why can’t we have one?
One hundred and twenty thousand businesses are now getting help as a result of decisions we have made that the Conservative party would not make. Hundreds of people are getting help to get into jobs as a result of what we are doing, whereas the Conservatives would abolish the new deal. We have opened the 3,000th Sure Start children’s centre—something that would be at risk under the Conservatives. We have a vast educational investment programme in our schools; the Conservatives propose to cut it. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, yes, there would be chaos with public spending cuts under the Conservatives, and yes, it is an unacceptable way of going forward if a party is trying to have an election without even having a sensible manifesto, other than proposing public spending cuts.
A business woman who owns and runs a small manufacturing company in my constituency came to see me last week to complain about the attitude of banks in lending to businesses such as hers. Does the Prime Minister understand that public support for the banking bail-out will entirely evaporate unless banks are seen once more to be lending to the small and medium-sized companies on which this economy depends?
I would ask my hon. Friend’s constituent to go back to that bank and ask it to reconsider the situation, and to write to him and then to me. The banks have agreed in the last few weeks that they will sign up to quantitative agreements. That means that £70 billion of additional lending will go into the economy this year—£25 billion from the Royal Bank of Scotland, £14 billion from Lloyds bank, and money voluntary promoted by HSBC. There will be £70 billion of total additional lending. We are the only country in the world that has such a programme, where the banks have signed up legally to supporting additional lending. I believe that in the next few weeks, the flow of money will be increased as a result of that.
I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Marine Jason Mackie, who, tragically, died in Helmand province last week serving us, our country and the people of Afghanistan.
Mr. Speaker, despite our differences in recent days, I would like to thank you for the immensely dignified way in which you made your statement yesterday—[Interruption.] We can now move forward to reform this place from top to toe. I am also pleased to hear from the Prime Minister that there will be a statement tomorrow on the Gurkhas, and I hope that they will receive the unqualified and full justice that they deserve—[Interruption.]
We now have a once-in-a-generation chance to change politics for good, but we will betray people’s hopes and fail to offer a really different way of doing politics if all we do is remove a medieval expenses system, without fixing everything else. The expenses are just the tip of the iceberg. Does the Prime Minister see that, from party funding through to Whitehall secrecy, the whole way in which we do politics must now be transformed?
As for Whitehall secrecy, it was this Government who brought in the Freedom of Information Bill—and as for party funding, the Justice Secretary has brought forward measures to deal with that. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, however, that, as part of the wider debate about the relationship between Parliament and the people and the accountability of Parliament to the people, we must listen to the views of people throughout the country. We must consult and hear what they have to say, and, as I said yesterday, we will put forward proposals on that in the next few weeks.
Touché, Mr. Speaker.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his reply, but is it not now time to get to the heart of the matter, which is that his Government are in power even though less than a quarter of the people voted for them? [Hon. Members: “Have an election!”] Of course we should have an election, but people do not want an election where all they will get is a few new faces but the same old rotten rules. Is it not true that any system in which so few votes give a Government so much power will always breed arrogance and secrecy?
Mr. Speaker, I was right to say that your generosity was unfailing to all Members of the House.
The right hon. Gentleman’s point about the wider reforms and democracy is absolutely right: we must consider not only how Parliament can be more accountable to the people, but how the Executive themselves can be more accountable. We want to do that in the context of enhancing the individual and collective rights of citizens in their own communities to manage more of their own affairs. I am happy to enter that debate, and we will publish proposals in the next few weeks. We have also previously published proposals on the electoral system, which is also a matter for debate—but I must say to the Liberal Democrats that the debate about the reform of the constitution is about more than simply that one thing.
In view of the recent elections in India, the victory of the Congress party under the leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh and his continuation as Prime Minister, and the recent developments in Sri Lanka, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to involve India in bringing peace to that region?
I have sent a message of congratulation—I believe it will be on behalf of the whole House—to Prime Minister Singh, who is very respected not only in the region but throughout the world. I believe that we can make progress in a number of areas now that the Government in India are re-established after the election. First of all, we will be talking to them about Pakistan and about security on the border between India and Pakistan. Secondly, we will be talking to them about the world trade deal, which is essential. Thirdly, we will be talking to them about the contribution that they can make to the whole of the peace and security of the region, and about helping us and working with us, particularly after the Mumbai bombings, to deal with the problems of terrorism that exist there.
The future of this country will be built on modern manufacturing strength. In advanced manufacturing we are one of the great leaders of the world; we have some of the greatest companies in the world—they operate from Britain but are global players with huge strengths in new technology and in innovation. Our manufacturing strategy is to support our large companies and to encourage innovation so that we have small and medium-sized companies coming forward. We gave additional investment allowances for manufacturing in the Budget, our corporation tax is the lowest that it has been for many, many years, and we continue to support small businesses with enterprise grants; 128,000 businesses have now received some help from the Government during this downturn to get through these difficult times. As 50 per cent. of our manufacturing is exported, it is so important that the European economy moves forward as well; it is very important to us that we work with Europe so that we achieve growth and jobs for the future.
We have had some experience of constitutional conventions. One was the European constitutional Convention, another was the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and talks are also taking place in Wales between all the parties. If my hon. Friend will wait, in the next few weeks we will publish our document about greater consultation between the public and Parliament, and about enhancing the rights of the people in relation to the accountability of Parliament itself.
Can the Prime Minister explain why, at a time when youth unemployment is rising, training providers in my constituency are being told by his Government’s Learning and Skills Council that their apprenticeship budgets for the next academic year will be cut?
We have invested more in apprenticeships for the coming year, and we have announced that we will fund 35,000 extra apprentices. I am happy to look at the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but our determination is to support apprenticeships through this downturn—to invest in them and not to cut them.
To look at a proposal that, at this time in our history, would give just 3,000 millionaires £200,000 each would be completely scandalous—and to do that for 3,000 of the top estates in this country, whether they have a moat or not, is something that the public would be unable to accept.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Durham county council on its excellent and successful bid to be one of only two authorities to host the universal free school meals pilot for primary school children? Does he agree that such measures are necessary if we are to tackle childhood inequality effectively?
Proper nutrition for young children is absolutely crucial, and that is why the pilot project to give primary school children free school meals—something that worked when it was tried by individual councils throughout the country—is being supported by the Government. Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton will be the pilots, and they will test whether free healthy school meals improve children’s health and well-being. Some £20 million in funding will come from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and that money is being matched by the local authorities. We believe that it will show that good nutrition at an early age makes a difference not only to health but to educational performance.
Mr. Speaker, we have work to do. The first work we have to do is to clean up the system in the House of Commons. It is for this Parliament to face up to its responsibilities, to change and to clean up the system. I believe that we have made progress, and the way to clean up the system is to take the action to do so. Secondly, we have a recession that we are trying to manage and come through. It is in the interests of the people of this country that we help people who are unemployed, help mortgage holders and help people with small businesses. I have not heard policies from people on the other side of the House that would actually do that.
The blacklisting of workers or trade unionists has no place in the modern workplace. I said that only a few weeks ago, and I said that we would look at the matter. The Employment Minister has now announced that the Government will bring forward revised regulations to outlaw the practice of discrimination and blacklisting. We plan to move quickly on this. There will be a short consultation over the summer and legislation will then be brought to the House.
One of the reasons why convictions for rape have gone up in many places is the use of DNA. [Interruption.] I think that Members of the House have to accept that DNA is an important means by which we have found and detected persons involved in rape—but I will look at the figures that the hon. Gentleman has given me and I will write to him.
Regeneration projects should be going ahead, and we will do what we can to help make that possible. When Government money is involved, it is usually being advanced so that the public works programmes can move forward. When it is a matter of private sector support, we are happy to bring together all the agencies to see whether there is a way forward whereby private sector money can be brought more fruitfully into the scheme. I am very happy to talk to my hon. Friend about the project.
I was privileged earlier this week to chair a seminar held by the Family Matters Institute, the Grandparents Association and Families Need Fathers on the launch of the report, “Do Grandparents Matter?” When will the Prime Minister’s Government make good the pledge made to me by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), in January 2006 that grandparents should be treated with fairness and equity in the legal system in their heroic and unsung efforts to take care of their own flesh and blood?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the decision in the Budget whereby grandparents of working age who are helping children with childcare can get tax credits as a result. That is one way in which we can help grandparents to help their families hold together and to work with other relatives who want to get to work. That was a big change that was announced in the Budget, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can support it.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There is clearly concern in all sections of the House about how banks can better serve the public during this economic recession to help us through it. I shall look at what he says about the bank if he will give me the names of the companies and the bank. The important thing is that in the past few weeks there has been a change of policy, and I hope that that change of policy will have an impact in every region and every part of this country. The change of policy is that for the first time—because we have given the banks an insurance policy that they pay for—they are now willing to lend extra money and are committed to doing so. The increase of £70 billion for the economy is very substantial indeed, and companies should now be getting the benefit of offers from banks. I urge the hon. Gentleman to go back to those banks and remind them of the quantitative targets that have been agreed, and of the other means by which the Government have offered to help small business, including through the Inland Revenue. I shall certainly look at the case that he has raised, but the important thing is that the banks are now under an obligation to lend.
Parliamentary Standards Authority
May I strongly identify myself with the tributes to you, Mr. Speaker, that the Prime Minister has led today? I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to have the opportunity to pay tribute to you. As Leader of the House, I shall make sure that an occasion is arranged before you leave the Chair so that we can all pay tribute to your generous and courteous chairing of this House of Commons.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, and following on from your statement to the House yesterday, I should like to make a statement on the decisions made yesterday at the meeting of the Members Estimate Committee that you convened with the Prime Minister, the party leaders and the Chair of the Committee on Members’ Allowances, and on the Prime Minister’s proposals for a new parliamentary standards authority.
First, I want to set out how we are dealing with the past. At the meeting last night, we agreed a process, proposed by the Committee on Members’ Allowances, that will reassess Members’ claims over the past four years and identify those claims that should not have been made and should not have been paid out because they were outwith the rules. We also agreed to make arrangements for repayment. The public are entitled to see a process of reparation and Members are entitled to know that this will be orderly and fair.
Secondly, I want to set out the immediate steps that will be taken. The House has already voted to ensure that the threshold for receipts has gone down from £25 to zero and to introduce full-scope audit under the National Audit Office. But, in addition, the MEC meeting last night agreed to an immediate ban on claims for furniture, a cap on interest payments for accommodation at the equivalent per year of £1,250 per month and a restriction on any changes to designation of main and second homes. The meeting also agreed that Members who are married or living together as partners should be prevented from claiming more than one second home allowance.
I understand that the MEC will meet later today to determine detailed changes to the Green Book to put into practice the principles on which the party leaders and the MEC reached clear agreement last night. That should give immediate reassurance to Members of this House and to the public, but, in order fully to restore public trust and confidence, we need more than reparation and reassurance: we need renewal, and to put in place a new system on a new footing.
The House has already voted, on 30 April, to endorse the inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which will come forward with its recommendations later this year. Once again, I want to place on record my thanks to Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee for their work.
At the MEC meeting last night, all parties agreed to the Prime Minister’s proposal that the keystone for any reform must be to switch from self-regulation to independent external regulation. We agreed that we should end the gentlemen’s club approach that means that we set and enforce our own rules, and instead bring forward proposals for a new parliamentary standards authority.
The proposal on which we seek to consult would see Parliament legislate to delegate specific responsibilities to a new, independent parliamentary standards authority, which would revise and update the codes of practice for Members of this House, investigate complaints where a Member of this House is alleged to have breached the code of conduct, take forward the implementation of the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on allowances and take responsibility for authorising claims for payment under the new allowance system. It would be able not only to disallow claims, but to require payback of claims wrongly paid out and to impose financial penalties.
It is clearly appropriate that the new body should also take responsibility for such issues in the Lords, including administering and regulating the systems for peers’ allowances, overseeing the code governing peers’ conduct and the Register of Lords’ Interests, ensuring high standards of propriety and financial conduct, investigating alleged abuses of the system and recommending any necessary sanctions.
We in this House recognise that the principle of self-regulation operates differently in the House of Lords. It is clear that extensive work and consultation will be necessary to ensure the agreement of the House of Lords to the effective transfer of responsibilities to the new body.
The new authority would also maintain the register of Members’ financial interests in this House and deal with the disclosure of second incomes. Discipline issues that might require sanctions such as suspension from the House, which would have a bearing on Members’ ability to perform their work, would remain a matter for the whole House through the Standards and Privileges Committee. Only the electorate, or those who are themselves democratically elected, should be able to prevent a Member from doing their work in this House.
We have set in place the actions for reparation and reassurance. For renewal for the future, we look forward to Sir Christopher Kelly’s proposals, and we further propose that the House move from a system of self-regulation to a system of statutory regulation. Although I know that it is hard to get a hearing on this subject now, as Leader of the House I will continue to argue, both inside and outside the House, that most honourable Members are precisely that: they are people who come into Parliament as a matter of public service, and are hard-working, decent and honest. However, we must recognise that, even before the allowance revelations, there was a problem of public disengagement and public cynicism, and a public sense of distance from Parliament.
We must now seize the opportunity to promote a debate that will see proposals to change and strengthen our democracy move from the margins to centre stage, where they ought rightly to be. Parliament and politics are important precisely because there are deeply held, different views about public policy, but there is consensus among all parties that we need to put the reputation of Parliament above reproach, and we will. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. May I also thank you, Mr. Speaker, for convening yesterday’s meeting with all the party leaders? Such a meeting could have taken place weeks ago without the need for your involvement, but the House and those who elect us will be grateful for the way in which you made it happen.
Following the uproar of the past couple of weeks, we have at last taken concrete steps to address some of the unacceptable elements of an allowances system for Members that has attracted universal condemnation. Last night, we learned from you, Mr. Speaker, of the main points that were decided, and they go a long way to addressing the issues that were crying out for attention. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition last week outlined a clear list of what he wanted to see for all of us, which he has insisted on for his party. Yesterday’s announcement was in many ways the same as that list.
We will have, straight away, a strict regime to ban the flipping of homes just to exploit the allowances available. Capital gains tax cannot be evaded. A declaration about where one’s home is will have to be open and clear. People will not be allowed to claim for plasma TVs or furniture, and there will be an annual cap on how much can be claimed for mortgage interest or rent. Will the Leader of the House confirm when she expects those revised rules to be up and running?
The very fact that the proposals were endorsed by all parties, and the fact that the meeting took clear, practical action, should be welcomed by all who have so disapproved of the system under which we have been working. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that it is the Government’s continuing wish to proceed in everything that we are going to do in a genuinely cross-party way?
In the meantime, Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee are working on recommendations for a long-term solution to the pay and conditions of MPs. In the middle of what can only be described as the most serious and revolutionary shift in popular opinion and in the reputation of Parliament in our lifetime, his committee is required to stand back from the fray and set out how a modern Parliament should look, and how it and its Members should be resourced. This is no easy task, and whatever people think of Parliament, I hope they will fully respect the integrity of his committee’s efforts and show proper respect for his conclusions. May I ask, therefore, when the Leader of the House thinks the committee will eventually report?
One massive structural shift that we in this Parliament must embrace if it is not to sink further in the eyes of voters is to relinquish the right to determine how we reward ourselves. We are here to legislate, to scrutinise, to discuss and to govern. We are here to represent the interests of our constituents, not to serve our own. For a long time, the Conservative party’s policy has been to give up setting our own pay and allowances and to give that power to an outside body. Some sort of outside structure is long overdue. We also want to cut the cost of politics. Where in the reforms does the right hon. and learned Lady believe that that might yet be achieved?
Behind all this is the need for massive parliamentary reform to bring this institution up to the requirements of the 21st century. May I therefore offer the co-operation of the official Opposition in proceeding constructively and responsibly to try to sort out this near constitutional crisis thoroughly and as soon as possible?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way he responded to the statement. He suggested that we work in a cross-party way, and I know that he is not just saying that. He means it in practice, and ever since he has been shadow Leader of the House we have been able to work together on a proper cross-party basis. We know that when we are looking for solutions to these issues, no party has a monopoly of wisdom, and when it comes to unearthing the problems, no party has a monopoly of virtue either, so we will work together across the House to sort them out.
I agree that we owe a great deal to Sir Christopher Kelly and his Committee on Standards in Public Life. He has said that he will report later this year. To respect the independence of his committee’s work, although we have asked the committee to work as expeditiously as it can to make its report so that we can adopt its proposals, it cannot be for us to set out the time scale. The committee must go through the processes as it sees fit.
That is why it was important that the MEC yesterday—you convened it, Mr. Speaker—set in place interim measures. The shadow Leader of the House asked when those interim measures will be up and running. He and I, along with other members of the MEC, will meet later this afternoon. These transitional measures need to be up and running straight away, as soon as the detailed rules can be put together, which will not take long at all.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. I also thank you, Mr. Speaker, for taking the initiative of calling together the MEC and all the party leaders—all the party leaders—yesterday. You invited me to attend the meeting as Chairman of the Committee on Members’ Allowances, and I was very pleased that the meeting accepted all the recommendations from my Committee, added to your own proposals. That was the basis for your statement last night.
On the consultation on the proposed parliamentary standards authority, I hope the Government will consult and involve the staff of the Fees Office. They have served this place very well indeed. They help us in every way possible in trying to give us information and advice. Although we may feel bruised, they, too, feel somewhat bruised at present, as I know from a meeting that I had with them yesterday. I hope that in the consultation, they, too, will be asked their views on the proposals.
I am sure that we will need to engage with the invaluable experience and information that the Fees Office has accumulated over years of work on those issues, and that its contribution to the consultation will be very important indeed. I acknowledge the work of the Committee on Members’ Allowances, which my right hon. Friend chairs. Its work paved the way for yesterday’s agreement, and a great deal of work was done in advance so that the all-party in-principle agreement could be reached. I pay tribute to him as Chair, and to all Members who serve on that Committee.
I, too, thank you, Mr. Speaker, for convening the meeting yesterday and for getting some overdue consequences from it. I also very much welcome the statement by the Leader of the House. I remember giving evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life some years ago, when I suggested that self-regulation for this place was on very flimsy foundations indeed and in imminent danger of collapse. That collapse has been all too self-evident, and the House has forfeited the right to self-regulation. Statutory regulation is now necessary, and I am pleased that the Leader of the House will now consult on that proposal.
I welcome the immediate steps that have been set out as a necessary review of what has happened over recent years. The capacity to make the adjustments must be put in place. I welcome also the announcement by the Leader of the House that the MEC will meet today, because all Members need clarity about exactly what will be required from them over the next few days and weeks and about how the system will work. Some of it is self-evident, and it does not take a genius to realise that Members should stop buying household goods and stop some of the most egregious excesses and abuses that have come to light. However, there are other areas where Members will need guidance, so I enter one note of caution.
I am worried that we may have inadvertently introduced a perverse incentive against Members renting accommodation and in favour of them entering into mortgage arrangements. That cannot be what the House intends or what the general public want, so I ask the Leader of the House to look carefully at that issue.
I now look forward, as we all do, to the results of the deliberations of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee. I hope that they will be timely, thorough and give us the answers that we and the public want, and I hope that the House will be able to accept them without equivocation, so that we have a firm foundation for the future.
Finally, I echo what was said earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and what was referred to in the right hon. and learned Lady’s statement: the matter now goes well beyond expenses. It is about the reform of Parliament and the political system, making the House work in a way that it has not done over recent years.
Even this week, we have had the spectacle of a guillotine motion preventing proper debate of an important Bill. We cannot go on like this. This House must be able to hold the Executive to account properly and do its work properly. We need renewal of the whole political system. More papers and more proposals will not do that: action will, and it is overdue.
The hon. Gentleman said that he, like all Members from all parts of the House, wants to contribute to the consultation and approach it on a cross-party basis, and he reminded the House that, some years ago, he proposed changing self-regulation to statutory regulation. I acknowledge that there have been proposals from his party, which we have put into practice through the MEC system. Indeed, proposals from the Opposition have now been implemented, and proposals have come from Government Members, too.
The truth, however, is that this is not a competition for ideas. All ideas from all parts of the House are welcome in contributing to the process. Whatever we disagree on—we disagree strongly on different issues, which is why we stand for different parties and fight it out at elections—we all agree that we want decent rules that the whole country respects.
I did not agree with the hon. Gentleman when he talked about our “forfeiting” the right to regulate ourselves. In this day and age, the move from self-regulation, which is internal and not transparent, to public accountability and statutory regulation is the right move and a sign of strength. We are not forfeiting; this is the strong and right decision to take.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the issue of clarity. For 650-odd Members of the House of Commons, there are 650 different sets of circumstances, and each Member will need to know how the new rules apply to their circumstances and how they can make their arrangements. The MEC will have very much in mind the need for clarity and swiftness in showing how the rules are going to work, so that Members can work out how they apply to them. He has already made that point to me, earlier today, and he is absolutely right to have raised it.
The hon. Gentleman and the shadow Leader of the House also raised a point that has been made by a number of Labour Members. We must be aware that some people’s rental agreements include services, utilities, service charges and suchlike; we must not have a perverse incentive that would help Members who have already bought their properties or encourage Members to buy properties rather than rent. We need a fair system that covers the different sorts of accommodation that Members use. The MEC will be mindful of that when we meet this afternoon to work out how we should put into practice the very important cap on accommodation expenses.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that we need to reconnect with the public and that we need reform of Parliament. I agree; we must all work together on those wider issues, as well as sorting out the immediate issues.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. I have been a member of the House of Commons Commission for 10 years, nine of them under your stewardship, Mr. Speaker. It was never you who was opposed to reform; the House of Commons showed total incapacity to grasp the nettle of accepting that reform was needed—never more so than on 3 July last year, when proposals that might well have avoided many of today’s scandals were rejected by the collective will of the House.
That, however, is the past. The future is absolutely in independent regulation, and again I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. I also welcome the fact that it extends to the House of Lords. I break with tradition by calling it that rather than “the other place”. That might be a welcome change in our own proceedings.
In the past, the House of Lords has been jealous of its own prerogatives and has avoided integration with this House. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to be sure that the broad bipartisan support here will be reflected in the House of Lords and that that House will not be an impediment to the kind of changes that we seek.
I know that many Members of the House of Lords themselves want to put the situation on a proper footing; indeed, that work was already under way. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on the MEC. He has been a member of it for many years, and he has done a good job on behalf of the House in explaining to the public at large our strong belief that there should be a constituency link.
One of the reasons we have second home allowances is that Parliament holds in high regard the importance of Members being rooted in their constituencies. My hon. Friend has been able to explain that on television. He has also explained that we do not want a millionaires’ Parliament in which people become MPs only if they can afford it. Every time I switch on the telly and see him rather than me, it is a great relief.
The right hon. and learned Lady’s statement raises important constitutional and ethical issues, which will need to be teased out during the consultation. May I press her on one point? The two driving principles are transparency and independence. To achieve those principles, the case is made to move from self-regulation to independent regulation. It is proposed that the new authority should investigate complaints when a Member is alleged to have breached the code of conduct, but why did the Government stop there? What about the ministerial code of conduct? Is there not an equal need for independence and transparency in investigations of complaints of that code having been breached?
The Prime Minister has appointed Sir Philip Mawer to be independent in the reviewing of adherence to the ministerial code, and that is kept constantly under review. The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that ministerial standards are also part of the wider discussion that we need to have.
I do not want to look as if I am trying to ingratiate myself—far from it; it is far too late for that—but I do pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s work as Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee. We do not find demonstrations up and down the land chanting, “What do we want? The Standards and Privileges Committee! When do we want it? Now!” None the less, it does important work, and I pay tribute to him and all Members who serve on it.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. May I move on to the Standards and Privileges Committee? It looks as if it will have an adjudication role beyond what will happen with the other authority. Is she completely happy that this adjudicating body is made up of just 10 members of our profession? In what other regulatory body for which we pass legislation would we allow a profession to sit on its own as an adjudication panel over itself? Does she think that some lay members should also join members of our profession on the Standards and Privileges Committee?
May I start by saying that you, Mr. Speaker, have always been extremely fair to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties in the House? We thank you for that.
Ending self-regulation in the House of Commons must be a priority. As I said at the leaders’ meeting yesterday, it is right for us to examine proposals for a parliamentary standards authority. Will the Leader of the House confirm today that the commitment to transparency that Mr. Speaker outlined in his statement on expenses yesterday evening will match the standards of the Scottish Parliament?
Certainly, I think that even more transparency and openness apply to our system than at the moment obtain in a rather different system of transparency in Scotland. We are all committed to transparency. I should tell the House that the consultation on the parliamentary standards authority will be taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.
Does this statement mean that from here on in, Members of Parliament will not take part in votes to increase their allowances or anything else? I fervently believe that this is a better day for Parliament. On one of the days when we had a debate on increasing the allowances by a considerable amount, some of us voted against, and some of us did not take the money either, but I believe that that was a bad day for Parliament, and I want to see the back of those days.
If there is to be regulation by other bodies, we should have assurances that never again will we have the business of allowances being put to free votes. Incidentally, to get the record straight, I should say that Mr. Speaker never cast a vote. Those free votes allowed people to increase their allowances by a massive amount, and we need to put an end to that. Do we have an assurance that it is all over, and that there will be no more free votes on allowances and pay?
All of us have felt that it is not right that we should have to vote on our own pay and allowances. Every time we have to come to the House to debate our own pay and allowances, we have all felt that it is not right. We do not want to have to do that any more; we addressed the issue on pay, and we need to do that on allowances as well. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to ensure that we cut costs overall. That is also important.
I should also say that it is important not only that Members are able to be rooted in their constituencies—that important constituency link must be maintained—but that we have offices that help us to do our work professionally in responding to our constituents.
I receive many thousands of e-mails and phone calls from constituents. My office team do a very important job in keeping me in touch with my constituents and helping them when they have individual problems. Yes, we have to sort this matter out, but we have to do it on a set of principles, bearing in mind the importance of a professional office and a second home, and the importance of not having a millionaires’ Parliament. I agree with all the other things that my hon. Friend said as well.
Does the Leader of the House agree that although profound reform is necessary, a sovereign Parliament must think very carefully before setting up an independent external body to set and enforce the rules and to regulate Parliament itself, particularly as it is not at all clear from her statement to whom that external body will be accountable? Does she agree that all of us here, individually and collectively, are responsible to the electors for our actions, and that although we must take external advice, the essential decisions on regulation and rule setting must be taken by ourselves, not subcontracted to others?
The question of conduct within this Chamber will remain a matter for the Speaker, and I am sure that people would agree that that is rightly the case. The question of suspension from this House must remain a matter for those of us who are democratically elected, not an unelected body. While it is right to delegate to a statutory authority the questions of setting the code of conduct, setting pay levels, setting allowances, administering the system and investigating any problems, the only thing that should come between us and our doing our duty as Members of Parliament in this House is either our constituents removing us at a general election or the House removing us, with democratically elected Members taking that action.
Sometimes it takes a big crisis to produce a big response. We have certainly had a big crisis, and I think that now we have had a big response, which is to be welcomed. It is being proposed today that we set up a new body. Can the Leader of the House tell us which bodies will be abolished as the new one is established, and how the members of the new parliamentary standards authority will be appointed?
The responsibility of some existing bodies will change, and the responsibility of some others will be subsumed within the new authority. All these issues are a matter for consultation, which, as I said, will be led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a crisis can evoke a positive response. I pay tribute to him for his work on the Public Administration Committee. Perhaps I owe him an apology, because when we were in the lift I described him as an intellectual, and he rejected that. However, he has thought about these issues long and hard, and now that they are out of the shadows, we need his intellectuality to be brought to bear on them.
May I say, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, how much we appreciate the kindness, fairness and courtesy that you have shown to us from the Chair?
I thank the Leader of the House for her comments. Can she clarify whether the body setting Members’ allowances will be totally independent as regards Members of this House?
I welcome the statement made by the Leader of the House. Does she agree that it would be wrong for this House to deflect blame for the current crisis on expenses on to ordinary members of the Fees Office on average salaries, many of whom have served this House with great dedication for many years? There may be questions to ask at the very top of the Fees Office, but the ordinary staff are not responsible for the culture around expenses that has flourished for too long. Just as it is wrong for Members of the House to think that they can hide behind the outgoing Speaker, it would be wrong for them to think that they can hide behind individual, averagely paid members of the Fees Office. The deserved disrepute into which our system of expenses has sunk is the responsibility of each and every one of us as Members of the House.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be not only fruitless but wrong to seek to apportion blame anywhere. What we need to do is take responsibility and to sort this out. That is the responsibility of all Members of this House, even those who have been absolutely blameless, as I am sure the majority have been, in the way they have made their claims.
The Leader of the House spoke of reform of the expenses system as being only one part of trying to restore people’s faith in politics and re-engage them in the political process. She referred to having a debate to discuss other opportunities for tackling this issue. The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill will come to this House after the recess. Will she take advantage of that by ensuring that amendments are tabled to help to re-engage people with politics right from the bottom up?
What did the Members Estimate Committee take into consideration when it arrived at the figure of £1,250 per month as a cap for mortgage interest? That is not for the whole mortgage; it is just to cover the interest. It strikes me that a person would have to be very rich indeed to be able to claim that maximum amount and arrange their finances to benefit from it to the maximum extent. I think that the public will find that very curious indeed. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to look at that issue, and perhaps at ending a system that allows people to profit from buying and selling houses that have been paid for at public expense?
That figure was decided yesterday at the Members Estimate Committee meeting, the Committee on Members’ Allowances having looked at the average among different Members so that we could ensure that we lowered the amount, but we did that in the knowledge of the current situation for Members with regard to their obligations.
There is a particular issue for Members who entered the House in 2005 and had to take out quite big mortgages in order to find accommodation, because the property market was absolutely at its height, and who now find themselves with properties that they cannot put on the market. The intention was to get a situation that reduced the amount that could be spent on the mortgage but also recognised the circumstances of those who have recently come into the House.
May I pay my own personal tribute to you, Mr. Speaker, for your great personal kindness? I have been most appreciative and wish you the very best for the future.
I welcome the acknowledgement by the Leader of the House of the difficulties faced by Members from the new intake, and her acknowledgement of the fact that most Members deal with their expenses in an honest and straightforward way—that needs to be said, and I was pleased that she did so. I welcome the recognition of the need for change. I am particularly pleased with the idea that we should be regulated by an outside body, as I have been asking for that during the whole time that I have been in this House. However, some people have been caught out by the regulations announced yesterday, through no fault of their own, and are quite worried about the situation. Will the Leader of the House consider having an appeals process in the short term to allow those people to put their concerns and have them properly adjudged on the facts?
The Members Estimate Committee has tried to take into account as many circumstances as we possibly can. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members of two things. First, we will ensure that the rules are as clear as possible so that people are not unsure about how their circumstances will be changed as a result of the “in principle” decision that was made yesterday. Secondly, this is only an interim arrangement until such time as Sir Christopher Kelly brings forward his proposals. We will try to make the position as clear as possible immediately, and it applies only for a limited period. I hope that that will reassure Members.
I totally agree with one of the final points in my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement: we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the right thing and ensure that those people who have been disengaged from the whole democratic process are now properly engaged. For many people, the exposure of the allowances has been a sad confirmation of what they have always believed. How can we use the establishment of the standards authority to ensure that the people whom we are supposed to be representing can have their views heard? They have very strong opinions on this matter.
This is a question for all Members in all constituencies. My hon. Friend has often raised in the House the particular issue of the disengagement of young people. One important thing that we have done is agree that the Youth Parliament should come and sit in this House. The engagement of the UK Youth Parliament, whose members are themselves elected in all parts of the country, often on a bigger turnout than most of us, has a major role to play.
I welcome these long-overdue interim measures, but does the Leader of the House plan to make the House authorities the employer of MPs’ staff and to limit MPs’ second jobs? Then she will have implemented all the recommendations that have been listed in the early-day motions that I have tabled over recent years.
When it comes to second jobs, I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. There are two issues to consider about remunerated work done by an MP for which they are paid outside this House and which has nothing to do with the House. One is whether it causes them a conflict of interest, and the second is whether it takes their mind off what their proper job should be, which is to represent their constituents or be in government. I very much agree with him on that matter. Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee will be looking at it, and I think that the hon. Gentleman and I will be very much on the same side of the argument. Let us hope that we prevail on that one.
The House has already voted on asking the Members Estimate Committee to look into the employment of staff, and that will be part of the wider discussion.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. She was right to remind all of us that we have a joint responsibility to restore public confidence in this House, and indeed in politics. Does she agree that in a free and democratic country with a free press, the press also have a responsibility to scrutinise and report accurately what happens in this House, and that those in the press and media who seek to abuse the facilities to indulge in personal and at times racist attacks are acting irresponsibly and not playing their part in restoring confidence in the political system?
All of us in this country who are democrats want to be sure of two things: that our parliamentary democracy is as strong and confident as it can be, and that the public recognise that to be the case. I recognise that my hon. Friend has not only been a Member of this House for a considerable time but was involved in representations in the trade union movement before that.
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your hospitality to me during my time in the House.
I thank the Leader of the House for her statement, but there are two precise issues that I should like her to elaborate on. First, will the cap on interest payments for accommodation at £1,250 per month also apply to rental costs at the same amount? Secondly, she indicated that the restriction would prevent two Members who are married or living together as partners from claiming more than one second home allowance. Will that apply also to any other two Members who may wish to avail themselves of a property in London to try to ensure that they get additional payments?
I think that the intention behind the MEC decision was to distinguish between hon. Members who are married or civil partners and those who are just good friends sharing. That might not always be easy to establish, but what we are talking about is marriage and civil partnerships, not one-night stands.
May I help the hon. Gentleman by running through the list of what is allowed? You, Mr. Speaker, set forth yesterday in outline what will be allowed for rent, ground rent, service charges, council tax and utility bills, but there will need to be clarification in writing so that hon. Members can be absolutely clear about what their circumstances are. That will be made clear following the MEC meeting this afternoon.
I entirely endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) about the need to restore people’s confidence and faith in the political system, and in some cases to create that confidence and faith in the first instance. One suggestion is that we should move to real-time month-by-month publication of claims, if not when they are submitted then at least when they are approved. Is that under active consideration?
That was one of the things that was agreed last time—that there should be publication month by month of claims that have been made and allowed—but obviously we are looking all the time at how we can improve transparency. These things will not be set in stone, and any other suggestions that hon. Members have will be—[Interruption.] I have just been told by my deputy that it will be reported quarterly, not monthly, and I take it that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) is suggesting that we do it more frequently.
I welcome today’s statement. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that if it is really our intention to have here a legislature that is broadly reflective of the people whom we seek to represent, it must be made clear and taken into consideration that this is not a gentlemen’s club, and that many Members have to balance their parliamentary and constituency duties with their family duties? That applies not only to those of us who are mothers of small children but to those with other family duties.
It has been very upsetting to read in the press the great idea that we could all live in barracks in London. I ask the House to take into consideration where we will put our children and when we will have time to see them. If we want to have a legislature that really reflects the people, it must reflect families. The financial arrangements must therefore reflect the need for some of us to undertake family duties as well as parliamentary and constituency duties.
The hon. Lady has added another principle to the list that I suggest we all adhere to. We must not just be a millionaires’ Parliament, and we must respect the constituency link and have good professional offices. Also, this should not just be a Parliament of single people who either have never had families or whose families have grown up. The insight that hon. Members bring of struggling to balance work and family responsibilities, and of caring for older relatives and younger children, helps to shape public policy and helps us understand the lives of people in this country. I would definitely adopt the principle that she has put forward.
It is not just the expenses scandal that has tarnished the reputation of this House in what has been a low, dishonest decade for parliamentary democracy, but the deception perpetrated by the previous Prime Minister in taking us to war on the basis of a pack of lies. That caused almost irreparable damage to people’s trust in politics and politicians.
My question to the right hon. and learned Lady is this: will the standard of honesty form part of the remit of the new parliamentary standards authority, so that members of the public can refer for independent investigation cases in which they believe there is evidence that Members of Parliament, including Ministers, have misled this House and misled the country?
We are, of course, answerable to our constituents for the honesty and integrity with which we represent them and go about our work in the House, and to the Chair for not misleading other Members. I think that the regulation of our democracy is ultimately with those who elect us. We are currently considering regulating our pay and our allowances, having codes of conduct and making proposals for their enforcement; that does not cut across the basic fundamental principle of democracy.
I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and for the leadership that she has shown on this matter. Many hon. Members have made submissions to Sir Christopher Kelly. Will the Government accept his recommendations, whatever they are?
At the meeting that the Speaker convened yesterday, the view of the party leaders was that it would be best for the House and all concerned if we could agree with as much as possible of what Sir Christopher Kelly proposes. I think that the Leader of the Opposition said on television that we want to agree with 99.9 per cent. of what Sir Christopher Kelly suggests. That is not to seek to allow for wriggle room. It is in the right spirit and all our interests if we all give evidence to Sir Christopher Kelly—the deadline is 5 June. It is important for hon. Members to give evidence for him to consider. A great deal of responsibility rests on him because we want, cross party, to adopt what he recommends, which will then be put into practice by the new statutory authority. He is like the software, and the hardware will be established by statute in the new authority.
Just to round off, Members of Parliament are either elected representatives, who are free to work outside this place, or professional politicians, who are not, and are therefore entirely dependent on the taxpayer as members of a political class, separate and distinct from those who elect them. What is the Government’s view?
The Prime Minister asked Sir Christopher Kelly to look into that, and he will make his recommendations. In the meantime, the House voted on 30 April for a proper register of all the remuneration from the different additional jobs that Members have. The bottom line is that the public should be able to know where Members of Parliament get additional money from. That was not the case until we made the change. We have therefore already taken steps on transparency.
I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s idea that we are members of the political classes. I do not regard myself as part of the political class. Indeed, many of those in the political class have long thought that I should not be in it. I am many things—I represent my constituency in Camberwell and Peckham; I am a wife, a mother, a former lawyer. We are all different things, and we should not allow ourselves to be pushed into believing that, without second jobs from which we rake in money, we are somehow unworthy members of a political class. So I think my answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, which I cannot remember, is probably no.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Once again, the Prime Minister visited my constituency last week—to deliver a speech on crime at Chelsea football club. As has been the case for every visit that he has made to Hammersmith and Fulham in the past four years, he failed to inform me as the constituency Member of Parliament. As ever, his tactic is for one of his junior Ministers to send out a fax saying that the junior Minister will come, but not mentioning the Prime Minister’s presence. The rules are clear. How can we enforce the conventions and courtesies of the House—
Appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General
[Relevant Document: The Twelfth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, HC 256, on Selection of the new Comptroller and Auditor General.]
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Amyas Morse to the Office of Comptroller and Auditor General.
Mr. Morse has agreed that the appointment will be for a non-renewable term of 10 years. I should like to record the Government’s thanks to Mr. Tim Burr, who agreed to serve on an interim basis and recently announced his retirement, for his work and expertise.
As a first stage in implementing the recommendations of the Public Accounts Commission, a new board structure with a majority of independent non-executives, including a non-executive chair, who has already been appointed—Sir Andrew Likierman—is being established.
The Government will introduce legislation to implement the other recommendations of the Public Accounts Commission on the governance of the National Audit Office.
Mr. Morse was subject to a pre-appointment hearing before the Public Accounts Committee—the first such hearing that the Committee has held. He will be the first Comptroller and Auditor General who has extensive private as well as public sector experience, which will enable him to bring best practice and discipline to public audit work, and that will benefit the scrutiny of Government.
I believe that Mr. Morse is eminently qualified for the office of Comptroller and Auditor General, and I commend the motion to the House.
It is a pleasure to second the Prime Minister’s motion. I personally thank the Prime Minister for his role in the process, which has been completely fair and open.
The whole point of the job of Comptroller and Auditor General is that it must be above politics. For 150 years, since Mr. Gladstone founded the Public Accounts Committee, it has been a tradition that the Chairman of that Committee is drawn from the Opposition. However, there is also a well-established convention, which is now in statute, that the new Comptroller and Auditor General must be appointed by the Prime Minister—by definition, a member of the Government—and that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who is obviously a member of the Opposition, must countersign the motion. Both Government and Opposition therefore have a lock on the appointment. As far as I know, it is the only public sector appointment to which that applies.
Apart from what I have outlined, the process is new because it is 20 years since we had to appoint a permanent Comptroller and Auditor General. The last time we did it was when Baroness Thatcher, as Prime Minister, appointed Sir John Bourn. The system was old fashioned, with no open advertisement. My predecessor, Robert Sheldon, now Lord Sheldon, conducted interviews on his own, and that was clearly inappropriate. We had to create a modern structure, and we have tried to do that.
In his opening remarks, the Prime Minister alluded to the modern structure. The first step in the process was to make the National Audit Office completely open, transparent and accountable. We had to preserve the ability of the Comptroller and Auditor to be entirely responsible for his reports—nobody can influence their content. However, it was clearly wrong that he was running the National Audit Office on his own. There had to be a modern board structure and, as the Prime Minister said, the Public Accounts Commission—not the Committee, but the Commission, under the able chairmanship of the Father of the House, who is here today—devised a structure.
I headed an appointments panel, which appointed the new chairman of the National Audit Office, Sir Andrew Likierman, who has unrivalled experience. He was head of the Government Accountancy Service—apparently known in the trade as “Hot GAS”—and is the dean of the London business school. He was an outstanding candidate and now sits at the apex of this modern, open and transparent National Audit Office. This morning, the Commission met again, and we have given him the go-ahead to appoint further independent board members. The creation of an independent structure was therefore the first part of the process.
We then had to move to interviewing. Again, I thank the Prime Minister. Of course, he is far too busy running the country to sit for 25 hours, as we had to do, interviewing people, and he therefore delegated Sir Nick Macpherson, the Treasury’s permanent secretary, to sit on the interview panel, which I chaired with Tim Burr. I thank Sir Nick Macpherson, with whom I worked closely and who is an outstanding public servant, and Gus O’Donnell, Secretary to the Cabinet, for their help in the process. The process was completely open and transparent, with open advertisements, head-hunters appointed, a long list of outstanding people applying, more than 20 hours of interviews and Sir Andrew Likierman finally getting involved, and we came up with an outstanding candidate, Amyas Morse.
As the Prime Minister said in his opening remarks, Amyas Morse is, as far as I know, the first ever chartered accounted to be Comptroller and Auditor General. That is an important point in respect of when we talk about professionalising the civil service. He works in the public sector at present, having taken a huge cut in his salary to do so, but before that he rose right to the top of the accountancy profession, as the global managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers. It was quite obvious to all of us that he was the outstanding candidate and that is why we on the panel decided to appoint him.
Amyas Morse’s name was then put to the Prime Minister, who, again in the entirely helpful way in which he has conducted the process, approved the nomination within days. He had a veto, but he decided to trust the Committee with our decision. As the Prime Minister said, we then had the first ever confirmation hearing before the Public Accounts Committee; it is something that has never happened before. My colleagues on the Committee will confirm that Amyas Morse performed very well, with firm, well-argued answers, and the Committee clearly had confidence in him.
The whole process is extremely important. It is not just about appointing a chartered accountant or an accountant of government, and it is far more important than just bean counting or adding up the figures. The National Audit Office is at the centre of the drive to promote economy and efficiency in government. It spends £103 million a year, but it saves the best part of £900 million a year. The National Audit Office is at the centre of the process. The Public Accounts Committee could not work without the National Audit Office, headed by the independent Comptroller and Auditor General.
Whatever the faults in our Budget process or whatever Parliament’s other faults may be, it is not surprising that our process of audit is widely admired and copied throughout the world. It is not surprising that every Commonwealth country has a supreme audit body reporting to a public accounts committee, but even the Czechs have now created a public accounts committee in the past two years. They have perhaps taken to extremes the idea that their chairman—the person who will hold their Government to account—should be a member of the opposition, and have appointed a communist.
We can be very proud of the work of the Public Accounts Committee. We should thank the National Audit Office and pay tribute to Tim Burr for holding the fort for this interim period. We have appointed a man who must be completely un-influenceable by anybody. That is why we said that he will have one term for 10 years that will not be renewable. The position must also be completely independent. We have ensured his independence through the process that we have undergone. I think that Amyas Morse will be a worthy successor to Tim Burr and I commend his name to the House.
It is symbolic of the significance of the post of Comptroller and Auditor General that the announcement of his appointment should be made in the House by the Prime Minister. However, it would be fair to say that doing so is not one of the more onerous duties of a Prime Minister.
As we heard, such an announcement has been made only twice before, first in December 1987, when Margaret Thatcher announced the appointment of Sir John Bourn. I note that on that occasion the person responding from the Front Bench on behalf of the official Opposition was the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), who is here again today. Indeed, if I remember rightly, he was also present on the second occasion, in January 2008, when the Prime Minister announced the interim appointment of Tim Burr.
Such announcements are happening slightly more frequently now, with somewhat less of a gap between them. It is not unusual in public life for one person to hold a position for a long time and for his successor’s time in office to be relatively brief. However, that is no reflection on Tim Burr’s performance, because it was always his intention to take the position for an interim period. He has had a distinguished career, working for the National Audit Office for 15 years before becoming the Comptroller and Auditor General, eight of which were spent as deputy. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Tim Burr played a useful role in the selection of his successor. I would like to thank him for his contribution over many years.
When we debated Mr. Burr’s appointment in January 2008, much of the discussion centred on the selection process. The consensus in the House was that it was important for Parliament to have a significant role in the appointment to such an important position as that of Comptroller and Auditor General. Some argued for a parliamentary vote. Others, including the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, argued that if that were to happen, there may be a perception of a loss of independence from the Executive. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is an Opposition MP, and if he has a greater role in the appointment, the perception may be one of greater independence. That view has prevailed and the Government have accepted it. I fully acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point that both he and the Prime Minister have worked together successfully and smoothly in making this appointment. That helps with the perception of independence.
I agree with both the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend that an appointment for a single 10-year term is also helpful in maintaining independence and the perception of independence. There can be difficulties and dangers—perhaps more of perception than in reality—when someone has a shorter term and is then reappointed. For example, adverse comment was made about the delays in the reappointment of the Governor of the Bank of England. We think that the current structure has much to commend it.
In debating the appointment of Mr. Amyas Morse, it is worth highlighting how important the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General has always been and, indeed, how much more important it may become in the years ahead. We are entering a period of public spending restraint. We face record levels of borrowing and it will be necessary to ensure that public money is spent wisely, whoever is in power in the years ahead. Even the Government recognise that there is room for further efficiencies. In a period when the Government’s projections are such that there will be real-terms reductions in departmental spending in some areas, the emphasis on value for money is significant.
Hon. Members perhaps need no reminding of this, but it is worth reiterating the fact that the demand from the public for greater transparency in and scrutiny of public spending is greater than it has ever been before. The public demand to know more. We live in a less deferential society. Developments in technology make it easier for information to be disseminated and obtained. For example, the Conservative party supports the introduction of a website detailing items of significant public spending. We think that more can always be done. However, the National Audit Office, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee all have distinguished records in scrutinising public spending, and they will continue to perform that important role. Indeed, just last night in his statement, Mr. Speaker announced a role for the Comptroller and Auditor General in examining MPs’ expenses.
Let me deal finally with the appointment of Mr. Amyas Morse. We have heard from the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and the Prime Minister what a distinguished career Mr. Morse has had, at PricewaterhouseCoopers and, more recently, at the Ministry of Defence. I know from speaking to my hon. Friend the Chairman how deeply impressed he was by Mr. Morse, and I know that this view was shared by the rest of the panel. Indeed, I think that Mr. Morse impressed the Public Accounts Committee as a whole when giving his evidence to it in February. I have also spoken to others who know Mr. Morse, all of whom speak very highly of him. He has an important task, and we are confident that he will perform his role with great distinction. On behalf of the official Opposition, I wish him well.
In my role as Chair of the Public Accounts Commission, may I endorse completely everything that has been said about Mr. Morse’s suitability for this job? There was an extremely good shortlist, and he was undoubtedly the best candidate. It is not surprising that it was a good list, because this is one of the most important public sector roles. Parliament would be impotent to carry out its financial scrutiny of the Government if it did not have an effective National Audit Office headed by a clearly independent and strong-minded Comptroller and Auditor General. Without the Comptroller and Auditor General, we would be incapable of monitoring the hundreds of billions of pounds of expenditure and income. He does not simply audit; he checks for value for money, probity and accuracy.
I should like to put a different hat on to describe another role of the Comptroller and Auditor General. In my role as Chair of the Liaison Committee, I have been very grateful to the previous Comptrollers and Auditors General, Sir John Bourn and Tim Burr, for all the work they have done with the Committees outside the Public Accounts Committee. For many years, the other Committees have justifiably been envious of the incredible support that the PAC receives from the National Audit Office. Sir John must be given credit for his decision to start using the NAO’s expertise to support the other Select Committees, through the use of secondees and briefings. At the post-appointment hearing, I spoke to Sir Andrew Likierman, the new chair of the NAO, which is a new post. I was particularly delighted when he and Mr. Morse reiterated their commitment to expand the role of supporting the Select Committees. That can only be good news for the Committees.
I, too, would like to thank Tim Burr. He stood in at a difficult time, and he indicated that he had no intention of applying for the post himself. I know that the Chair of the PAC will agree that he has done an excellent job in running the National Audit Office. More than that, however, he has started to implement the restructuring of the NAO and to adapt it to the best modern standards of corporate government, as recommended by the Tiner report. We owe him a lot for that.
I first started to serve on the PAC in 1990, when I left the Front Bench. At that stage, the NAO was saving the taxpayer five times its annual running costs. That gradually increased, under pressure from the Commission and the Committee, to seven, eight and then nine times the running costs. Tim Burr gave us a pleasant surprise at the last meeting of the Commission, when he told us that the NAO is now recovering 10 times its cost to the taxpayer. That works out at more than £1 billion every 18 months, which is a remarkable achievement. Tim has done a great job. He has been a pleasure to work with, and I wish him well in whatever he decides to do in the future.
It is indicative of the significance of the position of Comptroller and Auditor General that the Prime Minister himself moved the motion on the appointment of Mr. Morse. I congratulate the Prime Minister on the nerveless performance that he gave a few minutes ago.
The post of Comptroller and Auditor General is a highly significant one, particularly at this time, when the Government have a public sector deficit of £175 billion this year, falling to £173 billion next year—according to their projections. The deficit represents more than 10 per cent. of gross domestic product, so it is essential that we achieve value for money in public spending. That is clearly a task that Mr. Morse is well equipped to contribute to.
A number of concerns have been expressed, not about Mr. Morse’s individual qualifications and suitability but about the role more generally. There is a potential for conflict between the positions of the chairman, Sir Andrew Likierman, and of Mr. Morse. I am talking not about them as individuals but about the two roles, which have the potential to overlap. There are issues about the usefulness of the hearing processes, when they do not contribute directly to a recommendation or otherwise on the suitability of an applicant. There is also an issue about the balance between finding value for money and the financial audit work undertaken by the NAO. Mr. Morse will of course have some significant issues in his in-tray, not least the vexed question of whether private finance initiatives will contribute to the overall public debt of the country.
If the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to read the PAC report, he would have seen that the hearing process contributed directly to the satisfaction expressed by the Committee that Mr. Morse was a suitable person to appoint.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. Perhaps I did not word my comment as neatly as I might have done, but my understanding is that the Committee was not able to ratify the appointment, and that it was able only to guide it. That might be suitable, however; perhaps everyone on the Committee feels that that level of authority is appropriate.
This is a very important point. The reason we did it this way is that the Committee, like every other Committee in the House, has a Labour majority. If it had seconded the motion of the Prime Minister, we would have had a Labour Prime Minister proposing the new Comptroller and Auditor General and a Labour-dominated Committee seconding his appointment. The whole point, as I outlined earlier, is that both the Opposition and the Government have a lock on this process.
I am delighted that Mr. Morse’s appointment finds favour with all parts of the House. His appointment is certainly supported by my party. I have not, to my recollection, ever met him, but his CV is certainly impressive and hours of hearings have been undertaken to gauge his suitability. I can only conclude that he must indeed be a person who can undertake this onerous task in a distinguished manner.
I shall conclude with a quote from the Committee’s report—which I have indeed read—that makes this point forcefully. It states:
“As a Committee, we have no role in the statutory process of selection and appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Nonetheless we believe that our views should carry weight in the debate on the Prime Minister’s motion praying the Queen to appoint Amyas Morse, since we have collectively some 65 years of experience on the Committee and thus of working with the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office. We are satisfied that Amyas Morse is highly suitable for the post of Comptroller and Auditor General.”
On that basis, I hope that the appointment will find favour among all Members.
I am pleased to take part in the debate to confirm the appointment of Mr. Morse as Comptroller and Auditor General. Having seen him in the hearing, I have no doubt at all about his suitability. His experience of running a large international accountancy practice, PricewaterhouseCoopers, combined with his experience as commercial director of the Ministry of Defence, renders him highly suitable for this very difficult job.
In appointing Mr. Morse as Comptroller and Auditor General, the Government are going to have to fix several things. It is a pleasure to see a number of former members of the Public Accounts Committee now sitting on the Treasury Bench and taking part in the debate. I saw the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) earlier. When he was a member of the Committee, I always used to feel that he and I were hunting together as a pack when we were probing the civil servants before us. Unfortunately, he is now engaged on other responsibilities—bunker maintenance might be the best description for them. There are others sitting on the Treasury Bench who have had recent PAC experience. I enjoyed their incisive contributions through the years when they were members.
There are aspects of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s access to the information he needs that will have to be fixed. The National Audit Act 1983 states that the Comptroller and Auditor General should have complete discretion in the exercise of his functions. One might assume that this is completely true, but in fact it is not true at all, as there are three obvious exceptions.
The first is the Financial Services Authority, to which the Comptroller and Auditor General does not have access. That means that he cannot carry out an audit of the effectiveness, efficiency and economy of the FSA in the way he can with, say, the Ministry of Defence or the Department of Health. I personally believe that that has had significant consequences—for example, in respect of Northern Rock. When it got into huge difficulties, it was discovered to be subject to a regulatory system under which the different players did not know what they were doing. It became very obvious in the autumn of 2007, as seen in the National Audit Office report based on evidence from the Comptroller Auditor General, that the three parts of the regulatory system did not know what the others were doing. That was the result of a lack of scrutiny of the FSA. The Comptroller and Auditor General would have carried it out, I believe, if he had had the right of access to do so—but he did not, so when it was done, it was done by the Treasury.
I am afraid that only once over a period of seven or eight years did the Treasury ask the NAO to look at the activities of the FSA. In that regard, it failed in its functions. I do not blame the Exchequer Secretary, who was a very incisive member of our Committee when she was on it. Functionally, however, the Treasury has failed, and Sir Nicholas Macpherson has more or less admitted that point and agreed to go back and look over the matter.
Order. I think the hon. Gentleman is ranging rather wide of the measure before the House, which is specifically about an appointment.
Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall try to confine my remarks to the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General. In talking about that appointment, I hope it is in order to discuss the functions of the Comptroller and Auditor General once he is appointed and whether or not he is able to exercise them.
Perhaps—narrowly and briefly.
I will be very narrow and very brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
My second point concerns the BBC, to which the Comptroller and Auditor General does not have access either. That has an impact on the effectiveness, efficiency and economy of the BBC and on the extent to which it is scrutinised. When Dame Ellen MacArthur sailed around the world, 64 television producers turned up in Falmouth to cover it. I am not sure that that would have happened if they had known that they were going to be subject to public audit in the way that most Government Departments are. That has nothing to do with editorial control.
The third point, and it is the most serious of all, concerns this House. I hope that you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is directly relevant to this debate. What better time to appoint the nation’s chief auditor than after what has happened over the last couple of weeks? I can think of no more important appointment for us to make. According to statute, the Comptroller and Auditor General has all the authority over the National Audit Office. As the Government well know, that is why we are soon going to see changes. As I say, the Comptroller and Auditor General has all the authority under statute and the NAO is organised under his control into value-for-money divisions and financial audit divisions.
I would rather keep going, if I may, as Mr. Deputy Speaker has asked me to be brief.
As it is organised, the Defence, Health or Transport audit will have two sub-branches: financial and value for money. Within the NAO, there is also a section called “Justice and Parliament”—and I had always assumed that the Justice and Parliament section could audit the House of Commons administration in exactly the same way as the Health audit section can audit the Department of Health or as the Culture, Media and Sport section or the Transport section can audit those Government Departments. It turns out, however, not to be the case.
I discussed this issue with an assistant Comptroller and Auditor General last week. Previously, I had always thought that the auditors could go in and examine the House of Commons administration and do all the audit they needed to perform to satisfy themselves in exactly the same way as for Departments. It turns out, however, that for all these years, all they have been able to do is to compare the claims made by Members with the amounts paid and check that the two are the same—that is all they can do. When I asked one of the assistant auditors general why it was not possible to do more, the reply was, “That is all we could get.”
I hope that you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that what I am saying now is directly relevant to this debate and to the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The truth is that that is not good enough. It is not the fault of the Comptroller and Auditor General that it is not good enough, as it is the responsibility of the Government and this House. When the Government fix the problem, they have to ensure that the new Comptroller and Auditor General we are appointing—I think he is the right person for the job—has all the access he needs to do the job properly.
It is a great pleasure to conclude the debate. I echo the tributes of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and of right hon. and hon. Members on all sides of the House to the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General, Tim Burr. He has been a public servant for more than 40 years, beginning his career in the Treasury. In particular, he was the Treasury Officer of Accounts between 1993 and 1994 before moving to the National Audit Office to become a member of its management board. In 2000, he became deputy Comptroller and Auditor General, before assuming the office of Comptroller and Auditor General, on an interim basis, on 1 February last year. I am glad that all Members—and particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who although not the current Chairman is the most experienced member of the Public Accounts Committee and provided great service in that role over many years—have paid full tribute to Mr. Burr. The Government were grateful that Mr. Burr agreed to take on the role of Comptroller and Auditor General on a temporary basis. We know that he has fulfilled that role with integrity and been a steadying hand on the tiller.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) suggested that there might be some disagreement over the roles of the Chairman of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General. Actually, all parties are agreed on what we have done in making this appointment today, and the approach was agreed by the National Audit Office.
This is a very important point, which was carefully considered by the both the Commission and the Committee. There will be no disagreement because Sir Andrew Likierman will concern himself only with the corporate governance of the NAO. The CAG will have the absolute, independent, full and individual right to propose what he studies and to issue his results to the PAC. The PAC will never consider policy in itself, but only its effectiveness. I have chaired more than 450 meetings of the PAC, at which we have never had even one vote. Contrary to what was said earlier, the system does work and does provide independence for the CAG.
I am a former member of the Public Accounts Committee and I have had the privilege of occasionally sitting in on some hearings—not all 450—from the Government side. I can certainly confirm that when I was a fully fledged and regularly attending member under the chairmanship of the hon. Gentleman, we did not have any votes. I believe that the PAC continues to do a vital job, so I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s clarification in response to some of the doubts expressed by the hon. Member for Taunton.
The Government are committed to bringing forward legislation to implement the recommendations of the Public Accounts Commission on NAO corporate governance and will do so as soon as the legislative timetable allows.
I want to welcome the appointment of Mr. Morse as Comptroller and Auditor General. As the Prime Minister said, Mr. Morse has had a distinguished career in the private sector and is currently the Ministry of Defence’s commercial director. His appointment brings a number of “firsts”. He will be the first Comptroller and Auditor General to have private sector experience, which will prove invaluable to the National Audit Office. He will be the first chartered accountant, the first to be appointed through open competition and the first to be subject to a pre-appointment hearing. He is also the first to agree to be appointed for a limited term.
I have been listening with great attention to the Minister’s speech. She endorsed the recommendation, with which I agreed, that the new Comptroller and Auditor General should be both a chartered accountant and from private practice. Given that audit background in private practice, will the Government accept any of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s recommendations? I am thinking of, for instance, the recommendation presented jointly by the Audit Commission and the National Audit Office that the private finance initiative should go on the Government’s balance sheet.
That is a rather wider question than the question of the appointment hearing, but, as the hon. Lady knows, changes to accounting mechanisms are being considered by the professional bodies that have a bearing on this matter. I look forward to discussing it with her during one of our regular Public Accounts Committee debates, when she may wish to make her points again.
I suggest that Members read the transcript of Mr. Morse’s pre-appointment hearing before the Public Accounts Committee. It provides an insight into his background and knowledge, as well as how he will work with the new non-executive chairman, Sir Andrew Likierman.
A substantial amount of work will be involved in bringing the corporate governance of the National Audit Office into the 21st century, and, as we have already heard today, similar work is being done in parallel in other institutions. I am sure that Mr. Morse is relishing the opportunity to lead the National Audit Office through the next decade of change. The NAO and the PAC do a vital job in securing value for money for every penny of public expenditure and explaining to us what we can do in the event of failure. I know that Mr. Morse will be ably supported by Sir Andrew Likierman, and I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Amyas Morse to the Office of Comptroller and Auditor General.
Planning: National Policy Statements
[Relevant Document: The Fourth Special Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 2007-08, on Planning Bill: Parliamentary Scrutiny of National Policy Statements, HC 1109]
I beg to move,
That the following new Standing Order and amendments to the Standing Orders be made—
A. New Standing Order: Planning: national policy statements
(1) Whenever a proposal for a national policy statement is laid before this House under section 9(2) of the Planning Act 2008 (‘the Act’), the Liaison Committee shall report either—
(a) that it has designated a select committee appointed under Standing Order No. 152, or
(b) that it recommends the appointment of a National Policy Statement Committee to consider the proposal.
(2) A National Policy Statement Committee—
(a) shall be composed of not fewer than seven nor more than fourteen members, all of whom shall be, at the time of nomination, members of one 15 or more of the following select committees—
Communities and Local Government
Energy and Climate Change
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(b) shall have power—
(i) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place within the UK; and
(ii) to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference; and
(c) may report from time to time and shall cease to exist either—
(i) if it has reported on the proposal before the designated date, when the relevant national policy statement or amended national policy statement has been laid under section 5(9) or section 6(9) of the Act; or
(ii) if it has not reported on the proposal before the designated date, on the designated date;
(3) A committee designated or appointed to consider a proposal for a national policy statement shall have power, in the course of its proceedings under this order, to invite Members of the House who are not members of the committee to attend, and, at the discretion of the chairman, take part in, its proceedings, but such Members may not move any motion or amendment to any motion or draft report, nor vote nor be counted in the quorum of the committee;
(4) If a committee designated or appointed to consider a proposal for a national policy statement has not reported on the proposal before the designated date, then the chairman of the committee shall report that the committee makes no recommendation with regard to the proposal.
(5) For the purposes of this Order, the designated date in relation to any proposal for a national policy statement is the thirty-ninth day before the expiry of the relevant period defined under section 9(6) of the Act.
B. Amendments to Standing Orders
That Standing Order No. 121 (Nomination of select committees) be amended, by inserting after ‘(b)’ in line 17—
‘(i) in the case of a motion to agree with a report from the Liaison Committee to appoint and nominate Members to a National Policy Statement Committee under Standing Order (Planning: National Policy Statements) the motion is made on behalf of the Liaison Committee by the chairman or another member of the committee; or
(ii) in other cases’;
That Standing Order No. 145 (Liaison Committee) be amended by leaving out paragraphs (6), (7) and (8) and inserting the following paragraphs—
(6) The committee shall have power to appoint two sub-committees, one of which shall be a National Policy Statements sub-committee.
(7) A National Policy Statements sub-committee—
(a) shall be composed of—
(i) those members of the committee who are members of the Communities and Local Government, Energy and Climate Change, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Transport and Welsh Affairs Committees; and
(ii) up to two other members of the committee, one of whom shall be appointed chairman of the sub-committee;
(b) shall report to the committee on the use of the committee’s powers under paragraph (1) of Standing Order (Planning: National Policy Statements); and
(c) may report to the committee on matters relating to national policy statements under the Planning Act 2008.
(8) Each sub-committee shall have—
(a) a quorum of three; and
(b) power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, and to report to the committee from time to time.
(9) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the minutes of evidence taken before any sub-committee.
(10) The quorum of the committee shall be as provided in Standing Order No. 124 (Quorum of select committees), save that for consideration of a report from a National Policy Statements sub-committee under sub-paragraph (7)(b) the quorum shall be three.
I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell).
The changes in the planning regime that resulted from the Planning Act 2008—in terms of the establishment of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the role and extent of national policy statements and the ability of the public to make their views known on the proposals—were scrutinised extremely closely during debate on the Bill here and in the other place.
This is neither the place nor the occasion to discuss the merits or otherwise of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, or whether the country should have a new generation of nuclear power stations or an increase in airport capacity. I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would rule us out of order if we strayed into that territory. Instead, we shall be discussing a motion that is concerned with the process by which Parliament will be involved in scrutiny of the new planning framework.
I do not intend to go down the avenue that the Minister just mentioned, but may I point out to him that, in the context of the proposed scrutiny process, there are serious concerns about sustainable development? Can he reassure me that the Sustainable Development Commission will have an input and that corresponding opportunities will be provided for scrutiny by the Environmental Audit Committee, so that we can be certain that whatever the outcome of the establishment of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, sustainable development has been properly taken into account?
That is an important question. As was made clear during the passage of the Planning Bill and is made clear in the Act, sustainability must be at the heart of any national policy statement. I shall say more about parliamentary scrutiny shortly. I do not wish to mislead the House, but I seem to recall that the Sustainable Development Commission is one of the statutory consultees and will therefore have the opportunity to play a role in regard to national policy statements.
As I am sure my hon. Friend will acknowledge, that will depend on the nature of the national policy statement involved. It may well be that the price of carbon is not particularly relevant. When considering this matter, the House has been clear about the need for a flexible approach in that regard.
The Planning Act, particularly section 9, provides for parliamentary scrutiny of a proposed national policy statement before it can be designated. Timing, in the general sense, is very important. The Government envisage that the Infrastructure Planning Commission will be established and able to start giving advice to potential applicants this autumn, and will be ready to begin receiving applications from the first half of 2010. We need to put the right procedures in place now, so that they are ready for the first statements, which are scheduled for publication for consultation and laying before Parliament later this year. It is important for parliamentary scrutiny of proposals for NPSs to be efficient and timely. Any delay, or ineffective arrangements, will pose the risk of disruption to a demanding timetable of planning reform for major infrastructure.
To ensure that the process of parliamentary scrutiny is effective and efficient, the Minister for Local Government and the Leader of the House began discussions with the Chairmen of the relevant Select Committees when the Planning Bill was going through the House. Discussions have been followed by further discussions between the Deputy Leader of the House—who I am pleased to see is present—and the Chairmen of Select Committees in recent weeks. The Liaison Committee also considered this matter in October last year, and I have found its report incisive and illuminating.
I pay tribute to the hard work undertaken by my colleagues and others, which has strengthened the proposed process. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made constructive and positive comments, designed to ensure that Parliament scrutinises national policy statements properly and effectively.
When the Planning Bill was first introduced, the Government suggested the establishment of a specific Select Committee to consider national policy statements, whose members might be drawn from the membership of relevant departmental Committees. However, it was made clear during the passage of the Bill that the wish of the House was that it should be for the House itself to decide what procedures were appropriate for each specific NPS. We recognise that that flexibility is vital.
As I said a moment ago, the Liaison Committee also directly considered the matter of parliamentary scrutiny of NPSs, and provided helpful and reasonable suggestions on how the process could operate and be improved. The Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)—who I am pleased to see is also present—feared that the system as then suggested would exclude members of her Committee with responsibility for, and expertise in, matters of planning policy and local government. As one who appeared before the Committee this week to discuss planning policy statements—and I still bear the scars on my back from previous interrogations by it—I can personally vouch for my hon. Friend’s wise words. Moreover, the Chairmen of the departmental Select Committees directly concerned perceived the risk that a system in which ad hoc committees were drawn from existing Select Committees would disrupt those Committees’ work.
Together with the Chairs of the Select Committees, we developed the process that is proposed in the motion. Parliamentary examination of a national policy statement would take place through one of two routes: designation of a relevant departmental Select Committee to undertake the work, or the appointment of a national policy statement Select Committee. The decision on which option to take would be a matter not for the Government but for the Select Committees, via the Liaison Committee. Part A of the motion creates a new Standing Order setting out the governance and administrative arrangements for a new national policy statement Select Committee, including the number of members, what constitutes a quorum, the Committee’s powers to take evidence and its ability to appoint specialist advisers.
It may be helpful if I briefly describe what I expect scrutiny of a national policy statement to entail. As I have implied, the precise details would be a matter for the Liaison Committee and the relevant Select Committee, but we envisage a process along the following lines. The relevant Secretary of State would lay the draft NPS, or draft amendment of an NPS, before Parliament and publish it for public consultation. At the same time, the Secretary of State would specify what is known as the “relevant period” during which consideration of the proposal would take place. We have agreed that this would need to be sufficient to encompass the period of public consultation plus additional time to allow for Committees of either House to report and for debates in this House and the other place to take place if required.
If I can move on to describe more of this process, I might be able to answer my hon. Friend’s question.
Chairs of Select Committees and the House in general will wish to be reassured that a Secretary of State will not rush through an NPS via a truncated relevant period, and I will in a moment set out how that will not be allowed to be the case. A draft NPS will be screened by the Chairs of the relevant Select Committees and the Liaison Committee. Under this process, it will be decided which of the two routes for scrutiny to take: a relevant Select Committee or the bespoke national policy statement Select Committee. This body will then meet to agree its call for evidence, which will run in parallel with public consultation. The motion before us makes it clear that the Select Committee may invite individuals and organisations to appear before it to give oral evidence; I think that that point will reassure my hon. Friend that the SDC will, where relevant, be able to give evidence and appear before the relevant Select Committee. I hope I have reassured her on that point.