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Short Money

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Leader of the House to make a statement on the Government consultation on Short money.

I am happy to confirm that since we last discussed this topic on the day the House rose for recess, we have completed the steps I promised at the time. On Friday 12 February I tabled the statutory instrument required to change the allocations of policy development grants to fund political parties, in line with the recommended changes put forward by the independent Electoral Commission. Last Thursday the Deputy Leader of the House and I tabled a request for views about potential similar changes to Short money. I hope the House will therefore appreciate why I am responding to this urgent question.

The parallels between policy development grants and Short money—both forms of taxpayer funding for political parties—are strong and, since Short money is larger and more valuable than policy development grants, it seems sensible to take a similar approach. The request for views asks some important questions. For example, the cost of Short money has gone up by 50% since 2010, and will rise by a whopping 68% by the end of this Parliament if nothing is done. At a time when everybody else outside Westminster has had to tighten their belts, why should politicians expect to be treated differently, feathering their own nests at taxpayers’ expense?

The rises in Short money are linked to the retail prices index inflation every year, but benefits claimants get rises linked to the lower consumer prices index inflation each year, so how can any politician look their constituent in the eye and say that they deserve a bigger rise every year than someone who is looking for a job or is on a pension or living with a disability?

The rises in Short money are also linked to the number of votes cast at elections. That has contributed this year to an enormous 30% increase, from £7.25 million in 2014-15 to almost £9.5 million this year. How can that be justified when many vital public services are having to cope with cuts of 19%? Short money is notably untransparent. It is taxpayers’ money after all, but there is no requirement to publish details of how it is spent. There are, rightly, requirements, on the parallel policy development grants and on pretty much every other area of Government funding, too. How can it be right in the modern age for politicians to expect to be bunged a load of hard-earned taxpayers’ cash—more than £35 million in total since 2010 for the Labour party, for example—without at least explaining how it gets spent?

Finally, the distribution of Short money between parties throws up some pretty odd results. For example, UKIP gets £688,000 for its one MP, although the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) has, in an impressively principled stand, turned some of that down. The Greens, also with one MP, get less than a third of that. Clearly, it makes sense to ask whether that can be improved.

These important questions need to be answered. The request for views runs until 7 March so there is plenty of time for everyone on all sides of the House to submit their views and opinions, and there will be plenty of time for us to debate these issues here or in Westminster Hall if anyone wants to do so. We are already off to a flying start with this second urgent question, and I will take contributions from everybody here today in the spirit of constructive submissions and suggestions in answer to the questions that the request for views has raised.

That is all very well, but Short money has nothing to do with the Cabinet Office. It is House business, not Government business. The whole point is that it enables Parliament to do its business properly. The accounting officer is not the permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, but the Clerk of the House. The Leader of the House should be here doing his job properly and answering questions.

Can this Minister confirm that any changes will have to be debated, and voted on, on the Floor of the House? Can he confirm that because this is House business, it will not be subject to a Government Whip? This is the shoddiest so-called consultation I have ever come across. It deliberately forgets to mention that Short money is linked to how many seats and how many votes all the Opposition parties got at a general election, so the main reason Short money has increased in 2015 is that this Government have a much smaller majority than the Labour Government or the coalition Government, and the Opposition parties got more seats and more votes than in previous Parliaments.

Can the Minister confirm that, contrary to what he says, this is not a 19% cut? With inflation, it is a 24% cut. How can that be right when the Chancellor has increased the cost of his political office to the taxpayer by 204%? Or is there one rule for the Opposition and quite another for the Government?

The Minister said last time that the cost and number of taxpayer-funded Tory special advisers—the only bit of this that he is responsible for—is coming down, but that is not true either, is it? Since the general election that figure has gone up, so will the Government be taking a 19% cut on 1 April? No, I do not suppose they will.

The consultation, published in the half-term recess—the Minister should be ashamed of himself—allows just 11 working days for responses, and then seems to intend to implement a decision less than three weeks later. Will that give the two Conservative-chaired Select Committees that have expressed an interest in doing inquiries time to complete those inquiries? I do not suppose it will. That is another affront to this House.

Fair-minded people will conclude that the Government are developing a nasty authoritarian streak, and that an overweening Executive wants to crush all opposition because they are afraid of scrutiny. When we were in government we trebled Short money and the Tories did not hesitate to bank £46 million, so we will not take any lessons from the Minister. When I was Deputy Leader of the House in 2009, some people suggested that we should cut Short money for the Conservative party because other Departments in Government were facing significant cuts. We said, “No, democracy is worth protecting.” This is not a consultation on cutting the cost of politics—we would welcome that. It is a pernicious ultimatum and the Government should withdraw it unless they are prepared to put Spads on the table as well. To quote the Minister, why should the Government be treated any differently from the Opposition? Feathering their own nest—that is what they are doing.

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the cost of Spads, as I mentioned when we last met to discuss this, has fallen since the general election. The request for views is entirely clear about the various different causes of the rise in Short money, and the consultation asks for views and expressions of how it might be amended point by point, so the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong about how the request for views is done.

Even if no changes are made to some of the proposals in the request for views, the Labour party will still receive more funding in real terms than did the Conservative party in 2009-10. It will receive an estimated £11 million of taxpayers’ money over this Parliament. There will be no real reduction in cash terms; in fact, there will be a small increase in cash terms, even after a 19% cut, compared with 2014-15. [Interruption.]

I was hoping for a more constructive response. I was hoping for a more balanced response. I was hoping for a set of proposals I could use as a response to the request for views. I am afraid that that is not what we have had, and I deeply regret that. I hope there is still time for us to move forward in a more constructive fashion.

I thank my hon. Friend for launching a consultation, which, I have to confess, seemed to be lacking earlier in the process, so that is obviously a step forward. It is legitimate to ask whether it costs more or less to run an Opposition depending on how big the Government’s majority is. The official Opposition have a function that should be carried out regardless of the number of seats they have. I assure my hon. Friend that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will continue to take an interest in this matter, although I hope it can be resolved rather more consensually than in today’s exchanges.

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments and particularly for his final point about trying to resolve these issues more consensually. I look forward to any conclusions his Committee arrives at. I completely agree that it must make sense at least to ask, and to request views about, what the proper cost of running an Opposition—the official Opposition or, indeed, some of the other opposition parties—should be. That does not necessarily vary depending on the number of votes cast at an election, which is something the current system requires, for example.

I declare an interest as the national secretary of the Scottish National party. It is a good thing that a consultation is taking place, but why limit it just to political parties? Why not extend it to the public and other stakeholders who might have an interest? There is nothing wrong in principle with reducing the cost of politics, so can we get some assurances on reducing the number and cost of special advisers and, indeed, of Members of the House of Lords? Given the proximity of the end of the financial year, when will the Government be in a position to confirm to the parties and the staff they employ what the settlement will be?

Obviously, the conclusions of the request for views will depend on what views are expressed, and I do not want to prejudge that. We will, however, want to move promptly and swiftly to make sure that any staff who might be affected by any changes that are announced have the maximum time for planning and that there is certainty as soon as there can be.

I regard Short money as a critical part of our democracy, but given the realistic comparison with special advisers, and the steps the Government have taken to have transparency in the publication of senior special advisers’ salaries, does the Minister not think it appropriate for the Opposition to show greater transparency in the salaries of their senior appointed researchers?

My hon. Friend, who was involved with administering Short money and policy development grants before he came into the House, knows whereof he speaks. He is right that it is essential that we demand the same transparency for taxpayers’ money in all areas. That should include not just the cost of Spads, which is already transparent, but, equally, policy development grants and Short money.

I have no problem at all with the transparency that has just been asked for. The Minister is a decent man, but I think he has been tasked with doing someone else’s dirty business. What he is proposing is not actually about the cost of politics; if it were, he would also propose a cut in the budget for special advisers. This is actually about gagging the Opposition. Will he scrap this rushed consultation, abandon the attack on the scrutiny of the Government, and look again at how the cost of politics can be reduced by, for instance, chopping the budget for special advisers?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about me, and as a member of the Whips Office with him in the last Government, I reciprocate, of course. He is right that there are other ways of cutting the cost of politics. For example, we have in front of us proposals to reduce the total number of MPs in this House. I would not, therefore, want to limit what we plan to do just to Short money, but we should not let that be the enemy of doing the right thing on this issue either. Therefore, it is essential that we proceed with these proposals, and I hope we can rely on the right hon. Gentleman’s support.

Having had a hand in the creation of the policy development grant, and having argued vigorously for Short money increases when the Conservative party was in opposition, I will have to look carefully before arguing for anything other than that this decision to make such a substantial cut needs to be reconsidered. It certainly seems unacceptable that it is being introduced in one year. Everybody understands the need for financial stringency, and for this House to takes its share of reductions, but could the Minister at least look at whether this reduction can be phased? Could he also carefully examine the point that has been made about special advisers, whose numbers have grown enormously? The Labour Government bequeathed about 80, and the coalition Government got up to about 110, although the number has been reduced a little recently. Still, those numbers are very large. Those people do provide a lot of political assistance to the Government, and there is—although not a symmetry—a relationship between the two numbers. Looking at Short money in isolation would be a mistake.

May I start by reassuring my right hon. Friend that we are talking not about a cut, but about a slower rise? The cost of Short money has already risen by 50% since 2010, which is a significant amount. We are talking about reducing the rise, which, if nothing were done, would continue to ratchet up between now and the end of the Parliament. I would also say to him that the total salary bill for Spads is still lower than the total cost of Government funding for policy development grants, Short money and other areas of expenditure. Therefore, while I agree that the two things are not directly comparable, there is some symmetry. I hope he is reassured by the fact that the Spad salary bill is much lower overall than the bill for the total funding of Opposition parties.

Will the Minister clarify his thinking on policy development grants and how it ties in with the views of the Electoral Commission?

The House will be aware that the independent Electoral Commission has undertaken a fairly careful consultation over some time and has made some recommendations. The statutory instrument I mentioned in my initial remarks implements some of those, but not all as yet. We are holding off on deciding how we proceed with the remainder of the recommendations until we have the results of the expression of views. Given the obvious parallels between Short money and policy development grant, we thought it was sensible to make sure we had one set of answers before we proceeded with the other recommendations.

The cost of Short money has increased by 68% cumulatively since 2010. Is that really justifiable at a time when councils of all colours are making very large efficiency savings? Surely, taxpayer-funded political parties can do the same.

I could not agree more. People outside this place—outside the Westminster bubble—who are looking at our discussions today will not understand why politicians feel that they should treat themselves separately and as a special case. Those people will look at what has happened to their budgets over the last five or six years and say, “What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the political gander as well.”

Setting aside for a moment the outrageous detail of the request for views, will the Minister tell the House what effect a cut in Short money would have on scrutiny and on the comfort, or discomfort, the Executive feel as they go about their business?

As I mentioned, the amount of Short money has gone up by 50% since 2010, so Opposition parties have a great deal more money with which to do their job than they did before. I refer the hon. Gentleman back to the comment made when we last considered this issue, about 10 days ago, by the hon. Member for Clacton, who pointed out that the costs of research and many other political functions are now potentially lower. Given what is being asked of many Departments and local authorities, it is certainly reasonable to ask people to work more efficiently in future.

I think the public will be astonished that full accounts do not have to be published in this age of transparency. How is the Minister going to put that right?

I devoutly hope that the result of this process will be an increase in transparency. We already have improved transparency in pretty much every other area of taxpayer-funded spending, and we already have transparency that is far better than that for Short money on policy development grants—a very similar kind of grant. It would therefore be increasingly out of step with the modern world for us to assume that Short money should somehow be magically exempt.

I would challenge the Minister, because I do not see this money as being for politicians; it is for our staff and our support teams. It is essential that we have those staff and support teams so that we deliver, and deliver well, for our constituents and the people we serve. Transparency is not an issue. None of us in this House, as far as I am aware, will dispute the need for transparency, and any moves towards transparency would be broadly supported. However, the problem is that my arithmetic seems to have gone awry. My figures tell me that in 2010 the Chancellor employed four special advisers, at a total cost of £230,000, and today he employs 10 special advisers at a total cost of £700,000. That is a 204% increase, according to my arithmetic; perhaps I am wrong. How can the Minister defend a 24% cut to those of us who are trying to make things work and a 204% rise for those in the Chancellor’s office? The Chancellor’s Spad team now costs more than the total cost of policy development grant given to all of us on these Benches—DUP, Plaid Cymru, SNP and SDLP Members. The Chancellor gets more than we get.

As I said, the cost of special advisers has fallen since the last general election. I would just point out that Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, had more Spads than the current Chancellor, and that the average salary of a special adviser is currently £2,000 less than it was under Gordon Brown’s Government in 2009.

Short money, quite rightly, exists to enable Opposition parties to undertake scrutiny and parliamentary duties. Many of my constituents will therefore find it hard to understand the funding received by Sinn Féin when its Members neither attend this House nor participate in its activities. Will my hon. Friend undertake to look at this anomaly?

For a long time, the funding received by Sinn Féin has been treated as a separate but parallel consideration, subject to a separate resolution of this House. I would expect that to continue and for it to receive separate, special consideration as a result.

I welcome the Government’s announcement that they will be cutting Short money, and I urge Ministers to stick to their guns and not to retreat. The sight of special pleading from political parties wanting to get their hands on taxpayers’ cash is disgraceful. I urge Ministers not only to slash Short money but to insist that all political parties publish fully audited accounts of what they spend it on, as my party will at the end of this year, so that we can see the hotel bills and precisely what they spend that taxpayers’ money on.

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is a timeworn phrase but it bears repetition: sunlight is the best disinfectant.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is vital that the Government secure value for money. Given that the purpose of Short money is to provide a credible Opposition, does he agree that the display that we have seen so far, with the announcement of policies such as nuclear submarines without nuclear missiles, shows that much of it has been completely squandered?

I hesitate to follow my hon. Friend down such a path, but if the purpose of Short money is to provide a credible Opposition and it has gone up by 50% since 2010, perhaps we now have an incredible Opposition instead.

Since, with the one exception that we have just heard, there is such strong feeling among those on the Opposition Benches that the Government are intending to undermine the work of the Opposition, would it not be sensible to do what was done originally when Short money was introduced—namely, to have constructive talks with the Opposition, with no ultimatum at the outset, in order to reach a fair settlement?

I had rather hoped that the request for views would elicit a strong and perhaps constructive response. I am afraid that has not been visible so far, but none the less I hope that that may change between now and the end of the period of the request for views. I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that because we are facing a deficit, time is pressing and we have less fiscal slack to play with.

Will the Short money reforms mean that Labour has to name and state the salaries of its special advisers, particularly those who write the Leader of the Opposition’s speeches, because although I do not know their remuneration, I think they are hugely overpaid?

Given the level of transparency that is already rightly expected of the Government when employing Spads, for example, it is reasonable to ask for an equivalent level of transparency with regard to how Short money is spent on people such as Damian McBride, who I understand has just rejoined the Labour party’s payroll, and Seumas Milne.

The Minister talks a lot about savings to the taxpayer, but can he confirm that any savings that will be made by these proposals will in fact be dwarfed by the extra cost to the public purse as a result of the Prime Minister’s prolific rate of appointments to the other place?

Actually, the cost of the House of Lords, I am told, is falling even while its numbers are rising, and so the cost to the public purse will be reduced as a result of the changes that are happening at the other end of the building.

On the hon. Gentleman’s broader point about whether saving this amount of money is worth while, I would say, at the risk of angering my colleagues from Scotland, that mony a mickle maks a muckle. It matters what we save and it matters that we pay attention to every single detail, given the scale of the deficit that we inherited from the previous Labour Government.

I hope the Minister will recognise that there appears to be consensus in the House on transparency. Would it be fair enough, given that the Government have reduced their travel costs during their time in office, that the Opposition should publicise their travel costs and claims for special advisers running up and down the country?

That is an intriguing proposal, and I thank my hon. Friend very much for it. I will take it as a constructive suggestion for the request for views.

Given the increase in costs of Spads since 2009 by some 56%, the proposed cut in Short money of 24% over four years is disgraceful. Is the Minister not ashamed of his Government’s attack on democracy and scrutiny in this House?

We have already covered these points. Short money has already gone up by 50%, and it has gone up by 30% in the past year. I think that people listening to these exchanges will be asking themselves how much it costs to run an Opposition and why politicians feel they are so much more deserving of cash than, for example, benefits claimants whose money has not risen at anything like the same speed.

Given the public’s perception of the performance of the Leader of the Opposition, perhaps we should just take the Opposition’s money away completely.

I will take that as a suggestion and a proposal. I suspect that the weight of views across the House may probably be rather against it and that people do feel that there is a place for Short money, if it is properly reformed, in the same way as there is a place for the policy development grant, in order to make sure that an effective Opposition, properly, not excessively, funded, can function.

Again, I ask this question: with the cost of Government Spads rising, will the Minister concede that a disgraceful 24% cut to the Opposition parties’ funds is a case of double standards and an impediment to the Opposition parties’ scrutiny of the Executive?

I am afraid that I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady, if only because, as I said, the cost of Spads has fallen since the general election and will still remain lower than the total funding for Opposition parties.

Spending of Short money is unnecessarily opaque, so in his consultation, will my hon. Friend seek representations from senior, and numerate, Opposition Members such as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) and the hon. Members for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) and for Islwyn (Chris Evans) as to whether they think that the taxpayer, and indeed their own party, gets value for money from the likes of Seumas Milne?

I will take submissions from any Member on either side of the House on what would involve good value for money. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on the questions of what represents value for money, how much it costs to run an Opposition office and whether we can make sure it is done as efficiently as possible with taxpayers’ cash.

The fact is that the number of special advisers has gone up to 96 and the Prime Minister has appointed a record 236 peers to the other place. Meanwhile, the Government have introduced the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 and are attempting to gag the trade unions and cut the Short money. That shows that the Government are not interested in cutting the cost of politics. It is absolutely clear that they want to silence any opposition in this country.

I am afraid that I do not accept the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. We are proposing to cut the number of MPs in this place—which is not an easy thing to do—so we are very serious about cutting the cost of politics. I therefore hope that, in that spirit, people will contribute constructively to the request for views.

Does the Minister agree that my constituents at least have the right to as much transparency as possible on how Short money is being spent? For all they know, it could be being used by hon. Members to help them write their books.

I am sure that none of the Opposition parties would spend taxpayers’ money in such a disrespectful fashion, but they will, of course, have nothing to hide, so I am sure that nobody will be at all concerned about proposals for increased transparency.

Will the Minister confirm that this will have to be done by a resolution of the whole House? Does he have a date in mind for such a resolution?

The usual parliamentary process will be followed, so there will have to be a proposal. The statutory instrument for positive development grants has already been laid, and that can be either passed or prayed against in the usual way. The hon. Lady is right to say that, when we come up with proposals for Short money, they will have to be passed by a resolution of this House.

Will the Minister confirm that during the consultation he will specifically look at protecting and supporting the interests of minority parties? They have a hugely important role to play in this Parliament, especially when we have such a divided and weak official Opposition.

I gave in my initial remarks an illustration of some of the peculiarities of the distribution of Short money. I gave comparisons between the money received by UKIP and the Greens, but there are other examples. Many Members of smaller Opposition parties will be able to quote examples of why they feel they are being either under or over-remunerated, depending on who they are. Therefore, it is certainly sensible for us to ask how that can be improved and whether the basis of allocation can be made better.

“Cutting the cost of politics,” the Minister says, meaning cutting the number of elected MPs while stuffing the other place full of his mates, and cutting support to Opposition parties while greatly increasing the number of Government special advisers. If he wants to cut the cost of politics, why has the Conservative party claimed £1.27 million in policy develop grants since 2010?

The allocations of money as per policy development grants are based on recommendations by the independent Electoral Commission, not on Government proposals. I would also point out that we are practicing what we preach, because in previous years the allocation of policy development grants to the Conservative party has been scaled back. We have handed some of that money back, for precisely the reasons that I described earlier about wanting to cut the cost of politics.

With a national debt of £1.5 trillion, or £24,000 for every man, woman and child in this country, and some Government Departments making heroic efforts to cut back-office functions—the Ministry of Justice is cutting 50% of its back-office functions—what possible signal does it send out to the country and to the civil servants doing those jobs when they see some political parties refusing even to engage with sensible reforms of their own funding?

I could not agree more. The general public will not understand why politicians feel that we should be a special case. They will look at and listen to this debate and ask, “Why should these guys think they are in any way deserving of better treatment than people who are on benefits and struggling with their budget? Why should they get a special deal?”

I do not think that the general public will understand why the Cabinet Office has 50 press and communications officers or why the Ministry of Justice has 42 external communication officers. Should not the Government start to tighten their own belt and cut their own cloth first?

The Government are putting their own house in order. We made dramatic savings in the public sector over the course of the last Parliament and we are continuing to make further savings, including of 19% in unprotected Departments, across the whole of Government in this Parliament, so I respectfully reject the hon. Lady’s starting assumption.

In the last Parliament, I was an adviser to the then shadow Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), along with one other part-time member of staff. By contrast, the Government Ministers had four special advisers, a series of private offices and hundreds of press officers and policy advisers. There is no equivalence. Will the Minister accept that Short money is not profligate, but the minimum required for opposition in a healthy parliamentary democracy?

If it is the minimum required for sensible opposition, perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain why it is so much higher now than it was five years ago in real terms, and why it will be higher than it was in 2014-15. If the costs of running an Opposition are consistent—they may even be lower than they used to be—the current levels of Short money, having risen so far, must be over-budget and something where savings can be made.