Working Group on Provision for Former Members
Mr Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw, Labour)
This is a rather unusual motion, and I am deeply grateful, as are the colleagues who have worked with me on this, to the Speaker, who provided guidance on how to set about tabling it, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who has been admirably supportive. The Labour Chief Whip has supported us, as have the Chief Whips of the other two main parties. Everybody has been very willing to try to do something about this serious problem.
Every MP has to face the fact that sooner or later they will no longer be a Member of this House. If the voters do not see us off, old age or the boundary changes will. That applies to me, because I am leaving after 32 years. Since 1986, approximately 660 MPs have left. Half of them retired and the others were rejected by the electorate. In the last election alone, 178 Conservative MPs lost their seats. The average stay of an MP today is eight years.
What happened to the MPs who left? Few people know. We know that democracy demands many victims. In the nine Parliaments that I have served in, there have been many anecdotes of ex-Members who have suffered nervous breakdown, divorce, heart disease, alcoholism, depression, serious debt and even, in two cases, suicide. Where is the evidence? It exists, but it is mainly hearsay because few, if any, losers want to parade their unemployed grief or poverty in public, especially if local newspapers have featured pictures and headlines about them, perhaps exulting in their defeat. Their children may be verbally abused in the playground and end up in tears. There are some sad, sorry stories.
The proposals came about because a couple of years ago, in response to a request from a publisher, I started to write a book of memoirs. I tried to trace old comrades and opponents to check on facts such as times and places, and I found it impossible to do so. I could not get their address and telephone number or any other information. The Fees Office and the pensions unit were helpful and sympathetic, but unfortunately the Data Protection Acts prevented them from giving out addresses or telephone numbers and even from confirming that an ex-Member was still alive. They said that they were sorry about that, but occasionally, such as in June 1999, told me that if I were to check The Times obituary column I might find the information that I sought.
I then began to try to form an all-party lobby to compile that information on a voluntary basis, but we could not get the names and addresses—the database was not available. People outside the House, such as Norman Atkinson and Frank Allaun, came to me and said that they badly needed an organisation to speak up on their behalf but that they could not get the names and addresses of ex-MPs. I contacted old friends in the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), and the hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for Southport (Mr. Fearn) and for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). I am sure that they would all be in the Chamber, had we started at 10 o'clock as we intended. Some of them had rallied round, but the earlier start has put us in a rather difficult position. However, a few have managed to make it.