Don Touhig (Islwyn, Labour)
My hon. Friend makes a good point; that is how the system is operating.
If we accept all the recommendations of the report, as proposed by the hon. Member for North Devon, we will commit ourselves to employing hundreds of accountants who will travel Britain at great cost to the taxpayer, checking on whether a Member from the north of Scotland has spent too much on paper clips and on whether a Member from the south-west could have bought toilet paper for his office staff cheaper at the Co-op than he could at Tesco.
Bringing in outside teams of auditors always sounds good, but it can be expensive and it undermines the objective of sensible spending. My colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee and I are forever upbraiding Government Departments for spending millions of pounds on consultants. Let us not make the same mistake. The Members Estimate Committee wrote to Sir John Baker on the separate issue of Members' salaries and stated that the pay issue had got out of all proportion to its real significance to the public purse. With the proposed audit, we are in danger of making the same thing happen. There is a great danger that if we make that mistake on Members' allowances by spending a disproportionate amount of money on external auditors, we will have a high cost to pay at the end of the day. What is needed is not outside auditors but the development of auditing expertise within this House so that we do not create waste when we need transparency and good use of public money. Let us involve the National Audit Office in helping us to set up our own internal audit system so that we do not spend more money on things that we cannot justify.
The amendment that I have tabled, with the support of others, supports the continuation of the principle of the ACA to meet the necessary costs of MPs living away from home. I think that most fair-minded people would accept that the extraordinary situation of an MP needing to live both in his or her constituency and in London requires an allowance to support those costs.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that the confidence of the public in Members has been severely damaged by press stories about allowances and expenditure. That is why I support most of the recommendations in the report, which present the House with an opportunity to bring about a system that is transparent and open to scrutiny. It is a chance for Members to demonstrate that they are serious about restoring public faith in Members of Parliament. We are charged in this debate with restoring public confidence in this House and in our political system. We all recognise, I think, that it is imperative to put in place a system with clear guidelines and spot checks, but we must get the right system. Of course, underlying any debate on reform of the ACA is the fact that we should be seen in this House to be exercising the same type of restraint that has been asked for from others in the public sector. For that reason, my amendment supports the freezing of the communications allowance and the introduction of restrictions on Members claiming for travel.
At a time when public perception of politics and politicians is at an all-time low, the decisions that we make today will help to restore public faith in us. It is up to us to reaffirm that public service for its own sake is worth while and honourable. Given the way that the report has gone, I do not believe that we will currently be able to do that.