Orders of the Day — Members of the House of Commons (Conditions of Service) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th December 1970.

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Order for Second Reading read.

2.58 p.m.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

I beg to move. That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I suppose that one who draws a place in the Ballot as low as fifteenth can count himself fortunate to get even a short debate as early as this. This has proved possible only through the valuable help of the Officers of the Public Bill Office, to whom I wish to express my gratitude for the splendid and speedy help they gave me in the preparation of the Bill. I also wish, at the outset, to thank the sponsors of the Bill. Collectively, they have given it a stamp of respectability, and we commend the Measure to the House.

I am glad that the Chamber is sparsely attended today. It would have been rather unseemly if it had been crowded by hon. Members listening eagerly to hear something to their advantage. There is no pay claim in this Bill. Indeed, there is no demand for anything. It is concerned only with method and machinery. The Bill aims to overcome once and for all the natural and becoming reluctance of Ministers and hon. Members to talk about their own salaries, and the greater reluctance they have to do anything about them.

Members of Parliament come within the concept of public service, much of it purely voluntary, most of it ill-rewarded and given perhaps, on the largest scale in the world in this country. We do not like discussing our own problems and difficulties because we know we are here to take care of the problems and grievances and to look after the living standards of our constituents. Many people are worse off than we are. The House has shown earlier today that it regards the problem of intertia selling as having priority over the interests of Members of Parliament and that is very proper.

Of course a pensioner is entitled to ask us how we would like to live on his money. This is not because he wants us to live on his money, nor does he expect us to, but because he wants us to remember that he has a low standard of living. He wants us to bear his hardships in mind. Never at any time is a discussion on the pay of Members of Parliament a popular subject in our constituencies, nor should it be. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to ignore this problem or to try to push it aside. The composition, efficiency and incorruptibility of Parliament should be the constant concern of all the people. Just as no one ever comes to this House for the money, we cannot come here without money.

Members of Parliament, and we must accept this plain fact, very often have no other resources and they have to maintain a reasonable standard of living and do their jobs efficiently out of their emoluments and under the existing facilities. The principle of remuneration to Members was conceded 60 years ago when, for the first time, a substantial group of working men without private incomes, unable to continue earning their own living, came to this House. Most were supported by their unions and but for that would never have got here.

Until then Parliament was a rich man's club. The principles upon which Members of Parliament should be remunerated were laid down by Lloyd George when allowances were first introduced 60 years ago. They were re-stated in the Lawrence Committee report of 1964. I have included them in Clause 3 and will not read them now because they are familiar. I would, however, underline the condition that remuneration: should not be so high as to include any element of luxurious living but should recognise that Parliamentary service calls for and should be willingly accorded a measure of personal sacrifice. That is the spirit in which we all come to this House, I hope.

Principles are not enough. There must be some method and machinery for applying them. Someone must do something, and experience shows how reluctant successive Governments and Members of this House are to deal with it. It is never the right time. It is either too close to an election or too soon afterwards; or else we must set an example or we must make a gesture, or we must make some special sacrifice. There is never a best time, only the least objectionable time for considering the matter. Nevertheless, I believe that we torture ourselves overmuch about this.

It would be wrong to let proper sensitivity in these matters become a feeling of guilt. We are not only concerned with ourselves. We have our duty to Parliament, to the electorate, a duty to give the electorate an absolutely free choice of candidate, a duty to those who come here, a duty to the efficiency of this place; and we owe it to the health and efficiency of Parliament, where courage and independence are needed, that we should be securely provided for to carry out our jobs properly.

This is no place for kept men, hence this Bill. The main reason for it is to remove the uncertainty about the way we have of dealing with this delicate subject. For many years it was thought that, however painful it was, the House of Commons had to decide this matter for itself, as there was no one to whom we could refer it. We had to take the final responsibility and vote the money. We had to do it even though we knew that there might be a considerable amount of odium attaching to that act.

The last experience of that was following the Report of the Select Committee in 1953–54 and before that in 1927. The Select Committee of 1953–54 made a recommendation to the House. But the Government shirked it. They rejected it, introducing a little scheme of their own called, "Sessional allowances". There was a Motion before the House to approve the Select Committee's Report and it was carried on a free vote. Notwithstanding this, the Government felt unable to implement it.

In 1957, the Government took the initiative in proposing a further improvement in Members' pay. That was not a very happy experience and when it was done, it lasted for six years. Then we came to 1963 and we embarked on another experiment. We had had enough of trying to do it by ourselves off our own bat and we decided to refer it to an independent Committee. The idea was good but the timing was bad, unfortunately.

It was agreed betwen the parties that a reference should be made to the Lawrence Committee in the 1959–64 Parliament, and there was a gentleman's agreement that whoever formed the Government after the 1964 General Election should implement the Committee's findings. When the Labour Government took office in 1964, they found the Lawrence Report awaiting them. That Government, although implementing the recommendations of the Lawrence Committee on the pay of Members, halved the improvements recommended for Ministers.

Even so, when we got into our constituencies soon after, the first comment we heard was, "Ah! The first thing you did after you were elected was to improve your own pay". They would not listen to the explanation of how it had been decided in the previous Parliament that we should all try to keep the matter out of political controversy and that, whoever took office at the General Election, would have this responsibility. That was the 1963–64 experiment, and I do not think that it should be repeated in that form.

Again, the recommendations of the Lawrence Committee adopted by the House in 1964 have stood for six years. We must not overlook, however, that last year the Labour Government proposed some easement in secretarial allowances and free telephone calls and telegrams on parliamentary business. To be quite fair, we must acknowledge that in many cases that has been of great help to Members. I say candidly that free postage has saved me £3 a week. Indeed, without these two concessions, there would have been greater hardship in the House than there is today.

One of the strange things about the vocation of a Member of Parliament is that expenses rise and net income falls in ratio to the amount of work done. The more work we do, the less net pay we have. There are not many vocations in the country where the harder the work, the less the take-home pay. This is because we have to meet most of our essential expenditure out of gross remuneration.

It is six years since the Lawrence Committee made the recommendations which were adopted in 1964. Unhappily the value of money has been eroded since then. There has on average been an annual fall of 4·4 per cent. in the value of our remuneration. That is not peculiar to Members of Parliament but it has written down the remuneration agreed upon in 1964 by £600 or £700 a year. So when I ask myself whether the time has come for a further review, I reply that the time has come to set a further review in motion. We therefore have to consider how it should be done and when it should be done.

I do not think that we want to go back to doing it ourselves. We do not want to back to the Lawrence experiment in which a committee was set up in one Parliament and delivered its Report in the next. It should be done in one Parliament. If it is done too late in a Parliament it is said to be too near an election, and if it is done too soon after an election we are told that it is too soon in that Parliament. We are now approaching the time when this machinery might be set up. We want the firm advice of an independent body.

The Bill proposes that there should be a special review body. I recall that on 2nd November the Secretary of State for Employment announced the setting up of review bodies which the Government intended to replace the old National Board for Prices and Incomes. Three such bodies were suggested. One was to advise on the remuneration of the boards of nationalised industries, the judiciary, senior civil servants and members of the Armed Forces, and such other groups as might appropriately be considered with them. Another was to advise on the pay of the Armed Forces generally, and another on the pay of doctors and dentists.

The Government may feel that if we ourselves are to have a special review body it should be within the complex of those review bodies and interlocking with them, or they may feel it appropriate to refer the matter to one of three bodies they are intending to set up—probably the first. It might be a positive advantage if members of the review body dealing with the remuneration of Members of Parliament had knowledge and experience of looking at the remuneration of others in the public service.

The principles are set out in general terms, but I hope that any review body would be given wide terms of reference. For example, it would be quite suitable for such a body to look at the present system of gross remuneration of Members of Parliament from which we have to pay a substantial part of our expenses. Is it a healthy situation in which expenses have such a large part to play in our approach to gross remuneration?

We are all familiar with the subject of admissible expenses for income tax purposes. As an old Inland Revenue man, I have always criticised employers who pay gross remuneration and expect their employees to pay their expenses from that grass remuneration and then do battle with the Inland Revenue for the best net income they can get, which is what the Schedule E provision amounts to when we come up against the proviso that expenses must be wholly, necessarily and exclusively incurred for the purpose of our office. There are various aspects of our service which the review body should be free to look at and to advise upon.

The subject of timing is dealt with in Clause 4. What is done should be done soon. The Clause stipulates that the review body should report to the House at intervals of not more than two years. That might be thought to be a little too frequent for Members of Parliament, though many workers outside think that two years is far too long. I believe that in every normal Parliament there should be a review—and about the middle of a Parliament is perhaps the right time.

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons has given very careful consideration to the Bill and to all the arguments that can be brought in support of it; and that if he gets the opportunity he wishes to say something to the House this afternoon. I shall be very happy to do business with him across the Floor of the House. I will tell him the reasonable terms upon which he can get general assent.

First, the House would like to hear from him that the Government are willing to refer this matter to an independent review body. It is for him to say what he thinks would be the most appropriate and convenient body to which to send it. Secondly, we should expect from him a firm intention of referring this matter to the review body of his choice in the near future and with adequate terms of reference. Thirdly, we should expect him to give an assurance that the review body will in future be asked to report at least once in each Parliament of a normal length and more frequently if the Government send a special reference to it.

I am sure that that is all I need to say, except to thank all those who have assisted in the presentation of the Bill. We now eagerly await what the Lord President of the Council has to say.

3.16 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I should like to start by thanking the right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) for having introduced the Bill in such reasonable terms and, secondly, for having decided when he was fortunate in the Ballot to choose this subject for a Bill.

He has, as he has rightly said, collected a powerful body of sponsors. He himself speaks in his own right as a very senior and much respected Member of the House who has done a great deal both for his own party and the House as a whole. He is sponsored by the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin), who was the Labour Government Chief Whip and for whom I have the greatest respect and with whom I worked very closely and, as one can in these matters, very happily over some difficult years. He also has the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), who has done a great deal of work on Members' remuneration and the Members' Fund and who has been very properly exercised about the position of those of our colleagues who from time to time have lost in elections and who may be in some financial difficulties thereby. I have considerable sympathy with many of his points of view on this problem.

The right hon. Member for Sowerby has collected, and perhaps it would be proper for me to say very wisely collected, two of the most senior Privy Councillors on the Government side of the House. He has the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd), who has been a leading figure in British politics—I would not say before I was born, but I was not particularly old when he became one.

The Bill comes forward sponsored by right hon. Gentlemen of great experience and with much knowledge of our procedures and a great deal of knowledge, from Parliaments in differing times, of the jobs and processes of Members of Parliament, and this is very important. There are certain points which the right hon. Gentleman made with which I very much agreed. He said that the problem which he raised was inevitably rather vexed and was one which all too often we were all rather shy of facing and discussing. That is abundantly true. He said that the Bill was in no sense a pay claim; that is abundantly true. I have made clear the problems over pay of Members of Parliament, and I will do so again in specific terms later in my speech. This is in no sense a pay claim. It is, as the right hon. Gentleman said, a discussion about procedures for the future.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that we come here and work to take care of the problems and grievances of our constituents, and it is, inevitably, a job in which there is an element of public sacrifice. I believe it would be thought right that this should be so. On the other hand, the right hon. Gentleman also made it clear that we have a duty to our constituents, and a wider duty as the House of Commons as a whole to the country, to make sure that we are efficient in carrying out our duties. This is immensely important.

Those who argue that they wish to see an efficient and modern Parliament must accept that this cannot in this modern age be done unless the money is there to make Parliament efficient and up to date. That goes much wider than the salary and remuneration of Members of Parliament; it is simply a fact of life. We cannot have an efficient, up-to-date Parliament on the cheap. That is simply not possible, and we would be wrong not to make that perfectly clear. The right hon. Gentleman then said that he hoped that I would this afternon indicate that something would be done and that we would have no fears of making a move on this problem.

Before I express to the House what I propose, I should like to agree with one other point made by the right hon. Gentleman. He said that this was a place where the more a person worked the less he was paid. There will be few people who will believe this, but it is in fact true. In saying that, I pay tribute to the improvements which my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), effected in the allowances for secretaries, in particular, and for postage. I hope, too, that the change made by this Parliament in bringing the motor mileage allowance for Members into line with what is paid to members of local authorities will be regarded as a sensible provision, and I am glad that we were able to do it.

On that basis, let me turn to what I believe can be done and what the Government propose. The House will recall that on 2nd November my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment announced that the Government intended to establish three Review Bodies to advise on the remuneration of certain groups for whom, for one reason or another, no negotiating machinery was appropriate. One of these was to advise on the remuneration of the boards of nationalised industries, the judiciary, senior civil servants, senior officers of the Armed Forces and, as the right hon. Member for Sowerby mentioned, such other groups as might appropriately be considered with them. This Review Body, along with the others to be set up, would be serviced by an Office of Manpower Economics which would not be part of the Government machine. Its reports would, therefore, be entirely independent.

The body, as I think was recognised by the right hon. Gentleman, would have considerable knowledge and experience, based upon looking at other salaries in the community as a whole. For this reason, such a body would perhaps be better placed than any specially constituted body could be to study this difficult question of the remuneration of Members of Parliament.

The Review Body itself, as I have said, will be looking at salaries over a range of occupations, will have ready access to all the relevant data, and will have at its disposal a secretariat with experience in this subject. I can now tell the House that it would be the Government's intention, when this Review Body has been set up early in the new year, to refer to it the whole question of the emoluments, allowances, expenses and pensions of Ministers and Members of the House of Commons.

The Government will set out the terms of reference but, in response to the right hon. Gentleman, I should like to say that, before doing so, they will certainly be prepared to discuss these terms of reference through the usual channels and indeed with hon. Members in any part of the House. At the same time I must, of course, make it clear that the final decision on these terms of reference must be a matter for the Government, but after consultation. It would also be for the Government, as I think it would be for any Government, to make the final decision on the recommendations.

There can be no question of an increase in the salaries of Ministers or Members of Parliament under present circumstances. But even with that reservation, I hope that the House will accept that the method I have proposed is the right way of tackling this problem. In response to the right hon. Member for Sowerby, it would be the Government's intention that a similar reference should be made once in every Parliament of normal length. In saying that, I bear very much in mind the points about timing made very clearly by the right hon. Gentleman. Again, I agree with him that early in a Parliament to the middle of a Parliament is the best time for such a reference to be made. I have used the phrase deliberately. I do not think anybody or any Government would wish to be tied down in this matter.

I hope that I have responded to the proposals made in the right hon. Gentleman's Bill in the way that he would have wished. He said he was prepared to do business with me. I hope that I have shown that I am prepared to do business with him. If at the conclusion of our deal, having regard to the absolute assurance which I have given, he feels able to withdraw his Bill, I feel that this would be the best method in which to proceed.

Lest there be any doubt as to the specific assurance I have given as part of my proposal that it would be right to withdraw the Bill, I will repeat it to the House. It is that it would be the Government's intention, when this Review Body has been set up early in the new year, to refer to it the whole question of the emoluments, allowances, expenses and pensions of Ministers and Members of the House of Commons. On that basis, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing the Bill. The Government propose to proceed in the manner I have outlined.

3.30 p.m.

Photo of Mr Charles Pannell Mr Charles Pannell , Leeds West

The Leader of the House is a most agreeable man; indeed, one of the most agreeable Leaders of the House we have ever had. I am especially moved to say this in view of the statement he has just made. I would pay the tribute to him that, whereas a Leader of the House is in effect the Leader in this House in the Government of the day, we also know that the right hon. Gentleman feels a responsibility for us all.

I want to say something about the idea that the harder an hon. Member works, the more his expenses are. In 1952, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), I promoted an agitation for equal pay in the public services. I had to have four secretaries to deal with the mail, and various women's organisations had to help me. It is true that if any hon. Member takes up a particular cause here he is simply snowed under.

The Leader of the House referred to my interest in defeated Members. We ought to remember, in the moment of victory, that defeat is part of the price we pay for democracy. Many decent, honourable men and women on both sides have paid pretty severely for that in my 21 years. The fact is that many men, often in their 30s and 40s and with the good will of their wives, come into this place and put their careers at risk, because they sometimes go out in their 50s. That is not strictly what we are discussing today, but it is part of the background.

Civil servants and many other people, whose conditions are often referred to the same tribunal, have a continuing association with their professions and can be cushioned against the shafts of outrageous fortune. But Members of Parliament cannot be cushioned against the movements of boundaries or the fact that housing changes and other things can affect their constituencies. Therefore, the Bill seeks to ensure that Members of Parliament—people who opt to come into this House and thereby opt for a degree of risk—are compensated not to the extent of luxury but to reasonable subsistence.

There is no doubt about the demands of this House. It is a great mistake to imagine that Ministers work harder than hon. Members. I was a Minister from 1964 to 1966, and I did not seem to have time in those years to be a Member of Parliament. It is a good thing that I had a P.P.S. But since then I have never had time to be a Minister.

The work which we do is important. With deference to hon. Gentlemen opposite, newcomers do not fully realise when they first come here that it requires at least 350 to 400 hon. Members to give their full time for this place to work efficiently and effectively. There may be a place for the part-timer in politics, but in the main this place runs on the full-timers on both sides who take part in the manning of committees and other day-to-day matters.

I do not want to make a long speech. I join in the pleasure that my right hon. Friend has brought through the Bill. He was drafting it only a fortnight ago. Now he literally gets acceptance of the principle—he gets the lot—without a Committee stage, Third Reading, Report stage, the Lords. Some people will say that Parliament moves quickly only in its own interests. That is not so. We are setting up machinery to give ourselves the same measure of justice and recognition that we attempt to give to our constituents—and to protect the democratic process.

3.34 p.m.

Photo of Mr Thomas Peart Mr Thomas Peart , Workington

I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) and his colleagues, particularly my right hon Friends the Members for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) and for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin), for initiating the Bill. They must have been agreeably surprised by the response of the Leader of the House.

I, too, accept that the Leader of the House is a most agreeable man who serves with distinction. Naturally, as a former Leader of the House, I wish him well. I know that he really is anxious to improve conditions of working for hon. Members. Already we have the announcement on the mileage question, which I thought was very sensible. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tribute which he paid to me regarding allowances, postage, and telephone services. We all accept that many Members are overworked and underpaid. We all know the hardships and difficulties hon. Members face. In a democracy Members must be expected to have the ability to perform their services to the country efficiently and well. We must not be mealy-mouthed about this; and I never have been.

The Leader of the House is tackling this matter in the right way. Therefore, I shall delay the proceedings no further. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby has helped in many ways by introducing the Bill. I am glad that the Leader of the House and the Government have responded in this way. It is right that this matter should be considered by the Review Body. I congratulate the Leader of the House on being so forthcoming and so very sensible. Without further ado, may I express the hope that my right hon. Friend will withdraw his Bill and let us have discussions through the usual channels.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

I warmly thank the Leader of the House for the statement he has made. For once in a way, may I ask him to convey to his colleagues in the Government our appreciation of what he has been authorised to do this afternoon. I am sure that his assurances are very definite; and we accept them for what they are intended to be—a genuine attempt to deal with this matter in reasonable time in an appropriate manner.

In these circumstances, I am sure that it would be the united wish of the House that I should beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.