[Relevant document: The Sixth Report from the Committee on Standards and Privileges on Employment of family members through the Staffing Allowance: Proposals for consultation, HC 383.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House approves the Seventh Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 436) on Employment of family members through the Staffing Allowance; and endorses the changes proposed by the Committee in the purpose and form of the Register of Members' Interests. —[Steve McCabe.]
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Before I turn to my Committee's specific recommendations in its seventh report, it might be helpful if I briefly set out the background to our proposals for the disclosure of family members in the Register of Members' Interests.
In developing our proposals, the Committee has kept in close touch with the Members Estimate Committee. That process has been assisted in no small measure by the presence of Nick Harvey on both the Members Estimate Committee and my Committee.
We noted that the proposal to include in the register details of family members employed broke new ground in that, for the first time, Members would be required to include information that did not relate to a direct pecuniary interest. In recognition of that extension of its scope, and to emphasise the distinction, we also proposed that the register should in future be divided into two parts, with the first containing the existing categories of pecuniary interest, and the second containing the new category of relatives employed. The House is today being asked to approve that change in the scope and nature of the register. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for providing time for an early debate on our report.
We also sought views on whether there should be a transitional period of voluntary registration. Despite the short period that could be allowed for consultation if we were to meet the
My Committee gave careful consideration to those arguments. We concluded that it was both practicable and right to seek to make early progress—as has subsequently been made in other areas, including the receipts threshold and petty cash, provisions on both of which take effect from
We have confirmed our proposal for the new requirements to come into effect on
Before I conclude, I should like to make a couple of more general points. Essentially, faced with the situation following our fourth report, there were three possible options concerning the employment of family members. One was to do nothing, the second was to ban the practice and the third was to introduce greater transparency. I simply do not believe that the do-nothing option is tenable against the climate of public opinion. The second is the possibility of a ban, as the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life accepted in his statement of
"seem a rather harsh answer to the problem".
He went on to say that
"an alternative approach would be to insist on greater transparency and proper monitoring of existing requirements, which is generally better than creating new rules and prohibitions."
I agree with that; we should not compel hon. Members to dismantle arrangements that have enabled them to provide a high-quality service to their constituents. In proposing a formal mechanism for disclosure of employment of relatives, we have taken steps to introduce greater transparency, while at the same time not precluding changes that may emerge from the MEC review, with which my Committee will continue to keep in close touch on issues where we have a common interest.
Finally, I take the opportunity to remind the House of the importance of ensuring that, in all cases, an employee meets a genuine need in supporting the performance of parliamentary duties; that they are both qualified and able to do the job; that the job is actually done; and that the resulting costs, as far as they are charged to the staffing allowance, are reasonable and entirely attributable to the Member's parliamentary work. I also remind the House of the importance of being able to demonstrate, if challenged, that the terms of any such employment are beyond reproach, and of the severe consequences of falling short of this requirement.
I commend my Committee's proposals to the House in the hope that their implementation will help to rebuild public confidence in the House, both in our arrangements for employing staff in the light of the undoubted damage done by the events that were the subject of our fourth report, and in the ability of the House to respond quickly and positively to legitimate concerns about our arrangements.
First, transparency, however painful, is an essential ingredient of a modern democracy, and we should not enter into arrangements in the employment of staff, or in any other respect, that cannot be defended publicly. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman referred to timing, and I believe that the Committee was right to resist calls for delay. Action was urgently required in the wake of recent events. We in this House have to get ahead of public opinion, and not be continually dragged along behind it.
Thirdly, and perhaps slightly more controversially, we have only ourselves to blame for the situation in which we find ourselves with regard to public opinion.
It is true that much of the media reporting on our allowances is mendacious, but for far too long we have tolerated arrangements that do not exist anywhere else in the public or private sector. I recall that on one day in 2001 we voted down the Senior Salaries Review Body's recommendations on pensions and additional costs and substituted more generous arrangements. Sooner or later there was bound to be a public backlash.
The hon. Gentleman said that we voted down some of the SSRB's proposals on pensions. The only way that they were voted down was, I recollect, by our disagreeing with the SSRB recommendation that would have benefited hon. Members in relation to retained benefits. Can the hon. Gentleman recall any other matter?
The hon. Gentleman is far better acquainted with the subject than I am, but my recollection is that at some stage we voted to change the number of years—it was sixtieths, but has gone down to fortieths. He will correct me if I am wrong, but that was against the SSRB's recommendations, was it not?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's confirmation that my recollection is not wrong. It is certainly not wrong on the additional costs allowance, either, where we voted down the SSRB recommendations and added an extra £4,000. The result is that spending the entire allowance has become a target to be aimed for, rather than recompense for expenses legitimately incurred. That is one of the things that have got us into the trouble. However, I do not wish to go any further down that road, because that is not the subject of our discussion.
This is not on the pension position, but is it not the case that reform usually comes only because of a scandal? My hon. Friend might remember cash for questions, the story in The Sunday Times and so on, when change came accordingly as a result of exposure. It is likewise in the current case. As he says, we always seem to drag our feet on the necessity to be transparent.
Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend's point is that such changes come about usually only after a controversy that dynamites us into action, which is certainly what happened in this case. I am sure that we could point to others, too, were it in order to do so.
Finally, I regard the modest change proposed, which I believe will command universal agreement in the House and outside, as only a first step. We need to establish a mechanism that ends once and for all the practice of voting on our pay and allowances. We look to Sir John Baker for a way out of that. We also need to account properly and publicly for the allowances that we rightly receive, and we look to the Members Estimate Committee to help us with that.
We are all grateful to the Standards and Privileges Committee for its work, particularly as it has worked so quickly. On
It is clearly intended that from April there should be a facility for registering family members, with a view to a final, compulsory system being in place by August, to dovetail with the recommendations of the Members Estimate Committee as a whole. I strongly support that proposal, and the proposal that we should have a compulsory system rather than a voluntary one. I also strongly support the proposal that the name of the family member, or other person with a relationship with the Member, should be listed, and that the job that they do should be described. I hope that it will also be necessary expressly to state the pay band that goes with the job, so that people do not have to cross-refer to other documents, and to state the minimum number of hours per week that the person is contracted to work. That was one of the abuses that came to light in the fourth report.
I do not have a personal interest in this matter. I have never paid anyone in my family out of my staffing allowance in all my time here, although obviously family and friends have helped with campaigning. That, however, is an entirely different issue, and will apply to all of us.
Given that this is such a high-profile issue, it is surprising that when the Committee went through the normal procedure of advertising its call for evidence, only three members of the public responded. Sometimes a tale full of sound and fury signifies a lot of interest, but when it came to people actually expressing a view, there was a pretty minimal response from the public. Sir John Baker might not love me for this, but I would like to put in a plug for people to make their views known. Given that the deadline that he has set for people to make submissions to him is, I think,
Thank you. I should like to put in a plug for colleagues and people outside who have a view about pay to make those views known so that they can be fed into the system. We really should not just be talking to ourselves about these things, and it is important that our constituents feed into this process as well.
My next point might be more controversial. My right hon. Friend Mr. Clegg and I take the view that, as from
We could achieve this change in several ways. We could decide that Members could employ only one member of staff, and that they could pay that person no more than half the yearly allowance, which is now about £100,000. Alternatively, we could set an upper limit to the amount of money available, or set a percentage. It would not be acceptable if this became a way of employing one's family. People might have wonderfully qualified family members who could do these jobs; that is not the point. The point is that we are public servants, and most of the jobs should be advertised publicly and recruited for publicly. There should be an equal opportunities policy for them, and we should behave like the rest of the public service, as the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges has pointed out.
The only reason why it is acceptable to employ one family member or relative is that being a Member of Parliament often places considerable strains on family life; it is often, in a way, a small business in which all the family is engaged. It is therefore entirely justifiable that a spouse, partner, parent, child, son-in-law or daughter-in-law should be asked to help if they are competent to do so. That is entirely understandable, and can be good for family life. We go beyond the line, however, when we employ a second or third family member. If the first family member ceases to be employed, it is of course reasonable for a second person from the family to be recruited. I hope that we shall have a tough rule in place by
Would the hon. Gentleman really be comfortable with public advertising of vacancies for our staff? This is a sensitive area. Would he really want a Tory secretary, for example? Would I really want a Lib Dem researcher? I think possibly not.
My understanding is that that occasionally happens under the present arrangements, when Members find that—either in knowledge or in ignorance—they have recruited someone who may not share their political viewpoint. Even in families, however, there are sometimes different political views—not, of course, in the right hon. Gentleman's family, as I know that his family members who have expressed their views have the same view as his. I do not resile from my position, however. It would be unacceptable to insist that we had to employ people irrespective of their political views; the employee has to be compatible with the political party, or suitable for working with a particular colleague, in the case of an independent. Otherwise, it is entirely possible to recruit on a broad basis. There are websites about working for an MP, and adverts are placed in the newspapers. It is perfectly proper to advertise in that way, and the ability to support either the individual or the party would rightly be seen as a necessary requirement of the job.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that Members who employ two family members should get rid of one of them on
I said very clearly that we cannot legislate retrospectively in such matters, but from
I wish to raise two final issues that colleagues across the House are concerned about. First, the question that we are debating is a different one from protecting the privacy of our members of staff generally. Mr. Speaker and the Members Estimate Committee are addressing a matter that it is important to get right—how we protect the safety and integrity of our members of staff. That is a wider debate, but I do not think it applies to family members. In the case of family members, there is an overriding obligation to disclose, which is what we should do.
The second wider issue—again it is a separate matter and not directly affected by what we are debating—is the need to ensure that the home addresses of family members, as of Members of Parliament, are not exposed to unnecessary risks. As I say, that is a wider issue. The issues for today, however, are different. Should we adopt the report? Yes, we should. Should it be only an interim report? Yes, it should. Should the system become compulsory in August? Yes, it should, but I hope it goes further than that. I hope that it will be made clear from then onwards that one family member employee, at most, is quite enough.
Mr. Mullin rightly called on us to restore public confidence and trust as quickly as possible, but unless we limit the number of family members that we take on, we will, bluntly, fail to achieve that. I hope that we are tough with ourselves and robust in our decisions, and that we sort the problem out quickly, rather than leaving it in the long grass.
I preface my remarks by declaring two interests. The first is that I am a member of the advisory panel on Members' allowances, and the second is that I employ my husband. From the first day I started to employ him, that fact has appeared in my election address. When the fury about the employment of Members' families broke out, I had only one communication about it. That came from someone who regularly writes me letters—usually angry letters—but on this occasion it was to congratulate me on employing Ian, which was described as one of the best decisions I had ever made. Clearly, not everyone thinks it is necessarily a bad thing to employ one's spouse. Sometimes, however, we have to think a little more deeply about our decisions in the House, and on this occasion, I want us to think more deeply about our job descriptions.
When we started to reflect on these issues, we began by discussing the consultation on the Senior Salaries Review Body, which predates the fury about what happened in the particular case we all know about, so I do not quite agree that we always come to these matters kicking and screaming. We are also looking into personnel functions—another important aspect. Since I advertise the fact that I employ my husband, I am obviously not against transparency, but I am concerned about job descriptions.
The fact that I am a little disabled is clear for everyone to see, so it is not a private matter for me, but for some people, becoming disabled is a private matter. The fact that my husband is my carer is part of his job description, and necessarily so, because the rules of the House say that if someone is one's carer, it must be part of their job description. If have checked today, and that is a condition laid down by the House, so that other allowances can flow.
Other Members who are disabled might want to keep their disabilities a private matter. Not all disabilities are public. Not all people with disabilities use wheelchairs or have a walking stick, as I do. Some disabilities are private, and some people prefer to keep illnesses a private matter. While this is a narrow area, we must consider whether such matters need to be revisited. If it is a rule of the House that allowances due to Members flow from job descriptions, the Committee needs to consider that situation so that some privacy can be afforded to Members, and we do not have a two-tier system regarding job descriptions.
I have every sympathy with the hon. Lady's point. When the Standards and Privileges Committee report says that the job description should appear in the register, it is envisaged that that should be the job title. The wording might be slightly misleading, but the Committee certainly has no intention whatever that the entry in the register should go into any detail about the contents of the job description itself.
Many Members with this concern will be comforted by that helpful response. When I asked members of the Committee about the issue, I was told that Members would have time to review their position. I asked over and over again what was meant by a review and I was told, "You'll have time to get your house in order." When I asked whether I could take this particular element out of the job description, Officers of the House told me that I could not, because elements of allowances flowed from its inclusion in the job description. The two messages were inconsistent. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, because while my disability is visible and there for all to see, others have disabilities that are not visible. If the hon. Gentleman is correct, people will be comforted—I see that hon. Members are nodding—and the review will be unnecessary in that regard.
I am also worried about the very broad range of salaries. Knowing what my constituents are like—I am sure that all hon. Members' constituents are the same—they will assume that everyone is on the top rate. I will get letters saying, "Isn't there a lot of money going into your house?" I can assure my constituents right away that my husband is not on the top of the range—neither is he right at the bottom—but Members will receive lots of letters saying, "I expect you're all on the top rate."
This process will not be the end; there will be a lot more curiosity. What we are doing should be about serving the public interest, not public curiosity. I hope that the process will feed into the Members Estimate Committee and that we will be allowed to carry on work to examine a proper personnel function that can exist alongside a proper accounting function. While this process serves a function, it will not be the whole story. Rather than looking at what Members' families do, surely the House should look at what all our staff do.
As employers, we ought to be looking at the interests of our staff. All our staff need to be doing what they are paid to do. What is interesting here is not the fact that one individual made a mistake about a member of their family, but the fact that there ought to be a proper personnel function whereby an employer employs a member of staff, we know what that member of staff is doing, and we have a proper way to deal with the relationship between employer and employee so that it is properly accounted for. That would satisfy the public that we know what we are doing, that we are a proper professional organisation—all of us—and that we do not make a distinction between family members and others.
To say that a member of my family is somehow less of a human being and more likely to be a rogue, a vagabond and a thief seems to be the wrong way to look at things. Any of us could be making mistakes, so we must ensure that the functions of the House are so correctly set up that none of us could make a mistake with any of our staff. That would be the right way forward.
I, too, support the report; in particular, I compliment the Committee on producing it so rapidly. As my right hon. Friend Sir George Young pointed out, it is only eight weeks since the coming to pass of the events that led to the necessity to produce the report. It is a great tribute to his work that the response has been so rapid.
I have a small amount of sympathy with the view that the matter should perhaps have been considered in the round along with all the Members Estimate Committee issues. That point was made by Kali Mountford a moment or two ago, but as the Committee was willing to move so quickly, it makes sense to have produced the report. I hope that action will be taken in advance of the next tax year.
I fear, however, that the House is still woefully slow to wake up to the reality of public opinion surrounding the use and—I further fear—frequent misuse of allowances and expenses. The dismay and disgust of recent weeks have given way in recent days to disbelief as, collectively, we still appear to regard these issues as something of a parliamentary matter to be kept away from the prying eyes of press and public alike. It is essential that we get real. We now need a regime of openness, transparency and full disclosure. As Mr. Mullin pointed out, that regime needs to be fit for the modern world in which we live.
I very much support virtually the entire report. It is correct that Members should be required to name members of staff with whom they have a strong personal relationship. I have some fears about the de minimis proposal, although I suspect that the events of recent months will put that to one side. I fear that a de minimis arrangement almost gives rise to the notion that paying 600 quid a year to a close member of staff to do the Christmas card list is part and parcel of the various rations. I hope that what has happened in recent weeks and months means that we will put an end to the flagrant misuse, particularly of the additional costs allowance, which we will discuss further before the summer recess.
I also want to comment briefly on behalf of my own staff. I allowed them to say what they thought about the report. Like many Members, I have never employed a member of my family as a member of staff; I was elected seven years ago. When I consulted my staff, they were concerned about much fuller disclosure, although it is something to which I would not object. However, their objection was instinctive, on the basis that it has perhaps at times been useful not to give their name over the telephone, particularly when a constituent might be violent or threatening. All my staff are here at the Palace of Westminster, in the heart of my constituency, but I am sure that the same objection applies to the staff of many Members from outside London who have constituency offices on their own patch, where staff could find themselves at some risk of assault, through either menacing telephone calls or, indeed, physical attack.
Therefore, in bringing forward this welcome first step in what I hope will be a list of disclosures, we need to recognise that the people who have suffered most are not Members of Parliament, but, in many ways, their members of staff. I am sure that they are the butt of jokes. Anyone who says that he or she works for a Member of Parliament has probably had a very difficult time over the past two months. Staff members are not particularly well remunerated by any normal standards. I would love to pay my staff working in central London considerably more, but obviously I must remain within the constraints of our budgets. We should remember that the interests of staff need to be served as well.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire for introducing his timely report so swiftly. I hope that it will reflect well, together with all the other various other reports, so that we shall put our House entirely in order in the months ahead. I fear it is inevitable that the press will wish to make much of this, but it is not just the result of a campaign put up by the Daily Mail or the Evening Standard. These issues are at the heart of many of the concerns of the constituents whom we seek to represent, and we now have it in our power to ensure that we get things right.
I thank the Standards and Privileges Committee for its work. The report is based on consideration of the issues, followed by a consultation exercise. I thank Sir George Young for chairing the Committee and for the clarity with which he introduced the report. As is the convention, we found time for the report to be debated promptly following its publication.
Let me say a little about the background. I remind the House, as a number of hon. Members have done, that on
In respect of pay, we acted on the proposal made many years ago by my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin that our pay should be pegged to an external comparator, and that there should be an independent review mechanism so that we need no longer vote on our own pay. On
At the same time, we discussed allowances. I made clear then, as I do today, that we ought to treat the matter of our pay—our remuneration—separately from that of reimbursement. We need to ensure that Members can be reimbursed for travelling to and from their constituencies, and that they can be compensated for the extra expense of having two homes, one in London, so that they can represent their constituents at Westminster, and, in the case of out-of-London Members, one in the constituency.
All Members of Parliament also need proper, well-funded offices to support them in their work. If we believe that legislation should be scrutinised properly, they must have proper staff in their offices to assist them with that scrutiny. If we want people to be properly represented in the constituencies and helped with individual case work, there must be a proper staff complement. Remuneration for travel, for living away from home and for staff offices is important. We decided on
It has been agreed that that should come back to the House by July. I had originally thought that to have a separation between pay and allowances—
Order. I am reluctant to stop the Leader of the House. I thought that she was giving some brief background to the report, which is tightly drawn, as she will have heard me tell other hon. Members. Perhaps she can bear that in mind when she continues her remarks.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have done exactly the right thing in interrupting me and I will conclude with a couple of sentences.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has set out the proposals in the report. We need clear rules, good advice from the House authorities, and public confidence in the outcome. I urge all hon. Members to support the motion.
I thank my right hon. Friend Sir George Young for the sterling work he does as Chairman of the Committee, and I thank his fellow Committee members, not only for having produced the report so expeditiously but for all the other work they do on that very important Committee. The disclosure requirements complement the broader review that is being undertaken by the Members Estimate Committee, the findings of which will be published just before the summer recess.
My party and I welcome the proposals. It is important that there is transparency in all we do and in how we use taxpayers' money. That is particularly so when family members are involved and are paid from the staffing allowance, which at the end of the day is taxpayers' money. However, I wish to put on record my tribute to the enormous hard work done by family members for hon. Members. I do not employ any family members as part of my staff but I have seen many others who do.
It is important to remember that the job of a Member's personal assistant—if he or she is a spouse—does not end at 5 o'clock; it is not a nine-to-five job. When the Member goes home, so does the spouse, but also so does the personal assistant. The work continues to be done at home, including at weekends. It is important to recognise the work done by spouses.
I also wish to put it on the record that the Leader of the Opposition has already instructed his Front-Bench team that any family members that they employ should be registered, and we welcome the fact that the Standards and Privileges Committee has followed that line. The House will be aware that the Leader of the Opposition has also said that, from
The report is a step in the right direction, towards transparency, and Conservative Members welcome it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House approves the Seventh Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 436) on Employment of family members through the Staffing Allowance; and endorses the changes proposed by the Committee in the purpose and form of the Register of Members' Interests.