House of Commons Members' Fund

Modernisation of the House of Commons (Standing Orders) – in the House of Commons at 8:31 pm on 12th November 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 8:31 pm, 12th November 2008

I beg to move,

That, pursuant to section 4(4) of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1948 and section 1(4) of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1957, in the year commencing 1st October 2008 there be appropriated for the purposes of section 4 of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1948:

(1) The whole of the sums deducted or set aside in that year under section 1(3) of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1939 from the salaries of Members of the House of Commons; and

(2) The whole of the Treasury contribution to the fund.

The House of Commons Members' Fund is, in essence, a benevolent fund for former Members and their dependants who have fallen on hard times and need financial assistance. That is a function that a good many employers carry out as part of their social responsibilities, and it is right that this House should do likewise. The fund currently has around 90 beneficiaries, a few of whom are former Members, mostly very elderly, although the majority of beneficiaries are their surviving widows and other dependants. The motion concerning appropriation is brought forward every year in line with legislative requirements, and it enables the trustees to continue making awards to ex-Members and their dependants, having regard to individual circumstances.

The fund is governed by a variety of Acts of immense complexity that stipulate the basis on which payments can be made and the amounts payable. Some payments are known as "as of right" payments—a rather misleading term, since there is no particular legal right attached to them. "As of right" beneficiaries are such because they are not entitled to a parliamentary pension because they left the House before 1964 or are widows or widowers of former Members who have a parliamentary contributory pension fund benefit below the current specified level, and the fund makes up the difference. The other category of payments comprises those awarded at the trustees' discretion. Discretionary payments can be recurring to improve a person's standard of living, but they are more usually one-off grants to improve the quality of life and meet a particular need. The average value of the recurring payments is about £2,000 per annum. A handful of one-off grants are made each year, with an average value of only about £5,000. Relatively small sums can make a great difference in some circumstances. I commend the motion to the House.

Let me take this opportunity to mention the review of the fund. As some hon. Members will be aware, an extensive review has been completed, and conclusions have been reached and endorsed by the trustees and the Members Estimate Committee. Implementation of the changes would, however, require changes to primary legislation. If new legislation is passed in line with the conclusions of the review, we will do away with the need for a Treasury contribution into the fund and for the annual appropriation motion. The review also recommended that "as of right" grants to former Members and spouses of deceased former Members paid under the House of Commons Members' Fund be increased from the very meagre current level of £2,924 to £5,000 per annum for a former Member and from £1,827 to £3,125 per annum for widows.

Following discussions with the Leader of the House, it has been agreed that the most appropriate way of increasing the grants is by way of the trustees exercising their discretion. The trustees will be meeting tomorrow to discuss and, I hope, agree the most appropriate method for the recommended increase to grants made under the House of Commons Members' Fund and Parliamentary Pensions Act 1981, and the way in which it should be applied.

Watch this
Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website

Hide

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Approximately how many people currently benefit from the fund, and can my right hon. Friend offer the House a breakdown of the distribution of those benefits between former Members on the one hand and spouses or family relatives on the other?

Watch this

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I cannot give a detailed breakdown. As I mentioned, there are currently 90 beneficiaries, the majority of whom are widows of former Members who were not entitled to have a proportion of a former Member's salary increased when the new increase for widows was introduced in 1975. By discretion, we raised the amount that they receive from three eighths to five eighths. That is the biggest single category. Then there is the category of Members who retired before the pension scheme was properly up and running, and their widows—that is the next biggest. Every year there will be a handful of former Members who have fallen into difficult circumstances who usually receive discretionary grants.

Watch this

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues do. Following on from the last question, can he tell us whether the trustees have complete discretion in each of the categories? Do they vary the amount depending on the circumstances and plea of the applicant, or is a standard sum given, so that those entitled get their £3,000 a year or whatever is appropriate?

Watch this

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I am grateful for the question. In the case of the so-called "as of right" beneficiaries, a standard amount is set down. It is a very meagre amount, and if they have additional needs, they can make an application for an additional grant reflecting their circumstances. The amounts given to the other, smaller number of beneficiaries are made entirely on the discretion of the trustees. The trustees have the power, through that discretion, to raise the "as of right" amount from one standard level to another. I would prefer that to be done by legislation, but we cannot wait for that so we will use the discretionary method, assuming that the trustees confirm the decision they previously mooted when they meet tomorrow.

I conclude by thanking my fellow trustees for the work that they undertake on the fund's behalf. It is not a hugely onerous task, but it involves Members' time and we all know how valuable a commodity that is. It is a necessary and valuable task to fulfil the whole House's responsibility to those of our former colleagues and their dependants who need our help.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 8:38 pm, 12th November 2008

I rise to add the Government's support for the motion, and I would like to pay an enormous tribute to Mr. Lilley. He and I used to worship at the same church—St. James's in Prebend street—and I think that the poor man actually had to listen to me preaching. He will be grateful that I shall not speak at any great length tonight. The whole House is grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and all of the trustees because we like to know that the £2 that we each give every month goes to a good cause, and is well administered. It is also important that the Treasury contribution is well administered. Although many of our constituents think that we live in pretty good circumstances and that there is fine provision for us in our retirement, such provision did not exist in the past for previous hon. Members. Sadly, many are in indigent circumstances, and it is therefore important that we ensure that funds are available. As the right hon. Gentleman said, sometimes a small amount of money can make an enormous difference to a particular person as they grow older.

I am sure that all hon. Members want to reaffirm their commitment to the cause, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for putting the case for the fund and answering so clearly the few questions that were put to him. Without further ado, I am happy to support the motion.

Watch this

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 8:40 pm, 12th November 2008

I welcome the motion, which allows for the appropriation of hon. Members' contributions from their salaries and for that of a sum from the Treasury. The fund significantly benefits former Members or their surviving spouses and dependants, whether they are "as of right" or discretionary beneficiaries. Often, the sums of money involved are relatively small, but they make a huge difference to the 90 or so recipients.

I do not wish to detain the House longer than necessary, so I conclude by expressing a big thank you to my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley and his fellow trustees. They do their work quietly and without fanfare, but they make a difference and improve the quality of recipients' lives. For that, they should be commended.

Watch this

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 8:41 pm, 12th November 2008

I will be as brief as my two colleagues who spoke from their respective Front Benches. First, I thank Mr. Lilley and his colleagues. Secondly, I make the obvious point, which reflects a comment made by the Deputy Leader of the House, that it is right that we, who are on pretty decent salaries, make some contribution to those who came before us, when salaries were minimal and there was no proper provision for pensions, or for families or other dependants to have pensions.

The resourcing of this place has changed fantastically in the period that the right hon. Gentleman and I, as well as others, have been here. Resources, such as pay, are in a different league. We are doing the least that we can in recognising that we have a duty to help, on a non-party basis, those who have gone before and who need us. It is right that we do that willingly and consensually and give the trustees the encouragement of knowing that the House is behind them.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That, pursuant to section 4(4) of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1948 and section 1(4) of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1957, in the year commencing 1st October 2008 there be appropriated for the purposes of section 4 of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1948:

(1) The whole of the sums deducted or set aside in that year under section 1(3) of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1939 from the salaries of Members of the House of Commons; and

(2) The whole of the Treasury contribution to the Fund.

Watch this