Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Members' Payments and Allowances

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:28 pm on 22nd January 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party 12:28 pm, 22nd January 2009

I beg to move motion 2— Payments to Hon. Members (Publication Scheme)

(1) That, subject to the provisions of paragraph (2) below, for the purpose of the publication scheme adopted and maintained by the House under section 19 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, such information about payments made to, or on behalf of, hon. Members which is already published routinely in accordance with the scheme shall continue to be published;

(2) In addition, information relating to Members' expenditure from the beginning of the current Parliament shall be published in relation to each financial year, to the extent that such information is separately identifiable, under the following categories:

(a) Administrative and Office Expenditure:

(i) accommodation costs for offices, surgeries, etc;

(ii) office equipment and supplies;

(iii) telephones and other telecommunications;

(iv) professional fees and charges;

(v) agency and other staff costs;

(vi) travel costs;

(vii) utilities;

(b) Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure:

(i) mortgage interest;

(ii) rent;

(iii) hotel costs;

(iv) council tax;

(v) fixtures, fittings and furnishings;

(vi) subsistence;

(vii) other household costs, including service charges, utilities, telecommunications, maintenance and repairs;

(c) Communications Expenditure:

(i) websites;

(ii) reports and surveys;

(iii) delivery charges, postage and stationery;

(iv) advertising;

(v) equipment;

(d) Staffing Expenditure;

(e) Travel Expenditure in relation to travel by Members:

(i) car, including third party vehicle rental and mileage;

(ii) rail;

(iii) air;

(iv) other UK and European travel;

(f) Resettlement Grant;

(g) Winding-up Expenditure;

(3) The Committee on Members' Allowances shall keep the categories listed in paragraph (2) above under review and may modify them from time to time as the committee may think necessary or desirable in the interests of clarity, consistency, accountability and effective administration, and conformity with current circumstances.

Watch this
Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website

Hide

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

With this we shall discuss the following:

Motion 3 —Members' Allowances (Green Book)—

That this House approves the Guide to Members' Allowances (the Green Book), published as Annex 1 to the First Report of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee (House of Commons Paper No. 142) and endorses the Principles set out in Part 1 of the Green Book as the basis for all claims made by Members;

That the rules set out in the Green Book shall govern all expenditure on Members' allowances with respect to all claims for expenditure arising on or after 1 April 2009;

That the Members Estimate Committee shall carry out a review of the provisions of the resolutions of this House relating to such expenditure, make such modifications to them as are necessary to ensure that they are consistent with the provisions in the Green Book, and report to the House; and

That this House thanks Ms Kay Carberry CBE, nominated by the Trades Union Congress, and Mr Keith Bradford, nominated by the Confederation of British Industry, for having acted as the Speaker's external appointees to the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances.

Motion 4 —Members' Allowances (Audit and Assurance)—

That this House approves the arrangements for the audit and assurance of Members' allowances set out in the report of the Members Estimate Audit Committee to the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee, published as Annex 3 to the First Report of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee (House of Commons Paper No. 142).

Motion 5 —Committee on Members' Allowances—

That the following new Standing Order and amendments to the Standing Orders and Resolutions of the House be made:

A. New Standing Order

(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Committee on Members' Allowances,

(a) to advise the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee on the discharge of its functions; and

(b) to advise the Speaker, the Members Estimate Committee and the Leader of the House on the potential development of the arrangements made by or under the Resolutions in force from time to time regarding Members' allowances &c;

(2) The committee shall consist of eight members;

(3) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament;

(4) The committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to appoint specialist advisers and to report from time to time.

B. Amendment to Standing Order No. 152D

In Standing Order No. 152D, leave out lines 23 to 25;

C. Amendment to the Resolution of the House of 5 July 2001:

Members' Allowances, Insurance &c.

Paragraph (5) of the Resolution of the House of 5 July 2001 relating to Members' Allowances, Insurance &c. shall cease to have effect.

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I first want to set out the basis on which we approach this issue. I want this debate to proceed not as a Dutch auction of which party can do most to besmirch the reputation of MPs. I am not going to do that, because it would be wrong. We are public servants committed to our public duties and that is how we should approach this debate.

There should be proper resources to enable MPs to carry out our work, and we need to be sure that those allowances are not abused and that no MP uses them to line their own pockets. When that happens, as it did so disgracefully in the case of one particular Member last year, it is not only the public purse that suffers. What suffers is the reputation of this whole House and of every single Member who works hard and abides by the rules. It is to take further steps to prevent the possibility of that abuse that I bring these motions to the House today, so that the public and the whole House can rest assured that public money is properly spent.

Watch this

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

For 11 years I have been conscientiously filling in expenses claims forms, attaching copies of invoices and taking very seriously the words on the certificates that I sign, which read:

"I confirm that the payments requested are in respect of costs incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the performance of my Parliamentary duties."

I was therefore shocked to hear the police explain last year that there would be no prosecution of an hon. Member caught fiddling his expenses because the rules of this House were—they felt—not clear enough. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the legal advice that she has states that no such excuse will be given by the police in future, and that someone who fiddles his or her expenses with dishonest intent will be prosecuted?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point. One of our aims in introducing the new Green Book, which is the subject of the first motion, is to ensure that the rules are absolutely clear and detailed, and that the required evidence is supplied before payments are made. That will apply whether the amounts concerned represent reimbursement for items bought or, more important, payment of staff. Staff will not be paid unless there is a signed contract of employment and a job description, so that no one can say afterwards, "Oh, yes, actually they were doing that job, but I did not have any evidence because I did not need any evidence." It is precisely to protect hard-working, law-abiding, conscientious public servants such as my hon. Friend, who are stained by those who abuse the rules, that we are introducing the tougher rules in the Green Book today.

I thank the Members Estimate Committee and the officers and staff of the House of Commons Commission for their contribution to the work that lies behind the motions that we are debating. I should not have been able to present the motions to the House without their advice, expertise and many hours of meetings and work since last December, when I first outlined to the Members Estimate Committee the approach that I am taking today.

When I became a Member of Parliament in the 1980s, there were three major problems, which have been addressed bit by bit over the years. First, the resources for our offices were wholly inadequate. That has been addressed over the years, and rightly so. Last year my office handled 6,300 individual constituents' cases. Each letter, e-mail, phone call or surgery visit was handled within, on average, 10 working days. My constituents have a right to expect us to have the resources to do the job for which we are elected.

The second problem was that the rules governing payment of the claims of Members of Parliament were—as was pointed out by my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney—loose and unclear, giving scope for uncertainty as a result of which abuse could take place. The third problem was that the public were given no information at all about who claimed how much and for what. The rules were published, but the outcome of those rules was not.

Over the years, we have increased the resources needed to enable us to do the work that our constituents expect. We have begun to publish information about Members' allowances annually, and have broken it down into 14 categories. However, we need to do more. There has been concern about three issues, which we sought to address through the work that we did in July last year and that we seek to address again today. We need to address the problem that the rules are not clear enough; we need to address the problem that audit is not robust enough; and we need to address the problem that not enough information is published. The propositions that we have put before the House today address each of those problems.

I approach this issue in the belief that the public are entitled to be confident that the public money that is being paid out is being paid out on the basis of a clear and reasonable set of rules, that they should be confident that those rules are properly enforced and that money is not paid out other than within them, and that the public should be able to know in respect of every Member—not just some—every year, as a matter of routine, how much has been paid in allowances and for what.

In respect of the first point on the need for clear rules, we submit the new Green Book to the House for its approval. Let me take this opportunity to thank the members of the Members Estimate Committee, the members of the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances—including its two independent members—and the many hon. Members who have contributed to the new Green Book. I also thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for specifying the level of evidence that is necessary for us to be confident that the rules are indeed clear, and can form the foundation for a robust audit. If we pass the motion endorsing the new Green Book, we shall have a clear set of reasonable rules for the payment of allowances.

The second issue is the proper enforcement of the rules. It requires robust audit, and that is the subject of a motion that will provide for what is described as "full scope" audit, on the same basis that applies to other public bodies. This will be the first occasion on which the House has been subject to "full scope" audit.

The House authorities will—as they do now—check each claim before payment is made, but that work will additionally be subject to the scrutiny of a new internal unit, the operational assurance unit. There will also be supervision by the National Audit Office. That scrutiny will consist of examining not just the claim form that the Member has signed, but the evidence submitted with that claim—for example, invoices, receipts, statements, or any other documentary evidence that supports the evidence of the transaction. The NAO will be in a position to carry out the "full scope" audit because, as well as clear rules in the Green Book, there will be a requirement for no claim save those under £25 to be met unless it is submitted with a receipt or other evidence confirming the transaction.

I thank the Members Estimate Audit Committee, including its four independent members and, in particular, its Chair, the former shadow Leader of the House, Mrs. May. This is not glamorous work, but it is very important and the right hon. Lady's report contains the proposals for the robust and independent audit for which the motion seeks the House's support.

Watch this

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

Does my right hon. and learned Friend now believe, on reflection, that it was not correct for anyone to try to secure an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act? Will she give a commitment that, while she is Leader of the House, no attempt will be made by Members of Parliament who passed the legislation on freedom of information to exempt themselves?

Watch this

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

As a member of the Members Estimate Audit Committee, I want to make one thing absolutely clear, given comment in the media about the £25 threshold. That threshold has the full support of the National Audit Office and the independent members of the Members Estimate Audit Committee, and the NAO has confirmed its belief that it is a proper and proportionate figure that allows it to make a full and comprehensive estimate, to its satisfaction, of the allowances that we claim.

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the Members Estimate Audit Committee. As I have said, it is not glamorous work—it does not involve members of the Committee being carried through the streets of Sheffield to be thanked—but it is very important work, and the Committee has produced a substantial report.

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The National Audit Office has said that as 99 per cent. of the amount paid in allowances is paid in response to claims for more than £25, only 1 per cent. of claims will be submitted without receipts. That means that 99 per cent. of claims can be subject to a full audit with the full documentary evidence behind it, which is normal auditing practice.

Watch this

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

It is easy to become confused about all the various bodies involved in this process. As my right hon. and learned Friend says, it is good and right and true that there is an independent element in the Members Estimate Audit Committee, but there is no such element in the Members Estimate Committee, nor will there be in the new Committee of the House whose establishment is proposed. The body that did advise on allowances and did have an independent element—the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances—is to be abolished. If we are to secure confidence in the system, is it not important for us to ensure that there is a robust independent element in the procedures according to which we set the allowances?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

It is right that there should be a robust independent element, and the "full scope" NAO audit should provide bottom-line confidence in, and reassurance on, that. It has been involved in our deliberations on, and construction of, the rules that we have drawn up with the independent advisers on APMA. If we pass the motion, the NAO will henceforth be permanently involved in scrutinising the allowances and making sure they are paid out only in accordance with these rules.

If we make APMA a Committee of this House, only Members of this House will be able to be members of that Committee; external, independent people will not be able to be full members of the Committee. The proposal is that those who have served so well as independent members of APMA will be advisers to the Committee on Members' Allowances. I can say that the CAM will have no Government Members on it. APMA had members of the Government on it, but the CAM will not have a Government Member on it, and nor will it have a Government majority—it will not be constructed as Select and Standing Committees are, with a Government majority. Therefore, I think we have the right level of independent input and the right reassurances for the future.

Watch this

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

May I add to what the Leader of the House has said in response to Dr. Wright? Is it not also the case that whereas the previous Committee met in private and gave private advice, the great advance in what is proposed here is that this Committee will be open, so it will be able to take advice openly and everything it does will be subject to open scrutiny? Does she also agree that it will therefore have a much stronger and more open influence than the closed Committee that used to exist?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I absolutely agree with those points. In addition, the new Committee will be able to require evidence to be brought to it and to publish reports. I take nothing away from the work of APMA in the past; since it was set up in 2001, it has done a very important job. However, the next stage is to move it on to a full footing as a Committee of the House. I will deal with this matter a little later in my speech.

The third principle is that, over and above the clear rules and robust audit, the public should know who is spending, how much and on what. The motion before the House would effect a publication scheme that would put into the public domain more information than has hitherto been published, and in a form that is consistent year on year and comprehensible to the public. Until now, we have published information about expenses broken down into 14 categories. This motion would lead to publishing information in greater detail and in 26 categories. For example, the House authorities currently publish a single figure for "office running costs", but under the proposed publication scheme, the House authorities will publish the information broken down into accommodation for offices and surgeries, "office equipment and supplies", phones, "professional fees and charges", "agency and other staff costs", travel costs and utilities. So the single figure would be broken down into seven detailed categories for every Member for every year.

Watch this

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

Can the Leader of the House reassure me that if, in line with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, any member of the public requests a detailed breakdown of the claims a Member makes against the public purse in any of these 26 categories, there will be full disclosure and people will have full access to that information?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

The House authorities will comply with all the requests that are before them under the Freedom of Information Act—I think some 180 are in the pipeline—in the same way as they complied with the High Court judgment in respect of freedom of information requests for all the receipts of 14 Members.

Watch this

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Will the Leader of the House confirm that if we can show during this debate that a slightly different breakdown—and, perhaps, a more detailed breakdown, splitting one or two of these subjects—would provide even greater transparency and end confusion to the public, she will accept such an amendment?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment, which was not selected, that breaks down one of the categories by separating "service charges" from

"utilities, telecommunications, maintenance and repairs".

That makes sense, and it will be possible to review the categories from time to time. If the hon. Gentleman's amendment had been selected, we would not have opposed it—we would have accepted it—and then that change to the categories would have been made. However, we should not change the categories too often, because it is important for the public to be able to see year by year how things change, and if we change the categories, they will not be able to see that broad picture. Therefore, because the hon. Gentleman's perfectly sensible amendment was not selected, we will go forward—with, I hope, the support of the House—with the 26 categories that we have listed in the motion.

Watch this

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Like everyone else I am sure, I am very pleased there will be greater transparency, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that had we been foolish enough to have continued with the earlier attempt to exempt ourselves from the freedom of information legislation, there would inevitably have been a feeling that we were trying to hide various amounts? That would have undermined all the good work that is rightly being done to let the public know all the necessary information. Bearing in mind last year's attempt to exempt ourselves completely from the freedom of information legislation—the very law we passed for other people—can my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear that there will be no attempt at any stage in the future to exempt ourselves from that legislation?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

The private Member's Bill to which my hon. Friend refers sought to remove the obligations of the Freedom of Information Act from the House authorities in respect of Members' allowances, but it did not put anything in its place. Our approach would have been to introduce a publication scheme that would have provided the public with the information they need about Members, and therefore it could have taken the place of those provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. For reasons I will come to later in my speech, we are not bringing that forward. What I am proposing to the House is the four motions before us today. I am not proposing the Freedom of Information Act statutory instrument; I am proposing the new Green Book, the audit and assurance, the publication scheme and the new Committee of the House.

Watch this

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I am perfectly happy to debate something we are not bringing forward, but I am trying to make progress in debating what we are bringing forward, and I will deal with some further points about the SI in a moment.

Watch this

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Watch this

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I was interested by the answer the Leader of the House gave to Natascha Engel that if freedom of information requests seek to go further than her 26-category scheme, the House will accede to those requests. The House announced last July after the High Court ruling that we would publish down to receipt level. Today, the right hon. and learned Lady is introducing a 26-category scheme. If we are to be compelled to answer queries going down to receipt level in the way she has described, will we not in fact be leaving randomly in the hands of freedom of information applicants the decision as to which Members' information comes out to receipt level and which Members' information simply comes down to a category level? Has not this House previously always taken the view that the rule for one is the rule for all?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

If, as I hope, we pass this motion on the publication scheme, every year the public will be able to see this information on every Member without there being any freedom of information request. As a matter of routine, information on what each Member has actually spent in any year will be brought forward and published, and broken down into 26 detailed categories.

There is also a question to do with Freedom of Information Act requests—both those that have already been made and have not yet been complied with and those that might be made in the future. The House authorities, the data holders, will decide, according to the law as it stands, what their obligations are in responding to those requests for information.

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Precisely so. Nick Harvey is a long-standing member of the Members Estimate Committee, to which I pay tribute. He rightly points out that the MEC has said that if it is fair for information to be given out in respect of one Member because somebody has requested it, the same information should be given out in respect of every Member. It is my understanding that nobody need worry that any Member will be left out, because the 180 Freedom of Information Act requests in the pipeline cover every Member of the House. We will decide the publication scheme and the House authorities will implement it. It is important that the public are able to see the information according to these categories.

The other aspect is the request for receipts down to individual receipt level. I understand that 1.2 million such receipts have been the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests. The House authorities have been scanning the receipts since last summer, so that they can be disclosed. The scanning—a massive task—has not yet been completed, but it will be soon. Of course, the receipts have to be redacted before they are published. Before anybody thinks that there is any sort of cover up in relation to the redaction—redaction means crossing out things with a black felt tip pen or with the electronic equivalent—may I point out that the receipts contain information that it would not be right to put into the public domain? For example, an hon. Member might buy a ream of paper from a stationer's and at the same time purchase a Valentine's card. Of course they would pay for that themselves, but the receipt showing "purchased: one lurid Valentine's card" should not be put into the public domain. The claim for a ream of paper on the allowances, however, should be put into the public domain. Information about things that Members have paid for themselves must be crossed out on these receipts.

Indeed, we identified that need when we saw the claims made by the hon. Member for North Devon. The House authorities gave us an example, from which we could see where he shopped—he is a man of regular habits—and how he paid, and at what time and on what day. That information need not be put into the public domain—unless one wants to meet him at one of his regular shopping venues. Intriguingly, we were also able to learn what shampoo and hair conditioner he buys; clearly he was not claiming those purchases on the parliamentary allowance, but they caught my eye when I saw the unredacted receipts. The serious point is that the House authorities have been hard at work making sure that the public are given the information to which they are entitled under the freedom of information provisions, but we must not tip into the public domain a load of personal and private information in respect of which no claim has been made.

Watch this

Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

There is an even more serious point to make. Earlier, we heard a statement from Mr. Speaker about an investigation involving an hon. Member and some threats against hon. Members. If receipts contained Members' London addresses, releasing that information would pose a great threat to them. Although the light-hearted points are good ones, the serious point is that some information could compromise hon. Members' safety and security.

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which has also been an issue in respect of the redaction of information on receipts. This House, at the initiative of Dr. Lewis, passed a freedom of information statutory instrument to remove from the disclosure anything that could reveal the addresses of Members. For example, in respect of invoices or mortgage statements containing the address of the premises, we carved a bit out of the Freedom of Information Act because we did not want to put Members' addresses into the public domain. That statutory instrument also dealt with Members' regular travel plans; the question of regular shopping—shopping at the same time at a particular shop—would also arise in this regard. We must put into the public domain information that is required by law, but that is not as easy a job as it might seem, given that we are talking about 1.2 million receipts.

Watch this

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I invite the Leader of the House to deal with the following point. We also have obligations to third parties under the Data Protection Act 1998. Surely that is the most important thing, because the documentation could contain the telephone numbers and details of other people. I am talking not about businesses, but other individuals. I would like her to deal with the Data Protection Act, because that is the other side of the same coin. We need adequate time to review the receipts, not on a disc, but on paper, and argue for any redactions that are necessary. I want an assurance on that, because I understand that the person who runs this was talking about the information being on a screen—that is not the way to deal with hundreds of bits of paper. We need the information on bits of paper so that we can go through things and redact. I hope that there is agreement on that.

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

My excellent deputy points out that the Bench on which my hon. Friend is sitting is not his main residence. There are issues to address in relation to the Data Protection Act and protecting information on third parties. He makes the point that although it might be evident to a Member what something might reveal, with the best will in the world and however professional they are, it might not be evident to the people doing the redacting and the scanning. That is why the Members Estimate Committee has agreed to set up, and the House authorities have set up, provision to ensure that once the 1.2 million receipts have been scanned, each Member will be notified and will be given an electronic version of their receipts going back to April 2004—that is a lot of receipts.

Hon. Members will have to check this with the House authorities, but I understand that if a request for a hard copy is made, Members will be able to see one—the Clerk of the House nods in assent. That will enable them to go through things and say what information should be crossed out and what should be left in. When the scanning exercise has been finished and this information has been given to Members, they will be given a month to go through all their receipts dating back to 2004 to check each one before it goes into the public domain. People may think that a month is a long time and they may think that feet are being dragged, but that is not the case, because a lot of receipts are involved and Members have their work to get on with in the meantime. They have the business of this House and the business in their constituencies to attend to, so they need time to check the receipts, and a month has been settled on as the right period.

Watch this
D

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998 should dictate what is not disclosed not the members.

Submitted by Dystokia, Longton

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

The Leader of the House says that 1.2 million bits of paper will be put into the machinery and will be published under the Freedom of Information Act. Will she confirm that the cost to the taxpayer of dealing with those 1.2 million documents is £1.2 million?

Watch this

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

If the new regime that the Leader of the House is describing is to be as open as we want it to be, presumably there will be no reason to exempts MPs in future from freedom of information legislation. I think she has been asked twice about that, without giving a clear answer. Will she simply say that no future attempt will be made to exempt Members of Parliament from freedom of information legislation?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

The House fully supported the freedom of information statutory instrument that we introduced last summer, and I am glad that no Minister at that point had made a grandiose commitment from the Dispatch Box never to provide any exemption; otherwise, we could not have introduced that statutory instrument providing an exemption for the sake of security, with which the House agreed.

If I may, I want to discuss what I am introducing today. I am not introducing the statutory instrument on freedom of information, and I shall deal with that in my speech. If any hon. Member intends to ask that same question, perhaps they will desist, but I am happy to give way to hon. Members who want to ask a different question.

Watch this

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

I welcome the clear understanding that the Freedom of Information Act will be fully complied with in the release of material in the 26 categories. Does the Minister accept that that may require a further publication schedule and programme to ensure that redaction is consistent between hon. Members' releases of information, and that the issue is finalised with no further challenges to what has been put in the public domain and what has been redacted? All hon. Members must have an equal opportunity to release their material on the basis of a consistent programme of redaction, which should be based on a publications programme beyond the 26 categories that my right hon. and learned Friend said will be in the public domain?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

My hon. Friend's point was the subject of his amendment—I examined it carefully—which was not selected. I know that other hon. Members supported it, but my understanding is that it is unnecessary because provisions are already in place on how the House authorities will go about the process of publication under the Freedom of Information Act in response to the requests that they already have. It may not be called a scheme with a capital "S", but a programme of work according to clear criteria has been undertaken since July, and will produce something like the book I have here, which is what Congress has. It is published quarterly, and includes matters such as maintenance of the water cooler and sending recorded delivery letters. If any hon. Members want to see what it is likely to look like, they can come to my office and read this book.

Watch this

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

It was said that hon. Members would have a month to go through 1.2 million receipts. Will the Leader of the House assure us that when Members' feedback has gone back into the system, they will have an opportunity to check that the corrections have been made before the receipts go into the public domain? If a mistake is made the first time round, hon. Members should have the opportunity to check that it has been corrected before publications, especially for issues such as credit card numbers, telephone numbers and home addresses.

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

In the first instance, there will be an opportunity to raise mistakes with the House authorities, who will understand that something may have been evident to hon. Members and to people in their local area, but not to the House authorities or those working under contract to them. If there is a dispute about whether the House authorities were right to insist on not redacting, I think I am right that the next port of call is the Members Estimate Committee and, ultimately, the Speaker. I hope that there will be as much discussion and flexibility as possible, and I am sure that that is how the House authorities will want to deal with the matter.

Watch this

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the High Court ruled that individual receipts should be released because it was not satisfied with the rigour of the auditing process in the House? Now that she is putting forward a more rigorous and independent auditing system, people are concerned about what will happen in future. Might it be unnecessary to go down to receipt level, with the costs and effort involved, if the Court, the information appeals tribunal and the Information Commissioner were satisfied that the auditing process was rigorous enough? It was upsetting the public that we would do something different from what other people in similar positions must do. Has the right hon. and learned Lady done any research into whether High Court judges and other senior people who take money from the public purse—for example, in the BBC—for allowances and who have good auditing procedures in place must reveal millions of individual receipts? If they do not, why should we have to do so once we have improved procedures in place?

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

The hon. Gentleman captures the spirit of the High Court decision that in the absence of rules with sufficient clarity and of audit with the necessary independence, the balance of public interest lies in publication of information down to receipt level. If the House accepts the resolutions today, the legal position may change. The House must comply with its legal obligations, and having complied with past legal obligations, including information down to receipt level, the view may be taken that although we might not be under a legal obligation to provide that information in the future, we may as well do so as we have done it in the past. Such a decision would be over and above the legal obligations, if the view were taken that the legal obligations can be satisfied with 26 categories, and a strong Green Book and audit. Two decisions are involved—the legal decision, and the public policy decision on whether, having published receipts once, it is sensible to go back on that and not publish them in future.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

What the right hon. and learned Lady has just said is of great interest. Many of us believe that if the scheme and the audit proposals had been in place three years ago, the matter would not have gone to the tribunal and the High Court, and we would not have the unholy mess that we now have. However, the fact is that she is proposing a scheme of publication that falls short of that full disclosure that the High Court has determined is correct—[Hon. Members: "It does not."] I am sorry, but it falls short of the full disclosure that the High Court has determined must be the case under the existing scheme. Is she suggesting that that should be tested again through the Information Tribunal and the courts, or does she plan to introduce an alternative scheme of full disclosure to full receipt level? If she intends to leave the matter where it is, and if someone makes an application, whether that goes to the tribunal and what the decision is will be left to fate.

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I shall make the position absolutely clear for the hon. Gentleman. Nothing in the resolutions alters the legal obligations on the House authorities in respect of freedom of information requests under the old regime. Nothing in the resolutions affects that. Dr. Lewis said that the court made its decision about the balance of public interest requiring full disclosure down to receipt level because of the lack of clear rules and the absence of audit, and asked whether there would be a requirement in future to produce receipts when the matter has been sorted out. What I said is that I think that, in its own right and irrespective of anything that the court might say or any FOI request that might be made, the regime that I am proposing to the House today—which has been the subject of discussion by the APMA and the Members Estimate Committee—is a good regime. But there remains the question of whether this regime will satisfy the obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. I contend that there is a good legal argument that it might do so, but we are not bound to do just the minimum that the law requires: we might think that, having revealed the receipts for past expenditure, it might not be appropriate to stop producing receipts even though the legal obligation has been superseded by the new motions that I have tabled.

I have spoken for some 40 minutes, and I am anxious to answer hon. Members' questions, but I do not want to try the patience of the House. From all the meetings and discussions that I have had, I know that this speech could go on for 40 hours. Like the 1.2 million receipts, this is a marathon, not a sprint, but I do not want to deprive other hon. Members of the opportunity to speak. I urge hon. Members not to repeat questions that have been asked. If they are struggling to understand my answers, they can ask me after the debate, and I will try to be as helpful as I can.

Watch this

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

As a co-signatory of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead, I think that we are doing the right thing on this occasion. Up to now, the public perception has been, rightly or wrongly, that the House has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, each step of the way. However, what the Leader of the House now proposes probably goes beyond our legal obligation because it says that if constituents are in doubt about the size of a particular cost, we are willing to go down to receipt level to satisfy them. That is the right thing to do, and we are right to go further than we are absolutely required to go by law. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on doing so.

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I said that I did not want any more questions, but if they are like that one, I would like to encourage them. I thank my hon. Friend for his comment.

The bottom line is that we will comply with our legal obligations both for the past and in the future. There has never been any doubt about that. In the past, we have put under one heading the costs of staying away from our main home. Under the publication scheme, that global figure will be broken down to mortgage interest, rent, hotel costs, council tax and so on. That will provide a clearer picture for our constituents.

The fourth motion would turn the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances, which has existed since July 2001, into a formal Committee of the House. We are grateful to the APMA for the work that it has done and it is time that it should be formally constituted. That would put the Committee on the same footing as a Select Committee in that it would be able to call for evidence and publish its own reports. Nothing in the motion—or in any other motion today—prejudices the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards or the very important work of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

As the Prime Minister, and then I, told the House yesterday, we have attempted to reach agreement on all these issues. We introduced a statutory instrument which would mean that these resolutions replaced the FOI provisions that apply to the House. The official Opposition said on Tuesday that they do not support the FOI statutory instrument so we have not moved it and I will seek further discussions with the Opposition, as I always do on all matters, and with other hon. Members. But it remains important that we pass these resolutions today. They provide for clearer rules, tougher audit and more transparency. I hope that at least on these resolutions, that is something on which we can all agree. I commend the motions to the House.

Watch this

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Watch this

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected any of the amendments that were tabled, and I hope that hon. Members will respect that fact.

Watch this

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 1:14 pm, 22nd January 2009

May I thank the Leader of the House for generously taking so many interventions and for the thoroughness with which she has treated this topic? That is appreciated on both sides of the House. May I also express my gratitude for her earlier comments about my dress sense, my watch, my cufflinks and, not least, my interest in oil? They are especially appreciated coming from such a gentle flower of the aristocracy who has so aggressively embraced the working class.

Today will, I hope, represent a major step forward in everything that the House needs to do on the declaration of its expenses. The whole issue has given Parliament a wretchedly bad name for far too long, and there are deep wounds that need to be healed if we are to be seen as a sensible, honest, working institution by anyone in this country. We do not want to have a state of permanent war either across the Floor of the House or between this House and the press and public. Our reputation must be raised and we can achieve that only by being open and honest.

Expenses have always given us a bad name, and I shall explain why. We must all accept that the starting point for everything that we must now do is that everything that we spend out of taxpayers' money should be open to anyone who wishes to inquire. Parliament has lagged behind the wish of the public to scrutinise this institution. We have done ourselves great damage by sticking too much to conventions and old habits, instead of accepting that the lack of the scrutiny that people demand is a running sore that must be addressed.

Our systems, methods and rules are sometimes unfathomable, however honest and decent they might be, and that causes a lot of misunderstanding. Out of misunderstanding comes suspicion and then resentment. That is not healthy in any democracy. Sometimes, of course, some of the mischief is wilful, but we have to live with that. We also always face the danger that one culprit among us damns us all.

We need to find a system that can overcome all those challenges and we need to accept that the problem has been brewing for decades. Some 20 years ago, the allowances that we needed were far smaller. Our public role—answering correspondence and travelling, for example—was much less of a burden. The whole issue of expenses was used as a surrogate mechanism for increasing our salaries without attracting public criticism. It is always difficult for any Government or Opposition to say that MPs should be paid more. Let us be brutally honest and admit that the housing allowance—the additional costs allowance—arose because no one dared to increase MPs' salaries and that was another way to do it. MPs were essentially told, "Here's a few extra thousand quid a year to pay for your second home, because that's what you need to be an MP, and you will get it automatically."

The automaticity with which we were able to claim that allowance may have suited the time when it was first awarded, but it does not suit the modern age. If all of us can benefit from something approaching £20,000 for a second home—

Watch this

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Of course not, if Members live in London. Perhaps only a second taxi.

We now live in a world in which, if we receive such an allowance, we must accept that we have to account for every detail of any claim made. The origin of the allowances and the changing nature of our job have led to a complete and utter mess. It is only by degrees that we have addressed that mess in sufficient detail—and we have not done so quickly enough.

It may well be that one day it will be sensible to abolish the second housing allowance and bolt it on to our salaries so that we will have to pay for our own homes— [ Interruption. ] There may be an argument that houses in London are more expensive, so we should all be paid the same, but that is a separate argument. The point is that no one at present—and rightly—would announce what would appear to be a quantum leap in our salary on the back of the amalgamation of an allowance with what we are paid. That is not on the cards at the moment, but we should all accept the origin of and possibly the ultimate solution to the very vexed question of the second home allowance.

We have to declare, and it is right that we should do so, but on the back of the gradual steps that we have taken we have caused absolute chaos for ourselves, to the point where, unbeknown to any of us, what used to be called the Fees Office, which is now the Department of Resources, had a list of what it was acceptable to spend the money on so that we could check that we were buying a toaster that was not too expensive, or too ridiculous—one that was not gold-plated—and that became known as the John Lewis list. It was an absolute gift to journalists, which has ended up doing us harm but creating a lot of very interesting stories.

The argument that was then created was for a serious and proper debate about the level of detail that we should be expected to reveal in the lists or receipts that we publish. I am sad to learn that if I were to send the Leader of the House a Valentine's card, the cost would not count as a proper parliamentary expense.

Watch this

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The one I would pick might just give it away.

The other vexed issue accompanying the development of our allowances has been the implementation of freedom of information legislation. We have witnessed a long, slow train crash between what we do and what the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires, which we have been unable so far to resolve. In the eyes of the public, that appears to be a requirement that we have always wanted to escape. The assumption of the Freedom of Information Act is that there should always be disclosure. However, the other side of the disclosure equation is that if such disclosure collides with data protection it may not be necessary. In the Freedom of Information Act, as it applies to this House or to anyone else, there is therefore always a permanent tension between openness and privacy. There are always exceptions in other fields on what is published. We can all accept that when there is a legitimate matter of security and the safety of the individual, and the revelation of certain details that could be taken wrongly and abused by other people, privacy is very important.

The other side of the equation, which affects us uniquely, is the fact that when it comes to the need to reveal information we are at the top of the scrutiny pyramid. We are elected. We choose that, and through election we become permanently in the public gaze. Even High Court judges are not quite in the same category, nor even permanent secretaries, and certainly not middle-ranking— [ Interruption. ] I shall set the BBC to one side for the moment. Middle-ranking civil servants are certainly never expected to be in the public gaze and they are just that—civil servants. We must accept that we are the people who are most expected to come clean about how we spend the allowances that are granted to us. I think that we have been very slow to accept that that scrutiny is legitimate and that we are in an almost unique category.

That brings us to the specific question, which can be boiled down to this: receipts or no receipts? How far should the system be allowed to drill down to what we have done, what detail can be insisted on and whether it is fair for all that to be revealed? Should it go down to the last single receipt for the toothbrush that one has bought in the local supermarket?

The origin of that question, to which the Leader of the House and others have referred, lies in what the Information Commissioner ruled and in subsequent events. The Information Commissioner originally ruled that categories of spending would suffice. That was challenged and taken to the Information Tribunal. The tribunal ruled that the House of Commons—that is, us—should be required to reveal what we have spent right down to the level of receipts. Perhaps I am getting the history slightly wrong—I have been in this role only for a couple of days—but my understanding is that the House wanted fewer categories than the number originally proposed, but the High Court upheld the tribunal's decision and said that receipts were required.

I understand that one of the reasons why the High Court upheld the Information Tribunal and not the commissioner was, as my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis said, that there was no apparent adequate regime in place that gave the Information Commissioner enough confidence that even the categories would be adequately compiled. There was insufficient scrutiny behind the scenes in the whole system, so much so that the tribunal said, "In the absence of that, publish the whole lot." That got us to where we were yesterday.

The House authorities—the Committees and the Leader of the House—thought, "Well, we think that the Information Tribunal and the High Court are going a bit further than is really necessary, and so we will introduce a retrospective amendment to the Freedom of Information Act that will allow us not to have to publish receipts." It is clear from the events of yesterday that Opposition Members and the Leader of the Opposition felt very strongly that we made the law, that we were subject to the law, that the law applied to us and that the High Court had a case that said that that law must be upheld but that suddenly we—the lawmakers—wanted retrospectively as a House to exempt ourselves from the law that we had made. We can all accept that that just was not right. Whatever we want to do in the future, having made our bed we have to lie in it.

That means that with all the scanning that has taken place, both the first and second times, those receipts will have to be published. From 2005 to 2009, the information will go right down to receipt level. We are looking to the future today, and the question is whether what is before us will suffice and whether it will satisfy the Information Commissioner and those who quite rightly demand freedom of information about us. My view is that we should still be subject to the freedom of information legislation. I shall come in a minute to what that might now mean.

There is a lot of good sense in the motions—they are a good advance. There are 26 categories, and I have to say that one of them puts me in a slightly awkward position given what the Leader of the House said following the statement a moment ago— [ Interruption. ] Funnily enough, it is about oil. Under the category of utilities are listed electricity and gas. I can only take that as a personal attack, because it misses out oil. It might equally include wood, straw and biomass. I hope that some of the categories, which I know are not meant to be exhaustive, will not be applied in a way that is over-bureaucratic. The heading given is for heating, and the use of utilities for heating should be dealt with sensibly. I am sure that the Committee will consider that point and we will see as we go along whether the categories are adequate. There will need to be a little leeway so that the scheme is practical and so that it works. I hope that the Leader of the House and the House authorities will allow me to heat my constituency home in Rutland with oil.

There is another good element to the motions that will change the whole climate of freedom of information. Through these motions, the House is properly introducing a thorough regime for audit and assurance. That point is crucial. There will be a full and proper external audit of what we do, carried out, I think, by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Each of us can expect to be fully audited at least once in a full Parliament and, if any habits or things seemed to stick out, I think that an hon. Member would be at risk of being individually scrutinised on another occasion, too. There is also an enhanced assurance scheme in the Department of Resources that can give clear guidance and allows for spot checks and much more rigorous scrutiny than before.

One little vexed issue remains that can continue to be a bit of a gift to a journalist who wants to write a story: the £25 limit below which we do not need to offer a receipt—but that limit was advised by outside auditors and scrutineers. It is not something that all of us say that we must have because we want to keep a bit of flexibility so that we can keep the cash coming in on the sly. The limit is just a simple matter of efficiency, ensuring that the proper regime that we have put in place does not have a disproportionate cost attached. Basically, the rule now is that more or less everything will need a receipt and be subject to audit, and that hon. Members can claim only for expenses that qualify fully under the allowances that are in place.

In addition, there is going to be a new Committee on Members' Allowances. Dr. Wright asked whether that would be much of an improvement, but I repeat that I think that it will be. Because of private, cosy advice offered in secret behind closed doors, the Committee will be akin to a full Select Committee. It will meet and take evidence in public and, because it is a Select Committee, it will be made up of Members of the House, as the Leader of the House said. However, its proceedings will be so clear and transparent that the advice that it is given will also be open, and so the advice that it is likely to give to the House will, with any luck, be well founded, sensible and properly understood. The Committee will advise on what is going on, and on what should go on, in full public view. I think that that is a good step. Furthermore, there is the new Green Book which, as the Leader of the House said, is tighter, simpler and clearer. I think that all hon. Members will want it to be adopted.

In conclusion, where does all that leave us now? The question remains: receipts or no receipts? That is the question that is still hanging, and it has to do with the level of specificity that must apply.

Watch this

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene before he answers his own question. May I make a suggestion to those on both Front Benches? One aspect that has not been brought up in either of the two opening speeches is the question of those people, often with a personal axe to grind, who will take a vexatious approach to what is revealed. Before we decide whether in the future we want to go further than the law requires and keep on issuing information down to receipt level—we have certainly had to do so in the past, but we may not in the future—would it not be sensible to see what happens? We can then take a view after we have released information down to receipt level in the past.

I can give an example involving a political opponent of mine. He has already put in 15 FOI requests that affect me, and 11 of them have been aimed directly at me or my staff. As soon as one request is ruled out or shown to be baseless, this person puts in more requests. Should we not review how people behave in response to the new regime as it applies to receipts from the past before we decide what to do about receipts in the future?

Watch this

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is very dogged in these matters and very assiduous in the way that he analyses them in such detail. Sometimes in British political life one can do the decent thing and always be taken advantage of. One of the challenges that we face is not to be done down by our sense of decency. We should have the highest standards of openness, but we also need some safeguards to ensure that we are not taken for suckers.

By making everything available, we must not allow ourselves to be subject to an open season of malicious and vexatious attacks. We have a duty to uphold and sustain the dignity of this place as well as honouring, as we should, our obligation to come clean about how we spend our money. Lying behind my hon. Friend's question is an issue that I think will arise: if we are doing all this because we are the guardians of the taxpayer's money, that responsibility will apply equally to the cost that will be incurred by publishing every receipt and investigating every FOI request. That cost was running into millions of pounds, so it may be that people seeking information on a regular basis will have to pay a small charge. That question will have to be explored.

Watch this

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Another issue is always in the background: the capital gain that some Members enjoy from their ownership of a second home here in London. That gain distinguishes Members who rent from those who buy. Does the hon. Gentleman have a view on that?

Watch this

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

In the current climate, I think that hon. Members are more concerned about making a capital loss.

Watch this

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making an excellent and non-partisan speech that most people would consider entirely fitting for the occasion. Does he agree that, if the House is to go for greater transparency and audit—and I, for one, believe that it absolutely must do so—it will be incumbent on the House collectively to defend the integrity of the items for which it is permissible to claim and on which the House has agreed? In other words, does he agree that we really do not want Members to score points off each other, for example by saying that it is all right to claim mortgage interest but not to claim for legitimate furnishing or other items? After all, Members do not inherit their furniture and they are behaving perfectly properly when they seek support to run a second home.

Watch this

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Unlike the other, late Alan who used to stand at this Dispatch Box, I am afraid that I did have to buy my own furniture.

I shall conclude by responding to the questions that various Liberal Democrat Members have asked. As I said, the question remains about the level down to which information will have to be revealed. I do not want to pre-empt today either the judgment from the Information Commissioner or the decisions of the Committee on which I shall sit in future about how what we are putting in place today is likely to be implemented to everyone's satisfaction. The intervention from my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis made it clear that the High Court made its decision because no satisfactory regime was in place. That decision will be different if the proposals before us are supported at the end of the debate, and the Information Commissioner might say that going down to the receipt level is disproportionate and unnecessary. He may conclude that the new categories meet the highest imaginable standards compared with any other public body and that they will therefore suffice.

Whatever the House decides, I hope that we can bring an end to the press having a field day at our expense and thereby diminishing both Parliament and the whole process of democracy. In the past, they have had a good basis for doing that and they have been entitled to point out the worst offences. We need to bring that to an end.

We need to move on and make this place work better, and to make people realise that this is an honest Parliament. It is probably more honest than any other that I know in the world, and it is here to serve people. People would benefit from respecting it—they may even want to be elected to it—and from appreciating what we all try to do for our constituents. That would enhance our democracy instead of causing it to decay.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 1:38 pm, 22nd January 2009

I begin by saying that Mr. Kidney, who is not in his place at the moment, made a very important point to the Leader of the House in his intervention. The system that we have been working with may have its inadequacies, but all hon. Members who submit a claim sign a certificate to the effect that they have used the money for a purpose that is consistent with their parliamentary duties. I agree with him in that I cannot understand how people can get away with using that money for a purpose that is wholly inconsistent with their parliamentary duties. How can it be said that there is something unclear about the certification that we all sign each time we claim? It is unfortunate that the impression has been given that, somehow, it was sufficiently unclear that it was all right to have blatantly fiddled the system, as, sadly, one or two Members appear to have done.

Watch this

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the faults has been that we have not had a system of audit that goes beyond the signature and allows proper scrutiny, simply as a check that hon. Members are behaving in accordance with what they have signed for? That is the great strength of the improved arrangements that are being put in place today. As a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, I think it important, as my hon. Friend Alan Duncan was saying from the Front Bench, that we should uphold the highest principles—in fact, the seven principles that Lord Nolan proposed—and the new audit arrangements are a step in the right direction.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he will know—because he used to be my sparring partner on these issues for many years—how often I have said that we need better and essentially external audit of what is done in the House. I am therefore very pleased that that is part of the proposals today.

The Leader of the House suggested in the earlier exchanges that we do not want to get into a Dutch auction between the parties on who is holier than thou, and I absolutely agree. It is important that we as a House come together on the issue and find a way forward that does not try to divide us into different camps, nor enable any portion of the House to claim a specific sanctimony all its own, as that is unhelpful to the process of finding the right solution.

I want to spend a little time on the Freedom of Information Act statutory instrument. It has been withdrawn, but it is extremely cogent to the proposed scheme of publication. I wholly welcome its withdrawal. I always intended to oppose it, as I have always opposed such matters. The one party political point that I want to make—I hope it is not at the expense of others—is simply that I was very saddened by the spin coming from those who speak for No. 10, who suggested yesterday that the statutory instrument was based on what was called an all-party agreement. It was categorically not based on an all-party agreement. The Liberal Democrats were neither asked the question, nor did we agree to it. I see the Leader of the House nodding on that point. It is thus wholly incorrect to suggest that we would support such an exemption for Members of Parliament.

Watch this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

I had not planned to intervene, because I spoke for so long; but to put the record straight, I never said "all-party support". I said that I understood that we had the support of the official Opposition. Of course, a Liberal Democrat Member served on the Members Estimate Committee, so was aware of what we were planning, but I have never taken that to be assent from the hon. Gentleman's party or ever claimed that.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for clarifying that. She was absolutely correct in what she said, as was the Prime Minister in what he said from the Dispatch Box yesterday, but it was spun a different way later, which is unfortunate.

If we had been asked, we would have said no, because we do not believe that the House should be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act on this matter. We have always argued that that Act should not be diluted. The first Committee on which I ever served in the House was the one that considered the Freedom of Information Bill, and we argued then that the Bill was a diluted form of the excellent White Paper, produced by Lord Clark of Windermere when he was in government, on which it was based. It was diluted again in the Standing Committee and when it returned to the Chamber. Ever since, there have been attempts, notably by David Maclean, to dilute it again. If we keep on diluting the Freedom of Information Act, we get to a point where it is positively homeopathic in its dilution—it no longer has the effect that we want it to have—and that is something that we should oppose, and my hon. Friends will certainly do so.

Watch this

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Transport Minister; Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader, Shadow Minister (Transport)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, despite several attempts to get an assurance from the Leader of the House that the Government will not seek to exempt MPs from freedom of information legislation on any future occasion, she was evidently unable to provide such a categorical assurance to the House today? Does he also share the concern that the only conclusion we can draw from that is that, despite what is being said today, there may yet be further occasions when the Government will seek, once again, to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act? We are seeking to defend an important principle.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I agree with my hon. Friend that the principle is important—it is one of the three principles that I am about to set out—and I was disappointed that the Leader of the House was not able to give that categorical assurance, because it would have been helpful to the House, particularly to those hon. Members who felt that we were going in entirely the wrong direction in trying to disapply the freedom of information provisions to ourselves.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I will give way in a moment; I am about to set out the three very important principles that we should abide by in this respect.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I have just indicated that I am about to set out three principles, so it would not be helpful for me to take an intervention just at that point.

The first principle is that the concept of freedom of information applies to Members of Parliament as much as to anyone else in the public services. That is non-negotiable. The second principle is that the public have a right to know how public money is spent. Again, that is a key principle. The third principle is almost a reverse of the second in some ways: MPs should get the expenses that they need to do the job they are asked to do on behalf of the public and the community that they service—not a penny more, not a penny less. We should be prepared to defend the provision of those expenses. No one else would call them "expenses"; they are the running costs involved in being a Member, and we should not be defensive or ashamed about that. That is what is necessary to do the job that we do in the House.

Watch this

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I warmly welcome the non-partisan way in which the hon. Gentleman is approaching the subject, but on never diluting the Freedom of Information Act and never making an exception, may I remind him of the important point that was made by the Leader of the House? An exemption to the Act was made in respect of MPs because of the insane decision by the High Court that our home addresses should be published. I must remind him that, quite rightly, at least half of his parliamentary party signed up to that and that not one Member chose to divide the House on it. So that is why it is perfectly reasonable for the Leader of the House not to give a blanket commitment never do that again, whatever the circumstances. When the Act was originally passed, no one in their wildest dreams would have imagined that the High Court would be mad enough to suggest that our home addresses should be published en masse on the internet for the benefit of any trouble maker at home or terrorist abroad.

Watch this

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. May I plead for interventions to be the standard length? I have been very flexible about it this afternoon, but they are tending to become mini speeches.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The interventions have been rather longer than the small interludes in between, when I have been speaking.

The hon. Gentleman makes a point. He knows, I think, that I did not agree with him on that—others did—and I made it clear that I did not. There must be very specific and particular security reasons for non-publication. Everyone knows where I live in my constituency. That is published in the phone directory, and I make no secret of it. But there are specific reasons for specific Members where that is not the case.

Watch this

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

On the issue of not a penny more, not a penny less, may I return to the question that I put to Alan Duncan? Should any capital gain arise from the ownership of a London property, should it be paid to the Treasury? If there were a loss subsequently, the Treasury could pay the Member who had lost out.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I do not think that there should be personal gain; that is my view. Actually, I would go further than that, and when we considered the review, I made a recommendation. Years ago, we arrived at the wrong system when we decided that people could buy properties and reclaim the mortgage. I know that there are contrary views on the issue. Some say, "Well, actually, that has been a saving to the taxpayer," but the situation would be much clearer if we identified a place to live and the rental was paid directly by the House. Then there would not be any question of people buying furniture and acquiring gain from their property. However, that is not the system, and I do not criticise any Member for abiding by the current rules, because that is what is set out.

It is wrong to suggest that when somebody has used the current allowances to buy a property, and then has to put furniture in it—shock, horror, they need some furniture!—it is somehow a scandalous waste of public money. That does not make sense. One must use either one system or another. We cannot have a system and then criticise those who use it in a perfectly sensible and sober way.

Watch this
P

Well there is furniture and furniture. If they are going to fill these second homes with valuable antiques and take them with them when they leave then there is a problem - it's called personal gain isn't it. There is no need for the fantastic amounts spent on "furnishings" - the tax payer buys what he can afford and I feel that MPs can afford, from their salaries, to furnish a place as every other man who works away from home does. It is enough that the second home is paid for.

Submitted by Paula

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

I want to come back to the substantive point that we are discussing today. It is not a general point about the Freedom of Information Act and how it operates; the issue is how it operates specifically with regard to our expenses. Is it not true that however the Government wish to present those expenses, our constituents will be able to find out what we have spent and how we have spent it?

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

That moves me neatly on to what I was going to say next. My difficulty with the proposals before us is the relationship between the scheme of publication that has been suggested, which has many admirable qualities, and extant freedom of information requests and decisions of the tribunal and the High Court, which cannot just be wished away; they exist. The tragedy is that if the House had used its brain a little more three or four years ago when the issues started cropping up, and had realised then that the need to respond to the public interest meant having a proper scheme of publication and a proper audit system, I think that would have satisfied the Information Commissioner. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that it would. Then we would not have had many of the discussions that we have had in the past few days.

The tragedy is that those who did not want to disclose anything have ended up having to disclose everything because they could not see the way the wind was blowing. I hope that this is a lesson to Members of the House: when the public have a legitimate right to know something, trying to keep it secret beyond the point at which that is tenable is a very bad tactic, quite part from anything else, because the result will not be what they expect it to be.

Watch this

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

My hon. Friend has given us wise words. Does he not agree that the conclusion of what he says is that a simple pair of messages must come from the House? The first is that we will comply with the law that applies to everybody else, and secondly, we will make available to the public all the information about the money that they give us and how it is spent?

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

That must be the case. That brings me to my difficulty with what the Leader of the House is saying. She has brought forward a scheme which, as I say, has many admirable qualities, but the problem is that it has been trumped by the decision of the High Court, following the tribunal decision. If an application were made, but the House decided not to comply with that application, and the case went before the Information Commissioner and was appealed to the tribunal, before going to the High Court, it may well be that a different view would be taken on the basis of the scheme before us today. However, that is by no means certain.

The right hon. and learned Lady is saying, "We shall have to decide, once the measures are in place, whether we want to continue releasing information down to receipt level, in accordance with the Court judgment." We are deciding not to do that, under the measures that we are debating today, because the scheme of publication does not allow for that. It would be perverse to have two schemes of publication—one by category, and the other down to receipt level—operating in parallel. That is my difficulty. There is no resolution of that problem at the moment; it will depend on how the House decides to proceed. However, I think that we are getting ourselves into another mess.

I am assuming that the House authorities will now release all the redacted information that they have been working so assiduously to produce, and have spent £2 million on preparing. If they do not, I have to say that if I were a person who had an FOI application in place, I would be rushing to the High Court to try to get a mandatory injunction to ensure that the House complied. I am not sure whether the House would have its assets sequestered as a result, but that would be an interesting constitutional outcome. It is now clear that the House has to comply with the request, and I inferred from what the Leader of the House said that it was the intention to do so in the very near future.

Watch this

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, albeit slightly unenthusiastically. The amendment that my hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead tabled was designed to ensure that information down to receipt level was available, if necessary. We are not allowed to speculate in detail on why it was not selected, but I believe that the reason is that its provisions are covered by the intention of the House. I would certainly be disappointed if that were not the case.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

There have been several expressions of disappointment about the fact that the amendment was not selected, but the issue is not in my hands. The inevitable result of the situation that will pertain by the end of the debate, provided that we go ahead with the proposals, is that we will have the scheme of delegation, but it will be superseded by the fact that we are required, under a current ruling, and until an alternative ruling is in place, to provide information down to receipt level. That is the position that the House is in, and it should be aware of that. Given that, the Leader of the House may like to consult her colleagues to see whether there are more sensible alternatives to the method of redaction being used. There are various ways of achieving the same result. The first is redaction at source—

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Yes, I am talking about the future. We could invite Members to go through a redacting process at source, before they hand in the receipt, to make sure that it does not contain certain things. There is also the "blank sheet" proposal, in which hon. Members would transfer the information from the receipt on to a standard form, which provides the information that is properly released. It is that form that is submitted, but it is of course backed up by a receipt, which is open to audit by the auditors. Both those systems would be much cheaper than what takes place at the moment, and would have fewer implications for the staff of the House. I hope that we will consider that.

The changes in the Green Book do not necessarily go as far as I would like, but they accurately reflect the decisions of the House. A good job has been done in translating the decisions of the House into the new regulations. As I say, it is not the Green Book that I would have written, but I nevertheless think the House should support it. I have already spoken about external audit: it is the most important element of the package before us today, because until there is an audit people can trust of how we run the mini-businesses that are our offices, they will not accept our word that we have done it properly.

That brings me to the point on which I want to finish. Surely the lesson from the whole affair is that we constantly need to step outside this place and look at ourselves as others see us, rather than thinking about our concerns and the potential for embarrassment or difficulties, which is undoubtedly there. We know that the press will make mischief out of almost anything that we do. There will be people who will deeply regret the publication of their expenses claims because they will have them splashed all over the papers, and upsetting and misleading statements will be made about how spendthrift they are. That will happen. It is regrettable, and one would hope that it would not, but it will. At the same time, surely we ought to see our behaviour as the outside world sees it. One of the great sadnesses of the proposal that was on the Order Paper until yesterday was that what the outside world saw was our hiding from the public who pay our wages, and that is not right. I hope that we will not do so again.

Watch this

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 1:59 pm, 22nd January 2009

I warmly welcome the Government's decision not to seek to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I was one of the Labour Back Benchers who went to the Whips and said that they could not vote for such a proposal. I do not frequently clash with my party's Front Benchers, but on this occasion I felt that it was an important matter. I take great pride in the fact that my party is led by people who listen and respond. It should be respected for that.

I also welcome motion 2, which is in the name of the Leader of the House. It substantially increases the detail of Members' expenses that the House will publish routinely and automatically each year, without the need for freedom of information requests. However, I am concerned that the motion does not go far enough to reassure public concerns about MPs' expenses. I fear that there could be a gap between the 26 categories set out in the motion and the receipts publication scheme, which has yet to be implemented.

The reputation of the House and of MPs generally is not as high as I would like, and our hesitation or reluctance to respond fully and openly to freedom of information requests about our expenses has contributed to that. Our reputation matters. If people respect Parliament, they are more likely to listen to the sometimes conflicting views expressed in the House, and to accept our decisions, especially when they do not agree with them. Equally importantly, they are more likely to take the trouble to turn out and vote in elections.

I wish to illustrate my concern by speaking in particular about motion 2(2)(b)(v), which refers to "fixtures, fittings and furnishings" under the heading of the personal additional accommodation expenditure allowance. I say to John Bercow that I am not suggesting that that area of expenses is more open to criticism than another. I have chosen to focus on it for two reasons. First, there is a widespread public interest in the issue, given the public comment and coverage about the John Lewis list. Secondly, fixtures, fittings and furnishings purchased under that heading are likely to be more expensive than the registered letters, mentioned by the Leader of the House, that are referred to in the congressional compendium of Members' expenses.

The new Green Book sets high standards for us Members to observe. We do not have those standards as a badge of our good standing and then set them aside; we have them because we mean to apply them. Let me read one or two items from the new Green Book. It states:

"Claims must only be made for expenditure that it was necessary for a Member to incur to ensure that he or she could properly perform his or her parliamentary duties."

I think it perfectly reasonable for a Member of Parliament to purchase a £250 or £300 television for their second home so that they can watch "Newsnight" after the day's business and keep up to date with the television news. However, I am not sure that it would be necessary to purchase a £1,500 widescreen television; if a Member did, some of their constituents might think that that had more to do with watching football matches at the weekend than keeping up with the news, which would be a necessary part of parliamentary business.

Watch this

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

Such examples illuminate the debate. They are one reason why even an expanded publication list does not quite do the job. We all accept that a Member has to buy a television set, refrigerator or vacuum cleaner to maintain a house down here. However, if someone bought those things every year and claimed for them, that would be an abuse. We would not know that that abuse was being carried on if we simply had aggregate figures, even on an expanded publication list—we would know only if we had detailed expenditures.

Watch this

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

I fully agree. I am not allowed to refer to an amendment that I put down, but my hon. Friend will be aware that I take the view—in relation to this category at least, and possibly to others—that we would do more to reassure the public if we published routinely and without the need for freedom of information requests a more detailed breakdown of expenditure.

On my hon. Friend's point, I should explain that the reason why there may be a gap between the 26 categories on the one hand, and the receipt publication scheme on the other is that anyone who has looked at freedom of information documents provided in response to freedom of information requests will be aware that one of the ways sometimes used to confuse the information seeker is to provide reams of documents, often with black marks crossing out certain passages. That makes it extremely hard for the person who has requested the information to dig out the facts that they are after. It has happened to me; it took me literally hours to find the nugget of information that I was after in a package of a few hundred pages with some markings out.

When more than 1 million Members' receipt documents with crossings out are released, it will be extremely difficult for a member of the public to sort the wheat from the chaff. It does not help the public or anybody else to release thousands and thousands of receipts from Ryman's for staplers or single reams of paper. However, as my hon. Friend points out, it may make sense to release receipts for larger capital items so that somebody could check, as my hon. Friend suggested, whether a new television had been bought three years running.

Watch this

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

We do not want to set hares running. My Friend mentioned a £1,500 television set, but that would never have got through the old system. The Green Book says that items of furniture and so on must not be extravagant, and I do not want people out there to think that we routinely buy super-expensive televisions.

Watch this

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

My hon. Friend has made his point— [Interruption.] No, I do not think that he is right, because a judgment about what is and is not extravagant has to be made and the public have a right to share in making that judgment. If the information is not available to them, they will not be able to look at the evidence and make judgments themselves. Unless we give them the opportunity to do so, our motives will remain in question.

Watch this

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the distinction between a modestly priced item and an extravagantly priced one, but that has been satisfactorily addressed by Mr. Prentice. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that his concern is substantially addressed on page 11 of the revised Green Book, given the proposed 10 per cent. limit as a proportion of the total allowance that can be paid in respect of the type of items that he is describing.

Watch this

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Ten per cent. of the allowance is about £2,000. To say to the public that Members can spend £2,000 without having regularly and routinely to face the discipline of that expenditure being broken down in the figures that the House releases to the public would put us, as Mr. Heath suggested, in a position of doing slightly too little, slightly too late, and leave the public feeling that we were not doing enough to reassure them that our expenditures are made for good parliamentary reasons. That is why I would like the Leader of the House and those who speak for the other parties to reflect on what I have said in their closing remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle noted that the new Green Book refers to extravagance. It says:

"Members should avoid purchases which could be seen as extravagant or luxurious."

Watch this

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

The old Green Book said that as well.

Watch this

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

I am glad to see that it is there. How will the public be reassured that the items are not extravagant or luxurious unless we release the information to them, and do so in a form that is digestible instead of as part of a compendium of 1.2 million receipts, the vast majority of which nobody would express any interest in whatever?

Watch this

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee 2:11 pm, 22nd January 2009

I want to make a brief contribution to this debate wearing the hat of the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee.

I congratulate Hugh Bayley on a thoughtful speech. I also commend my hon. Friend Alan Duncan, who is momentarily not in the Chamber, for making a very good maiden speech in his new capacity, setting exactly the right tone and balance for the debate.

Watch this

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

Yes, but it was not a maiden speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton mentioned the absence of oil as a commodity for which we should provide receipts. If he had to produce receipts for all the oil that he had purchased in his life, I suspect that it would involve a very substantial sum.

I welcome the production of the new version of the Green Book and congratulate its authors. The background to their task was the mixed reception for the report by the so-called MEC 3 back in July. I hope that we are now back on track to produce a new set of rules. My Committee has an interest in clear rules with robust and reliable advice from the Department of Resources, because we want to reduce the number of times that colleagues come into contact with the House's self-disciplinary system and are then investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and subsequently by my Committee.

I want to take issue, I am afraid, with something that Mr. Heath said; I do not do that very often. He started his speech by saying that he could not understand how it could be unclear when a Member signed off the application for reimbursement. If he looks through the reports from the Committee of which he was briefly a member, he will see that lack of clarity in the rules and flawed advice or procedures from the House authorities have been contributory factors in complaints against Members being upheld. There is an imperative to move towards greater clarity of the rules to avoid the sorts of problems that have arisen in the past.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Let me clarify what I said. I absolutely agree that there was sometimes a lack of clarity, which may have contributed in marginal cases. My point was about somebody having deliberately and clearly flouted the rules and written something untrue by signing their name to a certificate to say that something was incurred in support of their parliamentary duties. Like Mr. Kidney, I cannot understand why that is not a prosecutable offence.

Watch this

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

I take that point, but it is not always clear whether something is necessarily wholly and exclusively for parliamentary purposes, and we need to be as clear as we can.

Watch this

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Is not one of the strengths of the regulatory systems inside Parliament that the burden of proof necessary is not that which an external court would need? The hon. Member for Stafford and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome say that they do not understand why a prosecution did not take place in the case involved. The answer is perfectly simple—that the standard of proof that would have been required in the criminal court was not obtained, but the standard of proof necessary for the House to come to a very severe conclusion in that case was met.

Watch this

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

Indeed. That is the answer to a question that was raised earlier—why, in a particular case, the police did not prosecute but the House was able to come to a conclusion.

My Committee has an interest in the broader reputational issues of the House that have been discussed during the debate, and I think that the revised audit proposals can increase public confidence in how taxpayers' money is spent. My view is that the vast majority of colleagues have nothing whatever to fear from greater transparency, and it is unfortunate that more recently an impression to the contrary may have been given. As we have just heard, where colleagues do break the rules, the disciplinary consequences can be politically terminal.

I want to refer to an issue touched on by the Leader of the House—the need to ensure that the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who is an independent Officer of the House, and the role of the Committee to which he reports are not prejudiced by the dispute resolution procedure proposed in the report. Paragraph 5 of the introduction to the report before the House makes no reference to the role of either body in determining whether expenditure is allowable, and the resolution before the House gives that task to the Committee on Members' Allowances. It could therefore be possible for two Select Committees of this House to come to a different view on whether the rules have been broken. That would not be a good outcome.

Public confidence in our behaviour has been enhanced over the past 12 years by having an independent parliamentary commissioner whose reports we always publish. I pay tribute to the work of Philip Mawer and John Lyon; indeed, today we publish two of John Lyon's reports. It is important that this strong independent outside element is not bypassed or undermined by the new procedures and that the commissioner retains the discretion to determine whether to investigate and whether there has been a breach of the rules. I was grateful to the Leader of the House for the assurance that she gave on that point.

Watch this

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I agree with the thrust of the concern that my right hon. Friend is expressing. Certainly, we do not want anything to be introduced which, by accident or design, would make our procedures more opaque or decision making, if I may say so, more long-winded. Does he agree, without reference to any particular case, that where individuals are the subject of investigation, there is an important principle to bear in mind—not only that someone is innocent until proven guilty but that justice delayed is justice denied? It is incredibly important that timely decisions are reached about the fate of individual Members.

Watch this

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

I agree with that. Without referring to an individual case, one can contrast the time that the police authorities or the Crown Prosecution Service may take to reach a conclusion and the much reduced length of time that the House can take to reach a decision on an identical matter.

I am very grateful to Mr. Touhig for his helpful approach to the issues that I have mentioned, avoiding any conflict of conclusions on whether the rules have breached. He and my Committee had a helpful meeting on Tuesday. Between us, we can resolve two imperatives—on the one hand, preserving robust existing disciplinary procedures with the commissioner, and on the other, giving authoritative guidance to colleagues where there is uncertainty.

In paragraph 6, there is a reference to practice notes. Those will be important, and I hope that the commissioner and my Committee might be included in the consultation on these, as we have some corporate knowledge of operating them. For example, the practice notes on what is a main home may need to take account of past cases where lack of clarity has caused difficulties. The new Committee on Members' Allowances is given the role of keeping the rules under review, but the parliamentary commissioner has a similar obligation under Standing Order No. 150, as has my Committee under Standing Order No. 149. We have a view on the content, interpretation and propriety of the rules, but the new Committee is given a similar responsibility. Again, we will need to work closely together to avoid duplication; I am sure that with good will that can be done.

I strongly endorse the principle of Members taking personal responsibility for all expenses incurred, as set out on page 7, but I wonder whether the practice notes might give some guidance on what might be seen as extravagant or luxurious, to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for City of York. I also endorse the principle of avoiding claims that damage the reputation of Parliament

On travel expenditure, am I alone in questioning the cumbersome and time-consuming new arrangements for auditing rail travel? They are far more complex than the old warrant regime. May I suggest spot checks? Proportionality is an important concept, and misuse of rail travel between Westminster and the constituency has not been a source of problems. Filling in every detail, every month, of every rail journey between Waterloo and Andover is not, in my view, a productive use of my time.

The document has rules on communication and stationery that take up the points in my Committee's 19th report, but it would have been helpful if we had been in the loop with regard to this document. Other bodies in the House were consulted on its drafting, but neither the commissioner nor my Committee were, and I see no good reason for that.

I also welcome the recommendation that material to be published and claimed for under the communications allowance—the newsletters—should be submitted in advance. If all colleagues do that, we will avoid a lot of problems. I welcome the operational assurance proposals. It is important that that unit within the Department Of Resources should be properly resourced and staffed by people with authority and an understanding of what the life of an MP involves.

I make a small and final plea. The claim forms are available online, but we cannot complete them on a computer. We have to print them out and fill them in by hand—not all colleagues have good handwriting—and we then have to photocopy them if we want to keep a copy before sending them off. I would like to fill it in online, print it out, sign it and send it off, and then keep the file on the computer, but the present regime does not permit that. It is a small plea, and I am sure that it is not beyond the wit of man to enable that process to take place.

Of course, we have to be open and transparent, and accountable for the money that we spend. We were sent here originally to keep an eye on what the King spent on behalf of our constituents. That responsibility as custodians of the public purse remains and we should be doubly vigilant when the money goes through our own banks. But we were also sent here to hold the Government to account and to fight for our constituents, and our energies should not be diverted from that task by unnecessary bureaucratic procedures. I believe that the proposals before us give us the chance to strike a better balance.

Watch this

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 2:22 pm, 22nd January 2009

I fully expected to be on the losing side today. My understanding was that the dark forces on both sides of the House had conspired— [ Interruption. ] Well, my colleagues on both sides of the House had come together to persuade the Government to remove the House and Members of Parliament from the scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act in relation to detailed spending. That was the proposal that we were to be presented with today, and because I have learned over the years that the dark forces normally get their way, I imagined that it would be carried. It is only because I thought that it would be carried that I suggested to a colleague we might try to recover the situation. I know that amendments have not been taken, but the point of our proposal was to say to people who had worries about the retrospective nature of the provisions that we could at least decide prospectively that we wanted to sign up to what the court has told us to do.

That situation will not arise, however, because we have returned to where we were. I am glad about that, and I am glad that we are now all on the same side. I am delighted to be able to support all these good and sensible proposals on increased audit and assurance and an expanded publication scheme. Unfortunately, however, we have to remember the history. It is to the great credit of the Government that they introduced the Freedom of Information Act. I remember the process well, as does Mr. Heath. It is to the great credit of the Government and the House that they decided to include Parliament in the Act's provisions. Most people thought that we should be in the vanguard of these matters. We speak a lot about accountability and transparency, and therefore it was felt that we should be central to the new provisions.

The problem is that, since then, large numbers of Members of Parliament have sought to extricate themselves from the onerous provisions that they passed. I can understand why they, we, I would want to do that. The implications of the Act can be extremely irritating. Newspapers can foment mischief and misinformation about what we spend money on. Our political opponents can use the Act simply to cause all kinds of trouble and to spread misinformation. All of that is true, and I have enormous sympathy with those who make such points, but the remedy is not to say that we should find a way in which, uniquely, Members of Parliament can be removed from the provisions.

I am afraid that people do not think that our system of allowances is robust enough. We know, if we are honest with ourselves—and this has been said by several hon. Members already today—that this was a disaster waiting to happen. We had a system of allowances that was open to manifold abuse. I do not know the extent to which it has been abused. I know that there has been a spectacular case of abuse, but there may be others that show the capacity for abuse. When the issue was tested to assess whether there should be more direct access to detailed accounts of MPs' expenditure, the Information Tribunal and courts were emphatic because of our tolerance of the deficiencies of the system.

Watch this

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I will in just a second. The tribunal said last year:

"The ACA system"— the additional costs allowance system—

"is so deeply flawed, the shortfall in accountability so substantial, and the necessity of full disclosure so convincingly established, that only the most pressing privacy needs should in our view be permitted to prevail."

When the High Court went over the same set of issues, and was asked to do the same balancing exercise, it said in its judgment:

"We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities. The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs' salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers...they bear on public confidence in the operation of our democratic system at its very pinnacle, the House of Commons itself. The nature of the legitimate public interest engaged by these applications is obvious."

That is a coruscating verdict on a system that we have allowed to continue over the years. That is why I say that the abuses were waiting to happen.

Let us be clear: the effect of the withdrawal of the proposal overnight is that we are now back in the situation that the court judgment brought about. We are going to have an expanded publication scheme, and I welcome that. It is a good thing, but we are now also subject to the decision under FOI law that the details of our expenditure should be published. I am not sure whether this is an example of the dark forces still being dark, but there is clearly still a feeling among some hon. Members that if we can only agree to an expanded category of items to be published, we will somehow be able to extricate ourselves at the eleventh hour from the decisions that have made the publication of our expenditure inevitable. I say to those dark forces that that is not the case.

Those who have followed the Freedom of Information Act will know that the obligation to produce publication schemes is a quite separate arm of the Act from the testing of disclosure provisions in the public interest. There should be a good publication scheme, approved by the Information Commissioner, and I hope that ours will now be better. However, that will do nothing to satisfy the public interest test that is applied to disclosure. That test has been applied by both the tribunal and the court, and that is the situation in which we must live.

It was not entirely clear from the Leader of the House's answers where she believes that now leaves us. She must be honest and direct with the House and admit that it leaves us in the position that I have just described. It would be wholly unsatisfactory to have a hit-and-miss, ad hoc disclosure system. As hon. Members have said, we must all be systematically covered in the same way, so that information is released on a standard, properly redacted basis. That is what we have been told to do, and there is no escape from it and no eleventh-hour reprieve. The reprieve that Members thought would work for them has collapsed, and there is no other. It is now time to say that this is the world in which we live.

Watch this

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I do not have any problem with the publication of receipts, but what about the proportionality that my friend Hugh Bayley mentioned, as in the case of thousands and thousands of receipts from Ryman's? Does my Friend want us routinely to submit receipts from the Members' restaurant or the canteen? Would he insist on every single receipt being handed into the authorities, regardless of the value of the service purchased?

Watch this

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that any relevant receipt should be produced. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House described the elaborate, and I thought necessary, process that had been gone through to ensure that only relevant information will be published. That is what this whole exercise has been about.

Watch this

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

On proportionality, I suspect that like me, when he was first elected my hon. Friend was told by the Fees Office that he could not claim for newspapers. I remember expressing some surprise, because we do not just need the daily newspaper that anyone would buy. A tool of our trade, particularly on Sundays, is often the whole set of papers, but we could not claim for it. I recently discovered that that rule had been abrogated or allowed to drift, and that I had lost years of expenses. I wanted clarification in writing, and since then I have been keeping receipts for all my damn newspapers. I have not submitted them yet, but do we really want to have to get receipts for so many papers on a certain day?

It so happens that I cannot get newspapers delivered to my house, so I cannot get a weekly receipt. I just buy them when I need to. I suppose that this is a small point, although I am not sure whether it is over a period of years, but what is the answer to the problem of newspapers? [Interruption.] Well, my hon. Friend—

Watch this

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Watch this

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I apologise to my hon. Friend; I have not yet given enough thought to the newspaper question, but I shall now give it substantial thought. What I do know is the rubric that is to be contained in the instructions to us, which is simple and helpful: that we should not claim for anything about which we are not willing to be subjected to public scrutiny. It is a straightforward principle. If we claim for the right things, we have the answers to any queries that arise—whether about newspapers or anything else. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for City of York, although the extended publication scheme is welcome, I am worried that, if we continue to deal in aggregate figures, one could not discover a range of abuses that might exist. Given all that has happened, there is no alternative but to ensure that we put in place and believe in a system that will hound out any possible abuse, and discipline Members to ensure that it works.

There is an old adage that sunshine is the best disinfectant. We have not had sunshine and we have therefore needed disinfectant. People who believe that a little bit of sunshine now means that we can keep out much other scrutiny are wholly misguided. We live in a regime under which people can see in detail on what we spend money. There is no rowing back from that. I wish that my right hon. and learned Friend had simply said on behalf of the Government that that is the world in which we live and that we must make the best of it.

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 2:35 pm, 22nd January 2009

I welcome the debate today and the generally constructive tone. I welcome the helpful proposals to improve accountability for our expenses and I especially welcome the withdrawal of the proposal to exempt Members of Parliament from freedom of information legislation.

I was very taken with the contribution of my hon. Friend Mr. Heath, especially his call for us "to see ourselves as others see us." He may not know that that is a quote from a poem by Robert Burns, and it is all the more appropriate given that we will celebrate Burns night on Sunday. We should hold on to that pearl of wisdom throughout the debate.

We must admit that we have a problem with public perception. Survey after survey shows that members of the public tend to have a positive view of their Member of Parliament, but that their view of us collectively, as a breed of politicians, is much more negative. That is where many of the problems lie. The subject of Members' expenses has fuelled the negative perception. As has been said, it has been a vexed issue for many years.

It does not help that our expenses system is so poorly understood, and that the media have been less than helpful in sensationalising expenses. Indeed, the word "expenses" is misleading because in most jobs—certainly in jobs that I had before being elected—some of the items for which we claim would not necessarily count as expenses. For example, large headline figures of more than £100,000 are produced, but the vast majority of that money is spent on the salaries of our incredibly hard-working staff, who deal with constituents' concerns day in, day out. Constituents greatly appreciate that help and continually give excellent feedback about our staff. Those salaries make up most of our expenses, but what newspaper editor or managing director would include in their expenses the salaries of everybody who worked in their organisation?

Watch this

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The hon. Lady makes a powerful and important point. Does she agree that it is incumbent on us to explain what we, as Members, and the public are getting in return for those staffing budgets? To put it simply, if the sums available were much lower, the delays to constituents would be that much greater. Some of the vexatious complainants about the size of the allowances are precisely the same people who would grumble about the tardiness of our responses.

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is right. The service that our staff provide enables us to deal with, for example, the more than 3,000 constituency cases that the Leader of the House mentioned. That figure is not unusual for most Members. From speaking to Members who have been here much longer than me, I know that the volume of correspondence has increased hugely in recent years. Although e-mail is an excellent way in which people can communicate with their Members of Parliament, making communication easier means that the volume of correspondence increases and more support is required to handle the inquiries.

Many of our constituents mistakenly believe that the money comes directly to us and is paid into bank accounts, from which we pay out. We know that money comes directly to us for certain allowances, for example, the allowance for rent, only when we have submitted the claim and the receipt to show that we have already paid. As a new Member, with student debts, I suddenly had to pay deposits and found that cash flow was a bit of a problem in the first two weeks, so that is another misconception.

References to second homes can conjure up an image of a gravy train and of holiday homes, but the reality is that we get out of this place at 10 o'clock or 10.30 on Monday and Tuesday evenings and just about manage to get back to somewhere in London to put our head down and try to get a decent night's sleep before we come back here early the next morning. It is not exactly a glamorous lifestyle.

I absolutely love doing the job of Member of Parliament; it is a great privilege for me to represent the people of East Dunbartonshire. However, all of us in the House know that the job is far from easy. Spending half the week away from loved ones places strains on family life, and the huge amount of travelling takes its toll, resulting in tiredness and exhaustion. I want to make it very clear that, without the support of my excellent staff, without being able to travel regularly between my constituency in Scotland and Westminster, without having somewhere to stay when I am down here in London, and without the resources to pay for my office telephone bills, my stationery and my IT equipment, I would simply be unable to do the job of representing my constituents properly. That case is not often made, but it needs to be made.

I am in favour of transparency because I believe that, when people are presented with the mundane details of our toner cartridges and our telephone bills, the heat will go out of the issue. In the main, our constituents accept that we need to do our job, and that we need the resources to do it.

Watch this

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Comptroller (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Commons)

Has that been the experience of the Scottish Parliament? How have the Scottish media treated the matter of its expenses?

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I shall come to the issue of the Scottish Parliament in a moment. By and large, that has been the experience there, because, once everything is in the public domain, journalists get a bit bored with trying to write these stories.

Trying to hide the justifiable expenses that we claim in the process of doing our job is damaging the reputation of politics. It is also absolutely pointless. The way in which we are going is clear to see, and to try to hide the information is counterproductive. It fuels the public's negative perception of politicians and of the House.

Watch this

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

While the hon. Lady has been talking, I have been thinking about this. The seedier end of the press seems to be getting at those of us who are possibly the most diligent, because we use all of our staffing allowance to employ people. As the hon. Lady said, we do not see that money at all. The press will get on to us about that because it does not understand that that money does not pass through our pockets but goes directly to our staff. Also, those of us who go to our constituencies every week—I do, and I think that most of us do—have higher travel costs. If we go by train, our travel costs will perhaps be higher than if we went by car, although we could make a greater profit out of using a car. None of these things is taken into account. Last year, I was told by my local paper that I was the highest-spending MP in Bradford, because my train fares came to more than those of the other four MPs. There were all sorts of reasons for that, and they were only £20 more. So, this year, I have started to use my senior citizen's rail pass to reduce the amount of money that I am using—

Watch this

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Interventions should be brief, and the hon. Lady has certainly made her point.

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

It was a very good point. At the other end of the spectrum, when I was first elected to the House, I was still able to use my young person's rail card, so my travel bills went up slightly after my first year as a Member of Parliament.

The hon. Lady has made a good point, and transparency should be our friend. We might not be able to guarantee treatment that is always favourable or entirely fair from the media; I cannot promise that we would get such treatment. However, I believe that our constituents will, by and large, treat us fairly. They, at least, will be in a position to assess the situation, if they can see the travel claims and other expenses of the hon. Lady or any other Member. They know how hard their individual MP works, and they will be able to make their own judgment. This is about ensuring that people have the power to make those judgments. They know, from dealing with our staff, that there is always a well-staffed office—and they might be aware that one MP has higher staff costs than another—and they will be able to see the benefits of that. It will be up to our constituents to judge whether we, as MPs, are spending the taxpayer's money well. Transparency, then, is a good principle for us to adopt.

We heard earlier about the 26 categories that will now apply and debated whether every receipt should be published, which will also happen under freedom of information legislation. I accept the argument that perhaps if we had had a better publication regime before, we might not have reached the stage of the Information Commissioner's ruling that every receipt has to be published. But we are where we are, and we are now going to publish detailed receipts—1.2 million of them, as we have heard—so I would argue that it makes no sense to stop there. Once we have done this, we should have a system that enables us to do it on a regular basis, so that it is entirely transparent. We know that there will be freedom of information requests anyway, so rather than wait for them to come in, I believe that the House should be proactive and take that step.

In effect, what is the big deal? Yes, costs are attached, and the Leader of the House gave us a figure of £2 million earlier, but I am willing to bet that the public out there—who may or may not be listening to or watching this debate—would think that it was a price well worth paying for transparency in Parliament and for restoring some trust in our democracy.

We have had much discussion, some of it rather amusing, about whether what is proposed will be difficult to achieve, with all the redacting and so forth that will be required, but it is really not that complicated. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have both managed to follow such an arrangement for some time. Perhaps our officials could speak to their officials to work out the best, most civilised and reasonable way of proceeding. I quite like the example mentioned earlier of having a standard receipt form into which all the details could be put, perhaps online to save some of our staff's work and departmental resources, ensuring that receipts are tendered for the auditors to look at. There are lots of ways doing that and a streamlined system could be put in place while ensuring that all the information is in the public domain.

Watch this

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

On the question of the cost and the 1.2 million figure for receipts, was the hon. Lady as surprised as I was that the costs went so high? Does it not seem that many costs are included in the calculation? If one were merely scanning in pieces of paper, the recurrent cost would, in fact, be extremely low.

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

Another point to be borne in mind is that presumably we are going back to 2004, which will include several years' worth of expenses. If these had been annual costs, one would not have expected them to be so high. As I say, I believe that the House will be able to take steps to collect the information in a more sensible way before publishing it, so that the process is made easier.

I very much agreed with the sentiments of Dr. Wright on the requirements for receipts. I would be in favour of having a zero limit on the requirement for receipts, as was initially recommended by the Members Estimate Committee. When I worked in business, that was standard practice. I understand that it might be a bit fiddly having to submit full receipts, but I think that the public would welcome it. If we are going to take a step towards transparency, we should go the whole way: we would have nothing to hide and the public would be aware of that fact. As we get it all into the open, it will just become routine.

I was asked earlier about the experience of the Scottish Parliament. Yes, if we proceed with the new arrangement, I am sure that journalists will still pick up on little stories. Let us think of some examples of what was reported in the Scottish press. One story was about an MSP who claimed for a pint of milk and a packet of tea bags for the office, but to be honest, I do not know what the story is in that. When I worked in an office, whoever nipped out to buy a new packet of tea bags or pot of coffee reclaimed the money from the petty cash when they returned and stuck the receipt in the petty cash tin. That is not a story. That is not scandalous. Frankly, if that is the worst that the newspapers can come up with, people will soon get bored; the press will not sell many papers by saying that tea and coffee are provided in MPs' offices.

The audit principle in the motions before us is also very good. I am delighted to see that the internal auditing will be more robust. More important, however, is the principle that external auditing has to be accepted. That is absolutely essential. Having each MP externally audited at least once in a Parliament is the right way forward.

Watch this

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend has come to what I think is the most important point: the auditing, particularly the external auditing, of Members' claims, which provides protection for Members as much as for the public and the public purse. Members should look forward to it rather than be afraid of it. I say in passing that my hon. Friend might be a bit optimistic in thinking that full publication will somehow defuse the public interest in all this. The public interest will still be there, because some members of the public simply delight in these matters. I am nevertheless very much in favour of going ahead with the freedom of information proposals.

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am sure that there will still be great public interest in the issue, but I suspect that some of the more lurid and scandalous stories will be abated and that we will get rid of the perception that Members of Parliament are trying to hide something, which would be a very good thing indeed. My hon. Friend makes a good point about auditing giving Members a degree of protection. I believe that the opinion of most Members throughout has been that we want to ensure that we are doing things properly, but there has often been uncertainty and a lack of clarity about exactly what the right procedures are. It has been felt that it is somehow possible for Members to get into hot water even having stuck to the rules. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase pointed out, a full transparency system has the advantage of enabling us to know that everything will be in the public domain, and a matter of judgment for our constituents.

What happens next? I had hoped to intervene on the Leader of the House to follow up our exchange last October, when I asked when our expenses would be published. Initially, they were to be published last autumn. The Leader of the House explained today in colourful detail some of the difficulties encountered in the preparation of the material for publication and some of the important security considerations involved. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will enlighten us further when he winds up the debate. Now that we are aware of the scale of the task, how many people are working on it and how much more there is to be done, may we have a more accurate estimate of the expected date of publication, so that the public can be reassured that the process will not drag on indefinitely?

My final point relates to freedom of information legislation and to whom it applies. The one issue about which I still feel some concern is whether there is any prospect of further attempts in the House to exempt Members of Parliament from freedom of information legislation. I asked the Leader of the House that question earlier today, during business questions. Kate Hoey and my hon. Friend Martin Horwood have also asked for assurances in that regard, but as yet none has been entirely forthcoming.

Earlier this week, media reports suggested that there had been some tentative agreement between the Labour and Conservative parties on exemption from freedom of information legislation, but that the relevant order had been withdrawn when the agreement collapsed. I hope that lessons will be learned from the events of this week, and that there will be no moves to create another such agreement and to return the proposal to the House.

Watch this

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I do not know whether my hon. Friend noticed that during the proceedings before the order was withdrawn it was submitted to another place, where it was examined by the Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments. The Committee reached what I gather is, in the language of the other place, the damning conclusion

"that it may imperfectly achieve its policy objectives."

I am told that that is the strongest criticism that the Committee makes against a statutory instrument, and some difficulty may be encountered in getting it through the other place even if some unpleasant collusion happens in this House.

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

We were saved by the other place from the Bill presented by David Maclean. I hope that the other place will not be required to save us again, but if it is, what my hon. Friend has said may provide us with some reassurance.

It is in all our interests to deal with this issue, to put it behind us, and to get on with restoring public trust. I believe that the best way in which the House can do that is to go down the route of full transparency. I hope that notwithstanding the new categories that are being introduced, once the first tranche of freedom of information expenses have been published, the House will recognise that continuing that practice is the wise thing to do.

Watch this

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe 2:54 pm, 22nd January 2009

So far, this has been a constructive debate. Both main Front-Bench speakers gave very helpful summaries of the position.

Like some other Members who have spoken, I am one of those who told the Whips that they were not prepared to support the Freedom of Information Act exemption, and it may be considered relevant that I would expect the same to happen if the issue arose again. The relationship between the House of Commons and the public is currently like a marriage that has almost broken down. One third of the public do not vote. Of those who do vote, a large number do so on the basis of choosing what they see as the lesser evil. They believe—we are clear that this belief is partly generated by mischievous press seeking to increase readership—that we have let them down on a series of occasions and that a significant number of Members are evading the spirit of the system. That may well not be the case, but the effect is that, like the partners in a marriage in trouble, we have to go further than would normally be necessary to reassure the other party—in this case, the general public—that their suspicions are no longer justified, if they were ever justified. As a result, a system of accounting for expenses that in an organisation where no particular concerns had arisen would be perfectly adequate is no longer adequate. In order to reassure the public, we cannot simply do the minimum that the courts appear to require. We have ostentatiously to go beyond what the courts require, to show that we are open beyond any question of doubt.

That point is of relevance to the discussion of what happens to receipts in future. It would be a pity if we went away today having resolved the question of all the pending receipts, but still unsure of what we were going to do about receipts submitted tomorrow morning. It would be helpful if the Deputy Leader of the House could reassure us that for the foreseeable future the intention of the House authorities is that if a valid Freedom of Information Act request is made for details of a Member's expenditure, they will be provided, with all the protection for privacy and security we assume always applies, even for quite normal freedom of information applications.

The problem is not money; it is trust. Very few of my constituents argue that we should not have the legitimate expenses—for second homes, and moderate costs for equipment and staff—that we receive. When I take those who are sceptical through the information point by point, almost every one of them says, "Well, yes, all right, that does seem reasonable. My problem is that people get around it." We do not, therefore, have to adopt a fanatical position and say that every tea bag used is a shameful misuse of public money. What we need to do is go to the point where no reasonable doubt remains, so that if people want to know what we spent money on that came from their pockets, they can find out.

There are two possible ways to do that. One is that on a regular basis we scan and publish every receipt on the internet. That seems to me to be a slightly exaggerated response. The alternative is that we provide the information to constituents and journalists on request, so that if a Member regularly has an unusually large furniture and fittings bill, a constituent—I think only the Member's own constituents should be able to do this—or journalists can inquire further and ask for a list of what was purchased. I anticipate that the average journalist, who also has limited time available, would not need to interrogate all 650 Members' individual expenses constantly, but would do the work when a query arose.

I take the suggestion made by Mr. Heath that we might be able to do things more efficiently if the information were simply transferred to a blank sheet of paper, so that we knew that the furniture expenditure of the hon. Member for X included £175 on this and £43 on that, without having to scan and reproduce the original receipt. The Committee could reasonably examine that issue to work out the most efficient way of providing the information and short-circuiting much of the elaborate redacting process that has been necessary up to now.

The conclusion that we are reaching today is pretty healthy, in the sense that we have cross-party agreement, although there are small differences of emphasis, that what we need to do is provide detailed summaries, in the 26 categories, of our spending, and further detail as required. When we talk to the wider public about this, we need to accept a certain humility. There has been a sense of self-congratulation in parts of today's debate; people think that we have got this right and everything is perfect. I have contributed to that with my own comments, but we should qualify it by being aware that people are worried and sceptical and that what we are doing is providing necessary reassurance to ensure that they will no longer be worried and sceptical.

Watch this

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to display considerable humility in this matter, because our rectitude is forced and belated. Does he agree—this is pursuant to what Jo Swinson and others have said—that we should robustly defend, for example, the size of the staffing expenditure that some hon. Members have to incur, which is larger than that of others? Their expenditure is greater for one compelling reason: that such Members have—I, like others, must be honest about this—a very much larger case load and it has to be serviced. They should not be in any way embarrassed or defensive about the fact that their allowance claim is that much larger—it is in the public interest and in their constituents' interest.

Watch this

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

That is entirely right. As has been said, it might well be that this would be clearer for the public if staff were directly employed and if the money did not appear to go through our accounts—we know that in reality it does not. I would not be opposed to Members who can show that they have an exceptionally large case load making a case for additional staff. This is something for another day, but one can debate whether we should be involved in all the individual issues in which we are involved or whether some kind of local ombudsman might be able to take over some of these roles. As long as people see us as the court of appeal when they get stuck in any part of the administration, we have to be able to respond to that. We have to be honest in defending to people the fact that the expenditure is necessary, otherwise they will not get the help.

Watch this

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

I thank my hon. Friend for making this excellent contribution, but he may be in danger of drifting slightly away from that excellence. His constituents, like all our constituents, know how much he spends on staff; they have been able to see that information and make a judgment on it for a number of years. Is he inundated with letters, e-mails and phone calls every year about how much he spends on staff, or, like me, does he only receive commendations from people for work done and the occasional criticism when something has not been done quickly enough?

Watch this

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

I think the balance of feedback that most of us receive is positive, but every time our annual expenses are declared, the same point arises and we hear people say, "My God, you have £200,000 coming into your pocket."

Watch this

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

My hon. Friend is fortunate if no one says that to him. I have had it said to me, and when I have explained, people have been satisfied, but I suspect that there are some people who have not written to me and are sitting out there grumbling.

Watch this

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. Would he like it to be on the record that some hon. Members have high staffing costs because, for example, a key member of their staff who has gone away to have a child must be paid for not working for a year, while someone else must be paid to do the job in their place? The Member's staffing allowance may be £20,000, £30,000 or £35,000 higher for that year.

Watch this

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

That is a good point. We have the temporary secretarial allowance to pay for a substitute for people who are ill or absent for other legitimate reasons. As John Bercow said, we must be prepared robustly to defend the necessity of the allowances so that we can do our job.

I take the point that was made earlier that we should come to one another's support if there is unreasonable nit-picking for partisan purposes. That is difficult during electioneering, but we could at least refrain from adding fuel to the flames when people are being unreasonably criticised.

Watch this

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Is there not a danger of over-egging the pudding? A member of my staff was on maternity leave, and I was in precisely the position that Bob Spink described. In one year, a large five-figure sum was marked down as "other expenditure" and, understandably, the media wanted to know what it was. When I explained, no comment was made.

Watch this

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

That is right. We could have a profitable discussion with some of the voluntary websites that monitor us and generally do a good job—for example, TheyWorkForYou—about how information is presented so that it is as transparent as they and we wish it to be, and so that cases such as that described by the hon. Gentleman do not cause unnecessary public scepticism.

Despite kicking and screaming along the way, the House has arrived in the right place, and we have a system of allowances that we can defend collectively and with which we are prepared to be as transparent as anyone could reasonably expect. I support the motions, and I congratulate my colleagues on bringing them forward.

Watch this

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point 3:08 pm, 22nd January 2009

It is a pleasure to follow Dr. Palmer.

I left the Chamber earlier to take a call from an excellent Canvey Island councillor, Peter May, who told me that, having worked together, we have today secured an offer of a decent home for a very vulnerable constituent. I could not have helped Councillor May to obtain such a result without the staffing, office and expenses made available to me as a Member of Parliament to do my job of helping my constituents and holding the Government to account.

It is obvious that the harder an MP works, the more he consults, communicates, holds surgeries and helps his constituents, and the more he travels between Westminster and his constituency—hon. Members whose constituencies are close to Westminster have more opportunity to travel daily to meetings in schools and in the evenings—the greater his or her costs will be. There is not necessarily any great credit in being a low-cost Member of Parliament—quite the opposite. In that respect, some of the newspapers have misrepresented the position of MPs and their expenses, and I hope that that will end. However, I will not hold my breath.

The motions are helpful and comprehensive. They will provide welcome transparency and standardise the publication of information. I also welcome the new and tighter Green Book.

Alan Duncan, speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, made an excellent speech. In fact, he showed a masterly touch despite having been in post for such a short time. He also displayed a lightness of touch, and I enjoyed what he said and how he said it. I congratulate him.

The hon. Gentleman told the House that in political life, one can do the decent thing, only for advantage to be taken of one. He is so right. I was a victim of that. When I resigned from the Tory party, it made baseless and rather nasty comments about my employment of my staff. I put that right, and the party paid heavily in court for that mischief. Category (d) in motion 2 refers to staffing expenditure. I voluntarily published details of my staffing expenditure before the arguments kicked off about Derek Conway in February or March last year. I gave full details of my staff, who they were and what my relationship with them was, including my employment of my ex-wife, whom I had divorced five years earlier. I published their job specifications and their salary bands in detail, because I thought that the public had the right to know what use I was making of public money, but that information was misrepresented and used against me in an offensive and unfair manner. I was deeply angry about that, until of course the judgment, which left me in pocket on the matter.

I demanded that the House authorities perform a full audit of my staffing arrangements, including the three staff who had had accusations made against them. The House authorities resisted that demand at first, but in the end they agreed. The audit took about six months, and it was a backward-looking audit, unlike the instructions that the Conservative party gave its MPs—that they should clean up their act and publish information looking forward. That was deceitful, and they were pretending to be open and transparent when they were not. The audit examined a three-month period and found that the member of staff who was the principal victim of the accusations had, working from her home office, sent an average of 107 emails every working day, in addition to her responsibilities for the diary, snail mail, the telephone and other tasks.

The audit report was dated 7 October and confirmed to me that

"your arrangements for the staff mentioned above"— the three members of staff in question—

"comply with the primary requirements of the Green Book set out on the first page of this letter.

The Personnel Advice Service has also reported to me that all three of your staff appear committed, hard-working and possessing at this time the necessary skills and competences for the work undertaken."

It is my understanding that no other Member has had such a backward audit of their staff. I am delighted that I have had such an audit, although it would not have been necessary but for the mischief caused by others, who brought the House into disrepute as a result.

Watch this

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on his speech. Has he received an apology from the Conservative Front Benchers for their actions?

Watch this

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

It is funny that the hon. Gentleman should mention that. Not only did I get every penny of my costs—[Hon. Members: "How much?] A very substantial— [ Interruption. ]

Watch this

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I did receive a written apology, but I shall return to the subject of the debate.

The communications expenditure is covered under paragraph (2)(c) of motion 2. Questions come in from my constituency every week from vexatious people, as they do for other hon. Members, so I want to put it on record that although I did not need to have my publications checked, I have always had each one checked and approved before publishing them. I am happy about that, and I think that that system is essential to ensure that the public can have confidence that Members are not using the communications allowance improperly. I do not think that Members are.

Paragraph (2)(a)(ii) of motion 2 covers "office equipment and supplies". It would be helpful in the future to consider including petty cash in that category as an individual item. A Member can take up to £240 in petty cash during a year and that will need to be scrutinised. In fact, petty cash should be audited. Records of every penny going in and out should be kept in a petty cash book, as they are in my office, and it should be audited at least once in a Parliament. The public deserve to see what petty cash is going through Members' offices, too.

Paragraph (2)(b) covers the accommodation expenditure. I believe that service charges should be split from the reference to

"household costs...utilities, telecommunications, maintenance and repairs".

Service charges in London can be very high. They can amount to £2,000 or £3,000—or even £5,000 or £6,000—and that sum could be a blanket over any revealing information that the public may want to see to compare what Members are spending on utility bills. Separating out service charges would be a good idea, and I am grateful that the Leader of the House accepted that amendment in principle and thought it was a sound measure. I encourage her to bring it forward at some time in the future.

Let me move on to motion 5, which will set up a new Committee. The work involved is already being done in the House. I am sure that the new Committee will do it more formally but, essentially, as we heard earlier, the work proposed is the same as that which is being done. We have not been given a global sum for what the new Committee might cost. I think it might cost several tens of thousands—if not a few hundreds of thousands—of pounds each year. The House deserves to know what the Committee might cost.

In this economic climate, as everyone is tightening their belts and wondering whether they will have a job or a salary next year, why should we be giving one of our colleagues—even though I am sure that that colleague will be a good chap—an extra £14,000 Committee Chairman's salary for doing what is already being done free of charge? If the Deputy Leader of the House wants to intervene, I shall give way to him.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I was only sitting forward. The motion does not provide for the Chairman to be paid at all.

Watch this

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I am grateful for that clarification. Is the Deputy Leader of the House confirming that that Committee Chairman will not receive a Select Committee Chairman's salary? I would be prepared to give way if he wished to clarify that point.

Watch this

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not wish to go against the mood of the House or to be pernickety. That is not the point, but I think we must be careful about how the action that we take looks to the public. That is what this is all about.

I thank you for your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker. We should not fear transparency. We should welcome public scrutiny, but we should also expect the press to act responsibly. As one Labour Member said earlier—I forget who it was—we should make sure that we do not transgress by irresponsibly seeking to score political points against other hon. Members in a way that is unfair and brings this House into disrepute.

Watch this

Photo of Michael Jabez Foster Michael Jabez Foster Labour, Hastings and Rye 3:20 pm, 22nd January 2009

I think that members of the public who watch this debate should be satisfied with the fervour for openness expressed by every hon. Member who has spoken. The one thing about which we, as parliamentarians, have to be very careful is not to assume bad faith on the part of colleagues. It is very easy to do that for political purposes, and it may be that we can avoid that by ensuring greater openness in these matters than ever before.

My hon. Friend Dr. Wright may have suggested that withdrawing the statutory instrument due to be debated today was somehow a sign of bad faith on the part of members of the Government Front Bench, but I think they have simply taken a pragmatic view. The statutory instrument was itself pragmatic, in the sense that it was designed to see whether some of the tensions could be resolved without giving way to those who wish to refuse disclosure.

As we heard earlier, exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act may yet be granted in respect of details that should be avoided, such as personal addresses. However, I think it was right to withdraw the statutory instrument, for the simple reason that it sent the wrong message.

The message that has been sent out today by hon. Members of all parties is that we want to offer the greatest possible openness to our constituents. The issue is how we can do that in the most pragmatic way, without hiding anything. I must say that I see a problem in putting every receipt on the internet, but I think that the price is one that we must be willing to pay.

As has been noted, such an approach will cost something like £3 million. Any savings will be minimal but I guess that that £3 million, if it satisfies the public that we are doing the right things, is something that we will have to accept. Moreover, as other colleagues have observed, it may not be a cost that is repeated as time goes by.

Like other hon. Members, I think we should be proud of what we do for the money that we get for supporting our constituents. Last year, as always and in common with another colleague, I made all my expenses clear to my constituents. I pointed out something that people often do not know, which is that it costs about £250,000 a year to keep an MP. That sum is made up of salary, pension contributions, the office costs allowance and so on, and it works out that keeping their MP costs everyone who lives in my constituency £2.50 a year, or 5p a week. Some people may say that I am not worth 5p, but no one in my constituency asked for their money back when they were offered it. I very much hope that that is indicative across the piece, and that most constituents regard their MPs as good value.

However, is it possible to satisfy requirements for openness without incurring even more cost to the public? I agree with my hon. Friend Dr. Palmer, who said that we should ask our constituents what they want to know about their MP's expenditure. One of my constituents took me up on my offer to let him look at my books. He went through all the receipts for 2005-06 and 2004-05, after which he said that he was wholly satisfied and did not want to do any more. However, I said, "No, you've come here to see the last five years so you're going to sit there and do it." [ Interruption. ] Well, I let him off at 2001-02. But the truth is that if we as local parliamentarians are willing to open our books locally—we should be prepared to do so—the wider concerns might be not just appeased but somehow reduced.

My guess is that, whatever we do, the media have it in for us. There is no way we can wholly satisfy the media. Why? Because we are well paid; it is not a bad job; and we get relatively good support although we work extremely hard for it. The truth is that we earn above the average and we have a better standard of living than many—indeed, most—of our constituents. Whether we earn less here than we did in other jobs is irrelevant. The fact is that people think that we are well looked after and that our expenses are very generous, and all the rest of it. So I do not think that we can win the argument that we are somehow hard done by, but does it matter?

The truth is that our task is to do the best that we can for our constituents. We need our allowances to do that. If it costs something to open our books, although that may be a waste of money in the sense that it saves nothing, and if it satisfies the public that we really are the hon. Members that we call one another, it would be worth while, and motions before us today go in that direction.

Watch this

Photo of Michael Spicer Michael Spicer Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee 3:26 pm, 22nd January 2009

I want to ask two very short questions of the Minister. Before doing so, may I apologise to the House for unavoidably not being present during the first part of the debate?

My first question concerns an appeal by a Member under the Green Book rules when he finds himself in disagreement with the finance officers. I very much approve of the Green Book—in fact, I am bound to do so, because I helped to draft some of it—which says:

"If the issue is not resolved, the Member may ask the Finance and Services Committee to rule."

The Finance and Services Committee does not meet very often at the moment. I do not think that its Chairman particularly wants the onerous task that would be involved. Certainly, the 1922 committee and I believe very much that a Committee on Members' Allowances would be the right Committee to undertake that appeals task. I think that I am right in saying that the Government agree with that but have not so far found it possible to amend the Green Book to accommodate that view. I think that things were done in a bit of a hurry; those words were included to fill the gap. I hope that the Minister might be able to say something about that in his reply. I realise that he may be in some difficulty at the moment, because he may not have a settled policy on the mechanism, but would he tell us whether the Government intend to do that and, if so, how it is to be done and when—or at least let us know at a later date? I just wanted to flag up that issue.

My second question is perhaps even more difficult for the Minister. If someone does an FOI trawl as a result of the motions today, what advice is the Minister getting on the reaction of the courts, given that we will accept the motions and that we will have the Green Book, an audit system and much greater transparency? Is he getting any advice? Does he have any view, or even any hopes, on whether the courts would take a different view in the future than in the past, given the greater transparency and strictures that will be introduced by the motions? I should be grateful for answers to both those questions.

Watch this

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 3:28 pm, 22nd January 2009

May I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this afternoon's debate—all those who have made interventions, as well as all those Back Benchers who have made speeches? It is not usual when making a winding-up speech to compliment those who have opened the debate, but with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make an exception to that because both opening speeches were excellent. I give credit to the Leader of the House not only for setting the right tone for the debate, but for the enormously generous time that she gave to all those hon. Members who wished to intervene on her speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Alan Duncan on his maiden speech in his new role as shadow Leader of the House. He, too, contributed enormously to making sure that the right tone was set.

Dr. Wright, who is not in the Chamber, spoke of possible dark forces disrupting the debate, but I am pleased to say that as a result of the tone set by the two opening speeches, if there were any dark forces, they certainly did not see any light. We as an institution are all the better for it, as the public watch us while we debate this important issue.

This is a crucial debate that strikes at the very heart of trust and confidence in Members of Parliament. It has generated a fair amount of heat, both inside and outside Parliament. I hope that at the end of it, there will be a fair amount of light—light that leaves no doubt that we understand the public's deep distrust about the way in which we use taxpayers' money, light that makes it absolutely clear that we want greater transparency regarding our costs and allowances, and light that will convey the important message that the motions before us go some way to trying to restore the public confidence that the House so desperately needs, and the confidence that its servants need.

Let us be clear about one thing, though. Of course it is right that we should claim expenses to carry out our duties as Members of Parliament, and it is important that we should have a staffing allowance—a point referred to by my hon. Friend John Bercow. We should also be allowed to claim expenses for living away from home, travel and the like. We cannot have a system in which only the wealthy can afford to become Members of Parliament. That would be the consequence if we were not allowed to claim expenses and allowances.

It is important that we claim those expenses and allowances in a way that is transparent and seen to be transparent. Moreover, the processes that we use must be properly regulated, and must be seen to be properly regulated. That point was referred to by the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer). Mr. Heath made suggestions about the mechanics of disclosure, and I hope that those responsible for implementing the process will take note of what he said.

We support the proposals to break down Members' expenditure into more categories, providing greater detail for the public and clarity on what Members spend their allowances on. Moreover, we support the new version of the Green Book; the guiding principles, derived from the code of conduct for Members of Parliament, underpin the spirit of the expenses and allowances regime. Hugh Bayley referred to one of those principles when he spoke of the necessary expenditure principle.

It is right that the book should be brought more up to date—for example, by ensuring proper reference to "civil partners" alongside the usual reference to "spouses." The public will also be pleased to see the proposals for better auditing and assurance. The two-pronged approach being taken—on the one hand by the National Audit Office, and on the other through internal audit, carried out by the House's auditors in conjunction with a team from PricewaterhouseCoopers—should lead to greater thoroughness in policing how we spend taxpayers' money.

I accept that some Members have concerns about the financial proportionality of the audit proposals, expressing the view that the cost of carrying out such a detailed scrutiny of expenses is far in excess of possible risks of abuse. It is fair to say that increasing the rigour of the audit regime will mean an increase in costs, but we must not consider that in isolation. We must also consider the need to restore the reputation of the House—a point touched on by Michael Jabez Foster. With that in mind, I believe that there is proportionality and proper balance as regards costs and the end results.

The motion proposes that the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances, which meets in private monthly and advises the Speaker and the Members Estimate Committee, be replaced by a new Select Committee on Members' Allowances. That Select Committee, with all the powers that it would have, would certainly help demonstrate to the public the importance that we place on the subject—again, it is a move in the right direction.

On the other measures put before us, I should say that my right hon. Friend Sir George Young made a valid point about the possibility of work duplication. If the proposals are passed today, and I hope and expect that they will be, that will need to be looked into. It is always a pleasure to hear my right hon. Friend's contributions; his quality and experience only add to the general quality of the debate. My hon. Friend Sir Michael Spicer raised two questions, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House takes those on board; I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

It cannot be right that we expect public bodies, individuals and other organisations to have levels of transparency and openness higher than our own. It cannot be right for there to be one set of rules for the public and another for us, or for us not to make the necessary changes to bring our own standards of audit and transparency into line with 21st-century best practice.

Watch this

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I entirely endorse the point that my hon. Friend has just made, but will he take this opportunity to put one thing, which has involved the public being misled by the press, on the record? Not everybody in a senior position paid from the public purse has a publication regime that extends down to individual receipts. That has not been made sufficiently clear. The question is whether we have a sufficiently rigorous auditing process, and that is what we are achieving today.

Watch this

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I agree with my hon. Friend, and the issue will certainly become clearer as the procedures are put in place. I should also say that the vast majority of Members claim their expenses properly and legitimately; we are where we are because of a tiny minority. It is important for the public to recognise that we have a duty to our constituents and the country, and that we claim money to allow us to do our duties properly.

We must subject ourselves to the same sort of regime that we expect to apply to others. Our procedures must be easy to understand and unambiguous; they must inspire confidence rather than derision from the public. The importance of this debate must not be underestimated by anyone here today. Nor should we underestimate the strength of feeling that there will be among the public and media if we do not accept the motions today. Accepting them will be a positive step in trying to restore the House's reputation. I urge all Members to support them.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 3:38 pm, 22nd January 2009

Mr. Vara complimented Alan Duncan and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House of Commons, the two main Front-Bench spokesmen, and I would like to compliment him in turn on his important speech. He raised one issue around which the whole House can unite—if there were no means of meeting our legitimate expenditure from the public purse, only the wealthy could afford to be Members of Parliament. That would be wholly inappropriate.

That point is brought home to me particularly by the fact that a friend of mine, a member of Rhondda Labour party, has a letter written by William Abraham, Rhondda's first Member of Parliament; he was known as "Mabon". He was a great figure, who sat for many years in the 19th and 20th centuries. The letter is to the trade unions in the Rhondda, thanking them for paying his expenses while he was living in London as their Member of Parliament; it was before Members were even paid. The issue has been around for more than 100 years. It is only because trade unions were prepared to meet the legitimate expenses of the person who had to come from the Rhondda up to London that the area ever had representation at all. The issue that that raises needs to be at the forefront of our minds.

I will deal first with issues to do with the publication scheme. It is a delight to have back Mr. Heath. He is a more substantial figure, at least physically, than his predecessor, and he can match him word for word. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I am sorry—I am being somewhat cruel.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that it would be perverse for us to introduce this publication scheme because it would mean that we would end up with two such schemes. He asked, as did Sir Michael Spicer, about the legal advice. Nothing that we are considering today changes the legal obligations that are on the House authorities as the data holders. It is for them to comply with the legal obligations on them, which are to disclose information down to receipt level—I use the phrase "down to receipt level" precisely; it does not necessarily mean receipts—and they will do that. The publication scheme that we have brought to the House will give the public the information they need in a form they will find useful. It is with that in mind that we proposed it, not as an alternative way of meeting our legal obligations. The publication scheme is different from the publication of redacted receipts. It will provide information in a form that shows, across headings and over the years, information that will be useful to the public. Indeed, many people may find it a more useful way of looking at it than other ways.

Watch this

Photo of Michael Jabez Foster Michael Jabez Foster Labour, Hastings and Rye

For clarification, what does "down to receipt level" mean, if it does not include receipts?

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is for the House authorities to comply precisely with what is required of them under law, and that means that they will publish receipts. I hope that that answers my hon. Friend's question.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, whom we all welcome to his new responsibilities, referred to his oil bills—as opposed to his oil payments. That resonates with me because there is no gas in my home either; I have oil as well. He asked about the categories. If he took a bit more time to read the motion, he would note that it says:

"The Committee on Members' Allowances shall keep the categories listed in paragraph (2) above under review and may modify them from time to time as the committee may" feel appropriate. Bob Spink also asked about precisely what categories we have. We do not want to fix our mind for ever, and that is why we tabled the motion as we did.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton asked whether we would charge for information. I do not think that the House should charge, and we have no plans to do so, although in the end it will be up to the House authorities to make that decision. He referred to receipts going back to 2005. The motion relates to 2005—the year of the last general election—onwards because it seemed a bit odd to have a publication scheme for people who are no longer Members of this House. In fact, the House has information going back to 2004-05, so that is also part of the legal obligation on the House authorities.

My hon. Friend Dr. Wright referred to dark forces, as did the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. I thought that that was a slightly unfortunate phrase, because I honestly do not believe that there are dark forces in this House, merely differences of view about how we should progress on this issue. He cast a rather dark perspective on the debate, so I am not moving forward with him on that.

Jo Swinson—to whom I was very rude in the Adjournment debate before Christmas, for which I do not apologise—asked when the process that the House authorities are going through will be completed. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, rightly, that there is a hope and an expectation that we will be able to turn around within a month the business of when this is given to hon. Members and they can confirm it. I know that some hon. Members have had to go through a similar process for freedom of information requests, quite separately, and it has taken three months for the process to be agreed because of internal disputes.

Watch this

Photo of Dan Norris Dan Norris Labour, Wansdyke

As one of the hon. Members who has been through that process, I confirm that it does take a long time—much longer than a month would allow. I hope that my hon. Friend will revisit that process. It is like a game of ping-pong. We give information to the people in question and they carry out the changes that we hope they are meant to carry out. Sometimes they miss them, and it is necessary to check the details again, and then we often see things that we did not notice at first, such as an address, or postcodes on receipts that companies include in the reference number. It is a complicated and time-consuming process.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Obviously it is in everyone's interest—that of all Members, and the public—that we do things as swiftly and accurately as possible, and I know that that is what the House wants.

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I would just like a slight clarification. I appreciate that there is a degree of uncertainty about how long it will take Members to deal with the information. Do we have a rough idea of when Members will get that information so that they can start looking at it—what month they might receive it in, for example?

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I do not have that information, I am afraid, and it is a matter for the House authorities. They are the data holders, and they have to progress the process.

My hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) made strong speeches in favour of transparency, and everyone in the House shares their concern to ensure that we have an adequate level of transparency that meets the public need.

I now come to several matters relating to the new Committee. The membership of the Committee will be a matter for the political parties in the usual way, as is the case for all Committees of the House, and for the Committee of Selection. It is important that we acknowledge that there will be no Government majority on the Committee, which is why it has eight members, putting it virtually in parallel with the Committee on Standards and Privileges. It is important, as the Leader of the House said, that we do not bypass the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Nothing that we are saying today bypasses it, or obviates its role.

It is also important, as several hon. Members have said, that we have a robust audit. Everyone has said that the new system of audit we introduce will be substantially more robust than that of the past. It will be risk-based and it will ensure that wherever there is an element of risk, a proper audit is done so that the public can be assured of value for money. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York—[Hon. Members: "City of York"] Sorry, my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley—quite a different person. He dresses quite differently.

My hon. Friend made an important point, and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me on this, about the fundamental principles that underlie the claiming of all expenses. He read out only one of the fundamental principles in the new Green Book, but the others are important and should be referred to directly:

"Claims should be above reproach and must reflect actual usage of the resources being claimed...Allowances are reimbursed only for the purpose of a Member carrying out his or her parliamentary duties; claims cannot relate to party political activity of any sort, nor must any claim provide a benefit to a party political organisation; it is not permissible for a Member to claim under any parliamentary allowance for anything that the Member is claiming from any other source; Members must ensure that claims do not give rise to, or give the appearance of giving rise to, an improper personal financial benefit to themselves or anyone else; Members are committed to openness about what expenditure has been incurred and for what purposes; individual Members take personal responsibility for all expenses incurred, for making claims and for keeping records, even if the administration of claims is delegated by them to others; the requirement of ensuring value for money is central in claiming for accommodation, goods or services—Members should avoid purchases which could be seen as extravagant or luxurious; claims must be supported by documentary evidence".

I believe that those are the principles to which the whole House must hold firm.

Watch this

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Like other hon. Members, I subscribe to those principles, but I argued that if we published expenditure on fixtures, fittings and furnishings in aggregate, we would not have the openness that is required. It is stated that Members

"are committed to openness about what expenditure has been incurred and for what purposes".

Will my hon. Friend comment on the need in come cases to provide information that goes beyond the 26 specified categories?

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I hope that my hon. Friend's mind can be put at rest, because the House authorities will be publishing receipts going back to 2004, so the issue is firmly dealt with. He suggested that somebody might be claiming for a television costing £1,500, and that that claim might have been met by the House. I think that that is a red herring, because I do not think that the House would meet that claim under the old or new scheme, and quite rightly so.

Watch this

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

In that area of debate, may I flag up a matter that I thought was extremely unfair to Margaret Beckett? She put in a claim in relation to her accommodation for something to do with her garden. The claim was turned down, yet the information that she had tried to get it but been refused was released, much to the joy of the press, who proceeded to criticise her for having asked. Surely what should be revealed is the expenses that are granted. It should not be revealed if somebody asks whether they can claim for something, is told that it is not appropriate and says, "Fine, I will let it go." That situation was most unfair to the right hon. Lady.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

That specific issue is a matter for the House authorities, both as the data holder and as the body that did not pay the original claim. However, the public expect us to provide a clear set of rules that mean that such things are not in doubt.

Several hon. Members have, in one way or another, asked whether we should be moaning about the situation in which we find ourselves. Jo Swinson referred to how it often feels unfair to us that certain expenditure is referred to as our expenses, particularly given that the largest figure in our annual expenditure is staffing costs. Perhaps 50 years ago, when an MP might have visited their constituency twice a year, and the band played when they got there and played even louder when they left, they were able to survive without staffing. Today, the understandable expectation is that Members will be able to respond to letters, e-mails and every other form of inquiry very swiftly. I know that all hon. Members try to do that, and we would not be able to do it without our staffing expenditure.

I remember setting up my office when I was first elected in 2001. Buying desks for my staff was quite an expensive business, and at the end of the year I had to pay a very significant tax bill for that benefit, even though it did not particularly feel like a benefit to me. It felt like a benefit to my staff.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer mentioned the fact that journalists might inadvertently, or perhaps advertently, tend to criticise the most diligent Members by attacking those who use their allowances to the full to provide a swift and effective service to their constituents. The hon. Member for Castle Point seemed to suggest that we should invert the list when considering Members' effectiveness, and that the cheapest MPs are the least diligent. I do not know whether anybody would want to go that far, but nearly all MPs now seek to do a job that is entirely different from the one that was done 30 years ago. That is why it is important that we have a completely different structure of Members' allowances and expenditure.

Every MP and every constituency is completely different, with different competing needs. In my constituency, very few housing-related issues arise because more than 80 per cent. of my constituents live in their own home, but many issues of miners' compensation arise. Other MPs have a completely different pattern of issues coming to them.

I do not believe that we should moan about the situation that we find ourselves in. As several hon. Members said, it is a great privilege to sit in this House and represent our constituents. Nor, however, should we be ashamed about the expenditure that we wholly legitimately incur.

When I was elected, there was no transparency about Members' expenditure. There was no audit and there were no rules, or minimal rules, and that was in 2001. Indeed, when I rang the Fees Office and asked what to do about my additional costs allowance, I was told to divide it in 12 and submit a form. I chose not to do that but to submit receipts. We have moved forward, and that is vital.

I believe that we are taking significant additional steps forward: through tougher rules on contracts to ensure that all employees are doing the job that they are meant to do, and on receipts to ensure that people are claiming what they are meant to claim, and through a robust independent audit, introducing the National Audit Office into the running of our finances for the first time and enabling it to do a full-scale audit. We are also providing for far greater transparency through the publication scheme and what the House authorities will do in future.

Again, I welcome the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton to his new post. We have already heard about the man to man chats between the Home Secretary and the Leader of the House.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am sorry, I forgot to mention that. As the chairman of the 1922 committee said, the Green Book states, as the Members Estimate Committee agreed, that appeals should go to the Finance and Services Committee. There is a slight element of uncertainty because the Members Estimate Committee relates to theI look forward to many man to man chats, and I hope that all hon. Members will support the package of motions that we are considering.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

(1) That, subject to the provisions of paragraph (2) below, for the purpose of the publication scheme adopted and maintained by the House under section 19 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, such information about payments made to, or on behalf of, hon. Members which is already published routinely in accordance with the scheme shall continue to be published;

(2) In addition, information relating to Members' expenditure from the beginning of the current Parliament shall be published in relation to each financial year, to the extent that such information is separately identifiable, under the following categories:

(a) Administrative and Office Expenditure:

(i) accommodation costs for offices, surgeries, etc;

(ii) office equipment and supplies;

(iii) telephones and other telecommunications;

(iv) professional fees and charges;

(v) agency and other staff costs;

(vi) travel costs;

(vii) utilities;

(b) Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure:

(i) mortgage interest;

(ii) rent;

(iii) hotel costs;

(iv) council tax;

(v) fixtures, fittings and furnishings;

(vi) subsistence;

(vii) other household costs, including service charges, utilities, telecommunications, maintenance and repairs;

(c) Communications Expenditure:

(i) websites;

(ii) reports and surveys;

(iii) delivery charges, postage and stationery;

(iv) advertising;

(v) equipment;

(d) Staffing Expenditure;

(e) Travel Expenditure in relation to travel by Members:

(i) car, including third party vehicle rental and mileage;

(ii) rail;

(iii) air;

(iv) other UK and European travel;

(f) Resettlement Grant;

(g) Winding-up Expenditure;

(3) The Committee on Members' Allowances shall keep the categories listed in paragraph (2) above under review and may modify them from time to time as the committee may think necessary or desirable in the interests of clarity, consistency, accountability and effective administration, and conformity with current circumstances.

Watch this