Select Committees (Chairmen), Liaison Committee and Green Book

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 8:00 pm on 3rd March 2009.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 8:00 pm, 3rd March 2009

I beg to move,

That this House
expresses the opinion that the Resolution of the House of 30 October 2003, relating to Pay for Chairmen of Select Committees (No. 2), should be further amended by inserting, after "(Select Committees related to government departments)", the words "Standing Order No. 152G (Committee on Members' Allowances)".

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this we shall discuss the following:

Motion 14— Pay for Chairmen of Select Committees (No. 2)—

That the Resolution of the House of 30 October 2003, relating to Pay for Chairmen of Select Committees (No. 2), be further amended by inserting, after "(Select Committees related to government departments)", the words "Standing Order No. 152G (Committee on Members' Allowances)".

Motion 15— Liaison Committee (Membership)—

That the Resolution of the House of 13 July 2005 relating to Liaison Committee (Membership) be further amended in paragraph (2) by inserting, in the appropriate place, 'Committee on Members' Allowances'.

Motion 16— Green Book (Committee on Members' Allowances)—

(1) That the Green Book which was approved by this House on 22 January be amended—

(a) in Parts I to III, by substituting, for each reference to the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances or to the Finance and Services Committee, a reference to the Committee on Members' Allowances, and

(b) in Part IV, by leaving out the definitions of "Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances" and "Finance and Services Committee" and inserting after the definition of "Civil Partner"—

"'Committee on Members' Allowances' means the Committee appointed under Standing Order No. 152G";

(2) That Standing Order No. 152G (Committee on Members' Allowances) be amended, in paragraph (1), by inserting after sub-paragraph (b):

"(c) to approve practice notes to be used in administering Members' allowances which may be issued by the House; and

(d) to determine (subject to any appeal to the Members Estimate Committee) the application of the rules in such individual cases as may be referred to them by hon. Members, in accordance with procedures prescribed by the Committee";

(3) That House of Commons Members Estimate Committee">Standing Order No. 152D (House of Commons Members Estimate Committee) be amended, in paragraph (3), by inserting after sub-paragraph (d);

"(e) to consider appeals against determinations made by the Committee on Members' Allowances under paragraph (1)(d) of Standing Order No. 152G".

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

There are four motions before us in this debate, and I shall deal with them in reverse order.

Motion 16 amends the new Green Book that the House agreed on 22 January in one regard. The Green Book specifies that Department of Resources staff have the authority to administer the rules as set out in the Green Book, but that if any issue is unresolved

"the Member may ask the Finance and Services Committee to rule".

It also says that the Finance and Services Committee

"will agree Practice Notes which will be used by the Department in administering the rules".

In the debate on 22 January, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Michael Spicer, who is not in his place at present, asked whether this should not be altered in the light of the fact that on that same day we changed the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances into a formal Committee of the House, with a clear remit to look at every aspect of Members' allowances.

On reflection, I believe that the Chairman of the 1922 Committee was right, for two reasons. First, as hon. Members will know, although the House of Commons Commission, chaired by the Speaker, is the overall supervisory body for the administration of the House, the House's expenditure is divided between two accounts, or estimates—to use the parliamentary jargon. The first, the Administration estimate, covers the costs of administration of the House. The second, the Members estimate, covers MPs' pay and allowances. Our Standing Orders state that the Finance and Services Committee oversees the Administration estimate and that the Members Estimate Committee oversees, naturally enough, the Members estimate. As the Finance and Services Committee has no remit under Standing Orders to look at the Members Estimate, which includes allowances, it seems wrong for it to have this new role in adjudicating on issue relating to Members' allowances.

Secondly, having just created the new Committee on Members' Allowances, it clearly makes sense to give it the full responsibility for these issues, and that is precisely what motion 16 does. That in no respect alters the duties, powers or responsibilities of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, nor of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards as set out in out Standing Orders. I hope that the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges will be content that the relationship between the two Committees will not leave hon. Members open to double jeopardy, or lead to the danger that the House cannot administer its discipline properly.

The other motions before us are also straightforward. Motion 15 would put the Chairman of the Committee on Members' Allowances on the Liaison Committee—a matter that I have discussed with the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, the Father of the House. Motions 13 and 14 would provide for the Chairman of the Committee to be paid, in common with all other Chairmen of Select Committees, other than the regional Committees, whose Chairmen will not be paid. I hope that the motions can be carried with little further ado.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 8:05 pm, 3rd March 2009

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for explaining the motions so clearly. We are largely content with them, and I do not need to repeat what he said. They are largely consequential on the adoption of the new Green Book. They put the Committee on Members' Allowances into line with other Select Committees by providing for the payment of the Chairman and putting him or her on the Liaison Committee.

I wish to dwell on only one matter of detail—on which I agreed with the Deputy Leader of the House—to amplify the assurance that he has just given my right hon. Friend Sir George Young about the continuing and unchanged status of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. The danger that loomed for a little while was that the potential reference to the new Committee of disputes between Members and officials of the House about what was a legitimate claim might somehow usurp the existing authority of my right hon. Friend's Committee.

The concern arises from the recommendation on the revised Green Book in the report by the Members Estimate Committee, which said:

"We recommend that, for disputes over what is an acceptable claim which cannot be resolved between officials and the Member concerned, the Member should be able to ask the Finance and Services Committee"

—now the Committee on Members' Allowances—

"to rule, and should have the option of appealing to the Members Estimate Committee."

The potential implication is that any such adjudication could be taken as final, and any dispute or complaint could not be referred to my right hon. Friend's Committee. The Deputy Leader of the House has made it clear that that would not be the case, and even though the Committee on Members' Allowances might have said that a Member's claim was justified, it could still go to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for its decision.

It is obvious that if a Member, having talked to officials and taken the issue to the Committee on Members' Allowances, had reached a conclusion on a matter, the Committee on Standards and Privileges would take that into account. Therefore, the effect could well be to weed out smaller disputes and resolve them at that level, thus avoiding complaints and investigations into Members on what may be honest differences about how the rules should apply.

My reason for mentioning this issue in further detail is to ensure that the House can enjoy clarity about the practice that it will now follow, and to ensure that those who observe our proceedings cannot deliberately make mischief by trying to play one Committee off against another. It is essential that the hierarchy of adjudication is understood by people inside and outside the House, and that no mischief can be made as a result. It should be understood that the first port of call will be the Committee on Members' Allowances, followed by some sort of appeal. That will largely be the case if a Member has submitted an invoice against their claim—in other words, it is a live issue rather than an historic investigation. In such cases, the Fees Office—as we used to call it, but it is now the Department of Resources or something—might say, "Hold on, you're over-egging it a bit, that doesn't fall within the rules." Such altercations can be resolved at that stage. We need to be clear that we are looking at a sensible ladder of adjudication in the event of disagreement.

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

The shadow Leader of the House is making some important and sensible clarifications. The one thing that is still important is that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee should always be able to look at cases where there has not been full disclosure. An hon. Member might have been in a disagreement—the hon. Gentleman uses the word "altercation", but I shall call it a disagreement without fisticuffs—with the Department of Resources, and that might go on to the Committee on Members' Allowances and then to the Members Estimate Committee or the Commission. However, the commissioner and the Committee would still want to investigate all the facts in any disciplinary process. If there had been a failure of disclosure, no cover would be provided by the fact that one had been before one of the previous Committees.

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

The Deputy Leader of the House helpfully describes a possible set of circumstances in which these Committees would have to operate. The very short discussion that we have had has been helpful and I hope that it can lie on the record to guide people in the future so that they do not misunderstand our proceedings. I have nothing further to add and I hope that the House will adopt these motions tonight.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 8:10 pm, 3rd March 2009

I think that if you, Madam Deputy Speaker, look at the official record tomorrow, you, or any other observer, will note that neither the Deputy Leader of the House nor the shadow Leader of the House mentioned the contents of motions 13 and 14— [ Interruption. ] They certainly did not do so in substance, although the Deputy Leader of the House says that they did. I shall look at the record tomorrow.

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

I shall say it again for my hon. Friend, if he wants. Motions 13 and 14 would provide for the Chairman of the Committee to be paid, in common with all the other Chairmen of Select Committees other than the regional Select Committees. We need to have two motions because the first involves the House saying that we should do so while the second involves the Queen's assent.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I intend to divide the House on this point, because I believe that it is wrong in principle. I explained to Mr. Touhig, who would be the beneficiary of the motions, that it was nothing personal. I hope that he and the House will notice that I have argued consistently against the growth of additional emoluments for other Members in this House. I see this as another increment, and it is extremely unhealthy. In November, the House was with me, by a majority of two, in preventing the payment to Chairpersons of the regional Select Committees. I was very pleased about that, and I think that it was right. We have to bring a halt to this. Although the motion is a one-off and relates to one particular chairmanship, it is simply wrong.

That matter goes to the heart of our democracy and is creating two tiers of Members of Parliament. I understand from an answer that I received to a parliamentary question that, from memory, some 160 Members are paid differently from Back Benchers. We have to put a halt to that. If I win tonight, it will be unfortunate for the right hon. Member for Islwyn, but we need to put on the brakes.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

I have no desire for the hon. Gentleman to be dazzled by my halo, but as the Chairman of the Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art, I can tell him that there are some Committees of which it is a great honour to be Chairman and in which we are not remunerated at all.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

That intervention demonstrates how ludicrous it is that we are doing this without an overall plan or strategy. I am not saying, "Never." The hon. Gentleman is Chairman of a very important Committee. There are people who lead the Council of Europe delegation, which is a very substantial responsibility, who do not get any emoluments—

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I was coming to the shadow Cabinet. In an earlier debate, I predicted that there would be a gradualist approach. It becomes compelling, because each time we add to the list there are greater anomalies. I have said before in the Chamber that the shadow Cabinet will seek such remuneration, that the Liberals will then say that that is unfair, and that the Council of Europe delegations, the leadership of the British-Irish parliamentary body, the leadership of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe parliamentary body and so on will follow. It has to stop at some stage.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

I am rather in agreement with the hon. Gentleman, but does he not agree that it is even more important now, when we are being accused by the tabloid press and so on of having our noses in the trough at a time of an economic recession if not a depression, that we are creating yet another paid sinecure in the Palace of Westminster?

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Yes. I try to discharge my duties as a Back-Bench MP, as I see them—in a sense, I write my own job description—to the best of my ability. I believe that I work as hard and have as many difficulties, although they are different difficulties, as the Under-Secretary of State for paperclips and statutes, who would be paid under our system. The exception, paradoxically, consists of the Deputy Leader of the House and a few others. I was a trade union official and I believe in the rate for the job, and I am astounded that there are folk who are prepared to be Ministers without pay when others get it, but that is a matter for them. I want to stop the rot, the stealth and the salami-slicing whereby we are gradually raising the proportion of MPs who are paid more than others. I urge Members to reflect on that.

I hope that Rosemary McKenna does not take it personally, but I understand that the Chairperson of the Committee of Selection already has the higher emoluments. I am open to correction on that point, but I cannot remember one hell of a row on the Committee of Selection and I am not sure that it sits for a very long time. I use that to buttress my case: there is no coherent logic to the question of payments. That is why we have to stop it now. A prudent and fair system might be for the appropriate Committees to reflect on this matter in time for the next Parliament, so that some sensible and fair decisions can be made.

I remember when we were discussing the principle behind these payments a year and a half ago, Sir Nicholas Winterton, who is not in his place, asked where else people did not get increments for their length of service. A case could probably be made for the length of service as a criterion—I want to make it quite clear that I am not advocating that, but we need to consider these issues. The chairmanships of Committees are, at present, largely within the patronage of the political party managements. Mr. Swire does a fine job on our arts committee, and the role is not highly contested—in fact, nobody is more suitably qualified than he is by virtue of his previous employment and experience—but he has, nevertheless, been anointed by the movers and shakers in this House. The Deputy Leader of the House screws up his face at that, but I am being polite. There are movers and shakers in this House, and they are largely made up from those on the Front Benches.

The chairmanships of so many Committees are filled by people who hitherto were Ministers. It is a way of letting them down gently. We were told by many hon. Members that there needed to be an alternative career structure—I do not like the term—so that instead of becoming Ministers Members could aspire to be parliamentarians and Chairs of Select Committees and other Committees. That was going to be the alternative to people always wanting to be Ministers. There is no demonstration that that is happening. Indeed, the present incumbent of the very important post in the Committee on Members' Allowances is an ex-Minister. That is unhealthy. I am not prepared to acquiesce by my silence. It is unfair to Members and to the public, and it is time that we drew a line under this and got things right for the next Parliament.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Just for the record, I want to point out that I do not think that those from either Front Bench are ever involved in the selection of the Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art. Indeed, we all serve at the Speaker's will.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I fully accept that. Interestingly enough, I expressed an interest in joining this Committee, but once again I was not appointed. Just because I am paranoid, that does not mean that that they are not after me. There is always some discrimination when certain hon. Members seek appointments, based on a dislike of their conduct or style, or of what they say and how they say it. It is really unhealthy for the body politic and the democratic process in this House when Members are rewarded with sinecures and significant payments.

I intend to divide the House on this matter. I urge colleagues to join me in the Lobby to vote against the proposition that the hon. Member chairing the Committee on Members' Allowances should be paid. I oppose that, although I can see the compelling logic of motion 15, which proposes that he be on the Liaison Committee.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 8:20 pm, 3rd March 2009

There is no need to take long over this, but some important points need to be made. The exchange between the Deputy Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House was extremely helpful in setting out the anticipated relationship between the various tiers of appeal, and I shall be interested, Madam Deputy Speaker, to hear what Sir George Young, the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, has to say if he succeeds in catching your eye in a moment. However, I hope that what has been set out will satisfy him that the role of his Committee remains clear and undiminished when it comes to investigating, and adjudicating on, hon. Members when they are in error.

We are only having this debate because of a minor error anyway, as the proposals that we are debating should have been included when we last discussed these matters. They were not and, although I can understand why they were overlooked, it is unfortunate that parliamentary time has to be taken up with consequential amendments to a package that the House has determined already. It is not my intention, therefore, to raise issues with the corrections and amendments—one might call them errata—that the Deputy Leader of the House has brought forward today, and I await the comments of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire on the matter.

I have to say that I agree with the point made by with Andrew Mackinlay. This is a free-vote matter, and I shall not give advice to my right hon. and hon. Friends, but the hon. Gentleman knows that I have joined him consistently in the Lobby when it has come up. There is an expectation that more and more ways will be found to pay Members of this House on top of their parliamentary salaries. Very soon, we will reach the point where the only people in the House who do not receive a top-up of some kind will be the members of the two Opposition Front Benches—with the exception of the Leader of the Opposition and the Conservatives' Chief Whip and Deputy Chief Whip—the Deputy Leader of the House, and the hon. Member for Thurrock.

We will be the only ones on the basic salary, and we should be proud of that, although I am not sure that the system that I have described necessarily represents value to the House in terms of work rate, or a sensible way to use public funds. However, I am quite sure that the impression given to the public every time that we add another person to the list is that Members of Parliament are yet again feathering their own nests. That is something to be concerned about.

I have nothing against Mr. Touhig, who I am sure will do a very good job of chairing the Committee, but I am not sure that the new Committee's work is comparable with that of the departmental Select Committees. They meet probably twice a week to take evidence and do all the other work that they have to do, whereas the Committee on Members' Allowances will have an important but limited role.

The intention behind the Committee is to reduce the costs to the House, so it is a little odd that the very first action is to add another salary to those costs. Some people might see that as ironic.

Unlike the hon. Member for Thurrock, I am not persuaded that the Chairman of the Committee on Members' Allowances should necessarily be on the Liaison Committee. That Committee is becoming very big and extensive: its job is to co-ordinate the Committees of this House so that they do not fall over one another, but it has one other scrutiny function—to interrogate the Prime Minister of the day. I am not sure that adding to it more and more members who do not have departmental responsibilities is a good idea. We should be wary of simply accepting that anyone in this House who bears the title "Chairman" must join the Liaison Committee, because I am not sure that that is helpful for scrutiny or for the comparability of various roles in the House.

Even so, I am not going to argue about that or divide the House on the matter this evening but, if the hon. Member for Thurrock calls a Division on the question of pay, I shall join him in the Lobby because I think that this is a point about which we should put down markers. That is what I did earlier in respect of the regional Select Committees, and I have done so before when other Committee chairmanships have been added to the list. I feel that we are seeing a sort of creeping exceptionalism, in which the exception is proving to be the rule. I do not think that that is a sensible way for us to proceed.

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Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee 8:26 pm, 3rd March 2009

To pick up a point made earlier by Andrew Mackinlay, I think that it would be difficult to say that every Select Committee Chairman shall be paid except this one. I understand where he and Mr. Heath are coming from, but the principle has been conceded already. Moreover, I suspect that the new Committee will be quite important and busy, so it would be unfair to say that every Select Committee Chairman shall be paid but not the one who chairs the Committee on Members' Allowances. Therefore, if there is a Division, I shall be in the opposite Lobby from the hon. Member for Thurrock. That may not happen often. I welcome the appointment of Mr. Touhig to the Liaison Committee. Many of the matters that we discuss may impinge on the responsibilities of his Committee and it will be useful to have him there.

I want to add a footnote to the very helpful exchange that we heard earlier, and to set out my concern when I saw what was on the Order Paper. Motion 16(2)(d) makes it clear that the Committee on Members' Allowances will determine

"'the application of the rules in such individual cases as may be referred to them by hon. Members, in accordance with procedures prescribed by the Committee'".

The question arises how that fits in with the existing procedure—what one might call the post-Nolan settlement, whereby we established an independent parliamentary commissioner reporting to the Standards and Privileges Committee, which published his findings on any complaint, along with the conclusions. At first sight, that sentence seems to take away from the existing Committee and the commissioner the responsibility for seeing whether the rules on allowances had been broken, and gives it to the new Committee—hence the concern that I expressed in the amendment that has not been selected.

It is important that the House of Commons retains those elements that we now have. Indeed, the other place may be looking at such a structure to resolve some of the difficulties—the Deputy Leader of the House is looking worried already. I give way.

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

I was not looking worried. I am never worried when the right hon. Gentleman is on his feet. I was merely going to say that some hon. Members may have misunderstood, possibly because there is an element of ambiguity in motion 16, paragraph (2)(d). The expectation of the Committees that originally proposed the reference to

"the application of the rules in such individual cases as may be referred to them by hon. Members" was not that one hon. Member would refer an issue about another hon. Member to the Committee, but that a Member would refer a matter relating to his own allowances. That is very different from the expectation in the case of the right hon. Gentleman's Committee.

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

Yes, that takes part of the trick, but it does not resolve the fundamental problem. Even in those circumstances where a Member self-referred himself to the Members' Allowances Committee and got the go-ahead, there would still be the possibility of double jeopardy, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The self-referring Member may well get the green light from the Members' Allowances Committee and go ahead. There may well be a complaint from a member of the public to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who may well feel that there is a prima facie case and go ahead. There is an element of risk of double jeopardy.

The answer is a good working relationship between my Committee, the commissioner and the new Committee, to make sure that we minimise the risk of double jeopardy. I personally welcome the establishment of the Committee, and I hope it will produce guidelines that clarify the rules and reduce the risk of Members making mistakes.

I was reassured by the statement of the Deputy Leader of the House on the record that notwithstanding anything that may be before the House this evening, the duties, powers and responsibilities of the Committee on Standards and Privileges or the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards are not affected. It was enormously helpful to have that on the record, endorsed by my hon. Friend Alan Duncan. That takes the trick.

There was concern on my Committee at the possibility of the Nolan settlement being picked away. Against the background of the assurances that I have been given, I am much happier than I was and I look forward to working with the right hon. Member for Islwyn and his Committee in driving up standards in the House.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Does the Deputy Leader of the House wish to reply to the debate?

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

I think the House has heard quite enough from me today, Madam Deputy Speaker.

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Question put.

The House divided: Ayes 242, Noes 73.

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Division number 52 Business of the House — Select Committees (Chairmen), Liaison Committee and Green Book

Aye: 242 MPs

No: 73 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

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Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House expresses the opinion that the Resolution of the House of 30 October 2003, relating to Pay for Chairmen of Select Committees (No. 2), should be further amended by inserting, after "(Select Committees related to government departments)", the words "Standing Order No. 152G (Committee on Members' Allowances )".

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