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Parliamentary Standards Authority

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 20th May 2009.

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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 12:31 pm, 20th May 2009

May I strongly identify myself with the tributes to you, Mr. Speaker, that the Prime Minister has led today? I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to have the opportunity to pay tribute to you. As Leader of the House, I shall make sure that an occasion is arranged before you leave the Chair so that we can all pay tribute to your generous and courteous chairing of this House of Commons.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, and following on from your statement to the House yesterday, I should like to make a statement on the decisions made yesterday at the meeting of the Members Estimate Committee that you convened with the Prime Minister, the party leaders and the Chair of the Committee on Members' Allowances, and on the Prime Minister's proposals for a new parliamentary standards authority.

First, I want to set out how we are dealing with the past. At the meeting last night, we agreed a process, proposed by the Committee on Members' Allowances, that will reassess Members' claims over the past four years and identify those claims that should not have been made and should not have been paid out because they were outwith the rules. We also agreed to make arrangements for repayment. The public are entitled to see a process of reparation and Members are entitled to know that this will be orderly and fair.

Secondly, I want to set out the immediate steps that will be taken. The House has already voted to ensure that the threshold for receipts has gone down from £25 to zero and to introduce full-scope audit under the National Audit Office. But, in addition, the MEC meeting last night agreed to an immediate ban on claims for furniture, a cap on interest payments for accommodation at the equivalent per year of £1,250 per month and a restriction on any changes to designation of main and second homes. The meeting also agreed that Members who are married or living together as partners should be prevented from claiming more than one second home allowance.

I understand that the MEC will meet later today to determine detailed changes to the Green Book to put into practice the principles on which the party leaders and the MEC reached clear agreement last night. That should give immediate reassurance to Members of this House and to the public, but, in order fully to restore public trust and confidence, we need more than reparation and reassurance: we need renewal, and to put in place a new system on a new footing.

The House has already voted, on 30 April, to endorse the inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which will come forward with its recommendations later this year. Once again, I want to place on record my thanks to Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee for their work.

At the MEC meeting last night, all parties agreed to the Prime Minister's proposal that the keystone for any reform must be to switch from self-regulation to independent external regulation. We agreed that we should end the gentlemen's club approach that means that we set and enforce our own rules, and instead bring forward proposals for a new parliamentary standards authority.

The proposal on which we seek to consult would see Parliament legislate to delegate specific responsibilities to a new, independent parliamentary standards authority, which would revise and update the codes of practice for Members of this House, investigate complaints where a Member of this House is alleged to have breached the code of conduct, take forward the implementation of the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on allowances and take responsibility for authorising claims for payment under the new allowance system. It would be able not only to disallow claims, but to require payback of claims wrongly paid out and to impose financial penalties.

It is clearly appropriate that the new body should also take responsibility for such issues in the Lords, including administering and regulating the systems for peers' allowances, overseeing the code governing peers' conduct and the Register of Lords' Interests, ensuring high standards of propriety and financial conduct, investigating alleged abuses of the system and recommending any necessary sanctions.

We in this House recognise that the principle of self-regulation operates differently in the House of Lords. It is clear that extensive work and consultation will be necessary to ensure the agreement of the House of Lords to the effective transfer of responsibilities to the new body.

The new authority would also maintain the register of Members' financial interests in this House and deal with the disclosure of second incomes. Discipline issues that might require sanctions such as suspension from the House, which would have a bearing on Members' ability to perform their work, would remain a matter for the whole House through the Standards and Privileges Committee. Only the electorate, or those who are themselves democratically elected, should be able to prevent a Member from doing their work in this House.

We have set in place the actions for reparation and reassurance. For renewal for the future, we look forward to Sir Christopher Kelly's proposals, and we further propose that the House move from a system of self-regulation to a system of statutory regulation. Although I know that it is hard to get a hearing on this subject now, as Leader of the House I will continue to argue, both inside and outside the House, that most honourable Members are precisely that: they are people who come into Parliament as a matter of public service, and are hard-working, decent and honest. However, we must recognise that, even before the allowance revelations, there was a problem of public disengagement and public cynicism, and a public sense of distance from Parliament.

We must now seize the opportunity to promote a debate that will see proposals to change and strengthen our democracy move from the margins to centre stage, where they ought rightly to be. Parliament and politics are important precisely because there are deeply held, different views about public policy, but there is consensus among all parties that we need to put the reputation of Parliament above reproach, and we will. I commend the statement to the House.

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

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. May I also thank you, Mr. Speaker, for convening yesterday's meeting with all the party leaders? Such a meeting could have taken place weeks ago without the need for your involvement, but the House and those who elect us will be grateful for the way in which you made it happen.

Following the uproar of the past couple of weeks, we have at last taken concrete steps to address some of the unacceptable elements of an allowances system for Members that has attracted universal condemnation. Last night, we learned from you, Mr. Speaker, of the main points that were decided, and they go a long way to addressing the issues that were crying out for attention. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition last week outlined a clear list of what he wanted to see for all of us, which he has insisted on for his party. Yesterday's announcement was in many ways the same as that list.

We will have, straight away, a strict regime to ban the flipping of homes just to exploit the allowances available. Capital gains tax cannot be evaded. A declaration about where one's home is will have to be open and clear. People will not be allowed to claim for plasma TVs or furniture, and there will be an annual cap on how much can be claimed for mortgage interest or rent. Will the Leader of the House confirm when she expects those revised rules to be up and running?

The very fact that the proposals were endorsed by all parties, and the fact that the meeting took clear, practical action, should be welcomed by all who have so disapproved of the system under which we have been working. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that it is the Government's continuing wish to proceed in everything that we are going to do in a genuinely cross-party way?

In the meantime, Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee are working on recommendations for a long-term solution to the pay and conditions of MPs. In the middle of what can only be described as the most serious and revolutionary shift in popular opinion and in the reputation of Parliament in our lifetime, his committee is required to stand back from the fray and set out how a modern Parliament should look, and how it and its Members should be resourced. This is no easy task, and whatever people think of Parliament, I hope they will fully respect the integrity of his committee's efforts and show proper respect for his conclusions. May I ask, therefore, when the Leader of the House thinks the committee will eventually report?

One massive structural shift that we in this Parliament must embrace if it is not to sink further in the eyes of voters is to relinquish the right to determine how we reward ourselves. We are here to legislate, to scrutinise, to discuss and to govern. We are here to represent the interests of our constituents, not to serve our own. For a long time, the Conservative party's policy has been to give up setting our own pay and allowances and to give that power to an outside body. Some sort of outside structure is long overdue. We also want to cut the cost of politics. Where in the reforms does the right hon. and learned Lady believe that that might yet be achieved?

Behind all this is the need for massive parliamentary reform to bring this institution up to the requirements of the 21st century. May I therefore offer the co-operation of the official Opposition in proceeding constructively and responsibly to try to sort out this near constitutional crisis thoroughly and as soon as possible?

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 the hon. Gentleman for the way he responded to the statement. He suggested that we work in a cross-party way, and I know that he is not just saying that. He means it in practice, and ever since he has been shadow Leader of the House we have been able to work together on a proper cross-party basis. We know that when we are looking for solutions to these issues, no party has a monopoly of wisdom, and when it comes to unearthing the problems, no party has a monopoly of virtue either, so we will work together across the House to sort them out.

I agree that we owe a great deal to Sir Christopher Kelly and his Committee on Standards in Public Life. He has said that he will report later this year. To respect the independence of his committee's work, although we have asked the committee to work as expeditiously as it can to make its report so that we can adopt its proposals, it cannot be for us to set out the time scale. The committee must go through the processes as it sees fit.

That is why it was important that the MEC yesterday—you convened it, Mr. Speaker—set in place interim measures. The shadow Leader of the House asked when those interim measures will be up and running. He and I, along with other members of the MEC, will meet later this afternoon. These transitional measures need to be up and running straight away, as soon as the detailed rules can be put together, which will not take long at all.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Chair, Members' Allowances Committee

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement. I also thank you, Mr. Speaker, for taking the initiative of calling together the MEC and all the party leaders—all the party leaders—yesterday. You invited me to attend the meeting as Chairman of the Committee on Members' Allowances, and I was very pleased that the meeting accepted all the recommendations from my Committee, added to your own proposals. That was the basis for your statement last night.

On the consultation on the proposed parliamentary standards authority, I hope the Government will consult and involve the staff of the Fees Office. They have served this place very well indeed. They help us in every way possible in trying to give us information and advice. Although we may feel bruised, they, too, feel somewhat bruised at present, as I know from a meeting that I had with them yesterday. I hope that in the consultation, they, too, will be asked their views on the proposals.

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 sure that we will need to engage with the invaluable experience and information that the Fees Office has accumulated over years of work on those issues, and that its contribution to the consultation will be very important indeed. I acknowledge the work of the Committee on Members' Allowances, which my right hon. Friend chairs. Its work paved the way for yesterday's agreement, and a great deal of work was done in advance so that the all-party in-principle agreement could be reached. I pay tribute to him as Chair, and to all Members who serve on that Committee.

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

I, too, thank you, Mr. Speaker, for convening the meeting yesterday and for getting some overdue consequences from it. I also very much welcome the statement by the Leader of the House. I remember giving evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life some years ago, when I suggested that self-regulation for this place was on very flimsy foundations indeed and in imminent danger of collapse. That collapse has been all too self-evident, and the House has forfeited the right to self-regulation. Statutory regulation is now necessary, and I am pleased that the Leader of the House will now consult on that proposal.

I welcome the immediate steps that have been set out as a necessary review of what has happened over recent years. The capacity to make the adjustments must be put in place. I welcome also the announcement by the Leader of the House that the MEC will meet today, because all Members need clarity about exactly what will be required from them over the next few days and weeks and about how the system will work. Some of it is self-evident, and it does not take a genius to realise that Members should stop buying household goods and stop some of the most egregious excesses and abuses that have come to light. However, there are other areas where Members will need guidance, so I enter one note of caution.

I am worried that we may have inadvertently introduced a perverse incentive against Members renting accommodation and in favour of them entering into mortgage arrangements. That cannot be what the House intends or what the general public want, so I ask the Leader of the House to look carefully at that issue.

I now look forward, as we all do, to the results of the deliberations of Sir Christopher Kelly's committee. I hope that they will be timely, thorough and give us the answers that we and the public want, and I hope that the House will be able to accept them without equivocation, so that we have a firm foundation for the future.

Finally, I echo what was said earlier by my right hon. Friend Mr. Clegg and what was referred to in the right hon. and learned Lady's statement: the matter now goes well beyond expenses. It is about the reform of Parliament and the political system, making the House work in a way that it has not done over recent years.

Even this week, we have had the spectacle of a guillotine motion preventing proper debate of an important Bill. We cannot go on like this. This House must be able to hold the Executive to account properly and do its work properly. We need renewal of the whole political system. More papers and more proposals will not do that: action will, and it is overdue.

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 said that he, like all Members from all parts of the House, wants to contribute to the consultation and approach it on a cross-party basis, and he reminded the House that, some years ago, he proposed changing self-regulation to statutory regulation. I acknowledge that there have been proposals from his party, which we have put into practice through the MEC system. Indeed, proposals from the Opposition have now been implemented, and proposals have come from Government Members, too.

The truth, however, is that this is not a competition for ideas. All ideas from all parts of the House are welcome in contributing to the process. Whatever we disagree on—we disagree strongly on different issues, which is why we stand for different parties and fight it out at elections—we all agree that we want decent rules that the whole country respects.

I did not agree with the hon. Gentleman when he talked about our "forfeiting" the right to regulate ourselves. In this day and age, the move from self-regulation, which is internal and not transparent, to public accountability and statutory regulation is the right move and a sign of strength. We are not forfeiting; this is the strong and right decision to take.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the issue of clarity. For 650-odd Members of the House of Commons, there are 650 different sets of circumstances, and each Member will need to know how the new rules apply to their circumstances and how they can make their arrangements. The MEC will have very much in mind the need for clarity and swiftness in showing how the rules are going to work, so that Members can work out how they apply to them. He has already made that point to me, earlier today, and he is absolutely right to have raised it.

The hon. Gentleman and the shadow Leader of the House also raised a point that has been made by a number of Labour Members. We must be aware that some people's rental agreements include services, utilities, service charges and suchlike; we must not have a perverse incentive that would help Members who have already bought their properties or encourage Members to buy properties rather than rent. We need a fair system that covers the different sorts of accommodation that Members use. The MEC will be mindful of that when we meet this afternoon to work out how we should put into practice the very important cap on accommodation expenses.

Mr. Heath said that we need to reconnect with the public and that we need reform of Parliament. I agree; we must all work together on those wider issues, as well as sorting out the immediate issues.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement. I have been a member of the House of Commons Commission for 10 years, nine of them under your stewardship, Mr. Speaker. It was never you who was opposed to reform; the House of Commons showed total incapacity to grasp the nettle of accepting that reform was needed—never more so than on 3 July last year, when proposals that might well have avoided many of today's scandals were rejected by the collective will of the House.

That, however, is the past. The future is absolutely in independent regulation, and again I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement. I also welcome the fact that it extends to the House of Lords. I break with tradition by calling it that rather than "the other place". That might be a welcome change in our own proceedings.

In the past, the House of Lords has been jealous of its own prerogatives and has avoided integration with this House. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to be sure that the broad bipartisan support here will be reflected in the House of Lords and that that House will not be an impediment to the kind of changes that we seek.

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 know that many Members of the House of Lords themselves want to put the situation on a proper footing; indeed, that work was already under way. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work on the MEC. He has been a member of it for many years, and he has done a good job on behalf of the House in explaining to the public at large our strong belief that there should be a constituency link.

One of the reasons we have second home allowances is that Parliament holds in high regard the importance of Members being rooted in their constituencies. My hon. Friend has been able to explain that on television. He has also explained that we do not want a millionaires' Parliament in which people become MPs only if they can afford it. Every time I switch on the telly and see him rather than me, it is a great relief.

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

The right hon. and learned Lady's statement raises important constitutional and ethical issues, which will need to be teased out during the consultation. May I press her on one point? The two driving principles are transparency and independence. To achieve those principles, the case is made to move from self-regulation to independent regulation. It is proposed that the new authority should investigate complaints when a Member is alleged to have breached the code of conduct, but why did the Government stop there? What about the ministerial code of conduct? Is there not an equal need for independence and transparency in investigations of complaints of that code having been breached?

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 Prime Minister has appointed Sir Philip Mawer to be independent in the reviewing of adherence to the ministerial code, and that is kept constantly under review. The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that ministerial standards are also part of the wider discussion that we need to have.

I do not want to look as if I am trying to ingratiate myself—far from it; it is far too late for that—but I do pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman's work as Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee. We do not find demonstrations up and down the land chanting, "What do we want? The Standards and Privileges Committee! When do we want it? Now!" None the less, it does important work, and I pay tribute to him and all Members who serve on it.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Chair, Health and Social Care Committee

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement. May I move on to the Standards and Privileges Committee? It looks as if it will have an adjudication role beyond what will happen with the other authority. Is she completely happy that this adjudicating body is made up of just 10 members of our profession? In what other regulatory body for which we pass legislation would we allow a profession to sit on its own as an adjudication panel over itself? Does she think that some lay members should also join members of our profession on the Standards and Privileges Committee?

a

Maybe but not you Mr Barron !!!!!!!!!!

Submitted by anne jarvis

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

May I start by saying that you, Mr. Speaker, have always been extremely fair to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties in the House? We thank you for that.

Ending self-regulation in the House of Commons must be a priority. As I said at the leaders' meeting yesterday, it is right for us to examine proposals for a parliamentary standards authority. Will the Leader of the House confirm today that the commitment to transparency that Mr. Speaker outlined in his statement on expenses yesterday evening will match the standards of the Scottish Parliament?

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

Certainly, I think that even more transparency and openness apply to our system than at the moment obtain in a rather different system of transparency in Scotland. We are all committed to transparency. I should tell the House that the consultation on the parliamentary standards authority will be taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Does this statement mean that from here on in, Members of Parliament will not take part in votes to increase their allowances or anything else? I fervently believe that this is a better day for Parliament. On one of the days when we had a debate on increasing the allowances by a considerable amount, some of us voted against, and some of us did not take the money either, but I believe that that was a bad day for Parliament, and I want to see the back of those days.

If there is to be regulation by other bodies, we should have assurances that never again will we have the business of allowances being put to free votes. Incidentally, to get the record straight, I should say that Mr. Speaker never cast a vote. Those free votes allowed people to increase their allowances by a massive amount, and we need to put an end to that. Do we have an assurance that it is all over, and that there will be no more free votes on allowances and pay?

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

All of us have felt that it is not right that we should have to vote on our own pay and allowances. Every time we have to come to the House to debate our own pay and allowances, we have all felt that it is not right. We do not want to have to do that any more; we addressed the issue on pay, and we need to do that on allowances as well. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to ensure that we cut costs overall. That is also important.

I should also say that it is important not only that Members are able to be rooted in their constituencies—that important constituency link must be maintained—but that we have offices that help us to do our work professionally in responding to our constituents.

I receive many thousands of e-mails and phone calls from constituents. My office team do a very important job in keeping me in touch with my constituents and helping them when they have individual problems. Yes, we have to sort this matter out, but we have to do it on a set of principles, bearing in mind the importance of a professional office and a second home, and the importance of not having a millionaires' Parliament. I agree with all the other things that my hon. Friend said as well.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

Does the Leader of the House agree that although profound reform is necessary, a sovereign Parliament must think very carefully before setting up an independent external body to set and enforce the rules and to regulate Parliament itself, particularly as it is not at all clear from her statement to whom that external body will be accountable? Does she agree that all of us here, individually and collectively, are responsible to the electors for our actions, and that although we must take external advice, the essential decisions on regulation and rule setting must be taken by ourselves, not subcontracted to others?

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 question of conduct within this Chamber will remain a matter for the Speaker, and I am sure that people would agree that that is rightly the case. The question of suspension from this House must remain a matter for those of us who are democratically elected, not an unelected body. While it is right to delegate to a statutory authority the questions of setting the code of conduct, setting pay levels, setting allowances, administering the system and investigating any problems, the only thing that should come between us and our doing our duty as Members of Parliament in this House is either our constituents removing us at a general election or the House removing us, with democratically elected Members taking that action.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

Sometimes it takes a big crisis to produce a big response. We have certainly had a big crisis, and I think that now we have had a big response, which is to be welcomed. It is being proposed today that we set up a new body. Can the Leader of the House tell us which bodies will be abolished as the new one is established, and how the members of the new parliamentary standards authority will be appointed?

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 responsibility of some existing bodies will change, and the responsibility of some others will be subsumed within the new authority. All these issues are a matter for consultation, which, as I said, will be led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a crisis can evoke a positive response. I pay tribute to him for his work on the Public Administration Committee. Perhaps I owe him an apology, because when we were in the lift I described him as an intellectual, and he rejected that. However, he has thought about these issues long and hard, and now that they are out of the shadows, we need his intellectuality to be brought to bear on them.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP, South Antrim

May I say, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, how much we appreciate the kindness, fairness and courtesy that you have shown to us from the Chair?

I thank the Leader of the House for her comments. Can she clarify whether the body setting Members' allowances will be totally independent as regards Members of this House?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I welcome the statement made by the Leader of the House. Does she agree that it would be wrong for this House to deflect blame for the current crisis on expenses on to ordinary members of the Fees Office on average salaries, many of whom have served this House with great dedication for many years? There may be questions to ask at the very top of the Fees Office, but the ordinary staff are not responsible for the culture around expenses that has flourished for too long. Just as it is wrong for Members of the House to think that they can hide behind the outgoing Speaker, it would be wrong for them to think that they can hide behind individual, averagely paid members of the Fees Office. The deserved disrepute into which our system of expenses has sunk is the responsibility of each and every one of us as Members of the House.

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 agree with my hon. Friend that it would be not only fruitless but wrong to seek to apportion blame anywhere. What we need to do is take responsibility and to sort this out. That is the responsibility of all Members of this House, even those who have been absolutely blameless, as I am sure the majority have been, in the way they have made their claims.

Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The Leader of the House spoke of reform of the expenses system as being only one part of trying to restore people's faith in politics and re-engage them in the political process. She referred to having a debate to discuss other opportunities for tackling this issue. The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill will come to this House after the recess. Will she take advantage of that by ensuring that amendments are tabled to help to re-engage people with politics right from the bottom up?

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

What did the Members Estimate Committee take into consideration when it arrived at the figure of £1,250 per month as a cap for mortgage interest? That is not for the whole mortgage; it is just to cover the interest. It strikes me that a person would have to be very rich indeed to be able to claim that maximum amount and arrange their finances to benefit from it to the maximum extent. I think that the public will find that very curious indeed. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to look at that issue, and perhaps at ending a system that allows people to profit from buying and selling houses that have been paid for at public expense?

A

I agree with you Clive.

The interest should be based upon the average house value for inner London.

If our MPs wish to live in an above average property then they should pay for it themselves.

Submitted by Arnold Tarling

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

That figure was decided yesterday at the Members Estimate Committee meeting, the Committee on Members' Allowances having looked at the average among different Members so that we could ensure that we lowered the amount, but we did that in the knowledge of the current situation for Members with regard to their obligations.

There is a particular issue for Members who entered the House in 2005 and had to take out quite big mortgages in order to find accommodation, because the property market was absolutely at its height, and who now find themselves with properties that they cannot put on the market. The intention was to get a situation that reduced the amount that could be spent on the mortgage but also recognised the circumstances of those who have recently come into the House.

I

Hmmm. Would that there were the same safety net for Joe Public.

Submitted by Ian Ripsher

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

May I pay my own personal tribute to you, Mr. Speaker, for your great personal kindness? I have been most appreciative and wish you the very best for the future.

I welcome the acknowledgement by the Leader of the House of the difficulties faced by Members from the new intake, and her acknowledgement of the fact that most Members deal with their expenses in an honest and straightforward way—that needs to be said, and I was pleased that she did so. I welcome the recognition of the need for change. I am particularly pleased with the idea that we should be regulated by an outside body, as I have been asking for that during the whole time that I have been in this House. However, some people have been caught out by the regulations announced yesterday, through no fault of their own, and are quite worried about the situation. Will the Leader of the House consider having an appeals process in the short term to allow those people to put their concerns and have them properly adjudged on the facts?

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 Members Estimate Committee has tried to take into account as many circumstances as we possibly can. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members of two things. First, we will ensure that the rules are as clear as possible so that people are not unsure about how their circumstances will be changed as a result of the "in principle" decision that was made yesterday. Secondly, this is only an interim arrangement until such time as Sir Christopher Kelly brings forward his proposals. We will try to make the position as clear as possible immediately, and it applies only for a limited period. I hope that that will reassure Members.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

I totally agree with one of the final points in my right hon. and learned Friend's statement: we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the right thing and ensure that those people who have been disengaged from the whole democratic process are now properly engaged. For many people, the exposure of the allowances has been a sad confirmation of what they have always believed. How can we use the establishment of the standards authority to ensure that the people whom we are supposed to be representing can have their views heard? They have very strong opinions on this matter.

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

This is a question for all Members in all constituencies. My hon. Friend has often raised in the House the particular issue of the disengagement of young people. One important thing that we have done is agree that the Youth Parliament should come and sit in this House. The engagement of the UK Youth Parliament, whose members are themselves elected in all parts of the country, often on a bigger turnout than most of us, has a major role to play.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I welcome these long-overdue interim measures, but does the Leader of the House plan to make the House authorities the employer of MPs' staff and to limit MPs' second jobs? Then she will have implemented all the recommendations that have been listed in the early-day motions that I have tabled over recent years.

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

When it comes to second jobs, I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. There are two issues to consider about remunerated work done by an MP for which they are paid outside this House and which has nothing to do with the House. One is whether it causes them a conflict of interest, and the second is whether it takes their mind off what their proper job should be, which is to represent their constituents or be in government. I very much agree with him on that matter. Sir Christopher Kelly's committee will be looking at it, and I think that the hon. Gentleman and I will be very much on the same side of the argument. Let us hope that we prevail on that one.

The House has already voted on asking the Members Estimate Committee to look into the employment of staff, and that will be part of the wider discussion.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement. She was right to remind all of us that we have a joint responsibility to restore public confidence in this House, and indeed in politics. Does she agree that in a free and democratic country with a free press, the press also have a responsibility to scrutinise and report accurately what happens in this House, and that those in the press and media who seek to abuse the facilities to indulge in personal and at times racist attacks are acting irresponsibly and not playing their part in restoring confidence in the political system?

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

All of us in this country who are democrats want to be sure of two things: that our parliamentary democracy is as strong and confident as it can be, and that the public recognise that to be the case. I recognise that my hon. Friend has not only been a Member of this House for a considerable time but was involved in representations in the trade union movement before that.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Transport), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your hospitality to me during my time in the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement, but there are two precise issues that I should like her to elaborate on. First, will the cap on interest payments for accommodation at £1,250 per month also apply to rental costs at the same amount? Secondly, she indicated that the restriction would prevent two Members who are married or living together as partners from claiming more than one second home allowance. Will that apply also to any other two Members who may wish to avail themselves of a property in London to try to ensure that they get additional payments?

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 think that the intention behind the MEC decision was to distinguish between hon. Members who are married or civil partners and those who are just good friends sharing. That might not always be easy to establish, but what we are talking about is marriage and civil partnerships, not one-night stands.

May I help the hon. Gentleman by running through the list of what is allowed? You, Mr. Speaker, set forth yesterday in outline what will be allowed for rent, ground rent, service charges, council tax and utility bills, but there will need to be clarification in writing so that hon. Members can be absolutely clear about what their circumstances are. That will be made clear following the MEC meeting this afternoon.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I entirely endorse the comments of my hon. Friend Natascha Engel about the need to restore people's confidence and faith in the political system, and in some cases to create that confidence and faith in the first instance. One suggestion is that we should move to real-time month-by-month publication of claims, if not when they are submitted then at least when they are approved. Is that under active consideration?

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

That was one of the things that was agreed last time—that there should be publication month by month of claims that have been made and allowed—but obviously we are looking all the time at how we can improve transparency. These things will not be set in stone, and any other suggestions that hon. Members have will be— [Interruption.] I have just been told by my deputy that it will be reported quarterly, not monthly, and I take it that my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy is suggesting that we do it more frequently.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I welcome today's statement. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that if it is really our intention to have here a legislature that is broadly reflective of the people whom we seek to represent, it must be made clear and taken into consideration that this is not a gentlemen's club, and that many Members have to balance their parliamentary and constituency duties with their family duties? That applies not only to those of us who are mothers of small children but to those with other family duties.

It has been very upsetting to read in the press the great idea that we could all live in barracks in London. I ask the House to take into consideration where we will put our children and when we will have time to see them. If we want to have a legislature that really reflects the people, it must reflect families. The financial arrangements must therefore reflect the need for some of us to undertake family duties as well as parliamentary and constituency duties.

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. Lady has added another principle to the list that I suggest we all adhere to. We must not just be a millionaires' Parliament, and we must respect the constituency link and have good professional offices. Also, this should not just be a Parliament of single people who either have never had families or whose families have grown up. The insight that hon. Members bring of struggling to balance work and family responsibilities, and of caring for older relatives and younger children, helps to shape public policy and helps us understand the lives of people in this country. I would definitely adopt the principle that she has put forward.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government; Culture, Media and Sport; Defence; Transport)

It is not just the expenses scandal that has tarnished the reputation of this House in what has been a low, dishonest decade for parliamentary democracy, but the deception perpetrated by the previous Prime Minister in taking us to war on the basis of a pack of lies. That caused almost irreparable damage to people's trust in politics and politicians.

My question to the right hon. and learned Lady is this: will the standard of honesty form part of the remit of the new parliamentary standards authority, so that members of the public can refer for independent investigation cases in which they believe there is evidence that Members of Parliament, including Ministers, have misled this House and misled the country?

Several hon. Members:

rose —

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

Order. There are only a few hon. Members left, and I have given a lot of leeway, particularly in this matter, but it really should just be a supplementary question that is asked. I ask the remaining Members to do that.

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

We are, of course, answerable to our constituents for the honesty and integrity with which we represent them and go about our work in the House, and to the Chair for not misleading other Members. I think that the regulation of our democracy is ultimately with those who elect us. We are currently considering regulating our pay and our allowances, having codes of conduct and making proposals for their enforcement; that does not cut across the basic fundamental principle of democracy.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and for the leadership that she has shown on this matter. Many hon. Members have made submissions to Sir Christopher Kelly. Will the Government accept his recommendations, whatever they are?

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

At the meeting that the Speaker convened yesterday, the view of the party leaders was that it would be best for the House and all concerned if we could agree with as much as possible of what Sir Christopher Kelly proposes. I think that the Leader of the Opposition said on television that we want to agree with 99.9 per cent. of what Sir Christopher Kelly suggests. That is not to seek to allow for wriggle room. It is in the right spirit and all our interests if we all give evidence to Sir Christopher Kelly—the deadline is 5 June. It is important for hon. Members to give evidence for him to consider. A great deal of responsibility rests on him because we want, cross party, to adopt what he recommends, which will then be put into practice by the new statutory authority. He is like the software, and the hardware will be established by statute in the new authority.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

Just to round off, Members of Parliament are either elected representatives, who are free to work outside this place, or professional politicians, who are not, and are therefore entirely dependent on the taxpayer as members of a political class, separate and distinct from those who elect them. What is the Government's view?

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 Prime Minister asked Sir Christopher Kelly to look into that, and he will make his recommendations. In the meantime, the House voted on 30 April for a proper register of all the remuneration from the different additional jobs that Members have. The bottom line is that the public should be able to know where Members of Parliament get additional money from. That was not the case until we made the change. We have therefore already taken steps on transparency.

I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman's idea that we are members of the political classes. I do not regard myself as part of the political class. Indeed, many of those in the political class have long thought that I should not be in it. I am many things—I represent my constituency in Camberwell and Peckham; I am a wife, a mother, a former lawyer. We are all different things, and we should not allow ourselves to be pushed into believing that, without second jobs from which we rake in money, we are somehow unworthy members of a political class. So I think my answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, which I cannot remember, is probably no.