Committee on Members’ Allowances

Business of the House (Police (Detention and Bail) Bill) – in the House of Commons at 3:37 pm on 7th July 2011.

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Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 3:37 pm, 7th July 2011

With the agreement of the House, we will take motions 9 and 10 together.

I must tell the House that Mr Speaker has selected amendments (c) and (d) to motion 9 and amendment (b) to motion 10. The debate will therefore be on the two motions and the three selected amendments. If amendment (c) to motion 9 is not agreed to, I will allow amendment (b) to motion 10 to be moved in a slightly amended form, to reflect the decision of the House on the name of the Committee. I will, of course, ensure that the House is fully aware of which amendment we are voting on as we progress. In due course I will call Mr Afriyie to move the first of his amendments, but we begin with the Minister.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 3:41 pm, 7th July 2011

I beg to move,

That Standing Order No. 152G (Committee on Members’ Allowances) shall be amended as follows—

(1) in line 2, leave out ‘Allowances’ and insert ‘Expenses’; and

(2) leave out lines 3 to 17 and insert ‘to consider such matters relating to Members’ expenses as may be referred to it by the House;’.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this we shall discuss the following motion, on the review of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009:

That, further to the instruction to the Committee on Members’ Allowances of 12 May, it be an instruction to the Committee on Members’ Expenses to report to the House on the review of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 by 31 December 2011.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The motions would amend the terms of reference of the Committee on Members’ Allowances, in advance of its review of the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. Earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker, you may have heard my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House say in business questions that he would find it very difficult to find additional time to debate the matter before the recess, but by happenstance we now have adequate time to do the job today. I am extremely pleased that that is the case.

On 12 May, the House gave an instruction to the Committee on Members’ Allowances to review the 2009 Act,

“giving due consideration to ensuring:

(a) value for money for taxpayers;

(b) accountability;

(c) public confidence in Parliament;

(d) the ability of Members to fulfil their duties effectively;

(e) fairness for less well-off Members and those with families; and

(f) that Members are not deterred from submitting legitimate claims.”

The debate was initiated through the Backbench Business Committee by Adam Afriyie, who I am pleased to see in his place. Following a good debate, the House agreed to the instruction without a Division.

Since May, the Government have been in discussion with colleagues in the House on changes to the terms of reference of the Committee on Members’ Allowances, given its change in remit. I express my gratitude to my long-suffering right hon. Friend Mr Randall for his efforts in seeking consensus on a sensible approach.

One of the Government’s proposals following consultation was that the Chair be removed from the list of Select Committee Chairs receiving an additional salary, which was approved by the House on Tuesday 5 July. There are two outstanding motions that have previously been objected to and remain to be approved. Motion 9 would amend the Standing Order relating to the Committee by changing its name to the Committee on Members’ Expenses. That terminology reflects the fact that the current scheme, operated by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, is an expenses-based system, not an allowances-based one.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Chair, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

I echo the Deputy Leader of the House’s thanks to my right hon. Friend Mr Randall for his help in ensuring that we bring this matter to a swift resolution.

The instruction issued to the Committee on 12 May was that it review the 2009 Act, which does not relate directly to expenses. My concern is that calling it an expenses Committee and limiting its remit would in some way prevent it from doing its work of reviewing the 2009 Act. If the Deputy Leader of the House can confirm that the change will in no way narrow the Committee’s ability to do its work of reviewing the Act and producing recommendations, there will be very little to detain us.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Let me make it absolutely clear to the House that the change in wording in no way restricts the ability of the Committee to consider the issue of allowances as it relates to the review of the operation of the Act. The Committee will be free to consider the issue of allowances and to make recommendations as it sees fit. The Government have no intention of seeking to restrict the Committee’s remit in the way that is feared.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I will give way in a moment, but let me just say again that the change merely brings the Committee’s title up to date, reflecting the new system that is in operation at the moment.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. Of course, I have no idea what the Committee will decide, but for instance—for the sake of argument—if it were to recommend that the current expense-based system on living away should be replaced by a flat-rate allowance, would that be perfectly in order?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It would be in order for the Committee to consider any matter that it sees fit in reviewing the legislation as it is currently worded, so I think the answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Indeed, it can make any recommendations based on the considerations into which it has entered. It would be a very odd restriction on a Committee if it were to be told that it cannot make recommendations when it has considered a matter. Of course, such recommendations would be the end result if the Committee so chooses.

Motion 9 also brings the Committee’s terms of reference up to date. The Committee has a number of specific functions, set out in Standing Order No. 152G(1)(a) to (d), in relation to the old allowances regime that was administered by the House until the election last year. They include, for example, approving practice notes for the now-defunct fees office. Clearly, those specific powers are no longer relevant—they are, in effect, spent—and the motion provides the House with an opportunity to replace them with a more general power to consider any matter related to Members’ expenses that the House might choose to refer to it.

I sense from the interventions from the hon. Members for Windsor and for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) that they have received some reassurance from what I have said.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured as well, but I will allow him to say.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House can reassure me. He said that the motion brings the Standing Order up to date because the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is operating an expenses-based scheme, not an allowances scheme. I have looked at the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. It mentions the word “allowance” or “allowances” 37 times. Therefore, the authority under which IPSA operates—the Act—provides for allowances. It does not provide any authority to operate an expenses scheme. Can he clarify that for me?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I can simply make it clear that IPSA does what it believes to be in line with the Act. The Committee will be free to consider those matters and to bring forward recommendations as it sees fit. I do not think that I can be more open than simply saying that no restriction is applied by the terms of the motions.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for being as open as he thinks he can be, but I am still not quite clear. The 2009 Act could not be clearer. The words “expense” or “expenses” are not mentioned anywhere—I just searched a PDF copy of the Act and found that those words are mentioned nowhere in it—but the words “allowance” or “allowances” are mentioned 37 times. How can it be that IPSA operates a scheme that it thinks is in line with the Act if it ignores the terms of the Act? That is what I simply do not understand.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is probably not helpful for me to rehearse the subject matter of considerations that will clearly take place in the Committee. I do not speak for IPSA, but it has made it very clear that the current system is one of expenses, whereby Members are reimbursed for costs that they can prove they have incurred. The previous, discredited scheme was one of allowances, whereby Members were allowed to claim, in many cases, with no proof of actual expenditure. I repeat that changing the title of the Committee would not prevent it from proposing that IPSA should introduce a new system that includes an element of allowances, but it would be better if the Committee’s title actually reflected the scheme that is in operation rather than one that is not in operation.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Chair, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

From the reassurance the Deputy Leader of the House has given, I am satisfied that the remit of the Committee and the review will not be restricted, and we can look at everything and come to a calm, considered conclusion. My final question is on the timing of the formation of the Committee, given that we have had a 49-hour stutter in the proceedings.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what I take to be an indication that he will not press his amendment. That is good, because it means that everyone has the same understanding of what we are doing. In terms of timing, I know that the Leader of the House is champing at the bit to take the necessary steps to allow the Committee of Selection to establish the Committee. Indeed, I think it would probably have already been done had it not been for the delays—albeit quite proper delays—occasioned by the objections and amendments that have been tabled. If we can dispose of this business today, I have every confidence that the Committee will be up and running at a very early date. We will then be in business, which is what the hon. Gentleman wants.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Chair, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

I appreciate that one can never predict the future, but can the Deputy Leader of the House say whether he expects that the Committee will be formed this side of the recess?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I think that we can do even better than that. I shall make no further prognostication, but it will certainly be this side of the recess.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Chair, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Then I can say on my own behalf, and possibly on behalf of others, that I will not press my amendments. I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for his assurance and I thank the Leader of the House for the calm and considered way in which he has approached the issue.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am extremely grateful and I hope that, subject of course to the will of the House in approving the recommendation by the Committee of Selection in due course, we will be able to make quick progress.

Motion 10 asks the Committee to report back to the House on the issue tasked to it by 31 December 2011. That date allows the views of the Committee to be considered to a time scale that fits in with the next annual review of the expenses scheme by IPSA, which is expected early next year. A delay in reporting risks the ability of IPSA to consider, consult on and implement in an orderly way any changes that may be proposed. I gather that we may not now have a Division on the

amendment, which I am very pleased about. Otherwise, we might have a delay that would obstruct the work of the Committee.

The House agreed on 12 May that a review of the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 should take place. The Government are keen that the Committee is set up without any more unnecessary delay and gets on with the important work that the House has tasked it with, and I commend the motions to the House.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 3:53 pm, 7th July 2011

The Opposition welcome the fact that these motions are being debated today, and welcome even more that the House appears to be moving towards some consensus. It is of course a matter for Back Benchers to decide, but it is important that we get this Committee set up and running as soon as possible, because the scheme clearly needs amendment.

I see Mr Leigh in his place. Like me, he sits on the liaison committee with IPSA and we spend a lot of time trying to iron out problems in the scheme. It is imperative therefore that we reach a sensible position that both maintains public confidence in the scheme and does not use up too much of the time of hon. Members, who are fast becoming the highest paid data input clerks in the country.

Anyone who has read the National Audit Office report published today—I have had the time to read only some of it—will be clear that much work needs to be done on the scheme. The NAO quantifies the amount of time it is taking for Members and their staff, and actually puts a monetary value on that. It also comments on the repetitive nature of much of the information that is required. We clearly need to have a transparent expenses system. I do not think that anyone in the House would suggest anything else. However, we need to have one that facilitates the work of hon. Members and does not get in the way of our much more important work of representing our constituents. I am grateful to hon. Members involved for their work in setting up the Committee, which I hope can play a major role in ensuring that the scheme we have works properly and in the best interests of our constituents and the House. I look forward to the Committee being set up and being able to get on with its work as soon as possible.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 3:55 pm, 7th July 2011

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not having been here at the outset, but I was chairing Westminster Hall and it was not possible to get a substitute as quickly as I had hoped.

I hear from my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie that much progress has been made during this short debate. I am certainly pleased to hear that. There is a lesson here: if the Government table motions on the Order Paper that are inconsistent with a resolution of the House agreed to as a result of a Back-Bench debate and do not discuss their reasons for tabling the motion, it creates a climate of suspicion. That climate of suspicion was confirmed yesterday, when the Committee of Selection was set up to confirm the membership of the Committee on Members’ Allowances but at the last minute did not deal with the business at hand. I understand that it has been confirmed during this debate that there will be a special meeting today of the Committee of Selection to set up the Committee so that the latter can organise itself to meet next week. I do not know whether that interpretation is correct, but I understand that that is what has been agreed.

Why did we have to go through all this? It is regrettable that this adversarial attitude has been created over an issue that everybody on both sides of the House takes very seriously—IPSA’s administration of our allowances system. Yesterday, I went on to the IPSA website to make a claim for the past month—it was my first claim for a month—and I found that four previous items that I claimed for had been sent back. I will not go into the details except to say that after more than an hour on the telephone all those matters were resolved. However, it should never have taken so long. It was a matter of process dominating common sense and reality. The person from IPSA wasted more than an hour on the telephone. I had to waste more than an hour on the telephone. There were lots of delays and as a result one member of my staff was not paid as quickly as they should have been. That is why it is important that this Committee is set up with the terms of reference that we are debating this afternoon.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

My hon. Friend can be reassured because we have had a categorical reassurance from the Deputy Leader of the House that there will be absolutely no restriction on what the Committee can decide or recommend. I have the greatest faith in our Front-Bench team—as far as I am concerned, their word is their bond.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I hope that when the Committee of Selection meets, he will be selected as a member of the Committee, with my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor as its Chairman. With those two on the Committee, I have little doubt that it can do some effective work. However, I still do not understand why it has taken so long to set it up. It was resolved on 12 May that it should be set up, but it is now almost 12 July.

I see that quite a few members of the Treasury Bench are in their places. I hope that they will learn a lesson from this—that we should be much more open with each other about these issues instead of creating or facilitating a climate of suspicion. It is possibly only because today’s business collapsed more than two hours early that we have had the chance to have this open and frank discussion on the Floor of the House on this important issue. When the report—or reports—come back from the Committee, I hope that the Government will again be open and frank, and allow us to ensure that the recommendations are debated and carried into action. That way, there will be no need to spend even more parliamentary time trying to get the Government to do what was agreed by the Prime Minister as long ago as before last December, as I recall, when he made it clear that if something did not happen by April, he would ensure that pressure would be put on IPSA to get its act together.

All’s well that ends well—I hope. In that respect, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor for briefing me on what transpired earlier in the debate. I hope that it will be confirmed in the response to this debate that the members of the Committee will be appointed by the Committee of Selection today, so that they can get down to their work first thing next week.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk 4:01 pm, 7th July 2011

I shall be very brief. I am delighted by the Government’s reassurances, although I share the disappointment that it has taken since the resolution was passed in May to get to the point of setting up the Committee. If something had been decided that our constituents expected would happen, but then six or seven weeks later it had still not happened, we as Members would be advocating hard on their behalf. I am therefore glad that the decision has finally been made.

I want to make one point about the National Audit Office report that was published this morning, to which Helen Jones referred. I have had a look at it, and I think that it looks fairly reasonable. I know that one or two Members who have looked at it are slightly disappointed that it does not appear to tear IPSA limb from limb. However, given what had taken place—the MPs’ expenses crisis and the response that came forth with the new legislation—IPSA has done its best. We know that there is still further to go, and my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House drew attention to the terms of reference—the need for improved public confidence, better accountability and better value for money, and not deterring legitimate claims. We all know that legitimate claims have been deterred, that we need to get value for money and that there is still some work to do, so I am delighted that the Committee can now proceed with its work.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 4:02 pm, 7th July 2011

I am most grateful to colleagues who have participated in this brief debate. I do not think that any of us seek to minimise the difficulties that have on occasion arisen over the last year in the operation of IPSA. As we all know, there are numerous bodies trying to iron out the problems and produce a more user-friendly, but at the same time rigorous approach to the whole subject. The Committee that we are setting up—that the House has asked to be set up—will go a long way towards dealing with the more fundamental review of the legislation, to ensure that it is fit for purpose, and coming up with recommendations.

I have to say to Mr Chope that if he had doubts about the wording of the Government motions, we would all have been delighted to discuss his concerns with him and allay any fears. As I mentioned earlier, Mr Randall has spent quite some time discussing with interested Members the implications of the Government amendments, and to a large extent was able to reassure those who had a fundamental interest in the establishment of the Committee that their fears were groundless and that this was a real attempt to facilitate its setting up.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Does the Minister accept that, if those fears had been allayed, my hon. Friends the Members for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) and for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) would not have had to table the amendments that are being debated today? How is what he has just said consistent with the Government’s action yesterday in withdrawing from the business of the Committee of Selection the appointment of the members of this Committee? Finally, may I ask my hon. Friend why the opportunity for a short, five-minute debate was not taken—

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his speech. I must also tell him that we are discussing motions 9 and 10 together, and that no amendments have been moved.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It would clearly have been entirely inappropriate for the Committee of Selection to pre-empt the decision of the House, and the House was prevented from taking a decision by the fact that amendments had been tabled that would have been treated as an objection to the order unless we could find time to debate it. Happily, we have had time to do so today, and I hope that I have been helpful to colleagues. I know that the Committee of Selection will be eager to meet at the earliest opportunity in order to make recommendations, which will then have to go before the House, to enable the Committee to be set up. We can now proceed without any further obstruction, should the House agree to the two motions that we have now debated. I hope that we can now do so with expedition.

Question put and agreed to.