Backbench Business — House of Commons Administration and Savings Programme

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 8th November 2012.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 1:30 pm, 8th November 2012

It is right that we are looking at a financial plan for the House that makes 17% savings. Given that all our constituents are seeing cuts to the public services that they receive, they would be incredulous if we said that we could not find any way to make savings in the way that this House operates. It is right that we are trying to do so.

It is right that we are having this debate and that Members are being allowed to vote on how much money is spent on the administration of this House and in what way. Having been in this House for 20 years, it seems unbelievable that we have never had this opportunity before. It is right that we have it today and that we should have it in future years.

It is also right that a fundamental principle of the proposals is that any reductions in spending should not reduce the ability of MPs to do their job and to hold the Executive to account. That has been a fundamental principle throughout the discussions of the Finance and Services Committee.

I commend the way in which the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee has conducted this operation. The way in which he has led the discussions, involved members of the Committee, tried to reach consensus, and gone outside the Committee to try to engage Members in a number of forums, both collectively and individually, has been an excellent example. He has alluded to the fact that he has not always received a massive response to those attempts to engage and gain views, but he has certainly done his best to do so. The issues before us are detailed. In general, the way in which we have approached them has been excellent.

We have been assisted by the advice of the management of the House. I put on the record my thanks to them for that. They have come forward with reports, alternatives and detailed analysis. In the past, I have sometimes questioned the way in which the management of the House have operated. Sometimes they have provided alternatives to Members, but sometimes the process has been very opaque. On this occasion, they have been detailed and helpful. They have certainly operated in a very professional manner.

I pay tribute, as did the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee, to the staff of the House as a whole. The service that they give us is excellent. They are thoroughly professional and very committed to supporting our work as Members of Parliament. The way in which they have been involved in the process has been good. I talked to union representatives the other day. They are clearly not happy about every single proposal and they do not necessarily agree with all the reductions, but they are appreciative of the way in which the process has been conducted, both on the part of Members and in the way in which management have sought to engage with them.

I draw attention, in particular, to the business improvement plan, which has involved a great deal of discussion with staff representatives to try to get consensus and agreement. That has largely been achieved. I support the amendment tabled by the Chair of the Administration Committee because, given the extent of the commitment from management and staff representatives to that process, if we said today that we would go ahead with market testing without giving those proposals a chance to be implemented to see whether they work, it would be a breach of trust with everyone who has engaged so willingly in the process to try to reach a successful conclusion.

A fundamental principle is that we must not make savings or reductions in expenditure at the expense of the pay and conditions of the lowest paid workers in this building. That would be completely wrong. I worry that we would be doing that if we went to market testing, on top of the savings that can be made through the business improvement plan. Indeed, I hope that at some point we will commit ourselves to a living wage in this place, so that people who face the very high costs of living in London can be paid a little more for the work that they do for us.

Finally, I come to the amendment tabled by Robert Halfon. Like the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee, I understand why he has raised the idea, but I think that he is wrong. I subscribe absolutely to the three principles that the Chair of the Committee laid out. Of course this building has to be open and available for Members of Parliament to do their job. Nothing should be put in the way of that and we obviously have first call on the use of this building. Of course it is right for this building to be open and available for constituents to visit us and see how we work.

However, when people come in simply as visitors, I see no reason why we cannot charge them, just as they can be charged by Westminster abbey or Buckingham palace. I really do not see the difference. This place is expensive because of the nature of the building. It is a world heritage site. People come here just to admire the building or to look at the art collections and other things. It is reasonable that we should ask them to make a contribution. The Chair of the Administration Committee is right that many organisations already pay to use this building. They rightly and properly get the sponsorship of an MP, who signs a form to enable them to do that. Why should they not be able to use the buildings at weekends when the place is empty and contribute towards the costs of running the place?

There is a fundamental flaw with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Harlow. It would be wrong to agree to a spending plan today without agreeing to the income proposals on the other side. If we did that and the income proposals were rejected in a further debate, we would have agreed a net spending level that was not sustainable. We would then have to increase the level of net spending, in which case we would not make the 17% reductions, or agree to other specific spending reductions to allow for the income that we would not raise. It is important, if we are to have a serious debate about the financial plan and come to a serious conclusion—as I am sure we will—that we agree to the totality of the plan, including the spending proposals and the income proposals. That is why I will vote against the hon. Gentleman’s amendment if he presses it.

However, I support all the provisos put forward by the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee. We must continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the principles that he rightly laid out are adhered to.