– in the House of Commons at 3:01 pm on 6 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

(13) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings on the Bill to which this Order applies.

(14)(a) No Motion shall be made, except by a designated Member, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.

(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.

(c) Such a Motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.

(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.

(15)(a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings on the Bill to which this Order applies except by a designated Member.

(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

(16) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

(17) No private business may be considered at any sitting to which the provisions of this order apply.

(18)(a) The start of any debate under Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) to be held on a day on which proceedings to which this Order applies are to take place shall be postponed until the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.

(b) Standing Order 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply in respect of any such debate.

(19) In this Order, “a designated Member” means—

(a) the Rt hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury; and

(b) any other Member acting on behalf of the Rt hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury.

Today we seek the permission of the House to make time for legislation in the weeks ahead to reform the system for ministerial severance payments. Those payments were first introduced exactly 40 years ago for Ministers in the House of Lords, with rules that were almost identical to the ones that now apply to this House as well. Departing Ministers were to receive a quarter of their annual salary, equivalent to three months of pay, provided that they were under the age of 65, that they had been in post for at least two years, and that they did not return to the job within three weeks.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

I have informed Sir Brandon Lewis that I will be referring to him personally in this debate. He is the only Minister of the 97 in question who has claimed two severance payments in 2022-23, totalling almost £33,000. The second payment was worth three months’ pay after just seven weeks in the job as Justice Secretary. Does my right hon. Friend agree that at the height of a cost of living crisis it was nothing short of a disgrace that the right hon. Gentleman felt entitled to claim so much money from the taxpayer when delivering so little in return?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

My hon. Friend is spot on. For those on the Government Benches muttering about claiming, it does not really matter whether the money was claimed, or if it was given to someone and not given back—the point is that the money was still pocketed by the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth, and no one was expecting the rules to be used in that way. That is the point of this debate.

The payments were extended to other Ministers in 1991 based on a recommendation by the then Top Salaries Review Board, which commanded broad cross-party support. The only change from the previous rules was to remove the two-year qualifying limit, but it is worth noting that in every debate that preceded the 1991 legislation, MPs remained clear that these payments were intended for the benefit of long-serving Ministers, who were having to make what Geoffrey Howe called

“an abrupt and significant financial adjustment…on relinquishing ministerial office”.—[Official Report, 17 January 1990;
Vol. 165, c. 311.]

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

Will the right hon. Lady accept that when our party came to power in 2010, we cut ministerial pay, and we have kept it frozen ever since? In the unlikely event of her side getting into power, would she commit to maintaining that freeze?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

If the hon. Lady has a moment to look at the motion before us today, and to consider it in the spirit of fairness and how public money should be spent, I hope that she would agree that the current system has been abused over the past few years by her colleagues in the Chamber and outside it. That is simply not the sort of thing that the public wants. They would be appalled if they knew what was going on with the severance payments we are talking about today.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

I will make a bit more progress, and then I will give way.

We are talking about severance payments today. Government Members may wish to speak about red herrings and other issues, but let us talk about the abuse of the severance payments system that we have seen over the past few years, because we should take a clear-eyed look at it. We are not seeking to scrap those payments, nor should we. As Geoffrey Howe said, they were introduced so that Ministers who had given long and dedicated service to their country could adjust to the loss of that salary. I do not think anyone on the Opposition Benches has any quarrel with that. Over the 40 years that those payments have existed, there has never been any previous occasion where it has been open to question that the rules by which those payments were made were wrong. Then, however, we came to 2022-23. It was a year of chaos in our politics, unprecedented in modern times. Sadly, it was a year in which the current severance scheme had its flaws suddenly exposed and its loopholes shamelessly exploited.

Before I address what went wrong with the system in that financial year, I will do something that I find personally unusual, which is to praise some members of Conservative Cabinets. It will be hard for me, and I feel my ancestors starting to shift uneasily in their graves, but I want to give credit where credit is due, and that credit goes to a small collection of Secretaries of State who, for want of a better phrase, did the right thing when it came to severance entitlements during that year of chaos. I praise the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Steve Barclay, who was sacked as Health Secretary in September 2022, but reinstated by the current Prime Minister seven weeks later. What did he do with his severance payment? He returned it in full when he regained his old job, so he deserves praise for that.

I praise the current Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan, who resigned after two days as Education Secretary in July 2022, but turned down the £16,000-plus severance payment for which those two days had made her eligible, and she deserves praise for that. I even want to praise Sir Gavin Williamson, the former Chief Whip, the former Defence Secretary and the former Education Secretary. He claimed his £16,000-plus severance in 2019 when he was sacked for leaking top-secret information. He claimed his £16,000-plus severance again in 2021, when he was sacked for all his various school fiascos. However, he finally turned down his severance payment in 2023 after two weeks in the Cabinet Office, because he recognised that it would be inappropriate to accept it while under investigation for bullying. So let us praise him for that—if for nothing else.

What those examples show is that it is entirely possible for individuals to choose to waive their severance payments, or return them, when they feel that accepting them would not be right. Perhaps those individuals even reflected that, at the height of the cost of living crisis—which had been greatly exacerbated by the actions of their Government—it would seem inappropriate to accept thousands of pounds from the taxpayer as a reward for the contribution they had made to the chaos. Perhaps they realised how much like a smack in the face that would feel to their constituents. Either way, those individuals did do the right thing.

However, the hard fact is—numbers bear this out—that, for every one case in the last financial year where a Tory Minister decided that accepting that severance payment would be inappropriate in the circumstances, in at least six or seven other cases the opposite was unfortunately true. That is why we find ourselves here, trying to fix a system of ministerial severance that has been brought into disrepute by dozens of its most recent beneficiaries.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

My right hon. Friend has mentioned many Secretaries of State. We also had a short-lived Prime Minister, who is entitled to some payments for the rest of her life. Should we not also look at whether it is appropriate for people who leave in disgrace to end up with lifelong pay cheques?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is an important argument that will need to be considered.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

The right hon. Lady is arguing that a certain lax culture has grown up under successive Conservative Governments that benefits few but taints us all, and I think it goes beyond severance pay. My right hon. Friend Liz Saville Roberts proposed a private Member’s Bill—the Elected Representatives (Prohibition of Deception) Bill, which would have made it an offence for Ministers to knowingly and wilfully lie to the public. Is there any chance that an incoming Labour Government might adopt that?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

If we are given the great honour of serving the public as the next Government, our Ministers will not deceive the public. We will be straightforward, and we will do our utmost to serve them to the best of our ability. We will be a Government to be proud of; we just need to have an opportunity.

For the purposes of explaining our motion, I will go through each of the five categories where a flaw in the rules was exposed in 2022-23 and give one example for each of how someone benefited. Mr Deputy Speaker, I have informed each of them that I am going to be raising their case.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Before the right hon. Lady moves on, will she give way?

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I know this is an Opposition day debate, where the Government will get bashed—that is part of the convention and traditions of this House. However, on an important constitutional point, I think Lloyd Russell-Moyle alluded to the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss. Does the right hon. Lady think that ex-Labour Prime Ministers and ex-Conservative Prime Ministers—thankfully I do not think we will ever have a Lib Dem one; we can agree on that—should have no private office arrangements supported by the state? Those people have been at the highest level as First Lord of the Treasury, having had access to top-secret and classified materials, and will probably be under constant threat for the rest of their lives. Is she honestly saying that a Labour Government would no longer support former Prime Ministers of whatever political party?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

I am saying that this is an important issue that needs to be considered. I suggest that perhaps together the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle put in for a debate so that we can air these matters properly. Today, I want to talk about ministerial severance payments.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, and then I hope that I will not need to give way to him again.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. Is not the fact we are getting interesting ideas coming from Labour Members an example of how the motion before the House is so ill thought out? Those ideas are not in the motion. Does she not agree that this is not the way to create legislation?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

I am proud to say that my party is full of good ideas, but unfortunately we are unable to put them all into one motion. Let us have a little discipline today by concentrating on the motion at hand and the important issue we are raising. We believe that five particular problems were highlighted by the chaos in 2022-23. I will go through each of them, give an example and explain why the changes we want to put forward will solve those problems, and why we would therefore ask the House as a whole to seriously consider our proposal to ensure that we can pass legislation to change the situation, because it does need to be fixed.

First, let us look at what I call the short stayers problem. More than two dozen individuals occupied Front-Bench roles for just nine weeks at the fag end of the Johnson Government, or just seven weeks during the bedlam of the Truss experiment, all of whom walked away with three months of severance pay. Let us look at Jonathan Gullis as an example. Never a shrinking violet when it comes to calling out others, he served just 49 full days as a Minister in the Department for Education, earning less than £3,000 in wages, yet when he returned to the Back Benches he received almost double that in severance—three months’ severance for 49 days’ work. Perhaps the Minister for common sense will tell us whether that makes sense to her.

Secondly, we have the problem of the short-lived promotions: individuals who found themselves elevated from junior ministerial roles to more senior positions, and whose severance was therefore calculated not based on the salary they had earned for most of the year, but based on the much higher salary they had earned for only a few weeks. Let us think of the example of Sir Simon Clarke, who spent a year as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, earning a salary of almost £32,000, but then spent seven weeks as Levelling Up Secretary on a salary of more than double that amount. As a result of those seven weeks alone, the right hon. Gentleman received severance pay of almost £17,000. Again, I look forward to the Minister for common sense explaining where the sense is in that.

Thirdly, we have what I might call the quick returners—more than a dozen Ministers who claimed their three months’ severance pay after quitting the Johnson Government, or being sacked by his successor, but who ended up returning to the Front Bench a matter of weeks later while still enjoying the benefits of their severance payments. Take the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Johnny Mercer, who not only accepted three months in severance after only two months as Veterans Minister, but told Plymouth Live point-blank that he had not accepted a severance payment, and then had the sheer chutzpah to return to exactly the same job seven weeks later without repaying a single penny. Once again, I hope that the expert on these matters will tell us whether that sounds like common sense.

Fourthly, there is a much smaller category—I have decided it is best not to give them a name at all. We also saw severance payments awarded in 2022-23 to two individuals, Peter Bone and Chris Pincher, who left their Front-Bench jobs while under investigation at the time for acts of gross misconduct. The 1991 rules are silent on this issue, and we can only assume that it was thought that any individual forced to quit in those circumstances would have the basic decency not to accept a handout from the taxpayer. However, I am afraid what the Pincher and Bone cases have shown us is that we cannot rely on the decency of individuals like that.

Finally—perhaps most incredibly—five severance payments in the last financial year were made entirely by mistake because the Government forgot to apply the age limit that says no one over the age of 65 can receive one, which is how Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries received their payments. Before the current incumbents of the Cabinet Office tell themselves that they have brought order to all this chaos, it is worth noting that the largest of those mistaken payments, which was made to a Minister in the Lords, was made not during the chaos of the summer and autumn of 2022, but in what one might call the cold light of day in January 2023.

The proposed changes to the severance rules set out in Labour’s motion would address each of the five issues that I have set out.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that had any of our constituents been face to face with the Department for Work and Pensions in a similar situation to that which she describes, the results might have been different?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

Any of our constituents struggling to get to the end of the week on their wage packet, and who see the amount of money being handed out—essentially as payment for failure—would be astonished that it was allowed. That is why we are trying to change the rules today.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

The right hon. Lady, in her meaningless and bitter speech, is missing the essential point that ought to be at the heart of her argument. When people are struggling, it is galling that someone who already earns a salary of £80,000 a year for being a Member of Parliament, and more on top of that for their ministerial duties, is given another payment when, for whatever reason—the Prime Minister does not like them or perhaps they have not done a particularly good job—they get a severance package. Is the truth of the matter not that Labour should be calling for no severance packages for any Minister when they lose their job?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

If our motion does not go far enough for the hon. Gentleman, let me propose that he votes with us tonight anyway, because at least we are heading in the right direction. If his colleagues vote simply to keep the status quo, he will have a great deal of difficulty explaining to his constituents how, given his views, he has allowed it to continue.

Let me move on. We want to make changes to deal with the five issues. To deal with short stayers and short-term promotions, Ministers would be paid a quarter of their actual earnings over the previous 12 months, not a quarter of their final salary. To deal with the quick returners, our reforms would require individuals who return to the Front Bench while still enjoying the benefits of their severance payments to repay the corresponding amount. To deal with those who do not deserve any payment, we demand that Ministers who quit while under investigation for gross misconduct or breaching the ministerial code have their severance payment withheld unless or until their name is cleared.

If all those rules had been in place in 2022-23, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North would have received £748 in severance, not almost £6,000. The short-lived Levelling Up Secretary, the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, would have received just over £9,000, not almost £17,000. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View would have received £1,300, not almost £8,000, and the former Members for Tamworth and for Wellingborough would have received exactly what they deserved—nothing at all. In total, if the proposals in our motion had been in place in 2022-23 and the age limit rules had been properly enforced, the total severance bill that year would have been cut by more than 40%—a saving for the taxpayer of almost £380,000. If our rules had been in place, 75 of the 97 Ministers who claimed severance pay in that year would have seen their payments reduced by an average of just over £5,000.

That is why our motion is so important, but Government Members may reasonably ask why it is so urgent. Why is it necessary to reform the rules in this way? Why does Labour need to take control of the Order Paper? Very simply, if they think what happened in the last financial year was a one-off aberration that could not happen again, they have not been paying attention. Do they not know about the plotting of their own colleagues and the plans for yet another palace coup against the current incumbent of Downing Street? Yet again in the coming months we could see mass resignations from the Front Bench, to put pressure on a weak and failed Prime Minister. Yet again we could see a Reform-adjacent radical put in his place, eager to engage in experiments with the British economy. Yet again, we could see it all go horribly wrong, leading to heaven knows what in the aftermath.

Frankly, if that is how the Conservatives want to spend their time between now and the general election, part of me just wants to say, “Well, get on with it then.” But a bigger part of me says that they should not be allowed to gamble again with the future of the British people, and they should certainly not be allowed to profit again from the results of their own failures. Indeed, it would be a shameful indictment of our political system if we were to allow yet another round of excessive and undeserved ministerial severance payments to be made between now and the next election when we have the opportunity today to stop that happening.

I appeal to the Conservative Members I mentioned at the outset of my speech, and the handful of others like them who decided to send back their severance payments in 2002-23, who chose to accept smaller amounts, or who decided to repay part of what they had received. In the circumstances in which they found themselves, and, I hope, in the circumstances they saw their constituents facing, they made a personal choice to do the right thing. I hope that at the end of this debate they will make another personal choice and again decide to do the right thing. They have the opportunity today to restore the rules on severance payments to the purpose for which they were originally intended, and to fix the system that, sadly, their colleagues have broken. If they do not take this opportunity, the conclusion we will have to draw—perhaps the right conclusion after all—is that the only way to get the change we need in this country will be to elect a Labour Government and put on the Benches opposite MPs and Ministers who believe in serving their communities, not just in helping themselves.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio 3:56, 6 February 2024

It has been interesting to hear the Labour party—yes, the Labour party—make the case for the terms and conditions of workers to be changed unilaterally, in one day, and without consultation or a proper review. I am sure that Labour’s union paymasters will be fascinated to hear the case made by Emily Thornberry today.

I start by making it clear that the motion before the House departs from the fundamental principle that it is the Government of the day—that is the party that won the election, voted in by the public—who are able to determine the business of the House. That is something the House itself has long recognised, in Standing Order No. 14. By setting aside Standing Order No. 14, the motion would enable the Opposition to bring in a Bill and race it through Parliament by proceeding through all its substantive Commons stages in one day. The truth is that if the right hon. Lady is so keen to decide the business of the day in the House, she should not have supported her neighbour, Jeremy Corbyn, to become the Prime Minister. Given that she did support him, she clearly is not all that keen on being in charge of parliamentary business.

Although it is sometimes necessary for Parliament to legislate at pace—in exceptional circumstances and in response to emergencies—this is not a policy matter that warrants setting aside the procedure of the House. To do so would inhibit proper parliamentary scrutiny. We have just had an Opposition day debate on knife crime, which has gone through the roof in Sadiq Khan’s London. Does it not say everything about the priorities of the Labour party that it proposes emergency legislation in respect of this debate and not that one?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

Perhaps the third minute of her speech will be when the Minister starts to talk about the topic, which is ministerial severance pay. The “Minister for common sense” had personal experience of this in 2015, 2018 and 2020, and may soon do so again. In the meantime, can she tell us how she decided which of the payments for which she was eligible to accept and which to turn down? Does she think that decisions on what to accept should remain at the discretion of the individual, even in cases where the individual is guilty of gross misconduct?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

The hon. Member has raised a point about redundancy payments, and that is fundamentally what we are talking about. Severance pay is a redundancy payment, in that Ministers can be turfed out of office without any notice of termination and without any proper consultation. They have been given what would otherwise be called redundancy payments. I entirely agree that people have accepted those redundancy payments, just as Labour Ministers did when the Prime Minister changed from Blair to Brown, and just as Labour Ministers did when Labour went out of office in 2010.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

I will carry on for a little while longer. I want to talk about what the Opposition are doing today, which is, as I said at the outset, seizing the business of the day and trying to make this a case for emergency legislation, which it is not. So many emergencies confront the country and the world, and it is striking that of all those emergencies—it could be the middle east, it could be Ukraine, it could be illegal migration—the Opposition deem this to be the most important. We know why that is: it is because they have no plan to deal with any of those big issues of the day. They do not know what to say, they do not have a clue, and they change their minds, flip-flippity-flop, all the time, so they have been reduced to talking about this issue.

Given the importance that the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury attaches to the issue—wanting to seize the business of the day, wanting to push through emergency legislation—can she confirm that this will be the first piece of legislation that any new Labour Government would introduce?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

No, because we are going to win the vote today. Common sense will prevail, and we will know that this has to be sorted out now. There is no need to wait for a Labour Government; you guys can help us to pass this legislation.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

So it is not going to happen today, but in fact the Opposition are not going to do it if they come into power—which, hopefully, they will not. That is how much of an emergency it is.

However, there is some good news here. The right hon. Lady is putting herself at the vanguard of cutting waste, which must be a first for the Labour party. Will she take this opportunity to apologise for the private finance initiative schemes that her party inflicted on the country and on much of its public services? Will she take this opportunity to apologise for the hundreds of billions of pounds’ worth of waste? I will give way to her if she would like to make an apology for those huge amounts of PFI waste.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

Could we perhaps talk about the £10 billion wasted on personal protective equipment? I really think that the Minister ought to consider talking about ministerial severance reform, but that is, of course, a matter for her.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

So the right hon. Lady could not apologise. She could not, or did not want to, stop the waste of hundreds of billions of pounds.

I will say this: the Government accept that the current legislation is now a third of a century old, and that this may be an appropriate time to review it and consider changes, but this is not the right time or place to take action. Proper consideration must be given to new legislation.

As Members will know, severance pay is governed by legislation. The statutory provision for ministerial severance pay is contained in the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991. It has therefore been in place for successive Administrations, and has been paid to Members of all three parties who have made ministerial office during this period. Under the Act, Ministers who leave office are entitled to a payment equivalent to a quarter of the annual salary that they were being paid in respect of the ministerial office that they are leaving. To be eligible for a payment, they must be under a certain age—65—and must not be reappointed to ministerial office within three weeks of leaving their previous office.

I note—and I thank the right hon. Lady for drawing it to my attention—that in 2022 a small number of severance payments were made incorrectly to departing Ministers. I want to make it clear that the Cabinet Office guidance to Departments is that they should seek to recover any mispayment in line with His Majesty’s Treasury’s guidance, “Managing Public Money”. While the incorrect payments were caused by an administrative error and the former Ministers concerned were at no personal fault whatsoever, it is important that the Government seek to recover that money. I am sure I am not the only one who recalls the catastrophic overpayment of tax credits when Labour was last in office, and the fact that many families got into huge difficulties because of that. It is such a shame that the right hon. Lady was not so exercised about that when they were in office.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

No, because we are talking about waste. We are talking about appropriate measures taking place and this faux emergency legislation that the right hon. Lady wants to bring in.

Turning to ministerial severance pay more generally, it is important to note that this is the long-standing policy that successive Governments from both sides of the House have retained. The reason they have retained it that the principle of paying severance remains sound. The Prime Minister, in his constitutional role as a principal adviser to the sovereign, can recommend the appointment and removal of Ministers at any time. This flexibility, necessary as it is within our political system, means that having a reasonable severance pay policy to reflect the uncertain nature of ministerial office has had wide support from across the House since its introduction.

Members will be aware that similar arrangements are in place for Members of Parliament, who also hold the status of officeholder. In certain circumstances, Members of Parliament who lose a seat at a general election are eligible to receive a loss of office payment. The eligibility for the loss of office payment is determined by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which is responsible for setting and regulating MPs’ salaries, pensions, business costs and expenses. Severance payments recognise the unpredictable nature of ministerial office. The fact that a Minister can lose their office with no notice when the Government or a Prime Minister change will inevitably lead to a substantial increase in the money paid out in that financial year—

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

From a sedentary position, I get £1 million quoted at me. I remember, although maybe the right hon. Lady does not, that it was over £1 million in 2010 when Labour lost office, and that is quite a long time ago.

It is for these reasons that the Government do not currently intend to reform severance pay for departing Ministers, although I am happy to review it, as I mentioned earlier. The current system respects the essential constitutional principle that Ministers serve at the discretion of the Prime Minister and that it is right to provide some protections associated with the loss of ministerial office. The principle has applied, as I said, to all Governments since the Act was passed in 1991, and we need to be careful not to change policy on the basis of exceptions that will occasionally occur under Governments of all forms.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

If the Minister is going to review the system, can she guarantee that it will be reviewed and implemented before the next general election?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

I am sad to say no I cannot, because we have said that it is essential that there is due process on the Floor of this House—not like the Opposition, who want to whisk it through in a day.

We are completely transparent about the payments of severance, and all such payments are published in departmental annual reports.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

In the interest of objective debate, could the Minister please confirm why Ministers above the age of 65 from any of the major parties are less deserving than those who are under 65?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I think that that would be looked at under the review as well, should we review this, but the law that was set out at that time stipulated that age. That is something else that I agree would need to be looked at.

I want to be clear that severance pay cannot be looked at as a stand-alone issue. It is part of an overall picture that governs payments made to Ministers. More broadly, the Government have consistently demonstrated restraint and always sought to minimise the cost of government, at the same time as modernising ministerial office to bring it into the 21st century. This is most clearly demonstrated in the Government’s policy on ministerial pay.

Ministerial salaries today are lower than they were when this Government took office in 2010, which in real terms constitutes a significant pay cut. My noble Friend Lord Cameron introduced a 5% cut to ministerial pay when he came into office in 2010. Since then, Prime Ministers have asked Ministers to waive the increase in their statutory pay entitlement year on year. For example, ministerial salaries are roughly half—that is half—of what they would have been had Lord Cameron not introduced the salary reduction when he became Prime Minister. In April 2010, Ministers of State earned £42,370, which is £63,594 in today’s money, yet a Minister of State today receives £31,680.

I appreciate that the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury did not want to reply to the question from my hon. Friend Anna Firth, but will she confirm today that her party would continue with the ongoing cut in ministerial pay?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

That is not what the motion is about, so I am afraid that I cannot help the Minister. Is she aware that £2.9 million was spent on severance payments to all the special advisers who lost their job in the same year, 2022-23?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

That is well dodged again by the right hon. Lady. She will not confirm that Labour would keep a tight fiscal grip on ministerial pay. Obviously, one of the key things about today’s motion is waste and expenditure. We will see what happens. As always, money runs away with the Labour party.

This Government passed the transformative Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021, which for the first time enabled Ministers to take paid maternity leave and be replaced in their Department. Several Members have now benefited from this legislation when in office, and I am sure it will continue to be of immense value. The Government are committed to returning to Parliament in due course to set out proposals on extending the Act.

I conclude by reaffirming the Government’s commitment to recovering the money paid in error to a small number of former Ministers. I reassure the House that departmental processes have been strengthened to ensure that this error does not happen again. For the reasons I have set out, the Government do not think there should be wholesale legislative reform on this matter during this Parliament. We believe that a Government committed to the principle of integrity in public life is the most effective way to control the cost of government to the taxpayer.

In that spirit, we will continue to demonstrate restraint in how we are paid and we will continue to modernise ministerial office to meet the expectations that the public rightly have of us. The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury could not say whether her party would maintain our cuts to ministerial salaries, could not apologise for the last Labour Government wasting money on PFI schemes and could not say whether this Bill, because it is such important emergency legislation, would be the first piece of legislation introduced by a Labour Government, so we can safely conclude that the Labour party does not care about taxpayers’ money.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:13, 6 February 2024

I thank the Labour party for tabling this motion, which highlights the difference between this place and reality. Nearly £1 million in severance pay was handed out during last year’s political chaos. Some Ministers received severance pay despite being in office for only 38 days. In a 38-day period, an asylum seeker would receive £47.96 if they are being housed in a hotel. That is enough to pay for First Bus day tickets for nine days, provided that they buy nothing else. In contrast, the former Chancellor would be able to pay for 3,309 First Bus day tickets, which is a full bus of day tickets for every one of those 38 days. And that is just from his severance pay.

In clear and stark contrast, Scottish Government Ministers have had a pay freeze for the 16th consecutive year. A Scottish Government Minister is currently entitled to £99,516—that includes their MSP salary, by the way—but, under the voluntary pay freeze, they receive the 2008-09 level of £81,449. A Cabinet Secretary in Scotland has an entitlement of £118,511, but receives £96,999. The voluntary reduction is taken from net pay and is returned to the Scottish Government, to be made available for public spending. A number of Conservative Members mentioned the freezes in ministerial pay here. According to the Library briefing, ministerial pay in the House of Commons has been frozen at 2014 levels, but ministerial pay in the House of Lords has been frozen only at 2019 levels. If the Government are going to appoint Secretaries of State in the House of Lords, they will cost us more than they do in the House of Commons.

Cabinet Secretaries in Scotland and Scottish Government Ministers are each handing back more money to public funds annually than the former Chancellor received in his severance pay. The Tories are absolutely clear that people can live on universal credit, despite all evidence to the contrary, yet the 38-day Chancellor accepted a severance payment worth nearly four years of UC for a single person over-25. The UK Government seem absolutely determined to highlight, at every opportunity, how out of touch they are. They have refused to zero rate VAT on mortgages, yet for 38 days’ work, Kwasi Kwarteng accepted a payment that could cover 70 months, or five and a half years, of the typical owner-occupier mortgage increase, according to the Bank of England. It is deeply ironic that all homeowners are having to pay for his mistakes while he is being rewarded for them.

As people are pushed into ever-increasing poverty, having to make devastating choices between heating and eating, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne could fund 280 food parcels from his severance pay alone, and he is far from the only one. Tory and Brexit chaos has not just caused rampant inflation and increased the cost of mortgages, meaning that people are having to choose between heating and eating; it has meant Government reshuffles every five minutes, with an Institute for Government worker commenting:

“I’m not saying there's been a lot of ministerial turnover since 2010, but you could now play an 11-a-side football match between Ministers for the Cabinet Office and Secretaries of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in that time”.

The ministerial trough is institutional, and it is indicative of the rot ingrained in Westminster. The public rightfully deserve and expect value for money, yet with record levels of turnover on the Government Benches, resulting in so many people eligible for severance payments, this is a ludicrous waste of public money during this cost of living crisis. In the eight years since the Brexit vote, there have been 13 Housing Ministers, nine Education Secretaries, eight Home Secretaries, seven Foreign Secretaries, seven Chancellors, seven Health Secretaries, seven Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretaries and five Prime Ministers. How is it possible that former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries was accidentally paid £17,000 in a severance payment? Elizabeth Truss served a pitiful 45 days as Prime Minister, crashed the UK economy with her fantasy think-tank economics and made the electorate, who did not vote for her, pay for her mistakes.

Better Together said in 2014 that a no vote would bring better, safer, faster change for Scotland, yet all we have seen in Westminster is constant chaos, with it mired in the ceaseless rot of corruption and cronyism. I defy anyone to tell folk out there that their lives are better now than they were before the independence referendum in 2014. Westminster is institutionally designed to promote the entrenchment and passing of power between a select few hands while enriching the participants. Ministers are granted extremely broad powers, with a lack of oversight by Parliament. We saw that once again yesterday during the Finance Bill, where they unilaterally changed the Ways and Means resolutions after the line-by-line scrutiny debates. We see these things on a regular basis. The call from the Brexiteers was, “Taking back power.” They have taken back power, but to the Executive, not to Parliament. Parliament is being stymied at every opportunity by this UK Government.

When Ministers inevitably fail or are pushed out due to Westminster’s political power games, they take a ministerial severance payment. After they are finally evicted from their seats by constituents, they can receive cushy money-for-nothing jobs and rewards for the rest of their lives. While Ministers in Westminster abuse their positions to give contracts and public money to their friends and financial backers, these are not failings unique to the Tory party but rather institutional design features of the Westminster system, which has inherited hundreds of years of aristocratic baggage and is entirely unfit as a system for governing a modern country.

Labour has promised to reform Westminster from within for over 100 years, promising to abolish the House of Lords, reduce prerogative ministerial powers, and now lower ministerial severance pay. That promise is not worth the Hansard it is written in. Every time the Labour party is elected on a promise to reform Westminster, it instead integrates into the system and digs in to use it for its own ends, stacking the Lords rather than abolishing it or making extensive use of the prerogative powers rather than minimising them. When Labour takes power again, I have no doubt it will that long tradition of entrenchment.

The Leader of the Opposition continues his flip-flopping, and if he becomes Prime Minister, he will doubtless lose or sack Ministers. When that happens, they will make just as much use of the ministerial severance pay as their Tory cousins. The only solution is a radical overhaul of Westminster and of the entrenchment and the current positions. Only a vote for the SNP and independence will finally lead to the reforms necessary for Scotland and the rest of the UK to move forward and become modern 21st century democracies that work for all the people, not just overpaid politicians.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West 4:21, 6 February 2024

If anyone had any doubt that the Opposition are not fit to govern this country, that doubt must have been dispelled this afternoon. There were many things they could have chosen to debate. It is Children’s Mental Health Week. There are all sorts of incredibly important things going on today about Safer Internet Day. It is the start of National Apprenticeship Week. It was World Cancer Day two days ago. We could have debated the economy or the middle east. As a Parliamentary Private Secretary, I went to a brilliant debate about the Homes for Ukraine scheme today. But no, they have used their second Opposition day debate to talk about party politics. That is all this debate is about, and it is an appalling waste of taxpayers’ money that we are debating this subject today.

The Opposition know jolly well, as Emily Thornberry said, that ministerial severance pay is established in legislation passed by Parliament in 1991 and has been used by successive Administrations over decades. It is a statutory entitlement implemented by Governments of all stripes. Payments were made and accepted by outgoing Labour Ministers throughout the Blair and Brown years, as well as by Liberal Democrat Ministers in the coalition Government.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

My hon. Friend refers to the initial legislation in 1991, but that was followed up, as she is no doubt aware, by the Scotland Act 1998, which was brought in by Labour and repeats the same approach for Scotland. Does she agree that it is the height of hypocrisy from the Opposition to claim outrage now, when they brought in similar legislation themselves?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s brilliant point, which brings me naturally to my next point. The last Labour Government had the opportunity to amend the 1991 legislation in any one of the 13 years they were in office. Instead, they chose to do absolutely nothing. Even more outrageously, following Labour’s defeat in the 2010 election, when Liam Byrne left that infamous note saying, “Dear Chief Secretary, I’m sorry, I’m afraid to tell you there is no money left.”—

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

It said, “I am afraid to tell you there is no money left.”

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

That is an exact quote: “There is no money left.” I do not mind saying it again, because that is the mess that Labour left us with. The point here is that having said that there is no money left, what did outgoing Labour Ministers do? They pocketed £1 million in that year in severance pay. In today’s money, that would be £1.6 million—truly shocking. That was irresponsible then, and their actions are 100% hypocritical today.

In stark contrast, when we entered office, what was our approach when we saw the mess that Labour had left us in? We cut our ministerial salaries and have kept them frozen ever since.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about Labour, but we have heard from the Scottish National party that somehow it is better north of the border. Does she agree that that is surprising given that the Scottish Daily Express said:

“SNP spin doctors received more than £200k in ‘golden goodbyes’ in 2023 as Humza Yousaf rung tiny changes.”

What does that say about the SNP?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. That is absolutely appalling. We also know that shamed SNP MSP, Derek Mackay, who has left office, claimed £155,000 in expenses, including, as I understand it, severance pay. The SNP approach is incredibly hypocritical.

While we were sorting out Labour’s mess, cutting our own pay and keeping it frozen, every single Labour leadership candidate in 2010 refused to hand back their taxpayer-funded severance pay, including Edward Miliband and the Mayor of Greater Manchester, both of whom were entitled to £20,000, and they still hold elected office today.

When we questioned those severance payments, given the mess that Labour had left us in, a Labour party spokesman responded by saying that it was a pathetic attempt to create a smokescreen around serious economic issues—[Laughter.] Yes. I would be grateful if those on the Labour Front-Bench team can confirm to the House today that this motion is a pathetic and hypocritical attempt to create a smokescreen around their total lack of a plan for Britain. There is no plan for the economy, no plan to tackle welfare, and no plan to deal with immigration. In fact, we know that Labour would take us right back to square one.

As usual, while the Opposition are sniping from the sidelines and making these cheap political points, we are actually getting on with the job of serious government. In the past 14 years, the Conservative party has been focusing on delivering for the people of Britain. Let me remind Labour Members what that delivery looks like: better state schools than ever before; more students securing top grades in maths, physics and chemistry—

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

I am not far from finished, so I will carry on.

There are more students from state schools at our best universities. School performances are skyrocketing up the PISA tables, and we now have the best readers in the western world. We also have record employment: 4 million more people in a job than there were in 2010—that is over 800 jobs every day.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

No, I will not. I am about to finish my remarks.

We have a national living wage, a welfare system that is simpler, fairer and better targeted, more hours of free childcare, including overseeing the largest single expansion of childcare in English history, and the fastest decarbonisation of any major economy, leading the way in renewables, which will be key to our future. I could go on and on. This is a record of which we are extremely proud. We have stuck to our plan: we have halved inflation; we have cut taxes for 27 million working people, worth £450, starting last week for an average worker; and of course we continue to support the most vulnerable in society, keeping the triple lock and doubling the personal allowance.

I will conclude by saying that any review of the long-standing ministerial arrangements for severance pay should be done properly, with due process. It should not be done in this desperate and political fashion. The Conservatives are delivering for the people of Britain. Labour would just take us straight back to square one.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:30, 6 February 2024

I think the best that can be said for the previous speaker, Anna Firth, was that she spent six minutes and 50 seconds speaking about anything but the motion and then the last 10 seconds on severance pay. I am sure other than that she is a delightful Member of the House, but on this occasion I am afraid she did not really get there.

In supporting the motion today, I want to highlight a trio of payments that were made during the chaotic period in the autumn of 2022, which capture the essence of why the rules on ministerial severance were brought into disrepute during that period and how reforms can fix the problem. It is impossible to make those points without speaking about individual cases, as my right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry said from the Front Bench, and I have informed two Members that I will be discussing the payments given to them as examples of what happened.

If we cast our minds back to September 2022, colleagues will remember that in the earlier days of the premiership of Elizabeth Truss there was some turmoil in her Whips operation. Mind you, the early days were swiftly followed by the middle days, and the final days were not very far behind—and it is fair to say there was turmoil all the way through. Anyway, in those early days, three assistant Whips were sacked and three more put in their place. The appointments were made three days before the mini-Budget and they lasted just 38 days, until the right hon. Member left Downing Street.

The three assistant Whips spent almost their entire time in office propping up a doomed regime while it continued to do huge damage to the country—damage for which my constituents are still paying the price in the shape of crippling mortgage payments. In those circumstances, we might have thought that those who were appointed by the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk would have walked away from their brief time in office feeling some measure of contrition, perhaps even shame, at the role they had played in that disastrous Administration, and wanting only to apologise to their constituents for what they had done.

Instead, unbelievably, each of the three assistant Whips walked away with three months of severance pay—a £4,479 handout from the taxpayer—after just 38 days’ work. They received two and a half times more in severance pay than they were paid in salary during those 38 days. At the same time, a number of departmental Ministers received £5,593 in severance pay, compared with £2,248 for their salary in five and a bit weeks as Ministers. All that happened at a time when people all round the country were struggling to put food on the table, to fill up their car and to pay their bills in the face of a cost of living crisis that those Ministers’ time in office had just made substantially worse.

Average growth in the UK has been 1.5%, compared with the 2% when Labour was in office between 1997 and 2010. That lower growth has meant £150 billion less in GDP, £40 billion less in tax revenues for public services and infrastructure and £10,000 a year less on average per household for each of those years, across the UK. Those are the figures—the price of failure of 14 years of Conservative government. When the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk crashed the economy through her reckless, unfunded mini-Budget, it just turbocharged the damage done. My constituents, and all our constituents, are still living with the consequences of what the then Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, dismissively referred to as “turbulence”, in the form of higher food prices and mortgage payments.

The premium for economic failure, which was created when the right hon. Members for South West Norfolk and for Spelthorne crashed the economy, is still priced into markets today, and private investment in the UK is still at a record low. The scale of severance payments as reward for being part of that disastrous mismanagement of the economy is nothing short of disgraceful. However, it does serves one purpose at least: it makes the case for reform indisputable. It is a shame that the Minister chose not to engage with the substantive point about the severance payment system having been shown not to be fit for purpose as a result of what happened in 2022.

Under Labour’s proposals, the three assistant Whips would have received not a quarter of their annual salary, but a quarter of their actual earnings, reducing their severance payments from £4,479 to £454, which is almost a tenth of what they originally received and a much fairer and more sensible amount. Damien Moore was at pains to point out in his recent comments to the Liverpool Echo that the payment he received was an automatic entitlement—in other words, he was just following the rules as they stand. The £4,479 that he received—compared with the £454 that would have been due had the legislation referred to on the Order Paper been in place—really says it all. Katherine Fletcher made a similar defence to the Lancashire Post, to which she said that severance payments

“are governed by Acts of Parliament”.

Our proposal would have seen her severance payment down from £5,593 to £562, which is much more proportionate to her time served.

I am more than happy with what both Members said in public, but I hope that they accept that in no other job would the severance payments from which they benefited be allowed. That was among the questions that the Minister did not address—in what other job is full severance pay available from day one in that way, or in the event of gross misconduct? Those are the reasons why the measures proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury are so important.

The good news is that Conservative Members, including the beneficiaries of excessive payments, have the opportunity to make amends today.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point, and I want to ask him to explore it a little more. The immediate availability of redundancy payments, if I can call it that, would not be affected by the motion, so is he suggesting that the motion is not fit for purpose either?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

It sounded to me like the hon. Gentleman was defending the status quo, while we are trying to make the system proportionate and fair. He and his colleagues will have a chance to do something about this unfair system, which has been shown to be completely out of order by what happened in 2022. Those who took advantage of the rules can do something about it by voting with us tonight. Rules, to use the word of the hon. Member for Southport, can be changed, and Acts of Parliament, to use the words of the hon. Member for South Ribble, can be replaced.

This evening, all the Members who benefited from severance payments when the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk resigned can do something about the excessive nature of those payments. They can take advantage of the opportunity that we are offering and take the logical step of voting to change the rules by supporting Labour’s proposal for a fairer and more proportionate severance payment system for Ministers.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North 4:39, 6 February 2024

I begin by making a disclosure to the House, which is of course in the public domain and has been for some time: I have received severance pay in the past. I want to make that clear from the outset. I also want to make it clear from the outset that, in my respectful view, some of the ad hominem attacks on named Members of Parliament that we have heard damage the institution of politics rather than working in a partisan way. Those individuals did not do anything wrong: they were part of a system that allocated funding to them, so there should be no legal or moral opprobrium attached to them in their absence, whether they have been notified or not. It is fine to say that the system ought to change, but surely it is not fair to criticise people for being subject to a system that has not been changed.

As I said, I have received severance pay, but I served in Government roles of one sort or another for over 10 years, if one includes non-ministerial positions. In terms of ministerial positions, I served as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Minister for the Arts, Minister for Transport, Solicitor General, Attorney General for the first time under one Prime Minister, Paymaster General, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and Attorney General for the second time under a second Prime Minister. In fact, I served under four Prime Ministers in one role or another, and in Cabinet on three occasions. Should I not receive severance pay?

Bill Esterson asked where else this would happen in the outside world. Well, where else in the outside world would we have a situation where there are no redundancy arrangements, no notice periods, no contract between the parties and no consultations, and the employees—if they were employees—could be removed without cause? I am not criticising those things: that is the way Government works. Ministers take on those roles knowing that that is the position, so they should not criticise it—that is the way the cookie crumbles, and those who do not like it should not take the position.

However, there is no point in comparing chalk and cheese. The system operates in a different way from the outside world: we have a constitutional situation in which the Prime Minister, whether he or she be Labour or Conservative, has to have the right of hiring and firing his or her ministerial team. That is an essential prerequisite of the role, and the way it must work—the only way it can work—is by giving the Prime Minister that primus inter pares role, where he or she has that function.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Victims and Sentencing)

I agree with the right hon. and learned Member: Ministers should get severance pay, as I did when I was a Minister. That is absolutely right, but the motion does not suggest that they should not. He was a former Deputy Leader of the House; does he think it is right that a Deputy Leader of the House who served for 81 days should receive three months’ severance pay? That is the question that we are debating today, not the general principle. I agree that there should be appropriate severance pay, and I think other Labour Members do too, for exactly the reasons he has given.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

When one has a system in law, whether it was created 10 years ago, 30 years ago or 100 years ago, it must apply to all. If the system falls out of favour, it can be reviewed, but the example that the hon. Member has criticised is of someone who served in a role and was entitled to take a severance payment. As he himself alluded to, people in the last Labour Government received these payments; in fact, they received payments that were statistically more generous than has been the case under this Government—some £1.6 million in real terms in today’s prices. As has already been said, none of the four Labour leadership candidates in 2010 returned their severance pay; I think they were under some pressure to do so at the time, but declined. When Ministers have no contract, no notice period and no consultation or redundancy arrangements, and can be removed without cause, it is right that that is differentiated from what happens elsewhere, because there is an increased risk.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

The right hon. and learned Member makes an interesting point, but if working conditions are so poor, may I suggest that he joins a trade union?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

How does the hon. Member know that I am not already a member of a trade union? Actually, I am not, but he did not know that.

Let us talk about trade unions, because this motion is rather alien to the concept of what I understand trade union organisations work to do—indeed, I think they would be appalled by the motion. By the way, as a lawyer, I have always considered that trade union organisations are very robust in defending their own members and their legal rights. They are very robust, and they throw the kitchen sink at it, with the best-quality lawyers and the best-quality legal advice, if they think the case is appropriate. That is how they represent their members, and I think they would be appalled by this motion, because they would say that it is contrary to the ethos of how trade unions work.

If we look at trade unions, we see that they used to support Labour—they still do—in the 1890s and 1900s, when Parliament did not pay salaries to MPs. It was because of trade unions that early Labour Members of Parliament—and before that Liberal MPs—could afford to be here at all. In those days, prior to 1911, if I am not mistaken, Members of Parliament were not paid at all. When they started to be paid in 1911, they were paid £400 a year, at a time when the average salary in this country was £70 a year. Labour argued that it was right and proper that those salaries should be started, because then everyone could afford to become a Member of Parliament. However, what we have to remember—and I encourage those on the Labour Front Bench to remember it—is that that argument is inconsistent with today’s argument, because what they would be arguing for is that only wealthy people would consider becoming Ministers.

Labour Ministers were earning double what Ministers have earned under the Conservative Government since 2010, because my noble Friend Lord Cameron froze ministerial salaries. They have stayed frozen since the 2010 Parliament, which has had a major impact. It is also worth noting that Labour Select Committee Chairmen and Chairwomen and senior Labour MPs on the Panel of Chairs have taken salary increases during the course of these Parliaments. I would suggest that is also inconsistent with the thrust of the argument of those on the Labour Front Bench, because if they think it is too much for one, they should say it is too much for all.

I think there are some significant inconsistencies, and we must bear in mind that we have to serve the public in the best way we can, which means encouraging people to come to this place to serve and to do their duty. I think that Ministers of the Crown—and, in fact, Members of Parliament from across the political divide—do come here with a view to doing that, and that is why I disagree with the motion.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:48, 6 February 2024

When I saw the amounts being talked about in this debate, I could not help but think about an organisation called Haringey Giving, which does brilliant work in my constituency. It was set up and managed by residents, and it allows various groups to make applications to it. In the five years that Haringey Giving has been operating, it proudly boasts that it has been able to support 136 local grassroots organisations and help thousands of people in the community through the provision of £900,000 of funding. That is £900,000 of funding painstakingly raised and distributed over five years, and it is still not as much as the amount that this Government were able to spend on severance payments in the single year of 2022-23.

When I have been knocking on doors—in recent times I have done rather a lot of that, in really interesting parts of the country—one thing that people have fed back to me is that they do not like chop and change. The motion is not, as Sir Michael Ellis suggested, a critique of salaries for doing political work such as being an MP in general; it is criticising the chop and change of the various Governments since 2019.

At Christmas, Haringey Giving held its annual fundraising drive, with local residents and businesses all playing their part, and it managed to raise £17,000. That is about the average amount received by the 20 Cabinet Ministers who claimed severance payments in 2022-23. In fact, Sir Brandon Lewis, who has been mentioned many times today, could have kept one of his severance payments and donated the other to Haringey Giving—if he is listening to the debate, he still has a chance to do that. That would have been double the total it raised in December.

I say that because it highlights the difference with the real world and the lives of so many of our constituents. When we talk about these severance payments, it is vital to remember exactly what is happening in the country as a whole, which we see at our advice surgeries. Sometimes families come to the advice surgery and a child has no teeth; they have stubs for teeth because there have been no dental appointments. I have heard from a family who have had a pair of shoes that one child wears to the sixth-form one day and then they are available at the weekend for another child to wear to do a part-time job. This is the sort of child poverty we are talking about.

The headline 12-month inflation rate started the year at 9% and ended it at 10%, and peaked at 11% in October 2022, the month in which 38 Ministers claimed severance payments. Food prices rose especially fast, with ordinary families facing a 19% increase in the cost of their weekly shop from March 2022 to March 2023. These amounts of money really matter because they buy things like food and shoes, and they should not be going into the pockets of Ministers who have failed and who have been through the revolving doors and become Ministers again.

The average pump price for petrol and diesel hit an all-time high, with petrol rising to £1.91 per litre in the last week of June 2022 and diesel hitting almost £2 per litre in the first week of July 2022, the same week that 21 Ministers claimed severance payments after joining the coup against Boris Johnson.

Of course, there are also mortgage payments. The Bank of England base rate started the year in April 2022 at 0.75% and ended the year in March 2023 at 4.25%, with the biggest spike taking place in the wake of the kamikaze Budget. Millions of households saw their mortgage rates soar and millions more have felt the pain since their fixed-rate deals have come to an end. That pain has been made all the worse thanks to the direct actions of the Government.

So there we have it: 2022-23, a year when families across the country were struggling more than ever in the face of the cost of living crisis—struggling to put food on the table, struggling to fill up their cars, struggling to pay their mortgages and keep a roof over their heads, facing impossible choices and having to make incredible sacrifices. That is without even mentioning the record peacetime tax burden that the Government have also imposed on the country during that period.

What were Tory Members doing while all this was going on? They were fighting with each other, and scrabbling around for promotions, pay rises, severance payments and resignation honours like they were prizes in a game show. During that disastrous year for the country, their only priority was looking after their own backs and filling their own boots. I hope that this evening they will think about their constituents struggling to make ends meet, and all the charities in our constituencies who work for every penny they raise. They should think about people at the Haringey Giving scheme scraping and striving to raise a few thousand pounds. They should show a bit of contrition and vote to let these reforms proceed.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 4:54, 6 February 2024

It has been an absolutely fascinating debate, and I am grateful to Emily Thornberry for proposing this motion, because it has given us an opportunity to explore what responsible government really is. I will tell the House what it is not: it is not about creating one-paragraph legislation to get a soundbite on this evening’s news. One need only listen to the debate that we have had to see how the current drafting of the motion is totally inappropriate. It makes only one recommendation. It states that retiring Ministers should

“receive an amount equal to one-quarter of their earnings over the previous 12 months as a Minister, minus any period covered by a previous severance entitlement, where that is lower than an amount equal to one-quarter of the annual salary paid to that Minister before their departure”, but that applies only to those under the age of 65. However, in this relatively empty Chamber we have heard several suggestions as to why that is inappropriate—whether it does not go far enough or it is missing important additions.

This is a serious issue and an area that could do with review. My right hon. Friend Esther McVey suggested from the Front Bench that the Government are open to reviewing it, but this is absolutely not the right way to do it, as this debate has demonstrated, and we need only look at the contribution from Lloyd Russell-Moyle. He fairly raised the issue of the prime ministerial pension or severance payment, which continues beyond the moment of retirement. It is not just a one-off payment, but continues for the rest of his or her life, as I understand it. That is a perfectly proper area for review, although it is not mentioned in this motion.

Bill Esterson made the very good point—I intervened on him at the time—that the entitlement comes from day one. Is that reasonable? My hon. Friend James Sunderland recognised that there is a contradiction. Those under the age of 65 are entitled to these severance payments, but times have moved on; we work much later, and the retirement age is rising to 67 and then to 68. There was an article in The Times just yesterday suggesting that in future years it might rise to 71, yet the legislation has this arbitrary figure of 65—why? That is a perfectly reasonable area to explore as part of a wider review of a piece of legislation that is perhaps coming towards the end of its natural life and needs to be reviewed. This motion, however, is not the way to do it.

Labour Members cobbled together this drafting last night when they were thinking, “What’s a good wheeze that we can have to create a soundbite or a bit of a line in our social media content this evening, saying ‘Conservatives vote against…’?” That is not legislation, and in my submission it is particularly inappropriate to use the exceptional mechanism of disapplying Standing Order No. 14 to achieve it. There are many benefits to Brexit, but one of the costs is the adoption of this mechanism to interrupt the workings of Parliament by disapplying Standing Order No. 14. If that disapplication is acceptable in any situation, it is in exceptional and urgent situations, not to get a soundbite for the evening news.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

I am not standing before the House saying that this motion and this legislation will fix every single issue that people can possibly think of in relation to the payment of Members of Parliament in every circumstance, but it will at least deal with the situation whereby someone can work as a Minister for two months, get three months’ severance pay and then seven weeks later go back to exactly the same job and essentially be paid twice. That is what this legislation is here to stop. Surely the hon. Gentleman can support that.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

As I said at the start of my speech, there are elements where there is genuine cause for review, but if we followed the right hon. Lady’s train of thought, we would have thousands upon thousands of one-paragraph Acts clogging up the legislation. We need to do better than that. With responsible government, which is what we on the Government Benches try to focus on, we review appropriately, we use advice from civil servants and then we propose legislation.

Beyond the poverty of Labour’s motion drafting, there is the wider issue of ministerial pay and value for money. As my hon. Friend Anna Firth pointed out in her good speech, when the Conservatives came to power in 2010 as part of the coalition, it was not a case of just accepting what had gone before. The Government, under the leadership of David Cameron, cut ministerial salaries by 5%. More importantly, every single year since then—throughout the coalition period and the Conservative Government period—ministerial salaries have been frozen.

Let us look at value for money and the difference we get between a Labour Administration and a Conservative one. I see the Labour Whip, Gerald Jones, is in his place. In 2010, under Labour, he would have benefited from a salary of £40,926. [Hon. Members: “He doesn’t get anything.”] Under the Conservatives, that equivalent position—if he were in government—receives a salary of £17,917.

For Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Labour Members paid themselves £48,270 in addition to their parliamentary salaries. Under the Conservatives, that has been reduced, in modern terms, to £22,375. At Minister of State level, under the Conservatives they are paid £31,680; under Labour, they paid themselves the equivalent of £63,594—they would have had no trouble with their mortgage payments. Cabinet Ministers under the Conservatives are paid an additional £67,505; Labour thought it appropriate to pay theirs £122,598. We have heard how Liam Byrne said there was no money left, and now I am beginning to understand where it all went.

We come to the position of Prime Minister. This Prime Minister is paid an additional £75,440. Labour Prime Ministers think it appropriate to pay themselves £204,329, in today’s money, on top. When we add the Pensions Increase (Pension Scheme for Keir Starmer QC) Regulations 2013—Keir Starmer has his own special pension arrangements from his work as Director of Public Prosecutions, disapplying any lifetime allowance for him, not for anyone else—to £204,329 for being Prime Minister, plus his MP’s salary of £86,584, it is no wonder he votes Labour. He can afford to be a socialist.

The question for Labour is, will it commit today to continue the freeze on ministerial salaries? The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury was asked that by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, and she was unable to answer it. I gave her the opportunity again to answer it, and she refused. If she does not know the answer, perhaps she can write to me.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

I don’t know the answer—I am doing this debate.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

Why can she not commit to that?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. [Interruption.] He absolutely is. Would he like to comment on Labour Members’ conversion on the road to Damascus, with their sudden desire to tackle something they had 13 long years to do? Not only did they not do it, but they went on to add to the system.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I am grateful for that intervention. It was mentioned earlier—once, if not twice—that in 2010 the Labour party leadership candidates were invited to return their severance payments, having refused to do so. The suggestion that they should was described, on behalf of the Labour party, as “pathetic”.

This motion is half-baked. We have seen over the course of a couple of hours a number of interesting suggestions that could apply to potential legislation in this event. It is clearly an improper use of the disapplication of Standing Order No. 14. Look at the Labour Benches: if it such an emergency, why are those Benches so bare? Even Labour Members of Parliament do not think that this is urgent. I have no hesitation in voting against this motion and I invite everyone else to do the same.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 5:05, 6 February 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Jerome Mayhew in this debate, which—I have to take issue with the Minister on this—is important. It is an opportunity for which I thank the Labour party. I do not mean it is an opportunity to throw criticisms at Ministers who were sacked—all 147 of them, I think it was, in one year. It is not an opportunity to do that because, as Emily Thornberry pointed out, a lot of them did actually hand back the money they were given; nor is it an opportunity to throw brickbats at the Labour party and say, “You didn’t do this while you were in government, and you think this about ministerial salaries.”

Above all else, this debate is an opportunity to say to the constituents out there who come to us every week—who are struggling to pay their mortgages and rents; who have been made redundant and do not have another job with another salary that they can fall back on when they get redundancy payment—that we appreciate what is happening. This was a terrible period for the country. It was chaotic; it cost a fortune. We are looking at preventing it from ever happening again. That is what today should be about: putting ourselves in the place of those constituents and thinking what they might be thinking watching this debate right now.

I have to say, I am acutely aware that my constituents are probably watching and saying to themselves what quite a few people have said to me over the years—I am sure this has been said to many other Members present too—which is that too many of us are only in it to line our own pockets. We have sat here today and debated redundancies for Ministers and complained about ministerial salaries in a country facing a cost of living crisis, where people cannot pay their energy bills. I am sorry if it sounds like I am taking a schoolmarmish attitude to this matter, but I am slightly embarrassed that any of us could think that this subject is not worth reviewing.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

The hon. Lady makes some powerful points—I hope I made similar points clear in my speech—but given her views on the cost of living crisis, does she agree that the freeze on ministerial salaries should be maintained into the future?

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am actually more concerned with redundancy payments, which this debate is about. The level of ministerial salaries is something that should be debated on its own, and should be the subject of regular review. What pains me is that I have constituents who, when they are made redundant and get the statutory minimum, have nothing to fall back on. When Ministers are sacked for incompetence, they still have the salary for the job they are actually sent here to do, which is to serve as a Member of Parliament. They have the privilege of serving as a Member of Parliament; they then get paid more for the extra privilege of being a Minister. I think a lot of the public watching this debate today will be asking, “They get a salary for being a Minister? They get redundancy payments for being a Minister?”

We need to think about this very seriously. We need to think about what our constituents will be thinking. I do not want to throw brickbats at individuals, but I will just take one example very briefly: when Elizabeth Truss resigned as Prime Minister, her golden goodbye was more than the minimum salary in this country. It would have gone a long way for a lot of families. We should be thinking about what those families think about that, not what we think about or whether the Labour party or the Conservative party is wrong, or the SNP—frankly, we should not take any lectures on financial probity from that party.

We should be thinking about what our constituents think. For many, it would have felt like a kick in the teeth. They could not pay their mortgage and they were struggling to pay for their children. They saw—this is not my judgment, but theirs—dozens of Conservative MPs raking in thousands of pounds in severance pay, completely down to the chaos that the Government caused during a cost of living crisis. To our constituents, it would have felt like taxpayers’ money was paying for the revolving door of Ministers. In their view—and mine—the Conservatives trashed the economy, but our constituents were paying for it.

That is why these payouts have to stop. I completely respect the Members who have paid them back—we should recognise that that was the right thing to do. They should be stopped because, as has been said several times today, the legislation was introduced in 1991. It could have taken no account of the sort of situation that we would see in 2022-23, because it is beyond anyone’s imagination that such a situation would have arisen—we did not take account of it when it happened. Today we have an opportunity to rectify that. We have an opportunity to say that there was a unique set of circumstances that the 1991 legislation did not foresee. We can have a review and we can look at it, but we need to recognise that when millions of families in this country were at their lowest point, they looked at the television and saw Ministers who had worked for a few days, and been sacked for incompetence or falling out with the boss, getting thousands of pounds more, when they got nothing.

The Liberal Democrats have proposals. There should be a major overhaul of ministerial severance pay. MPs who have resigned, for breaking the ministerial code in particular, should not be able to claim severance pay. Ministers should have to serve in post for a reasonable period of time, and payouts cannot be claimed if they are reappointed to the Government within a year. None of that is unreasonable. More than anything else, it would give us the opportunity to go out there and look our constituents in the face and say, “No, we are not in it to line our own pockets, we will not take anything that we don’t deserve, and we will not take for granted the privilege of being here and expect more than you think we deserve.”

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections) 5:13, 6 February 2024

If damaging the economy and people’s living standards, as well as degrading our health service, councils and other public services, were not enough, this Government have also enriched themselves and cost the taxpayer close to £1 million as a result of their sheer incompetence and infighting. We have found out that Ministers—some of whom were in post for only a matter of weeks, faced serious accusations or were ineligible through age—have received handsome sums of taxpayers’ money.

The question on my lips, and no doubt the lips of many of our constituents, is: why are Ministers given such special treatment? Just one day in post as a Cabinet Minister entitles an individual to £16,876 as a severance payment. For one day in the job for a Minister of State, it is £7,920. One day as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State gets them £5,594. These are vast sums of taxpayers’ money available only to a select few, and they come with absolutely no caveats for performance, conduct or length of service.

We do not disagree with the principle of loss of office payments to Ministers; like all workers, they should be entitled to some form of payment in the event of suddenly losing their job and income through no fault of their own. However, I suspect many of my constituents will not have much sympathy for that, given that those in such a position will still have their MP’s salary to fall back on, and we know that some Members have other sources of income. Those salaries are well in excess of what most of our constituents earn. Being a Minister is not easy, I am sure, but that should not distract from the fundamental issue that the treatment given to those in governmental positions is completely different from that given to the wider public—even the members of the public working in the very same Departments that those Ministers serve.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Victims and Sentencing)

One person who cannot fall back on their MP’s salary is Peter Bone, who was the Deputy Leader of the House for 81 days and received a redundancy payment, even though he is over 65, of £5,593. He is no longer the MP for Wellingborough, but should we not be told whether he has paid the money back, not least because there is to be a by-election in that constituency in a few days’ time?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that very good point. I am sure Peter Bone’s former constituents, many of whom will have had calls from the Department for Work and Pensions when benefits overpayments were made and they had to pay them back, will expect him to have done exactly the same as they had to do. It is clearly a matter of public interest.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Does my hon. Friend agree that people who have £1,000 to make a bet—on anything—may be a bit out of touch with how most people live their lives in this day and age?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

Yes, anyone who can afford to wager that sort of sum on anything, never mind a matter as important as national public policy, does not experience the lives most of our constituents live.

In the 2022-23 financial year, four Ministers left office after facing allegations of misconduct or for breaching the ministerial code. Two received the full severance payment, one selected a reduced payout, and another turned it down altogether, but regardless of the circumstances of their dismissal, they were entitled to those payments as a right. All those forced out of their position while facing allegations of misconduct or falling below expected standards were entitled to payments totalling tens of thousands of pounds. That only half of them took the money is immaterial; what is at issue is the principle that those individuals had an entitlement that no one outside Government has access to.

In any other workplace, an employee against whom gross misconduct allegations are upheld would surely expect to be dismissed immediately without pay. Likewise, if they had been found to have acted in a way that was below the standards expected of them, they would be liable to dismissal with no automatic right to compensation. In the real world, the only protection offered to an employee who has been dismissed for reasons other than gross misconduct is a statutory notice period, which that employee still has to work—unlike Ministers, who do not have to work a notice period—and the notice period is just one week until an employee has two years’ service. In stark contrast, Ministers have, from day one, minute one, an automatic entitlement on dismissal to a quarter of their salary without even having to work any notice period. Those are day one rights that most people can only dream of having.

The evidence is clear when we look at the eyewatering sums Ministers have gobbled up, in some cases qualifying for them after only a matter of weeks’ service. Our analysis finds that a total of 57 Ministers were in post for less than three months before taking their ministerial severance payment. To put it another way, they were able to cash in on their party’s chaos and receive more money in severance pay than they earned doing the job in the first place. I will say that again, because I find it absolutely staggering: 57 Ministers got paid more for leaving the job than they were paid for doing it. That sums up what a shambles the last few years have been.

The story does not end there though. There are now nine former Ministers who spent a grand total of just 37 days as a Minister in their whole career, all within that disastrous 44-day lettuce premiership, which we are still feeling the effects of. When they were effectively sacked by the current Prime Minister, they were all allowed to pocket £5,593—not far off three times the amount they earned actually doing the job. A Government who hit the pockets of millions of Britons with their unfunded tax cuts also hit the public purse with these giveaways.

In the real world, thanks to this Government’s lack of regard for workers’ rights, an employee has to be in a job for two years before they get any kind of compensation. That is an outrageously long period. In addition, for ordinary people, after two full years of continuous service, the redundancy payment is modest compared with what Ministers can expect. Depending on the age of the individual, between eight and 12 years of continuous service are required to entitle them to 12 weeks’ redundancy pay, which is the equivalent of what Ministers are entitled to no matter how long they have served. It is galling that Ministers who had served for a matter of weeks were able to claim a level of payment that it would take those relying on statutory protections up to 12 years to accrue—and let us not forget that if this is someone’s only wage, the commitments made on the back of it are likely to be substantial, which means that the sense of jeopardy if things go wrong is palpable and the consequences of failure are real. The deal offered to Ministers who are effectively made redundant has none of those strings attached.

I think it abundantly clear that the generosity of the 1991 Act has been tested beyond breaking point over the course of the past two years. I cannot believe that when the Major Government introduced the Act, they ever thought we would have such a rapid turnover of Ministers—it is hardly a basis for good government—but, as we know, many conventions have been tested to the limit in recent years.

At the time of its introduction, the condition in the rules that outgoing Ministers can only receive the payment if they do not return to the Government within three weeks was probably seen as an extremely unlikely scenario—after all, ministerial appointments are not meant to be a carousel—but we now know that 20 Ministers decided to take, and keep, their severance payments despite finding themselves returning to a Government role within three months of their initial departure, and some returned even more quickly than that. It just shows how much the Tories love fire and rehire, although in the real world the worker does not become thousands of pounds better off as a result. Perhaps Ministers think that everyone gets thousands of pounds for no reason when fire and rehire happens to ordinary people. That, I think, is the only possible explanation of why they allow that outrageous practice to continue.

This money merry-go-round is self-evidently against the spirit of the “loss of office” system and the original Act. The severance payment is designed to help an individual to make the financial transition after being in the Government, not to be effectively a bonus for Ministers who are temporarily out of the fray. Those who drew up the rules simply could not have foreseen the level of chaos to which the Government have subjected us. It is hard to escape the feeling that there is a profound injustice in the system and the way in which it was exploited in 2022. Nearly £1 million of public money was handed out in the form of severance payments during that year, a figure which, had the reforms that we are proposing today been in place, would have been reduced by 40% to just over £550,000.

I return to the question “What makes a Minister so special?” Are a couple of weeks of being a Minister equivalent to the eight or even 12 years’ service that our constituents would have to give to receive the same level of payment? I think we can all agree that that should not be the case. This is not just about levelling down Ministers’ payments; it is about improving workers’ rights, and our new deal for working people will transform working conditions for everyone in the country.

I want to make a point, which I think is important, about the lack of transparency surrounding these payments. My hon. Friend Kevin Brennan has already mentioned the payment to the former Member of Parliament for Wellingborough. I accept that this has been the case for many years, but we only find out what payments have been made by a particular Department when it publishes its annual report for the preceding financial year, which Departments are not required to do until 31 January in the subsequent financial year. Anyone who has recently filed a self-assessment tax return will note that the annual reports work on exactly the same timetable. By 31 January, people must report on what their financial situation was at the end of March in the previous year—although I suspect that Departments do not experience the frustration experienced by my constituents who wait for hours on end to speak to someone at the end of the HMRC helpline.

The reason it is only today that we are debating the final severance bill of £933,000 is that we only learned about the final group of payments last week, when the Department of Health and Social Care published its report adding another £41,000 to the total. However, this also means that we are eight weeks away from the end of the 2023-24 financial year, and we do not yet know whether a single severance payment has been claimed by any of the Ministers who left their jobs in that year.

We know that several Cabinet Ministers have had to resign in disgrace or have been sacked, but we do not know whether their bad behaviour was rewarded in the same way as other Ministers’ actions. What we do know is that the last reshuffle, in November 2023, created a theoretical severance entitlement of £112,000, although we do not know how much of that was claimed or by whom—and here is the crucial point: as things stand, we are not entitled under law to be told any of the answers to those questions until 31 January 2025, which is, of course, beyond the final date by which a general election must be held. In other words, a number of former Ministers will be standing for re-election but taxpayers will not have the right to know what severance payments they received over the previous year. If we cannot even have transparency, we ought to at least have some reform.

The frequency of reshuffles over the past few years has taken the idea of Government instability to a new level—a level that frankly makes a mockery of us all—and when that absurdity not only has no negative consequences for those in charge but sees them rewarded for their misdemeanours, it is little wonder that so many members of the public look at this place and think it is inhabited by people who are totally out of touch with reality. A Minister losing their job has none of the risk attached to it that many of our constituents face every day, including the uncertainty of not knowing whether they will be given enough hours next week to put food on the table because they are on a zero-hours contract, the risk that because they are in bogus self-employment they have no comeback if they have a dispute with the company, and the fact that they have to be in a job for two years before they get any protection against unfair dismissal.

Precariousness, risk and uncertainty are the defining characteristics of work for too many, but the defining characteristic of Ministers’ jobs is reward, and this reward comes whatever the length of service and whatever the reason for their departure. That is why so many of my constituents feel that there is one rule for the elite and another for everyone else. We know that in most workplaces if you break the rules you are out, with no compensation. Here, if you break the rules, you might be out, but you might be back again a few weeks later, but either way you still win because you can expect a handsome payoff, no matter the reason for your departure. We have a Government who are literally rewarding bad behaviour. It is no wonder so many people look at this place and think politicians have no understanding of how the real world works. It is about time we refreshed the way we do politics and put the service of the public ahead of the service of ourselves.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 5:26, 6 February 2024

I am pleased to add to the important points that have already made by my right hon. and hon. Friends and thoroughly ignored by Conservative Members. I want to look specifically at the proposed reform relating to how the severance payment should be calculated for outgoing Ministers.

When the rules were introduced, I am confident that the expectation was that any individual claiming three months of severance pay would almost certainly have served a decent length of time in that post. In fact, to be sure of that, I looked back at the Second Reading debate of the Ministerial and Other Pensions and Salaries Bill 33 years ago this week. I was struck by the words of Joe Ashton, the legendary Labour MP, who was unhappy at the idea that a Minister could receive three months’ severance after

“having had possibly only two years in a ministerial job.”—[Official Report, 31 January 1991;
Vol. 184, c. 1147.]

Only two years in a ministerial job! Can you imagine if Joe had known that, 33 years on, Members in the Whips’ Office would be claiming three months’ severance after just 38 days in the job? It is daft, it is wrong and it is a betrayal of the people who send us to this place. Can you imagine if we had told Joe that Cabinet Ministers would be claiming almost £17,000 each after just nine weeks as a Secretary of State?

I have no doubt that if the MPs who agreed those rules in 1991 had known how they would be abused three decades later, they would have designed the rules differently, and I am confident that those rules would have looked something like the proposals before us today. First, this reform would say to a Minister, if you have served only a few weeks on the Front Bench, your severance will be calculated at a quarter of a few weeks’ salary, not a quarter of a full year’s salary. That is clear, sensible and fair. Secondly, when a Minister has served most of the year at junior level but has been elevated to the Cabinet for a few weeks, this reform would say that their severance should be calculated as a quarter of their actual earnings over the past year, not a quarter of just their final annual salary. Again, that is clear, sensible and fair.

Critics of these changes might argue that what happened in 2022-23 was a one-off and does not warrant wholesale changes in the rules. They might say that Joe Ashton did not envisage Ministers claiming three months’ severance after less than three months’ work, but he also did not envision there being three different Prime Ministers in the space of 16 weeks. Abnormal circumstances produce abnormal results. I accept that, but once a loophole in the rules is revealed, the loophole ought to be closed, and when that loophole is as grossly abused as we have seen in the last financial year, we have an absolute duty to act on it. We owe that to the British taxpayer, and we owe it to our predecessors in this House, to Joe Ashton and all those who could never have contemplated that the law they passed in 1991 would be used, or even abused, in this way. As Christine Jardine made clear, Ministers do not lose their day job when they are sacked or decide to resign. They still have their £86,000 a year salary as a Member of Parliament, and surely that is enough.

I am fully behind this motion, but I feel it could have gone a little further on the related issue of the public duty costs allowance paid to former Prime Ministers after their departure from office. My hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle raised this earlier but, for those unfamiliar with the allowance—I hope nobody in the Chamber is, but the vast majority of taxpayers in my constituency and around the country will be—the current rules stipulate that, when a Prime Minister leaves their post, they are entitled not just to a one-off severance payment of almost £19,000 but to a payment of £115,000 every single year for the rest of their life, to assist them in their future work.

Mark Pritchard challenged my right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry on whether she would remove from former Prime Ministers the money for their security. No Opposition Member would do so, but the House will be interested to know that the Government website has something to say about this:

“these costs can include managing an office…handling correspondence as a former Prime Minister;
and support with visits and similar activities. The allowance is not paid to support private or parliamentary duties, nor is it used for security purposes.”

Agreeing with us would therefore not be a problem for the right hon. Member for The Wrekin.

As with the severance payments we are debating today, it does not matter how long someone has served as Prime Minister, and it does not matter the circumstances under which they depart. The law says that, once they have held that position, the public duty costs allowance is theirs for life, which has, of course, left us in the frankly ridiculous position where the former Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip is able to claim the allowance despite bringing disgrace to his office and shame on this House, and where Elizabeth Truss, who I have informed, will receive £115,000 a year from the taxpayer towards her public duty costs after spending just seven weeks in the job. That is £3,200 a year, every year of her life, for each day she spent in office. The expression she made famous in relation to the high level of fruit and cheese imports is very apt: “That is a disgrace!”

The right hon. Lady is relatively young, and I wish her a long life, but she could end up taking millions from the taxpayer over the next three, four or five decades. Yes, that is a disgrace. There is no public scrutiny of this allowance, unlike for our office costs allowance, which can be claimed in addition to this huge sum of money. To my mind, both former Prime Ministers have brought the public duty costs allowance into disrepute, just as surely as some of their colleagues have brought severance payments into disrepute. I think there is a strong case for reforming both systems, rather than just the latter.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 5:33, 6 February 2024

It is my birthday today, and I can think of no higher honour on this day than being called to speak in the House of Commons. I consider it an enormous honour to serve as the Member of Parliament for the good and amazing people of Putney, Southfields, Roehampton and Wandsworth town.

I am speaking about 97 Ministers who must have thought all their birthdays had come at once in the summer of chaos, when they were handed additional sums that were excessive and undeserved. We are throwing a light on the ministerial severance pay scandal today.

This debate’s importance has been questioned by Conservative Members, but I say it absolutely is important. Indeed, it goes to the heart of our democracy. When we stand here in the House of Commons—even on our birthday—and when we go out into our constituency to ask what issues we should take back to vote on in this House, it is all based on the trust and confidence of our constituents. Issues such as the additional, excessive and undeserved ministerial severance pay bring this House into disrepute and question the confidence that our constituents have. The latest poll of trust by Ipsos showed that only 9% of voters trust politicians to tell the truth. That is the lowest level since Ipsos started asking that question in 1983, and it is down from a pretty low bar of 12% in 2022. In June last year, research by the Institute for Public Policy Research showed that just 6% of the public have full trust in the current political system. Those are sobering statistics, and it does not have to be this way.

The longer this Government cling on to office, the more out of touch they are and the more people feel that it is one rule for them and another for the rest of us. The complete Tory chaos of the summer of 2022 has had a long-term effect on our economy, with crippling mortgage bills for my constituents. It also resulted in a summer of huge payoffs for Ministers who waltzed in and out of office, having done very little, because they did not have the time and ability to do much. They picked up not only extra pay for that time in office, but then the severance pay.

Let me give a real-world example now. I have been campaigning for a long time for my constituents on the cladding crisis. All through that summer, that issue was, in effect, put on hold because there were only temporary Ministers in place; they knew they would not be in power for very long, so they could not make any decisions. A whole summer was lost on an issue of huge importance to my constituents. So we are not just dealing with an abstract issue about pay and conditions, because that summer of chaos has had real-world consequences.

I thank my right hon. Friend the shadow Attorney General for uncovering the extent of this and the fact that in 2022-23 alone, the total bill for Ministers’ severance pay was an unacceptable £933,000. Many had their jobs for just a few weeks in the dying days of Boris Johnson’s time or during the doomed 45-day premiership of Elizabeth Truss—I informed her I would be mentioning her. They received three months’ severance pay, but one returned to the Cabinet after six weeks, another after two months, another after three and a half months and another after four months. One returned to exactly the same job nine weeks after leaving, but they still received the full 12 weeks’ severance pay.

This Labour motion would stop that and reduce the amount of severance pay for serial Cabinet returnees. The amount should not be three months’ pay regardless of time served. Some Ministers served for just seven weeks and received the full three months’ pay. Fifty-seven Ministers served for less than the three months. Some have returned the money and, as other Members have said, that is to be commended. However, many have not done so, and we do not know the extent of how many have returned it, because, as has been pointed out, we will not receive the departmental accounts for a long time. Five Ministers also received a total of almost £50,000 despite being ineligible because they were over 65. Whether or not being 65 should have any bearing on someone receiving severance pay is an issue for another day, but the fact that this was delivered incompetently, as well as wrongly, is an issue.

I would like to make the comparison with Lord Rooker, who served for 26 years in this House as the Member for Perry Barr and has served with equal distinction in the other place for more than 20 years since. He is a hugely dedicated parliamentarian and public servant. He gave 11 and a half years’ continuous service as a Minister, from May 1997 to October 2008, before he finally stepped down, at the age of 67. Despite that length of service, he received no severance payment, because those were the rules. Yet under the current rules someone can be a Minister for two days and still receive three months’ severance pay. The rules were not intended to apply to the circumstances we saw in the last two years, and they need to be reformed, as the Minister said in her opening remarks. While we would welcome such reforms, we do not believe the Government are willing to undertake them, which is why we have brought forward the motion.

For far too long, Conversative Ministers have been paid off for jumping aboard a sinking ship. That is nothing short of a complete waste of taxpayers’ hard-earned money, and they have brought a system put in place in 1991 into disrepute. Labour is calling for urgent action, because we cannot afford another million-pound bill if the latest Conversative Prime Minister cannot keep his party together.

All this comes at a time when the country has been going through the worst cost of living crisis in generations. The draining of resources is simply disgraceful. I ran a community centre before I became an MP, so I think about the amount we spent on different projects and the good those projects brought to our community, compared to the money that has been wasted. There is a feeling on the doorstep that we are all on the take. The policy on ministerial severance pay adds to that feeling.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, as always. What hits home for me is the fact that the payment of some £33,570 made to Sir Brandon Lewis is almost identical to the mean average salary of a UK citizen, yet that was just a bonus payoff. Does my hon. Friend agree that is an outrage?

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I agree, as would all our constituents. It does not seem right that in many cases those large sums of money have been paid out for such a short term of service. That is not what the system was designed to do, so the system must be reformed. It is high time that the system, exposed by the Conservative summer of chaos that resulted in nearly £1 million paid out to a conveyor belt of Tory Ministers, is reviewed.

To ensure the public get good value for money from their Government Ministers, Labour is making sensible and reasonable proposals today, which should be supported by all Members of the House. Labour will change the rules so that failed Ministers who have been in post for only a matter of weeks are no longer entitled to a quarter of their final top annual salary. Instead, they will receive a quarter of their actual earnings as a Minister over the previous 12 months, minus any period covered by a previous severance entitlement. If they return to a ministerial position after three weeks but within a period equivalent to the number of days of salary they were paid in severance, they must return the corresponding amount of their severance payment. At the moment, that is up to the good will of a Minister who, out of the goodness of their heart, returns the money. The system should not be left like that—it should be clearcut.

Labour will also ensure that any Minister who has had to leave their job while they are being investigated for misconduct has their severance suspended, and then cancelled altogether if the allegations are upheld. We should not have to put forward this legislation: the reforms should be obvious and should have been introduced as soon as the system was brought into disrepute by former Members. It should not be up to the Opposition to call out the Government on the failure of the system.

Labour will go much further, if we have the honour of becoming the next Government. We will introduce an integrity and ethics commission to clean up our politics, because trust in our politics has plummeted to an all-time low in recent years. It is up to us in the Labour party to clean up politics, to restore trust and to show that it is not one rule for them and another for us. We are putting the Government on notice: if they will not clean up our politics, Labour will.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 5:43, 6 February 2024

I do not know whether I am alone in finding the contributions from those on the Government Benches rather prickly and defensive. I listened to the opening speech of Esther McVey, the Minister for common sense, or rather the Minister for nonsense today, and not only did it not touch on the motion at all—a theme followed by almost every Conservative Member who spoke—but it was simply very poor. Maybe she wanted to show her disdain for the motion by instructing her office to draft something of that quality, but I think that is unfair, because what the shadow Attorney General and others have done in preparing for the debate is actually quite a lot of detailed work about 97 members of the Government over a relatively short period.

The motion does not propose punitive remedies. The motion would simply remove the abuses from the system. It is not against the principle of severance—rather confusingly, the shadow Attorney General has been criticised for that by Conservative Members—and it addresses specific anomalies. It addresses, first of all, a mistake. To be fair to the Government, they accept that, where a mistake has been made, the money paid in error should be refunded. I think that we can all agree on that.

The motion also addresses what has been described as the Bone-Pincher anomaly, which is where there has been clear misconduct. I think it would be quite difficult for Conservative Members to defend that behaviour. The shadow Attorney General has also identified excessive amounts of pay, which is either where the Minister has served for a short period of time, or where their salary has gone up dramatically and their severance pay is based on the end salary, which is substantially higher than what it was.

Finally, the motion addresses where a Minister has been sacked or has resigned and has received their three months’ money and then is reappointed to the same or a very similar job within those three months. In that case they should not get double bubble, as it were. This is perhaps the easiest area to understand and I cannot see any objection to any of that. It is very close to being unjust enrichment in all cases, and the remedy for that is restitution. It is to provide redress in the event that one party has received a benefit from another in circumstances where it would be unjust for the recipient to retain that benefit. The donor here is the taxpayer, and the recipient, with very little excuse, is 97 Ministers.

There have not been, as Sir Michael Ellis said, ad hominem attacks. Yes, of course we have to identify individual Ministers in that way, but it is the collective system that is being criticised. Some may say that 2022-23 was an exceptional year—let us see what happens this year, shall we? We might be in for another exceptional year. But even if that were an exceptional year and the sum of £1 million, which is a very large sum of money, is not repeated, there is a principle at stake here.

I could run through all 97 cases, but I could not be bothered to email all the offices in order to do that. I was already emailing the office of Greg Hands anyway, because he spends most of his time canvassing in my constituency now—at least the parts that I am transferring to him—and I spend a lot of my time canvassing in his. I thought that I would also say that I was going to mention him in this debate. It is nothing personal; it never is between neighbours in that way. None the less, his is a pretty clear case: he backed the wrong horse when the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) was elected Prime Minister, so he lost his job. He got his three months’ severance, which is £7,920. And 33 days later, when the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk was already running out of friends, she reappointed him to her Government.

Under the system that the shadow Attorney General has outlined, the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham would have received a severance payment of £2,886—some £5,033 less than he received. Some may say that perhaps he deserved it. I am not so sure, because what that means is that whereas for the first month, when he was out of office, he was being paid through severance, for the next two months he was being paid both his severance and his salary. He was quite literally getting double the money for that period of time. The right hon. Gentleman has not responded to me to say that he has paid that all to the local Labour party or some other deserving charitable body in the interim—[Interruption.] Not a charity in law, but a body with many charitable aspects to its operation. Perhaps he has done that. I hope that all 97 will take that course of action, and I am sure the Attorney General will be writing to them all individually to invite them to make those payments back, because that is no way to deal with public money.

I am not going to go on about the right hon. Gentleman, because I think he will be dealt with by his electorate in due course and in fairly short order, and the excellent Labour candidate for Chelsea and Fulham, Ben Coleman —many of my hon. Friends have been down to support him—will be a refreshing change as the new MP. I see Edward Argar, sitting on the Front Bench; he is a resident of that constituency, and is clearly considering what options he may take when he is called upon to vote.

I will conclude on this point, because it is a serious one. We should not play fast and loose with public money in that way. We should not misuse public resources, and when—even if we could say it is through no fault of our own—we are unjustly enriched in that way, we should make reparation. That is all that our motion is calling for, and I think it is difficult on that basis for Conservative Members to oppose it. We will see, when we vote in a few moments’ time, whether that is the case.

We have heard a lot of red herrings about other payments that may be made to Ministers or MPs. However, as many hon. Members have said, if we think of our own constituents and the hard times they are going through, it does make us look out of touch if we say, “Well, it’s only £5,000”—or only £25,000, in some cases—“and I’ve done a good job and worked hard.” So have my constituents, and they are not rewarded in that way. If hon. Members could focus on that for a few moments when we come to vote on the motion, I do not think they will find it difficult to vote with Labour.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (International Trade), Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 5:52, 6 February 2024

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to wind up this debate. My right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry and other Opposition Members have laid out very clearly why we need reform and why rules that never envisioned the churn and chaos that we have seen over the past 18 months need to be tightened up.

We have heard from numerous Opposition Members and one or two Government Members as well. The SNP spokesperson, Kirsty Blackman, emphasised just how out of touch this Government are, reminding us of the stark choices that many of our constituents have to make between heating and eating. My hon. Friend Bill Esterson described the case of the three assistant Whips getting two and a half times more in severance pay than they did in salary, taking away some £4,479 each, whereas under our reforms they would only be entitled to £454. He also made the point very clearly that under the leadership of a Labour Government we had 2% growth, whereas, sadly, under this Government we have seen only 1%, which has a huge knock-on effect for all our constituents.

My hon. Friend Catherine West also made reference to the hardship faced by her constituents, who are being hammered by record peacetime tax burdens, and called for some contrition from Tory Ministers. My hon. Friend Justin Madders pointed out the anomaly that, under the current system, for just one day in the post of Secretary of State, an MP can receive some £16,000 in severance pay. That is why reform is really needed. He contrasted that with his expert knowledge of what ordinary people can expect in terms of statutory redundancy pay, and the horrible shadow of zero-hours contracts, where people often worry whether they will have enough hours to make ends meet.

My hon. Friend Alex Cunningham pointed out that MPs such as Joe Ashton were even questioning back in 1991 whether a full 13 weeks’ severance should be payable for just two years. He would certainly be astounded about MPs taking ministerial severance pay after just a few weeks.

My hon. Friend Fleur Anderson pointed out how nothing got done in the summer of 2022 about matters of immense importance to her constituents, such as cladding. As she reminded us, Labour has full plans, if in government, for a proper ethics and integrity commission to clean up politics.

My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter made a strong case for reform, illustrating it with the case of Greg Hands. Christine Jardine reminded us that there is genuinely a valid case for proper reform of ministerial severance pay, especially with the rapid turnover in ministerial posts, as constituents are paying for the way in which the Tories have trashed the economy.

Now, as a former teacher and examiner, I must say to those Conservative Members who spoke that not adhering to the title of the question is usually rewarded with nought out of 10. I might perhaps give Anna Firth one out of 10, and Sir Michael Ellis and Jerome Mayhew maybe a two or a three. As for the Minister without Portfolio, Esther McVey, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith has made it clear what we think about that particular speech. I hope that in his closing remarks the Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, Alex Burghart—my opposite number—will address the content of our reforms and not just deliver a tirade against the Labour party.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

I would be very interested to know what score she would give to each of the four Labour leadership candidates who did not give back a single penny of their severance pay after losing the general elections, and after leaving this country with no money whatsoever in 2010?

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (International Trade), Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

It might surprise the hon. Lady, but I am going to stick to the topic of this debate, which is severance pay.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury, I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Macclesfield (David Rutley) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman), and to Steve Barclay, who I understand gave back some ministerial severance pay upon taking up new ministerial posts, but it is a great pity that no other Members recognised how totally inappropriate it was to take 13 weeks’ severance pay for a post that they had held for a much shorter time than that, or to keep the full 13 weeks’ pay when they were reappointed in a shorter time than that. Today, they have the opportunity to vote to reform the system that their party has brought into disrepute.

Those in government have a duty to get value for money and to respect the hard-earned taxpayers’ money with which they are entrusted. Let us not forget the financial turmoil caused by the then Prime Minister, Elizabeth Truss, when she and her team pushed through the Budget in September 2022, ignoring expert advice and leaving people with hundreds of extra pounds to pay on their mortgages—and not just for a couple of months, but for years to come. From this Conservative Government, we have had not just higher mortgages but higher rents, rampant inflation, a real cost of living crisis causing people up and down the country to struggle to make ends meet, and, of course, hollowed-out public services that are scarcely able to meet demand.

When the ministerial severance payments scheme was set up back in 1991, no one would have imagined the absolute pantomime that we have seen over the past couple of years, with nearly 100 Ministers leaving office and taking with them some £993,000—nearly £1 million— of taxpayers’ hard-earned money in ministerial severance pay. Back in 1991, the expectation would have been that Ministers would be in post for a number of years, and that those leaving under the age of 65 would receive a quarter of their final annual salary—13 weeks’ pay—as severance pay.

However, let us fast-forward to the summer of 2022, when MPs were hastily appointed to fill gaps after the frenzied mass resignations from the Johnson Government, supporters of the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk were brought in to serve during her time at No. 10, and supporters of the current Prime Minister, who resigned from the ministerial jobs to put pressure on his predecessors, returned only a few weeks later when he became Prime Minister. We are not saying that the rules were broken, except in the cases of the handful of over-65s who were not entitled to severance pay. Under the existing rules, the rest of those Tory Ministers were legally entitled to three months of severance pay at their final salary level, no matter how long they had been in post, no matter how they came to lose their post and, in most cases, no matter how quickly they returned to the Front Bench afterwards. Those are the glaring loopholes that Labour’s proposed reforms seek to close.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

The hon. Lady has referred to value for the taxpayer and the contributions of the hard-working people who send us here. Would she support the ongoing freeze on ministerial salaries were Labour to come into power?

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (International Trade), Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

As I have said, I am going to speak to the topic on the Order Paper, and I am not going to be distracted by any other topic.

If Labour’s proposed reforms had been in place in 2022, that would have saved the taxpayer some 40% of those payouts, or some £377,000. During the Tory turmoil of the past couple of years, some Ministers have received more in severance pay than in actual pay. For example, Ministers who only served for a matter of weeks—perhaps only eight or nine weeks—have been entitled to walk away with 13 weeks’ severance pay. That is clearly totally absurd and unacceptable. Labour is proposing a pro rata system, whereby those Ministers who serve for less than a full year should only receive in severance pay a quarter of what they have actually earned. In other words, if a Minister had been in post for eight months, they would be entitled to two months’ severance pay; if they had been in post for eight weeks, they would be entitled to two weeks’ severance pay.

Likewise, we propose to strengthen the rules concerning Ministers who are reappointed. Under the existing rules, ministerial severance pay is only withheld if the departing Minister takes up another post within three weeks of quitting, which covers a normal reshuffle situation. However, with the revolving door we have seen, some Ministers have returned after more than three weeks but less than 13 weeks and yet kept their full severance pay, which is in accordance with the current rules. That is another loophole that our proposals seek to close: individuals who return to the Front Bench while still benefiting from severance pay would have that pay clawed back. For example, if a Minister were entitled to eight weeks’ severance pay but took up another ministerial post after five weeks, they should clearly forgo the remaining three weeks’ severance pay, as they would of course be receiving their new ministerial salary.

Thirdly, we propose that individuals who leave their jobs while under investigation for gross misconduct or breaches of the ministerial code would not receive any severance pay unless and until they were cleared of those allegations by the relevant authority. We would therefore not be in the situation where the disgraced former Member for Tamworth, who should never have been appointed in the first place, has been able to walk away with full ministerial severance pay.

Likewise, under the current rules, the shameful behaviour of the former Member for Wellingborough was no bar to his taking severance pay. However, as he is over 65, he should never have had that payout in the first place. In fact, nearly £50,000 has been wrongly paid out to former Ministers who were over 65 at the time they left their posts. One would hope that the handful of individuals involved would pay back that severance pay immediately, as I believe the former Member for Mid Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries, has promised to do. Perhaps in his closing remarks, the Minister could update us on whether Ms Dorries has indeed repaid that money, and also on what progress has been made in clawing back the severance payments that were wrongly made to other Ministers over the age of 65. Make no mistake: ordinary citizens owing money to HMRC or the Department for Work and Pensions would certainly be expected to repay it in a timely fashion. Furthermore, I ask the Minister to address the content of each of our proposals and say whether or not this Government will support them, and if not, why not.

I appeal to Conservative Members to do the decent thing and support Labour’s reforms, and to support bringing forward the necessary legislation in the next fortnight, as set out in our motion on the Order Paper. If they do not support our reforms, we will have to conclude that they are more interested in lining their own pockets than protecting taxpayers’ money. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 6:04, 6 February 2024

I would like to begin by wishing Fleur Anderson a very happy birthday. We are delighted to be spending it with her in these conditions.

We can only imagine the scenes—the absolute scenes—in Labour HQ that preceded this debate: the heirs to Bevan, Attlee, Wilson and Mandelson wrestling with the great issues of the day and wondering what they would bring to the mother of all Parliaments for this Opposition day debate. Would it be the war in Ukraine, the future of NATO, conflict in the middle east, the situation in the Red sea, Children’s Mental Health Week, the failure of the NHS in Labour-run Wales, the collapse of Labour-led Birmingham, National Apprenticeship Week, the Mayor of London’s failure to control crime, deepfakes and the future of democracy, the strength of UK manufacturing or the halving of inflation? No, the eureka moment, when it came, was reform of the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991. Yay! They have waited 33 years for this moment, and now they are going to strike. We can imagine the panic giving way to relief as they set about handing out their lines to eager Back Benchers.

This motion has given the country something it did not have before: that rarest of beasts, that most elusive of fowl, the red squirrel or red-footed booby of politics—a Labour policy. To be fair, it is not utter chod. The truth is that the legislation from 1991 has been on the books for a very long time—a third of a century—and it is due for review, and when that time comes, it will be right to consider a number of things. It will be right to consider the length of service and severance pay, it will be right to consider those who swiftly re-enter work after a period out of it, and it will be right to consider the status of those who are under investigation when they lose their job. I say “consider” very specifically, because—as you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the whole House will know—that is how we legislate in this place: we consult, we debate and we consider. When this subject is next considered, there will be other issues that Labour did not have time to put in its motion as it was scrabbled together at the last minute.

My hon. Friend Richard Fuller asked whether there should be severance pay at all, and that would need to be debated. My hon. Friend James Sunderland asked whether the law on over-65s and severance pay is right, and that needs to be considered. A number of hon. Members questioned the status of former Prime Ministers, and that should be considered. There will be other issues—many other issues—and, as I say, when the time comes to do this, the Government will consult, consider and allow proper time for debate, not the less than two hours that the Labour motion would give for Committee stage of this legislation. It is an absolutely ridiculous way of going about trying to pass legislation.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

It is, as my right hon. Friend says from a sedentary position, amateur.

This Government are not going to legislate on this issue before the general election, not because the issue is not important, but because there are other things that are more important. It is because we understand priorities and we understand our constituents’ priorities, which was a point very well made by the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend Esther McVey. We will be legislating to support renters and leaseholders, to back a free press with our Media Bill, and to strengthen law and order with our Sentencing Bill, the Criminal Justice Bill and the Victims and Prisoners Bill. We will be strengthening animal welfare, strengthening our economy with the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill and the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, and giving greater power to our national security forces with the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill. We are doing all these things and more, because they are our priorities and they are our voters’ priorities.

We look forward to the next Conservative Government after the next general election having a chance to consider these and many other issues, but it will be done properly, not in a panicked Opposition day debate by a desperate Opposition scrabbling for something to say. As my hon. Friend Anna Firth said, this is a “smokescreen” for a lack of policy. It is a political game, and this Government will not support it.

Question put.

Division number 74 Opposition day: Ministerial severance (reform)

Aye: 191 MPs

No: 274 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


The House divided: Ayes 192, Noes 275.

Question accordingly negatived.