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2 May 2001 : Column 904

Working Group on Provision for Former Members

6.34 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): I beg to move,

I shall be extremely brief because the motion is an initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and others, and testament to their dogged determination. My hon. Friend wants to provide means by which retired Members could, if they wished, remain in contact with one another. He is also conscious that there might be a case for modest advice or support for those who were Members and who have found difficulties, for example, in obtaining employment. The motion does not commit the House to take such steps; it merely allows us to establish a working group to consider what provision, if any, should be made and to report to the Speaker and the Leader of the House.

At present, there is no way in which ex-MPs can keep in touch with the House, and no provision for the small amount of funding that might be required. There are many routes by which that might be made possible--for example, I believe that there has been a suggestion that the scope of the Members' fund could be changed and that Members could each pay a small additional contribution to the fund. The current contribution is £24 a year. That, of course, would require legislation, which itself has some attendant disadvantages. Those complications make it clear that we need to think about these matters properly, and the motion invites us to set up a group to do so.

6.35 pm

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw): This is a rather unusual motion, and I am deeply grateful, as are the colleagues who have worked with me on this, to the Speaker, who provided guidance on how to set about tabling it, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who has been admirably supportive. The Labour Chief Whip has supported us, as have the Chief Whips of the other two main parties. Everybody has been very willing to try to do something about this serious problem.

Every MP has to face the fact that sooner or later they will no longer be a Member of this House. If the voters do not see us off, old age or the boundary changes will. That applies to me, because I am leaving after 32 years. Since 1986, approximately 660 MPs have left. Half of them retired and the others were rejected by the electorate. In the last election alone, 178 Conservative MPs lost their seats. The average stay of an MP today is eight years.

What happened to the MPs who left? Few people know. We know that democracy demands many victims. In the nine Parliaments that I have served in, there have been many anecdotes of ex-Members who have suffered nervous breakdown, divorce, heart disease, alcoholism,

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depression, serious debt and even, in two cases, suicide. Where is the evidence? It exists, but it is mainly hearsay because few, if any, losers want to parade their unemployed grief or poverty in public, especially if local newspapers have featured pictures and headlines about them, perhaps exulting in their defeat. Their children may be verbally abused in the playground and end up in tears. There are some sad, sorry stories.

The proposals came about because a couple of years ago, in response to a request from a publisher, I started to write a book of memoirs. I tried to trace old comrades and opponents to check on facts such as times and places, and I found it impossible to do so. I could not get their address and telephone number or any other information. The Fees Office and the pensions unit were helpful and sympathetic, but unfortunately the Data Protection Acts prevented them from giving out addresses or telephone numbers and even from confirming that an ex-Member was still alive. They said that they were sorry about that, but occasionally, such as in June 1999, told me that if I were to check The Times obituary column I might find the information that I sought.

I then began to try to form an all-party lobby to compile that information on a voluntary basis, but we could not get the names and addresses--the database was not available. People outside the House, such as Norman Atkinson and Frank Allaun, came to me and said that they badly needed an organisation to speak up on their behalf but that they could not get the names and addresses of ex-MPs. I contacted old friends in the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours), the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), and the hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for Southport (Mr. Fearn) and for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). I am sure that they would all be in the Chamber, had we started at 10 o'clock as we intended. Some of them had rallied round, but the earlier start has put us in a rather difficult position. However, a few have managed to make it.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): Even though I am not one of the distinguished Members on my hon. Friend's list--but I think that I should have been--I am here.

Mr. Ashton: Many people have said that; it just so happened that three Members were sitting in a tearoom when I made the suggestion, and that is how the group was formed.

To give a couple of examples, Ossie O'Brien, the head of a further education college, came to the House after winning a by-election in Darlington. He was in for only three months because a general election was held after that period and he lost his seat. He gave up a good job. The local newspaper said that it was a cheat that he should get six months' money for only three months' work; he had to face that sort of abuse. I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) today about trying to get in to the House. He had had five months in the House before losing his seat in a by-election. If, in a democracy, we want able and talented people to stand for Parliament, who

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will take that risk, especially if they are 35 or 40 and have two or three children? We should ask questions like that.Because of the turnover of Members, we do not know the traumas that they may have experienced.

The Speaker pulled everything together. Our group went to him for advice and he said that unless we put a motion on the Order Paper, we had no chance of achieving our aims on a voluntary or party basis. He said that we could not expect any accommodation, help and so on. He had had a lot of experience of dealing with his redundancy in his previous job. As a young woman, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House lost her seat in Lincoln, so she understands what that feels like. As a young woman, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), lost her seat in Bolton because of boundary changes. The Speaker and my right hon. Friends therefore had experience of what can happen to MPs and understand that it is time to set up a group.

Obviously, the group needs accommodation, clerical staff and a database, so that people can ring in and get information. It was plain that the Speaker was right; we could not expect money from the taxpayer. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that as well. However, we are not asking for taxpayers' money, even though it would take only a small sum to pay for a part-time secretary to organise the database and make arrangements. We talked to the chairman of the pension fund and other experts to discuss funding the small number of staff who are needed.

There is a Members' fund in the House, and we all pay £2 a month into it. I have been paying into the fund for 30 years and I was astonished to find out how much money was in it. However, we could not use that for our purposes; legislation is needed to make that change. We therefore got to the stage where we had to set up a working group to analyse those problems and talk to people. Members need to remember that those who are pushing the proposal will not be here after the election, as they will have retired and will have no clout or status.

Thanks to the Speaker and my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, a motion was tabled. I am sorry about the difficulty with timing, but it may be better to run the debate past 7 o'clock; I am sure that many people want to do that. I am willing to take the mood of the House on whether it wants to have a vote at 7 o'clock. However, now that a few people are in, it is as well to let everybody have their say. The matter should be discussed, as it has never been before.

We ran into the problem of a May election. It took time over Easter to organise things; we had a week off, so getting people together was difficult. A May election looked as if it would knock the proposal sideways, but we have had a stay of execution, so to speak, which has enabled us to have a motion put on the Order Paper.

In the past, the Whips' offices have undertaken certain duties. I was a Whip when a Labour Government was 17 Members short of a majority in the mid-1970s. People die; there have been cases of people committing suicide, even in the House and even during this Parliament. What a job it is to deal with those deaths. Very often there is a delicate situation in which the party wants to have a by-election as quickly as possible and choose a candidate within, perhaps, a few days of the man or woman dying.

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The family is aggrieved, and says that things are being rushed and there is no dignity or respect for the dead. It is a difficult job for any Whip to organise such things.

Even with the funerals of people who have left the House, including some very good friends of mine, there are problems. Having read their obituary or got news that they have died, I have tried to find their addresses. They may have moved house after leaving Parliament, and sometimes I have found their addresses after the funeral. However, I had sent a letter to their previous addresses or addressed it care of the House, so it never reached their families. There have been embarrassing situations at the funerals of former MPs who had not been long retired, when not one single Member has turned up. The funeral was held only five, six, or seven days after the person's death, so there was not time to get information across and spread the news.

There have therefore been embarrassing scenarios. I do not want to identify people because no doubt the media, who have already been on to me, would want to know who had committed suicide and who had had to sell their house. People want to keep their privacy; they are no longer MPs and do not want their circumstances reported. However, 1992 was a bad year for people who lost their seat because it was the year of negative equity. A lot of people who had been in the House had bought a flat or other accommodation in London; or perhaps they had taken on a long lease. They then found themselves without a job, and could not sell or rent their property. When the Labour party lost in 1979, we did a check a year later and found that 38 MPs still had not got a job.

It is not easy. If someone has been the MP for a small town and has been a well-known bigwig, to go for a job on offer at the Benefits Agency is tremendously--and understandably--embarrassing and demeaning. Such people will say that they are going to move to another town. At the last election, for the first time, a large number of women stood as candidates. Some of them won their seats, although they may not have expected to do so in 1997. They were simply going along for the experience but, lo and behold, they won a seat with a majority of a few 100 or a couple of thousand votes. A woman in that position would have had to tell her husband that they would have to move to midtownshire, for which she was the MP. They would have to move 100 miles and buy a house; the kids would have to move, the husband would have to give up his job and get a new job in midtownshire. I understand that one or two husbands have even become researchers, which may have been the only job that they could get. Four years later, however, such MPs may be out. Everybody knows that there is a winding-up allowance, but it is not much, especially for people under 50. All that they will get is six months' severance pay. It is not a happy situation.

When I have talked about that, people, especially the media, say that candidates know what they are doing when they stand for Parliament. Of course we do; we all know the old adage, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." However, in any battle, there will be casualties. Boundary changes can result in even worse problems. There may be a long, drawn-out, horrendous process of three local MPs chasing two seats; that can be worse and more stressful than an election.

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I am sorry to go on, but I have a lot to say. If the House does not mind, I shall keep going until 10 o'clock--[Interruption.] Okay, I shall take notice of the House by speaking for another few minutes and then conclude my remarks.

I have described some of the problems that we have had.

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