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Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr. Cook: I have already given a commitment to make progress.

Under the terms of the resolution every Member will be entitled to three personal computers, one laptop and two combined printer/scanner/copier/fax machines.

Michael Fabricant: Will the Leader of the House confirm that the IT equipment will at all times be owned by the House of Commons authorities? He will be aware that at the time of the dissolution of Parliament for a general election former Members are not allowed access to House facilities. Does that mean that desktop

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computers in one's constituency and possibly one's laptop allocated by the House of Commons authority under the scheme would be repossessed for the duration of the general election, in which case we would have to buy ourselves a separate machine?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is correct on his first point: the equipment, having been purchased by the House, will belong to the House and not to individual Members. However, it will be at the disposal of the individual Member until the end of any general election. I stress that it is part of the provision that it should be used only for parliamentary functions, not party political purposes. While it may be right that a Member's staff should continue to deal with constituency correspondence during an election, equipment should not be used for election purposes. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to see that all Members of the House are nodding sagely in agreement.

These items will be provided centrally by the Parliamentary Communications Directorate, which will also provide free installation at Westminster or in the constituency, free training on the equipment and free maintenance.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) rose

Mr. Cook: I will give way, but this must be the last time because I have already taken up one fifth of the time available for debate.

Mr. Luff: It is my understanding that the House authorities have anticipated the passage of this motion in relation to procurement and have already entered into a contract with Compaq. The Leader of the House knows that I have in my constituency a major computer manufacturer,, which makes the Vale range of computers. It was excluded from bidding for the contract. Indeed, I think that all other manufacturers were also excluded. [Interruption.] I am sorry that Government Members do not think that public procurement should be conducted openly. It should be, as an amendment on the Order Paper suggests. Will the Leader of the House give a commitment that next time there will be a full, open advertisement for this procurement process and that all manufacturers will be able to bid for the right to supply the House?

Mr. Cook: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I am sure that his constituents have heard it also. I assure the House that the arrangement has been made through standard public procurement rules, albeit by a process of negotiation, not necessarily open tender. If in future a better package becomes available, it must be considered. That stands to reason.

I commend the Fees Office and the Parliamentary Communications Directorate on the work that they have already done to ensure that we can implement the plans once we have taken a decision. We are facing a massive new logistical exercise which will require the installation of possibly 4,000 items of kit in more than 600 locations. Hon. Members will be able to work out for themselves that that will not happen instantaneously, so I hope that the whole House will understand if we give preference to new Members who have come into the House with no office equipment.

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Before concluding, may I say that I would regard it as wholly unfair if tomorrow the increases in our office costs were written up as some kind of perk? No other profession, even including—dare I say it?—newspaper editors would expect the reasonable costs of a secretary and a word processor to be treated as if they were part of their personal remuneration. Nor should MPs. Our staff are there not as a perk to us, but as a service to our constituents. We will be better able to provide that service to our constituents as a result of the proposals of the SSRB.

Although Members may differ from the review body on a number of points of detail, I hope that, in the following debate, we shall not let that obscure the broad welcome for the major improvements of the new package. It represents a radical reform of the way in which our offices are supported. It will bring our offices up to date in access to modern technology. Furthermore, it will ensure that the staff who work hard for us and for our constituencies will get a fair rate for the job. The overhaul is long overdue and I commend it to the House.

2.6 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I shall try not to detain the House unnecessarily, as the matter is one for the House and Back Benchers have tabled amendments to which they want to speak. However, it is important that I raise at the beginning of the debate the points to which I want the Leader of the House to respond at its conclusion, so that we have a record of answers on some unclear issues.

In relation to the ring-fenced budget for staff employment, the Leader of the House referred to appendix E in the SSRB report. Paragraph 3.12 of the report describes that appendix as "a possible guide". Nothing in the motion suggests that the Government have adopted the guide printed in appendix E. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the pay rates attached to the job descriptions in the appendix are in fact the rates that the Government are recommending in the ring-fenced budgets of £60,000 and £70,000? If they are, the sums do not add up.

Let us examine the recommended pay scales together with the review body's statement that such a level of staff remuneration would enable an MP to employ up to the equivalent of three full-time staff, who I accept may not all be London based. When the employer's national insurance contribution of 10 per cent. is subtracted from £60,000 gross, we are left with £54,000 net, which means that there is no way that a Member could employ two senior and one junior full-time members of staff as the report recommends. That is why I, like the Members who have tabled amendments, press the Leader of the House seriously to consider meeting centrally the deduction of £6,000 for the employer's national insurance contribution. If that is not done, the figures will not add up. I should be happy to go through the sums with the House, but if Members have a copy of the report, they will be able to see for themselves.

I refer the Leader of the House to changes made to the arrangements in the Scottish Parliament last month whereby employers' national insurance contributions are

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met centrally for staff employed by Members of the Scottish Parliament. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be willing to follow that precedent.

Mr. Butterfill: Does my hon. Friend accept that the issue is complicated by the use of median rates, which represent the middle of the band? Some hon. Members have staff of long standing who have been in the House for many years, and they will be at the higher rates of pay, especially if the Member has been here for a long time, so the adding up becomes even worse at the higher end of the band. Furthermore, the rates of pay were assessed in October 2000, so a year will have passed by the time they are implemented, and they are out of date already.

Mrs. Browning: Yes, my hon. Friend is right. I want to pick up the issue that he has just raised, to which the Leader of the House referred in respect of existing contracts that are well above the rates recommended in appendix E. Although the Leader of the House rightly said that transitional arrangements would be available, I am not sure about the suggestion that, under an existing contract of employment, it would be possible to demand that staff accept a pay freeze until the rates equalise. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is sure about that either and if he is not, we need to take specific legal advice. An employer may not be able to honour annual increments as outlined in contracts of employment because of financial constraints, but I am not sure whether we can legally demand a pay freeze on existing contracts. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reassure the House that legal advice is being sought from employment lawyers on that very important point.

In section 3.16, the report suggests that Members could also make ad hoc payments to cover research and staff absences from the gross figures of £60,000 and £70,000. Many Members use secretarial bureaux from time to time and have an ad hoc input from data processors, and even more pressure is put on the gross figure when that is taken into account. I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider whether we should have to accommodate the 10 per cent. employer's national insurance contribution in the gross figure.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): I have been trying to follow the hon. Lady's figures, and I am a little puzzled by her statement that the review body's report does not envisage staffing arrangements that can be included in the £60,000 sum. In section 5.8 on page 29 of volume 2, the review body offers four different arrangements, all of which it suggests would be suitable.

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