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Mr. Soley: I understand my hon. Friend's point, but I cannot add to what I have said. However, I remind Members that the proposal represents a radical improvement and a big step in the right direction. We must build on it, pick out the anomalies and deal with them over the next year or two.
The safety of our staff is incredibly important. The Liberal party suffered a tragic experience in that respect and, although we all think of it as a special case, we know that we sometimes ask our staff to deal with disturbed people. Over the years, Members have done research on their surgeries and I have to tell the House that people with severe paranoid disorders often visit MPs. After all, if a submarine is interfering with a person's brainwaves, who else can that person go to but his MP, who can get the Secretary of State for Defence to make it stop? We sometimes ask our staff to deal with seriously disturbed people and we should not underestimate the demands involved in such a request. That is why I am pleased about the recommendation on safety.
Amendment (o) is straightforward and Members will understand it, but there is a complication that I want to point out. I am aware that many Members employ their staff in London even though they are not London MPs, and my amendment addresses that. When I read the SSRB report, I realised that we had to make a change, but there is a difficulty which I ask Members to bear in mind.
I have taken helpful advice from the Fees Office on the wording of the amendment in order to get it right. A Member who represents a seat outside London but who employs someone here will be able to get the extra £3,500. However, matters will get very complicated for Members if they attempt to break the work up. Staff may be employed part time and I know that it is common for Members to employ someone in London when the House is sitting, but in the constituency when the House is not sitting. I strongly advise Members to talk through such an arrangement with the Fees Office first; otherwise, in certain limited cases, they will run out of money before the end of the year. We must monitor the situation closely and, if necessary, ask the Speaker's panel to address it.
I have already referred to the long-service award, so I shall pass over it. Amendment (d), which is also straightforward, would move the incidental expenses allowance up from £14,000 to £18,000. The SSRB set the figure too low. The media may want to pick up that point and say, "They are giving themselves £4,000 over and above the SSRB recommendation", so let me spell out the importance of the amendment.
Every Member is like a small company. I have tried several times to get a feel for the way in which MPs operate and almost every one operates differently. The amendment would take payment of staff out of the office costs allowance and enable us to deal with it separately. We should establish a pot of money that Members could use flexibly and, within the constraints of parliamentary duties, in any way they liked. The report makes clear how the SSRB reached the sum of £14,000, made up of the rental of accommodation plus a pot of £5,000 for
I should like to conclude by giving the House a few examples as it is a matter that has frustrated me for many years. I suspect that our constituents want their Members of Parliament to be innovative and develop new ways of working.
Soon after I was first elected, I got involved in Northern Ireland issues. During the dirty protest and what became the hunger strike, I visited some of the prisons. I wanted to visit a prison in southern Ireland which was experiencing similar problems, of which, as a former probation officer, I had some knowledge. We bent the rules slightly inasmuch as my fare was paid even though I was not on a Select Committee and I was on the Front Bench for only part of that period. However, I could not go to Dublin and visit the prison there, so we did daft things like buying a return ticket to Belfast, converting it to one that came back from Dublin and paying the difference or getting the train from Belfast to Dublin and paying the fare ourselves.
The problem has not gone away. If Members representing southern constituencies go to visit the new Parliament in Edinburgh, they can get their ticket paid, but if they stay overnight and make it a two-day visit they will have to pay the difference themselves. It is ludicrous. German Members of Parliament have all their travel paid. One of the recommendations of the Fees Office to the SSRB was that about £4,000 should be set aside for that type of travel. I have tried to deal with the issue by putting the money into a general pot. Many hon. Members have pointed out that £14,000 is not sufficient to pay for the rental of a constituency office and the telephone bill. That has been one of the biggest complaints, so rather than propose an amendment that would allow for the payment of telephone calls, as that would cause many complications, I simply proposed increasing the allowance.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Does the hon. Gentleman think that his amendment deals adequately with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale)that those of us who seek to provide office accommodation in our constituencies are meeting a huge range of costs that would otherwise be met in this building, which means that we will not have the resources for journeys and overnight stays in Dublin such as the hon. Gentleman has described?
Mr. Soley: The answer is that some people will and others will not. Some Members spend £10,000 or more a year on rent. Others are paying only £2,000 or £3,000 a year, often because they are in substandard accommodation and, for a variety of reasons, are paying below the market rent. We cannot get a typical picture, but the hon. Gentleman should recognise that the proposals are a great step forward.
I have often been praised for setting up the evidence-taking sessions. I thought that there should be more such sessions in the House of Commons. The ones on the press Bill were largely paid for, but the ones on
If people want good representationI know that they doand if they want their Parliament to be more effective, we have to pay for it. Democracy does not come cheap and if we want good-quality democracy and good-quality Members of Parliament who are well resourced, we are taking a big step in the right direction. We have not got it all right today, but I ask hon. Members to vote for my amendments and for the proposals we are considering today.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am sure that all parties are having a free vote today, so it follows that what I have to say today is in no way a party line. I have consulted my 51 right hon. and hon. Friends and have had conversations with a great many other Members, so I hope that my speech will at least be reasonably well informed.
From the previous debate on salaries and allowances I recall several high-minded speeches in which Members said that they would vote against the increases for various reasons and, no doubt, with good motives. With that in mind, when the SSRB report became available earlier this year I asked the then Leader of the House how many hon. Members, in the current financial year, voluntarily elected to forgo any or all of their parliamentary salary. I wonder whether anyone can tell what the answer was: it was, of course, a resounding nought.
Mr. Mullin: I can assist the hon. Gentleman. I took the view that I could give away the proceeds of that last outrageous salary increase more effectively than my right hon. Friend the Chancellor could. I have been taking the increase for the past five years and diverting all but 3 per cent. of it to a donations account, which I give away to good causes of my choice.
Mr. Tyler: That is admirable, but my next point follows precisely from that. I have given away between 15 and 20 per cent. of my salary to my staff. I have had to do that because, as the Leader of the House said, to do a good job of work we have needed staff to provide a service to our constituents and to the nation. We are here not only as constituency Members; as Edmund Burke said, we also represent the whole nation. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) obviously has a very large majority and perhaps he does not have to provide quite the service that I have to provide in North Cornwall, but I can assure him that in a very scattered rural area the staffing required demands a level of resources that has not been available in the past. That is why I entirely endorse the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley).
I understood the points that were made in the previous debate, but all right hon. and hon. Members will recognise that what we are doing today is not voting ourselves increases in salaries and allowances but trying to ensure
As I said in a previous debate, there are opportunities for humbug, but there are more opportunities for humbug among the media. I recall that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South was a professional journalist before he entered politics, so the proposal by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush is entirely right. If we tied our increases to the remuneration of senior journalists, I suspect that we would have less humbug from the fourth estate. They do not provide their own staff, equipment or offices. Frankly, they do not have a clue about the costs that we have to incur.
Timing is an issue. I very much regret the fact that we are debating this now rather than before the general election. I said publicly and privately to the previous Leader of the House that we should take the matter to the electorate to see what they had to say. Interestingly, despite the fact that all the proposals were in the public domain and were well publicised by the newspapers, I do not recall a single comment from any member of the public during the recent general election. That entirely endorses the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush: that although respect for the reputation of Parliament as an institution is pretty low, individual Members representing all parties have a high rating when it comes to serving their constituents. There is growing recognition of that, on which I hope the media will reflect in future.
There are still some important teething problems in the package before us, but that should not obscure the fact that we now have a mechanism by which others outside this place look at the work that we do, provide appropriate comparators and seek to make an objective assessment of what we and our services are worth. We would break that tradition at our peril. That is why I oppose the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South; as soon as we bring in different comparators, everyone will come up with something that is thought to be more appropriate. The SSRB may not be perfect, but it is certainly a great deal better than the House, in effect, contemplating its navel and trying to decide in a very unfortunate way how we should deal with these matters.