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3.2 pm

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): I support all that was said by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Many voices are missing from today's debate, because those involved cannot be here. I refer to the voices of our staff. I hope that at 4 pm we shall agree to move towards the proposed new system, but I also hope that members of all parties will first admit that we have been among both the best and the worst employers in the United Kingdom. I can confirm that from my experience as chairman of the staff liaison committee of the parliamentary Labour party, and from our association with the secretaries council.

Over the years Members have had the best staff they could wish for, both here and in their constituencies; yet we have consistently failed to support them by providing

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either proper equipment or proper salaries and conditions. The Transport and General Workers Union is on the staff liaison committee—representing staff of all political parties, not just Labour—and we have had to deal with cases of people whose salaries would shock most people outside.

Just before the SSRB's report, the TGWU conducted a survey whose findings are worth reading. Some staff salaries are shocking—regardless of the party for whom those people work—and bear no relation to the amount that we can claim in office allowances. As I have said, we are among both the best and the worst employers, but we certainly would not stand for some of these employment practices if we discovered them in our constituencies.

The debate gives us an opportunity to make progress. On behalf of the parliamentary Labour party, I and successive chairs of the PLP, dating back to the chairmanship of Lord Orme, have given evidence to the SSRB. At that time, in the first evidence we gave, we argued for a division between our responsibilities—a division between the way in which we hired and fired staff, and the way they were treated as individuals and employees. We argued for the establishment of a personnel department. Although that is not included in this recommendation, I feel that it is one of the issues that your advisory panel should consider, Mr. Speaker. We do need a proper personnel service to ensure that our staff are treated like normal human beings.

We also need to consider, as a separate issue, the equipment that our staff need in order to do their jobs. It has taken us a long time to reach the stage at which that distinction can be made. Many staff work, or at least did work, with obsolete equipment, because the Members for whom they worked could not afford to pay for new equipment. Conversely, many staff did not receive wage increases because the Member involved had bought some equipment instead.

All sorts of peculiar practices have gone on over the years. The review gives us an opportunity to proceed to a system that is fair to our staff, and makes us more accountable to those whom we seek to serve. As I have said, weaknesses remain; I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will soon appoint your advisory panel, and that it will take account of some of the issues raised today.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) mentioned public liability. Following an incident when parts of this building fell down and almost killed members of our staff, the Minister for Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)—who was a member of the PLP staff liaison committee—argued for the provision of public liability cover for every staff member. Each of us should have a public liability certificate displayed wherever we employ staff, both here and in our constituencies.

There are further outstanding problems that your advisory panel should consider, Mr. Speaker. For instance, our staff still do not enjoy superannuation conditions similar to those of other employees of the House or, indeed, of Members themselves. Under the current system, staff can qualify for a payment—we can claim on their behalf, but they cannot claim themselves—of 10 per cent. into a pension of their choice. That is ridiculous. If we do as most Members should do and increase the salaries of our staff each year, we must then

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increase their pensions as well—and the pension company, whichever it is, rips off the public purse by taking a percentage of the increase as a service charge. The sooner our staff are on a proper superannuation scheme, the better.

I do not want to labour the point, as I think it important for us to reach 4 pm very quickly. [Interruption.] I want to allow others a chance to speak. Let me say, however, that the voice of staff has been kept quiet too long here. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that your panel will provide room for representatives of both the TGWU and the secretaries council, to ensure that staff interests are looked after properly.

I entirely support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). As I have said, we have waited many years for this day, and on behalf of our staff I thank Members in advance for voting for a proper structure for them.

3.9 pm

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): I rise on behalf of fellow trustees of the parliamentary contributory pension fund and in my capacity as chairman of the parliamentary Members fund, the hardship fund set up to look after Members who fall into financial difficulties, or whose widows and children do so. That gives me a perspective on these issues that perhaps not all right hon. and hon. Members enjoy.

I was disappointed that the Government did not make their own submission on the issue of pensions to the review body. We fully expected that they would; I am puzzled as to why they did not. I understand that the only representation that was made was an oral one by a senior Treasury official. Hon. Members will not be surprised to know that that submission concentrated on the additional costs that would be involved if the amendment standing in my name and that of my fellow trustees were accepted. That may have been one of the things that influenced the recommendation that, sadly, the review body has made.

The review body and those who have taken part in successive debates on the issue have failed to recognise the fundamental difference between employment in this place and employment anywhere else. We try to encourage into this place people of the highest quality, from all walks of life, preferably people who have been successful in other careers, so that they can bring their expertise and make a valuable contribution to debates in this place. In doing so, we often ask them to give up extremely successful careers outside.

It is probably true that the majority of Members have taken a reduction in their income in order to be here. We all knew what we were in for, so there is no complaint about that, but the problem is that, on average, Members serve less than 10 years in this place. They have to pick up careers after they leave. Often, they serve the prime 10 years of their working lives in this place. I, as a trustee of the parliamentary contributory pension fund and as chairman of the parliamentary Members fund, have seen what the impact is on many Members who leave this place. They often do so involuntarily: they may be defeated at an election, the boundaries of their constituency may change, or they may suffer ill health.

After leaving, at least half of all Members are worse off than they were as Members. Probably many more are worse than they were before they became Members. Some

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are seriously worse off. There are still hon. Members who lost their seats in 1997 who remain unemployed. Many Members, particularly those who are older, in their 50s, found it very difficult to get decent full-time re-employment elsewhere, and have had to take part-time jobs or part-time consultancies—they have become supply teachers, for example—and are on much lower incomes than they were on when they were here. Those Members are not able to top up their pension fund to keep it at the level that they would have enjoyed had they remained Members. It is those Members whom I am particularly concerned about. They will and do suffer severe hardship.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Butterfill: I would like to make some progress because many other hon. Members want to speak and we do not have a long time. If the hon. Lady will allow, I shall continue.

It is those Members whom I am concerned about. It is that interrupted service that is not recognised in any way by the present arrangements.

Dr. Tonge: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Butterfill: I shall.

Dr. Tonge: The hon. Gentleman must surely agree that many women who have children are in exactly the same position.

Mr. Butterfill: Of course, one accepts that that is true, but we are comparing the parliamentary career with the situation of people outside. If someone in employment as an accountant or a lawyer—a large proportion of Members are lawyers—[Hon. Members: "Too many."] Still, if an accountant or lawyer loses his job, he can get employment again.

Dr. Tonge: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Butterfill: No, I will not give way again to the hon. Lady. I am already regretting having done so in the first place.

The Leader of the House said that we must look at the impact of the proposal on other public sector employment and at its costs. Almost uniquely in the public sector, our pension scheme is a funded scheme. Almost all other public sector pensions are unfunded. They operate on a pay-as-you-go basis. The Government do not provide a fund of money in order to pay them. They pay them out of current taxation.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) may not remember it, but at one time, hon. Members were paying 9 per cent. of their salary towards their pensions. As a result of that and of the prudent management of funds by the trustees, the pension scheme is and has been in substantial surplus for some years. The consequence has been that the Government contribution has been well below that recommended by the Government Actuary over many years.

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The Government Actuary recommends how much should be paid if the scheme were unfunded. He deducts from that what Members are contributing and then arrives at the figure that the Government would need to pay. I will quote the amounts that the Government have saved over the past few years. In 1990, the Government paid 6.6 per cent. less than the Government Actuary recommended; in 1992, 10.2 per cent. less than recommended; in 1995, 9.9 per cent. less; in 1996, 7.9 per cent. less; in 1999, 8.1 per cent. less; and in 2001, 11 per cent. less than recommended. The proposal would mean a 6 per cent. increase in cost—about £28 million. Even if the Government were to accept that, because of the scheme surplus they would still pay significantly less than the Government Actuary recommends they should, so we do not need crocodile tears from the Treasury telling us that the proposal cannot be afforded.

The House voted on the matter in 1980 and recommended that we should increase the accrual rate to one fortieth, which is what the trustees recommend at the moment. Unfortunately, that was not implemented, but it represents the very least that is being obtained in comparable countries.

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