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Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): There is a strong case for awarding nurses and others in this category a large increase. Suppose that my hon. Friend's amendment were accepted and that those people then got the pay increase they deserved. Would it not increase people's cynicism, and would they not say, "Ah, they only got the extra money because MPs' salaries are now linked to theirs."

Mr. Mullin: I have to accept that some people are capable of finding cynical motives anywhere, but linking our salaries to professions with which our constituents could readily identify would be easier to defend than the present situation.

Mr. Butterfill: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mullin: I would like to get on.

Mr. Butterfill: But you asked for people to comment.

Mr. Mullin: Oh, well then—please be my guest.

Mr. Butterfill: Of course there continue to be many people who are prepared to give up high salaries to come here for a lower one. The question is whether there are as many as there used to be. If we are to believe the media, the quality of people coming here is getting poorer and poorer. If they are right, that may be a reason.

Mr. Mullin: I do not want to get involved in discussing the quality of my colleagues, other than to say that,

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in 14 years in this place, I have found people of an amazing range of talents and abilities. I have already done enough to hone down my vote in any internal party elections without commenting further.

If this is such a good idea, why did we not vote on it before the general election? The report has been around for some time and could easily have been dealt with before 7 June. We all know why it was not.

I tabled my amendment to give those who are against the proposed salary increase, be they ever so few, an opportunity to place their opposition on the record.

3.33 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): In both constituencies that I have represented here, I have become well known, if not notorious, for believing that our remuneration package needs to be improved, so I hope that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) will not complain if I do not follow down his path.

My points are based on my experience of having to think flexibly and laterally about how to manage on the limited resources provided by the office costs allowance. I acknowledge that the total has increased, but we need to build in much more flexibility than is found in either the report or the Government's recommendations. I was glad that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) recognised that.

The report seemed to be pervaded by the belief that we are all dreadful employers. There have been conflicting comments about how good or bad we are, but if we are to enhance our abilities, it would be better for us to get training on how to be a good employer rather than to inflict inflexible regimes on everybody, regardless of their qualities as an employer. If we had such training, we might be able to use our resources more flexibly.

In employing my staff, I have found that the draft, and very brief, job description, as outlined in the report, and the salary allied to it, do not fit with what I expect to need. We are all being dragooned into going down a route that may not be the most effective way of delivering services to our constituents and to the House. I would like the Leader of the House to clarify whether there is flexibility in our discussions with the Fees Office about both the contract and the pay that goes with it.

The Leader of the House referred to the use of consultants. In order to provide the best possible service with the limited sum available, I have used consultants in various areas, and not only in research. The right hon. Gentleman said that he believed that such a practice should be allowed to continue. Does he believe that we should be able to continue to use consultants within our staff budget from 5 July, or does he want to refer the matter to the Speaker's panel?

I know that there are various views on how information technology needs would best be provided. I use IT extensively, although anyone who knows me is aware that I am not a specialist in it. I already use three desktops and two laptops, across two staff, so the recommended package does not even meet my current needs. I have two combined fax, copiers, scanners and printers, plus one very robust printer for the vast volume of letters that my secretary has to print off. That, again, is not covered.

I understand that it has been mooted that we should be able to buy the extra equipment that we need through our discretionary allowance, but given the speed of

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technological change, upgrading every four years is not good enough. I am concerned that, because of the IT budget, our IT will go the way of our internal telephone system, which it took 20 years to upgrade. I fear that we will not only not upgrade as often as we should but find ourselves sliding back into using the equivalent of the old manual typewriters.

In order to keep my equipment going, I have my own computer consultants who provide me not only with training but with instant back-up, whenever I need it, including weekends and evenings. I am a great believer in avoiding having a monopoly provider. I hope that, out of our increased expenses, we will be allowed to keep our own computer support staff.

If the Leader of the House can give me assurances on all those points, I will be most grateful. If not, I will want to take the necessary action.

3.39 pm

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe): I rise to speak to amendment (e) on the additional costs allowance. I thank those hon. Members who have supported my proposal. I should add that I will be supporting the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), and the amendment tabled collectively and unanimously by our pension trustees, who belong to parties on both sides of the House.

We all wish that the question of additional costs had been referred to the SSRB when the other allowances were, but it was not. That is unique. The SSRB last looked at these matters in 1996, when the overnight allowances for Members of the House of Lords and the additional costs allowance for hon. Members were considered at the same time.

It may be contended that the two allowances are not exactly comparable, and that is true. One is an overnight allowance, and the other is a yearly allowance. However, the SSRB concluded that they existed for the same purposes, and made a direct comparison between those allowances and allowances elsewhere in the public and private sectors.

That comparison can be found on page 93 of the 1996 report, which was report No. 38. The SSRB concluded that the two allowances were roughly similar, as the overnight allowance for Members of the House of Lords was £74 per night, and the additional costs allowance for hon. Members, when divided by that Session's 159 sitting days, came to £76.86 per night.

The figures for the most recent year go up to March 2001, and show that the House of Lords allowance was £84 per night. I had an exchange earlier on this matter with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and the information that I have obtained from the House of Commons Library is that there were 159 sitting days last year. Dividing hon. Members' additional costs allowance of £13,322 by that figure puts our nightly rate at £83.79. The two figures are therefore very similar indeed.

The two allowances have the same purpose, as the SSRB has decided in the past. It has also decided that they should be calculated on essentially the same basis. I therefore conclude that the same percentage increase—of 42 per cent.—should apply.

In fact, the House of Lords has done a little better than that. The SSRB said that, in future, Members of the House of Lords can claim for the nights on which they sit and

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for the Sunday night before a sitting week. In the coming Session, therefore, it is recommended that, if the Lords sits for four days, the maximum allowance for that week will rise not by 42 per cent. but by 78 per cent.

Before my right hon. Friend has a slight heart attack at that, I assure him that I shall not press an increase of 78 per cent. However, there is strong evidence that the percentage increase should be the same for both allowances, as historically they have been calculated on the same basis. The current report is No. 48, and paragraph 4.4 of section IV of part 3 of volume 2 states that

It adds that, on that basis, a House of Lords overnight allowance

The SSRB accepts that both hon. Members' additional costs allowance and peers' overnight allowance have been calculated in the past on the basis of the cost of a three-star hotel. It concludes that a 42 per cent. increase in the House of Lords allowance—from £84 to £120—is right.

Hon. Members may consider that using the cost of a three-star hotel as the basis for calculation might have been appropriate in the past but that a better indication of how our allowance is spent should now be the change in rents or property prices over the years. If, over the past few years, those increases had been substantially lower than increases in the cost of three-star hotels, I might concede that my amendment was too generous. Figures from the Library show that the average rent in the fourth quarter of last year for a one-bedroom flat in inner London was £275 a week. By itself, that would come to more than the current allowance.

The increase in central-London rent levels from the fourth quarter of 1995 to the fourth quarter of 2000 amounts to 39.36 per cent. That is a period of five years, and the rise is only fractionally lower than the proposed 42 per cent. rise in the House of Lords overnight allowance, which is based on a seven-year period. In general, London property prices rose by 130 per cent. between 1994 and 2001, and prices for flats rose by 152 per cent.

Even if the SSRB were to abandon the three-star hotel basis for calculation of these allowances, and move to a calculation based on rents or property prices, there is no evidence that what they would find would force them to conclude that a rise of 42 per cent. was over-generous, given the increase in costs over the past few years.

We must get away from the idea that any increase in the maximum figure is necessarily applicable to everyone. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made a telling point when he said that we are talking about allowances. The maximum figure is the limit up to which a claim can be made, not an automatic payment made to everyone.

Some hon. Members may not claim the maximum figure for the current additional costs allowance, and they would not be affected. Others may claim up to the maximum and have no further expense, and they will not

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be affected either. However, I already know that some hon. Members spend more on these costs than they can claim. Some hon. Members will find that their rents will go up so much in the next few years, given the current rising trend, that they will go beyond the amount contained in the proposal. Certainly, some new Members of Parliament will find that property prices have doubled in the past few years. They will face a difficult problem if we do not resolve this matter.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made a very interesting offer earlier when he said that we could always refer this matter to the SSRB now. As I said then, I should have been much happier had the additional costs allowance been so referred a few months ago, along with all the other allowances.

I could have plucked a figure out of thin air for the amount by which hon. Members' additional costs should be increased, referred that number to the SSRB and delayed matters for a while. However, I think that I have been able to show that the amendment is based on what the SSRB has done in the past. Its direct comparisons have caused it to determine that peers' overnight allowance and hon. Members' additional costs allowance existed for the same purpose. In its most recent report, the SSRB states that, traditionally, it has used the same basis to calculate both allowances. My conclusion, therefore, is that it is fair to say that the same percentage increase should apply to both now.

My right hon. Friend might suggest that, if the matter were to be referred back to the SSRB, that body might find a different comparator based on rents or property prices. I think that I have drawn a fair and reasonable comparison between the allowances that I have described.

Delay in implementation of the proposal in the amendment could cause considerable problems for many hon. Members. Traditionally, new hon. Members go looking for property to rent or buy in the summer period, when returning hon. Members consider their accommodation arrangements for the next five years. It would place an unfair burden on hon. Members to tell them that nothing can be done over the summer, that the proposal has had to be referred to the SSRB and will not come back until the autumn, and that Christmas is the earliest date by which we might know what the increase is to be.

It would be unfair to delay, especially as I think that I have shown that the comparison proposed in the amendment is one that the SSRB has made in the past. My amendment is based on the information that that body has used to calculate the overnight allowance for Members of the House of Lords.

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