Parliamentary Pensions (Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Swayne: I wish that that were so. I take the force of the hon. Gentleman's first point, but unfortunately our constituents often do not know who their MP is; that might reflect on us for not taking sufficient trouble to inform them, but most people will vote for a political party rather than an individual and hon. Members deceive themselves if they think otherwise. It will therefore always be important for someone who takes his or her political career seriously to remain in harmony with the political party, rather than with his or her own judgment, on an important issue.

Ms Stuart: Although I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis about whether people know who their MP is, does he agree that being an MP is and should be a full-time job?

The Chairman: Order. I request the hon. Gentleman to stick to the subject before us.

Mr. Swayne: I will take your direction, Mr. Cummings. I am happy to pursue the issue with the hon. Lady outside the Committee; it is an important argument but one that I am unfortunately prevented from pursuing now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West was extremely persuasive in his case that no charge for these arrangements would fall on the Exchequer. Why does not the Minister bring back a regulation that would for ever remove from the Treasury the duty of making a contribution to these arrangements? After all, as my hon. Friend said, the effects of the changes will be so modest for many hon. Members that we could perhaps wait for such an eventuality. That would, in part, address my concern about our being paid employees of the state and the concern of members of the public, even when they read misinformed reports.

11.30 am

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The logic of the hon. Gentleman's position is that we should no longer receive a salary and I do not wish to go down that path.

The personal experience of hon. Members is important in an issue of this sort, as we are speaking personally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon said, he does not speak on behalf of my party and neither do I. I speak as an individual appointed to this Committee by the House. I was first elected in 1974 with a majority of nine and it was not surprising, therefore, that I was ejected six months later in the second election that year. As it happened, I had not fallen into the evil ways of this place and become totally unemployable because I had been here only six months, so the effect on me was comparatively transient.

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The employability of those who undertake a volatile career in this place was raised this morning, and rightly so. We can all recall hon. Members of all parties who unexpectedly left this place. I recall a Conservative Member who left in his 50s, having effectively been deselected when his seat was carved up, and he never worked again. Pension arrangements then were abysmal. We should rightly take this issue into account. I very much respect the point made by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West and I shall come back to it.

There are two reputable and rational positions to take on this issue: first, the House has spoken. The House took a carefully considered decision last July. It was no less well considered than many other decisions taken in this place, and, no doubt, no better. There may have been a short debate but everybody knew what the issue was. If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman put the facts on the table very clearly. I recall that the Leader of the House put the opposite view; but the House decided. I do not think that it is impossible to change one's mind—we shall come to the other position in a moment—but it is perfectly right, if anybody wanted to do so, to insist that we go ahead with the scheme as agreed by the House. However, I equally accept that the circumstances have changed.

The other perfectly rational position is that we should look at that decision in principle and see how it should now be applied in terms that are appropriate to today's circumstances. That is the package from the SSRB, which is what it was asked to provide. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon was right: the SSRB was not asked to review what it had done before, but to take into account the decision of this sovereign Parliament on this issue and to see how it might reasonably be applied.

Several elements in the package are extremely important: the first is the voluntary element. My hon. Friend does not want to go in for the new arrangements and he does not have to. That salves people's conscience, and that is fine. Secondly, the point made by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West, which the Minister endorsed, is that contributions from Members will change the accrual rate. Thirdly, the SSRB is our outside consultant on these matters. It is wrong that the House so often has to take decisions of principle on such issues without outside advice. That is what went so badly wrong under Margaret Thatcher's Government. Advice was given on this issue—she was always going for private advice elsewhere—but she stopped it in its tracks because it did not suit her. That is an absurd position to take; either we listen to the advice of outside experts or we do not.

This is a sensible package; it has many advantages, not least the one emphasised by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West and the Minister, that there is no likely charge on the taxpayer. I would rather take the advice of the SSRB and the chairman of the trustees group, than the advice of editors of certain newspapers. If they were to tell us about their salaries and what their pension packages, I would take their advice more seriously, but they never do.

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The change is likely to be of limited advantage to many Members and I appreciate that many will not want to take up the measures. The change is, however, sensible. The principal issue that we should address—this point was made very eloquently earlier—is that being a Member of Parliament is a precarious profession. To ensure that those in that profession can, using their own money, make proper provision for retirement is only responsible. The issue is critical. Everything that has happened over the past 12 months should increase the necessity, rather than diminish it.

11.36 am

Mr. Bradshaw: Some very useful contributions have been made. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West, who has great expertise in this area, made what the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) described as a very persuasive speech. My hon. Friend for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) said, from a sedentary position, that that was because the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West knows what he is talking about. I think that the Committee will agree that he demonstrated that this morning.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West rightly wanted to put on the record that he was one of, I think, seven Conservative Members who voted against the amendment last July. Some 75 Conservative Members voted in favour, so he was outnumbered by a ratio of more than 10 to one. The majority of Liberal Democrat and Labour Members voted against the amendment—that point has already been made. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that his constituents do not know who he is. That surprises me. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North was absolutely right to make the point that no member of the Government voted in favour of the amendment last July. The House made a decision and the Government were faced with the dilemma of finding a way to proceed that ensured that no cost was borne by the taxpayer.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West acknowledged that he has changed his mind—I am not sure whether he has changed it fully—now that he is satisfied that Members will fund the increase themselves, but said that he was uncomfortable about the timing. More than a year has elapsed since the House made the decision. It is always difficult to make decisions at the right time. As the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West said, however, there is a strong argument for saying that by making such a decision and by funding the increase themselves Members are setting a good example in the current pensions climate. Many people will be looking at the state of the stock market and we all get letters about pensions and mortgages that say that we may need to think again about how much we are contributing and saving for our old age.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): May I add a point? I was first elected in 1970—I do not know where I would stand if the order were made because I am right on the cusp—and, in all the years that I have

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been here, whenever we have changed anything to do with our salaries or pensions, it has always been at the wrong time.

Mr. Bradshaw: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor).

David Taylor: Would the Minister respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Northavon? He noted that the marginal tax relief on pension contributions means that the taxpayer is, in effect, paying 40 per cent. of the cost of the improvements.

Mr. Bradshaw: That is true of everybody. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West pointed out that for the past 11 years the Treasury has been contributing at less than half the rate that it should be.

Mr. Butterfill: Would the Minister accept that any payment to any pension scheme made by anybody, whether or not that person is a Member of Parliament, is subject to the full rate of tax relief? The contributions of Members are no different from any other contributions.

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Member for North Cornwall made the interesting point that some Members outside this Committee may well object to the fact that we are not implementing their will as expressed in last July's vote, which was that this increase should be funded entirely by the Exchequer. He acknowledged that time and circumstances had changed, and the Government took a firm view that the cost should not be borne by the Exchequer but by Members themselves.

I hope that in my initial and winding-up speeches I have responded satisfactorily to the points raised by the hon. Member for Northavon.

 
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Prepared 23 July 2002