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We have to face up to the fact, which has been mentioned several times today, that there is a lack of public confidence in some aspects of the allowances system. Yes, the media play a role to some extent because they love to go on about our allowances, expenses and salaries, and give the very wrong impression about this money that is given to us each month. Of course, it
is nothing of the kind. Nevertheless, what has recently come out on what are described as second homes has understandably caused a great deal of concern. I am concerned that there has been a form of abuse, and that simply cannot be justified. The report does not deal with that. The public must be confident that the money that we claim for allowances and expenses is above board and legitimate. Except for the abuse that came to light and was duly exposed, there is no dispute about the secretarial allowancethe Fees Office pays it directly. However, the same does not apply to second homes. I happen to claim for rented accommodation. I claim the rent, the council tax and so on because the need for the accommodation arises from my parliamentary and constituency duties. I am happy for all the details to come out in October, but are we confident that everything about mortgage interest and so on is above board? Are we confident that what is claimed is what should be claimed, and that the public money that is claimed is justified? I have doubts about that, and the matter needs to be cleared up.
We are often our own worst enemies. We do an important jobparliamentary democracy depends on the House and we should receive allowances and so on that are justified. When I first became a Member of Parliament, there was no secretarial allowance. That position has rightly been changed. Many other matters that needed to be rectified have been put right. However, I remain of the view that we should be careful that, while we preach to others and set guidelines about public expenditure, we cannot be accused of abusing the system. Although I welcome some aspects of the reportthey are good and should help mattersI am not certain that it will restore public confidence in the way we would like.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): A few days ago, after the Leader of the House gave us the good news that she would table a motion to enable the privacy and security of our home addresses to be maintained, an honourable Labour Member approached me and said in all seriousness, Julian, what do you think about the prospect of establishing a trade union for Members of Parliament? I think that he had me in mind for the role of shop stewardnot quite the climactic outcome that I had in mind after six long years as a shadow Defence Minister. However, he had rather a good point because, as the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) revealed in a previous debate, no security information was apparently considered by the House authorities or put before the court before the crazy decision was made to release our home addresses en masse in easily accessible form for the benefit of any troublemaker or terrorist at home or abroad.
I did the Information Commissioner an injustice on a previous occasion because I assumed that he had first suggested releasing our addresses. In fact, the matter first arose when the information appeal tribunal said that private addresses should be revealed, and the three eminent judges, in their wisdom, upheld the decision. On 25 June, 50 to 60 Members of Parliament attended a meeting with the Information Commissioner and, consequently, he has issued a statement. I shall briefly put some of it on the record.
has consistently taken a cautious approach towards the disclosure of home addresses, whether in the context of the Freedom of Information Act or otherwise. In most cases, an address is an individuals personal data and is protected by the Data Protection Act. None of the Freedom of Information decisions about MPs expenses made by the Commissioner has required disclosure of home addresses.
if any disclosure of personal address information arising from a Freedom of Information request is required at all, it should normally be limited to the first three digits of the postcode.
it would be prudent for the House Authorities first to give each MP
the opportunity to indicate whether they have a current or prospective security-related concern... The Commissioner considers that the House Authorities would then be entitled to withhold each address where such a concern is registered.
As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out, once every four or five years we have to reveal our constituency address in the process of getting elected. But the fact that we have to do that with some of our addresses, some of the time, is no reason whatever for our having to do it with all our addresses, all the time, in an easily accessible form. Of course, if someone who is targeting a particular MP and means to track him or her down in order to do him or her harm puts in enough effort, it will be possible to do so. However, that does not cater for a situation in which someone with a grudge, someone with an obsession, a follower of a political cause or a self-taught follower of al-Qaeda, at home or abroadwho will not even have heard of most of the Members of this Housegoes on the internet, conveniently finds 646 addresses and sends 646 packages containing something explosive, horrible or, at the very least, abusive to 646 unprotected mail boxes. The proposal is absolutely insane.
Finally, let me say something to those hon. Members who are worried about what the press say about our deliberations today. This is my first experience of a total media black-out. Journalists have again and again admitted to me privately that they have no answers to the points that I have made, but time and again they have refused to put anything in their papers. Even The Daily Telegraph refused to publish a letter in reply. Could that conceivably be something to do with the fact that one of the people who took the case to court was a journalist on The Sunday Telegraph who then proceeded to write an inane half-page article about how vital it was to reveal our home addresses, to ensure that we were not fiddling our expenses? He ought to be ashamed of himself, as should the media. I am grateful to the Leader of the House, who has done her duty so well in this event.
Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab):
One of the problems with this debate is that most of us quite like the members of the Members Estimate Committee; we just think that
they are wrong in one or two areas. They are wrong in believing that their measures will do away with some of the criticism, particularly in the media, but also from some of the public. In August 1944, Gallup asked the public what they thought about politicians. Some 36 per cent. thought that they were acting in the countrys interest and 57 per cent. thought that they were acting in their own or their partys interest.
Let me deal with the issue of the second residence. I say residence, because it is important to get across the fact that the nature of our job means that, year in year out, most of us have to maintain two residencesone in our constituency and one in London. Helpfully, the report identifies the considerable costs of hotels, but even in spite of the cost, that is not a very suitable way to live, either for Members or their families. Members families have to put up with a considerable amount of inconvenience anyway. To add to that is quite unjustifiable.
We should also recognise that both society and this House have changed. As our panel said in its evidence to the MEC, this is the first time that all three party leaders have young families. That is unprecedented. Many more Members of Parliament have young families. As we saw at Easter, school holidays do not always coincide with our recesses. We see that every year in the summer, too. Often, families want to be able to be together, which they cannot in a bare-boards room.
We can see that new MPs setting up home in either a rented or purchased flat need a modest dispensation to use their allowance to equip it.
That is in the report, but it is not in the recommendations and no figure is identified, which is unfortunate. The MEC sees no justification for continuing with that arrangementin other words, for replacing that furniture or those fittings. I presume that if even a prisoners television breaks down or their bed wears out, they get a replacement. That is an inadequacy of the report and the amendment seeks to address it.
The MEC also implicitly assumes that there is one single pattern for Members accommodation, namely that they have their main home in their constituency and an additional residence in London. I see one of the members of the MEC shaking his head, but that is exactly the way in which the report is written. In fact, that is true for about 80 per cent. of us. For a variety of reasons, about 20 per cent. of Membersoften those who were Ministers before 1999have to have their main residence in London, and they cannot keep on changing their residences back and forth.
We therefore need flexibility, rather than a rigid system. That is the problem with some of the recommendations, which would create a bureaucratic, uniform system. The report talks about an expanded green bookan ever-expanding rule bookbut in a short space of time, that could grow to achieve the proportions of the tax code. That might be familiar to some of those in the Department of Resources, but I do not think that it is a sensible way for us to go.
If Members look at their own claims, they will find that the great majority relate to mortgage interest or rent, plus utilities and council tax, so we are going to spend large amounts of audit money dealing with a small part of our expenses. The same applies to office costs, because a large proportion of them is salaries. Will there be some cases in which there are problems? Yes, but they will be revealed not through an audit, not even with the £1,200-a-day PricewaterhouseCoopers people looking at the matter. They will be revealed by other discontented members of staff. That is true not only in our organisation but in all organisations.
We therefore need proportionality. All companies and organisations need to examine how much they spend on creating a system to ensure that there is proper expenditure of their money. They must ensure that this is done in a proportionate way and that they are not spending £100 in order to save 2s/6d. I fear, however, that in response to media campaigns, the MEC has gone overboard in this regard. One thing that I know about consultants is that they always want to find a reason for being employed on the next contract. If a consultant goes into an organisation and spends three days rooting around, they will end up wanting to run the business. They will end up trying to tell us how to be Members of Parliament, just as a previous standards commissioner here tried to take on cases and act as an ombudsman on whether we were doing our job properly. The process is expensive, undesirable and unnecessary, which is why the amendment is right.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): There is an immense naivety governing this debate. If we imagine that, by passing the well thought out motion tabled by the Members Estimate Committee, we shall somehow restore public confidence, or that by rejecting the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), we shall continue not to have the confidence of the public, we are living in cloud cuckoo land.
One of two headlines will greet us at breakfast tomorrow. If the recommendations of the Members Estimate Committee go through, the headline will be MPs to get £30 a day just for turning up. If the right hon. Gentlemans amendment, which I intend to support, is passed, the headline will be MPs vote to keep the John Lewis list. Whichever way we vote, we will continue to be vilified and ridiculed until we have the gutswhich we certainly did not show in the previous series of votesto stand up for ourselves, to defend the system and to tell people why we have that system.
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Speaker put the Question s necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motions relating to Members expenses and Members home addresses, pursuant to Order [ 1 July ] .
recognises the need to strengthen the system of scrutiny and is of the opinion that a rigorous internal system of audit of the Additional Costs Allowance be introduced covering 25 per cent. of hon. Members each year, and every hon. Member each Parliament; and is of the opinion that
(1) Recommendations 5 (staff contracts), 8 (constituency offices), 9 and 10 (communications allowance), 11 and 12 (travel), 14 (overnight expenses), 15 (resettlement), and 16, 17 and 18 (other SSRB recommendations) be approved; and
(2) that Recommendation 5 be implemented from 1st October 2008, that Recommendation 8 be implemented from 1st April 2010, that Recommendations 9 and 10 be implemented from 1st April 2009, that Recommendations 11 and 12 be implemented from 1st April 2009, that Recommendation 14 be implemented from 1st April 2009 and that Recommendation 15 be implemented at the end of the next Parliament.. [Mr. Touhig.]
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