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House Committee

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara) rose to move, That the First Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 19) be agreed to. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the effect of the

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committee's recommendation would be to approve the publication, from autumn 2004, of information relating to Members' expenses in accordance with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The information, which would be published annually thereafter, would set out the aggregate expenses claimed by each Member during the year. Those figures would be calculated by the Accountant's Office on the basis of claims submitted by the Members. Similar information is already published by the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I understand that similar conclusions have been reached in the House of Commons with regard to the publication of expenses claimed by Members of that House.

Legal advice considered by the House Committee suggests that the two Houses could not easily justify doing less than that in fulfilling their obligations under the Act. I should draw your Lordships' attention to one point in the report. Publication in autumn 2004 would include claims made in the three previous financial years—2001–02, 2002–03 and 2003–04. The Act, which comes into effect on 1st January 2005, is fully retrospective, and, as the report states, data are retained by the Accountant's Office for three years with the agreement of the National Audit Office.

I do not think that I need to go into further detail at this point, although I shall do my best to answer any questions put to me. I believe that the method proposed by the committee will enable the House to present information on expenses to the public in a balanced, fair and comprehensive form. The alternative of requiring the House authorities to respond on a case-by-case basis to requests from the media or the public once the Act comes into force in January 2005 would be time-consuming and expensive.

Finally, I believe that this method of publication strikes the right balance between the rights of individual Members and the public interest, and that it will fully satisfy the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. I beg to move.

Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 19) be agreed to.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION RELATING TO MEMBERS' CLAIMS FOR EXPENSES

1. Earlier this year the Finance and Staff Sub-Committee twice considered the question whether information relating to claims for expenses submitted by Members would need to be disclosed when the rights of access to information held by public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 come into force on 1 January 2005; and whether the House should publish such information in advance of that date. The Committee has given further consideration to this question and now makes this report to the House.


    Background


    2. The Freedom of Information Act gives a general right of access to all types of recorded information held by public authorities and sets out exemptions from that right. The Act applies to both Houses of Parliament and specifically identifies them as public authorities.

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    3. As required by section 19 of the Act, the House has agreed a Publication Scheme setting out the classes of information which it publishes or intends to publish. The Scheme, which must be periodically reviewed under the Act, was itself published in November.


    4. The Finance and Staff Sub-Committee took the view that disclosure of information relating to expenses was likely to be required from January 2005 and favoured publication of such information before that date. However, it did not. recommend that Members' expenses should be included in the initial Publication Scheme pending legal advice on the matter which had been sought by both Houses of Parliament.


    5. Allowances claimed by Members of the Scottish Parliament are published in the annual report of the Parliament's Corporate Body in aggregate form, broken down by Member and by each allowance, in accordance with section 83 of the Scotland Act 1998. A Standing Order of the Northern Ireland Assembly provides for similar publication by that Assembly.


    Legal Advice


    6. Legal advice suggested that the House should publish, in aggregate form, the expenses claimed by each Member, broken down by the main categories of expenses, and that it could not easily justify doing less. It would still be open to individual Members to give notice under section 10 of the Data Protection Act 1998 if they consider that the disclosure of the expenses claimed by them would, or would be likely to, cause them substantial damage or distress that would be unwarranted. Any such notice would be dealt with in accordance with the provisions of that section.


    Recommendations


    7. The Committee makes the following recommendations:


    (a) The House of Lords' Publication Scheme should be amended to include information relating to Members' expenses. This information should be published annually (related to financial years), broken down by the main categories of expenses available, namely: travelling expenses, day subsistence, night subsistence, secretarial etc. costs and the costs of the post-paid envelope scheme for correspondence on parliamentary business. Since travel costs vary widely, an indication should be given of the location of each Member's main residence.


    (b) Details of expenditure on select committee and parliamentary delegation travel should be published separately.


    (c) Details held by the House of claims for Financial Assistance to the Opposition parties and the Convenor of the Crossbench Peers ("Cranborne money") should also be published.


    (d) This information should be made available before the rights of access under the Freedom of Information Act come into force on 1 January 2005. It should be published in Autumn 2004, once all claims by Lords for the financial year 2003–04 have been submitted and paid. The House should also publish information in respect of the financial years 2001–02, 2002–03 and 2003–04 because the Act is fully retrospective and records of expenses are retained in the Accountant's Office for a period of three years, as agreed by the National Audit Office.


    The Committee understands that these recommendations are broadly in line with policy developed in the House of Commons.


    8. Before Autumn 2004 the Committee will give further consideration to this matter. It will ensure that all Members are notified in person of the decision of the House and that they are given the opportunity to see in advance the data relating to their own claims. The Committee will also consider in detail the categories of expenses to be disclosed and the form in which the information should be published. The Committee will report further to the House as appropriate.

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    9. The Committee recognises the sensitivity of these recommendations. We strongly believe that, since public funds are involved, accountability and transparency are necessary in this area. Our recommendations strike the correct balance between the rights of individual Members of the House and the public interest, and they are necessary to ensure compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, I have a slight feeling that I handed a hospital pass to my noble successor in the first meeting of the House Committee, but clearly the committee has done well and made some progress, on which I congratulate it. It is quite clear—as it was to the old Offices Committee, that terrible machine which we managed to get rid of—that it is necessary for us to be open about the question of expenses because we are spending taxpayers' money.

I have just one question for the noble Lord which has crept in since he took over from me. Paragraph 7(b) of the report, on page 2, states:


    "Details of expenditure on select committee and parliamentary delegation travel should be published separately".

Is that to be done against individual Members? If so, I think that it should be made clear that they are operating on behalf of the House and not on their own behalf.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I am not sure whether it is in order to raise another point at this stage, but I should like to ask the Chairman of Committees for clarification on Paragraph 8. The paragraph states:


    "Before Autumn 2004 the Committee will give further consideration to this matter".

It goes on to say:


    "The Committee will also consider in detail the categories of expenses to be disclosed and the form in which the information should be published".

Finally, it states:


    "The Committee will report further to the House as appropriate".

Does the Chairman of Committees envisage that a further report will be made to the House before autumn 2004 and that the House will have a chance to discuss it?

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Geddes has started the ball rolling with questions to the Chairman of Committees, I have a question of my own. As I understand it, the recommendations before us are to publish details of Members' expenses by the headings—this is the important point—to which they relate: daily, overnight, secretarial and so on. As this is to be a published document, it is inconceivable that the press will not occasionally make use of it, no doubt annually in the autumn when, as the noble Lord said, it is published. That would not matter if all noble Lords were treated equally, so that a fair comparison of individuals could be made. However, I find it hard to believe that the press will not print expenses in a global fashion, rather than by heading of expense to which I have just referred, and so produce a batting order of Members' costs.

If that were done fairly, it is clearly in the public interest that daily, overnight and secretarial expenses are revealed and a fair batting order could be obtained.

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Surely, however, it will be skewed by the inclusion of travel expenses. A noble Lord residing in Northern Ireland or the north of Scotland, for example, will certainly claim more than a noble Lord living, for example, in Nottinghamshire or the Midlands. It is a truism that for any given number of days, the further away from Westminster one lives the more one will claim. We immediately see a built-in unfairness.

It is true that the Committee intends that an indication of where Members live will be given. I have no idea whether the press will use that information, but it raises another point. How detailed will the indication be? There could be security implications in this for many noble Lords. If the Chairman of Committees could answer those points, I for one would be considerably happier.


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