April 30, 2009

Members’ Allowances

Speaking in the debate on Members Allowances, John Bercow calls for the inquiry by Sir Christopher Kelly’s Committee on Standards in Public Life to consider MPs pay and the possibility of an absolute ban on outside interests.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). The debate has been good and stimulating and I want to add only three observations.

First, I note that Sir Christopher indicates does he not intend to focus significantly on MPs’ pay. He feels that it falls outwith his scope. My view is that it would make sense for him independently to consider pay, including, in the light of a series of comparators, the possibility of a significant increase in pay, accompanied by an absolute ban in future on outside interests. I think it would be good if Sir Christopher considered that.

Secondly, I agree with the Leader of the House that agreeing to Sir Christopher’ review should not, of itself, preclude any other decisions today. I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that a referral for overall long-term decision making is not incompatible with dealing with some of the simpler and urgent matters today. They are not mutually exclusive. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said as recently as 1 April that agreement on some matters was needed now and that we should sort it. I agreed with him then and I agree with him now.

My third point is perhaps an illustration of the second‚Äîthat there are some matters on which we can act immediately. A case in point is the requirement to disclose much more information about outside interests. That is a compelling point. I declare an interest‚ÄîI have one outside interest, which is listed in the register, but I am entirely open to the view that thou shalt declare more about it, and answer questions such as the following: “What exactly do you do? When were you appointed? What is your role? How long do you devote to it? How frequently do you visit the company concerned?” That seems perfectly reasonable. I acknowledge that there are those who believe it legitimate to spend day upon day or week upon week away from the House, earning vast sums of money, and that the public should not be entitled to know about it. They are entitled to that view, but I disagree with it.

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John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What my hon. Friend quoted from the comments of the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) in the Evening Standard is doubtless true, but I hope that, in a public-spirited and cross-party way, he will be willing to concede that what is said of the Prime Minister’ attitude has also been true of previous Prime Ministers, and it is also true‚Äîthis is absolutely critical‚Äîof current party leaders. As long as these matters are driven by people who have inherited or earned wealth, or much higher salaries than those of Back Benchers, it will be difficult to make progress other than by an independent review.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Alan Duncan: Hold on—I have to answer my hon. Friend first.

I think that if my hon. Friend studies the record, he will see that I attributed the same difficulty to former Prime Ministers.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman says that he sees merit in taking action on some of these issues now, notably the less complicated ones. I agree with him, and that is a view shared by a number of Members in all parties. Does he recall that, as recently as 1 April, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that agreement on action on a number of these issues was needed now, and that this matter needed to be sorted out?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I am a little disappointed to sense that these matters could be left in their entirety to the committee. I regret what I take to be the current view of the Conservative Front-Bench team, because there was a sense of urgency a few weeks ago. That was clear from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam said at the time. He put forward proposals—they might not command the support of every Member, but they have mine—to reduce the additional costs allowance to cover only basic accommodation costs such as rent, council tax and utility bills, and nothing else. There would be none of this John Lewis list or any other incidentals. That system would be clearly understood by the public, and we could act quickly to adopt it. I understand that other Members have different views, however. I also understand that the Leader of the Opposition put forward proposals of his own. They were not entirely irreconcilable with our own, and there was a suspicion that we might have reached an agreement. I shall come back to the provenance of the arrangements in a moment, because the subject is instructive about how the Government do business.

John Bercow: As I think that the hon. Gentleman knows, I am from that wing of the Tory party that pays mortgages and buys its own furniture. I always have been. However, I understand the distinction that he is making between expenses and allowances, and his focus on what might be described, for want of a better term, as contrived mortgages. Might one means by which to tackle this problem be for Sir Christopher to consider the imposition of a time limit—a span over which people could claim—that could not be exceeded, so that people could not claim for 40 years, long after most people out there would cease to have had a mortgage?

John Mann: All sorts of systems could be proposed. However, the critical point is that there should be a defendable cap on the amount of money that can be spent. I have suggested that that cap should be decided on a civil service basis. Civil servants in Sheffield or Leeds can claim ¬£127.50 per overnight stay, or per 24 hours. That would, of course, get one into what I have described as the Travelodge in County Hall. In fact, apparently, it is the Premier Inn in County Hall. I was offered the opportunity to road test it‚Äîindeed, I already have done and those expenses will come out in a few months’ time for people to see. I do not suggest that Members should have to live in County Hall or any other Travelodge-type accommodation, but it seems to me that if the number of nights on which we have to be here on parliamentary duty is about 120, a civil service rate based on what a civil servant from out of London would require in order to come into London ought to be the cap. Whether the money is spent on buying or renting property or on staying in hotels is not important. The problem for us outside the House is the perception‚Äîthe reality‚Äîthat we can claim large amounts of consumer goods. People believe that parliamentarians claim too much money in the course of their duties, and we need to rectify that speedily.