March 21, 2011
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): It is universally accepted by anthropologists that one sign of higher animal intelligence is the ability to learn from experience. As the Leader of the House moved the motion, one was inclined to ask, “Have we in the House of Commons learned nothing from the calamity of the expenses scandal?”
I agree with hon. Members who said that the general public must be dismayed at Parliament’s continuing inability to put its house in order in relation to such matters, especially in view of the tumultuous events out there in the real world. How can we earn public respect and work in the national interest to solve this country’s acute economic problems and to reform public services, let alone to assert Britain’s place in the world, which we debated earlier, when we have so abjectly and continually failed to sort out our immensely damaging internal difficulties?
As the Leader of the House pointed out, after the expenses scandal, Parliament charged Sir John Baker, the then retiring SSRB chairman, to conduct a review. He was asked to make recommendations for a mechanism by which the pay and pensions of MPs could be independently determined-one that did not involve MPs voting on their own pay. His report, which was published in July 2008, recommended that MPs’ pay should be uprated annually in line with the public sector average earnings index, with a more general review of MPs’ salaries by the SSRB to take place in the first year of each Parliament.
That was supposed to be the end of the matter, with the embarrassing spectacle of MPs setting their salaries becoming a thing of the past-or so we thought. Of course, the unredacted receipts were published by The Daily Telegraph in May 2009, and suddenly the entire political class blissfully agreed on the root of the problem. Members and political commentators acknowledged that the widespread misuse by many MPs-I am afraid that it was many MPs-of second home and staff budgets, which as we all know helped to terminate several dozen parliamentary careers, came about largely as a result of Parliament voting down independently awarded salary increases.
For many years, the Executive have been overly concerned by the immediate public reaction to headline salary uplifts. As a result, subsequently, a blind eye was continually turned to the widespread misuse of the parliamentary expenses scheme, which became an income-enhancing allowance. Since the ground-breaking public revelations in The Daily Telegraph, the universal refrain from Parliament’s great and good-the Speaker’s Commission, the Members Estimate Committee and the Standards and the Privileges Committee-was that the expenses system had been rotten for decades, yet those same MPs did their utmost to block meaningful reform of the now much-maligned expenses system, almost until the very day when The Daily Telegraph first published those receipts. Indeed, all the systematically suspect claims were defended resolutely by those distinguished, senior parliamentarians as being within the rules-which parliamentarians had made.
Small wonder that those parliamentarians waged such a disastrous, protracted campaign in the High Court between 2006 and 2009-in all of our names, I am afraid-to prevent the publication of expense receipts. They knew full well the public reaction that would follow.
I am particularly sorry to say that the Leader of the House, in his previous role as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, was one such senior parliamentarian. That makes his attempt to drive through the motion tonight all the more regrettable. Of all people, he knows how we got here. On 30 April 2009, just two weeks before The Daily Telegraph balloon went up, the Leader of the House, in league with other politicians, put down a serious-
Mr Speaker: Order. I very gently say to the hon. Gentleman that I understand the issues that surround the motion, but we have a time-constrained debate, and it is incumbent on him to focus on the terms of the motion rather than ancillary matters.
Mr Field: I was coming to the end of this passage, Mr Speaker.
At that juncture, however, the Leader of the House allowed the glaring loophole in relation to second home allowances for MPs in suburban seats to be overlooked, on the basis that the independent review we await should report first. I only wish that today he was such a keen supporter of independent reviews. I believe that the independent salary review that the SSRB and IPSA were due to commence in the next few months would also have provided a long overdue opportunity to rebalance and aggregate MPs’ remuneration away from the byzantine and almost corrupt allowances scheme, towards a more upfront and transparent salary, which is why it is particularly regrettable that the second part of the motion is being proposed tonight. I fear that that opportunity will now be lost.
For the sake of one day’s good newspapers headlines, Parliament has unwisely insisted that we set our own salary again and impose this two-year freeze. As I mentioned earlier, the calamitous expenses system began in just such a way by rejecting independent salary reviews and then boosting allowances as some form of compensation. In my view, even the mere suspicion that this were happening again would be totally unacceptable and disastrous, as we try to build public trust. Such a process of rebuilding will be difficult enough in the years ahead, given the constant backdrop of high-profile criminal cases currently going to the courts. I do not wish to prejudge any of the other expenses conflicts, but I suspect that potentially there are several more former and sitting Members whose affairs will move from police investigation to the Crown Prosecution Service and then the Crown court in the months ahead.
Mr Speaker: Order. The difficulty here is that the hon. Gentleman has got a prepared text, to which he is sticking closely. However, I have already advised him that he must not dilate on matters that do not relate directly to the motion. I feel sure that being an experienced parliamentarian he will now turn to the matters within the motion. If he does not wish to do so, he can remain in his seat.
Mr Field: I shall take on board what you say, Mr Speaker, although-
Mr Speaker: Order. May I make it clear that it is not a question of taking on board what I say? I am saying to the hon. Gentleman, without fear of contradiction, that I have given a ruling, and to that ruling he will adhere.
Mr Field: I shall adhere to your ruling, Mr Speaker.
If we pass the motion on salaries tonight, amidst a self-satisfied blaze of glory, it will be essential that we also resolve that, whatever changes are made to the IPSA allowances scheme, none will come into effect until April 2013. In short, it must be a two-year freeze on both salaries and all allowances.
Mr Peter Bone: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that the best thing that could happen tonight would be for the Deputy Leader of the House not to move the motion? We have been talking about a really important matter tonight, and it is absurd that we start talking about Members’ salaries and expenses. It should be done on a different day.
Mr Field: I am inclined to agree, but I accept that business has to go through and that we are heading towards the end of the tax year. It is regrettable, however, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Given the importance of what was discussed tonight, this seems like very small beer indeed. It is regrettable that it has come to this pass.
Mr Richard Graham: My hon. Friend feels that this is small beer. Some of us feel that we have asked public servants to take a cut in their salary and now we are offering to do the same. Can we not just vote on it as quickly as possible?
Mr Field: I suspect that it might not necessarily come to a Division, because we all feel this way. There are difficulties and concerns. I take on board the conc ern that we are telling many public servants that they should not have an increase. However, we have an independent review mechanism in place, and we should stick to it. I believe that the public need a guarantee from the Government that those strictures that apply to salaries will also apply to all other allowances. If the freeze over the next two years is to apply also to the level and nature of the allowances, we can at least look our electorate firmly in the eye and say, “We are all in this together”.
Mr Michael McCann: Has not the hon. Gentleman contradicted himself? He made the appropriate point earlier that in the past MPs supplemented their salaries with allowances, but now he is suggesting that we freeze allowances and salaries. That means that people working for MPs and being paid less than £21,000 per year will be punished as a result of a decision in a matter unrelated to the motion.
Mr Field: I was referring to the allowances that are directly relevant to Members of Parliament, as opposed to the salary allowances.
Let me conclude, because others wish to speak and the hour is late on what has been a busy and momentous day in the House. The collective damage that has been done to the reputation of politics in this country is such that it is our duty to ensure that Parliament is never again silenced on these matters. I fear that the motion before us tonight is the very opposite of the leadership that we require if public trust is to be fully restored.