Parliamentary Standards Bills
June 29, 2009
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). One of the most depressing things that has happened to me in recent weeks was learning that he is standing down from Parliament. It was depressing not just because I am losing a friend—we entered this place on the same day some eight years ago—but because when he outlined his reasons for leaving, I found I agreed with about 90 per cent. of them. He has said exactly what I hope many of the more thoughtful Members would agree with.
I also associate myself with every word of the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who, as ever, was able to articulate the arguments much more concisely than perhaps I am able to. However, I want to say briefly that I share the almost universal reservations about the speed with which the legislation is being rushed through. As a number of Members have said, it is being rushed through partly out of panic, and partly out of a desire to be seen to be doing something. Rushing legislation, particularly—dare I say it?—to go through all stages in three days, is a great mistake. We need to move towards greater separation of powers, especially between the Executive and the legislature, and the Bill regrettably takes us in diametrically the opposite direction.
We risk politicising the judiciary, who will now stand in judgment on issues of parliamentary process and procedure, especially if clause 10 in its entirety comes into play. We risk vexatious litigation, perhaps driven by partisan political considerations. No doubt some publicity-hungry judges will also look to flex their muscles, to the edge of the legislation and probably beyond. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) rightly said, we are sent to this place by our constituents, not as bureaucratic placemen and women but as people who should be able to debate the important issues of the day.
Without wishing to harp on too much about how we got into this situation, it is very important to put one or two things on the record. The Executive were repeatedly warned that the second home allowance was a disaster waiting to happen. I know that, because I have repeatedly warned over many years—it may be easy for me to be dispassionate as a central London Member whose salary has been kept down—about the grandstanding that went on by both Government and Opposition leadership on this matter. It goes back, I accept, to the 1980s, but three times during the eight years I have been a Member—it also happened in January 2008 over the London allowance—headline salaries have been kept down in spite of the independent Senior Salaries Review Body’s recommendations, and then a blind eye was turned to the constant increase in the second home allowance, which was never reduced, reversed or even capped.
In July 2001, there was a huge uplift outside any recommendation from any independent body so there was no longer, in my view, any real pretence that the second home allowance was reimbursement; rather, it was being used as a salary substitute because the Executive failed to have the courage to stand up and make the case for a higher salary going forward. Therein, a culture of absolute cynicism built up.
The general public, in my view, understand the need for MPs living beyond commuting distance to have a home in London. Their view of a second home, however, is a rented, furnished flat, meaning that there is no need for household goods, plasma TV screens, gardening and cleaning bills, and no mortgages, no flipping, and no remortgaging or maximising of financial benefit. The capital gains scam and the appalling ongoing scam of section 292 of the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003, which makes all this tax-free, is little short of disgrace. I suppose that, as in any banana republic, it is the MPs who end up making the law. This issue was not new; it was warned about, and I am not the only Member to have warned about it in these terms and for some years before the balloon went up.
Let me touch briefly on clause 5 and second job scrutiny. I fear that it is the worst sort of cynicism and rank hypocrisy for the Prime Minister to attempt to embarrass Conservative MPs by conflating the second jobs issue with the allowance scandal, which has ended in the disaster that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe pointed out. There has never been any suggestion that outside employment was undesirable or that it interfered with MPs’ duties, nor any sense in which it has been part of the scandal that has engulfed Parliament in recent weeks. Indeed, in my view the real risk is now that MPs will become ever more of a separate political caste—professionals moving to politics perhaps from their 20s onwards. It may suit the Executive and any future Executive for Parliament to become a cadre of super-councillors retreating from independent-minded views into a constituency-based comfort zone. That, I think, would be absolutely catastrophic for public life, but it is what this Bill will help to reinforce.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) rightly alerted us to the ludicrous anomaly whereby Ministers, already remunerated out of public funds, are exempted from filling in the same timesheets that each and every one of us who has an outside interest will have to fill in. Yet their extra-curricular activities equally impinge on their ordinary duties as Members of Parliament and as legislators. Indeed, it is compensation for that time forgone that is the very reason why Ministers are paid.
We need to move, as I think we are—slowly—towards the idea of a separation between the Executive and the legislature. I know that that means a big change in how the Executive will operate, but it seems to me that the role of the MP should be as a law- maker, as someone holding the Executive to account, which is particularly important—dare I say it?—for those MPs from the governing party as well as those from Opposition parties. For reasons that a number of my hon. Friends have pointed out, that tends to have been forgotten.
I believe that this Bill is deeply flawed, not only in its underlying principles but in its practical application. The new external expenses regulatory body that is being created sounds superficially soothing, but experience should have taught the Government that it may well act in many ways to undermine the internal promotion of proper standards among parliamentarians. Instead, a “them and us” culture will be created; there will be systematic attempts to avoid the letter of the rule; and there will be hostility to the ethic of box ticking rather than an appreciation of the principles that should lie behind any code.
We should be trying to inculcate a sense of right and wrong in parliamentarians in all their claims for allowances and expenses or, indeed, in any other way. The Bill, however, risks creating a “what we can get away with” culture that we have seen in the past. We have already seen what has been justified as being within the rules—ludicrously, there have been claims for £400 a month for food and £250 a month for petty cash with no questions asked—and that is the system from which we are moving away, but I fear that a body such as IPSA will simply reinforce it with a new set of rules. We need the ethics to come from individuals rather than resulting from a hostility which, inevitably, will be mounted against any new regulatory body.
I am sorry that I have not had a chance to say more; indeed, we would all have liked to say a good deal more. However, I am glad to have had the chance to make a small contribution to the debate.