Speaking as Chairman of the Standards & Privileges Committee, Sir George spoke in favour of MP's registering family members who worked for them. See Speech below.
The proposal was accepted without a division
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Before I turn to my Committee’s specific recommendations in its seventh report, it might be helpful if I briefly set out the background to our proposals for the disclosure of family members in the Register of Members’ Interests.
On 31 January, the House dealt with my Committee’s fourth report, which revealed a specific case of misuse of the staffing allowance. That case attracted widespread criticism both inside and outside the House, and prompted calls—not least from the leaders of all the major political parties—for greater transparency at an early date about the employment of relatives. At the same time, a number of Members sought to include details of such relatives in the Register of Members’ Interests, but at the moment there is no category in the register into which such disclosures naturally fit.
On 5 February, my Committee reflected on how best to make progress and we announced that we believed that by 1 April the House should have in place, within the existing framework, a system for the compulsory registration of Members who employ family members in connection with their duties as Members, and who remunerate them through the staffing allowance. We said that we would bring forward proposals. In reaching that conclusion, the Committee, to which the House has given oversight of the form and content of registers, was seeking to complement rather than pre-empt the wider inquiry of the Members Estimate Committee and to respond on behalf of the House as a whole to the immediate pressures, from both inside and outside the House, for greater transparency about to such employment. We took the view that the House should take the initiative and seek a House solution, rather than rely on a range of voluntary initiatives from the political parties.
In developing our proposals, the Committee has kept in close touch with the Members Estimate Committee. That process has been assisted in no small measure by the presence of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) on both the Members Estimate Committee and my Committee.
On 28 February, my Committee published its sixth report, setting out proposals for consultation and our reasons for rejecting other options such as a purely voluntary scheme or a full list of Members’ staff with family members distinguished. We proposed that, in each case, Members should disclose the name of the staff member, the relationship and the nature of the role in which they were employed, with a de minimis exemption when the annual payment involved did not exceed 1 per cent. of a Member’s salary. The report also proposed a specific range of relationships to which the disclosure requirement would apply.
We noted that the proposal to include in the register details of family members employed broke new ground in that, for the first time, Members would be required to include information that did not relate to a direct pecuniary interest. In recognition of that extension of its scope, and to emphasise the distinction, we also proposed that the register should in future be divided into two parts, with the first containing the existing categories of pecuniary interest, and the second containing the new category of relatives employed. The House is today being asked to approve that change in the scope and nature of the register. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for providing time for an early debate on our report.
We also sought views on whether there should be a transitional period of voluntary registration. Despite the short period that could be allowed for consultation if we were to meet the 1 April deadline, we received 33 responses in all—29 of them from parliamentary colleagues. I am grateful to all those who took the trouble to respond. Few consultees objected to the principle of what we proposed. A number wanted a delay in implementation, with our proposals being considered as an input to the broader Members Estimate Committee review—now due to report in time for a debate in July—rather than as a separate exercise.
My Committee gave careful consideration to those arguments. We concluded that it was both practicable and right to seek to make early progress—as has subsequently been made in other areas, including the receipts threshold and petty cash, provisions on both of which take effect from 1 April. We have looked carefully at the specific points made in the consultation and amended our original proposals in a number of significant respects to accommodate many of those, while maintaining the original objectives. Thus, in our seventh report, we confirmed our original proposals on the information to be disclosed and on the de minimis limit. We have, however, simplified the provisions on the range of relationships covered regarding any employee where the Member knows, or might reasonably be expected to know, of any relationship past or present, by marriage or partnership equivalent to marriage, or by blood. We have also modified the proposed heading for the new register category so that it simply reflects the nature of the information disclosed.
We have confirmed our proposal for the new requirements to come into effect on 1 April, at the start of the new allowance year, with their becoming compulsory from 1 August. That lead-in period, during which registration will be voluntary, has a number of benefits. It enables those seeking an early opportunity to put on the public record details of relatives whom they employ to do so within a common framework established by the House. Again, I declare my interest in that I employ a member of my family full-time in the House of Commons. It also provides those who may want to do so with an opportunity to review their contractual obligations in an orderly way, and it provides us with an opportunity to review the arrangements if necessary, before they become compulsory, in the light of the proposals that may emerge from the broad MEC review, and of our
own experience of operating the scheme in voluntary mode. If the motion is passed, the registrar will contact hon. Members next week, setting out the action that they can take.
Before I conclude, I should like to make a couple of more general points. Essentially, faced with the situation following our fourth report, there were three possible options concerning the employment of family members. One was to do nothing, the second was to ban the practice and the third was to introduce greater transparency. I simply do not believe that the do-nothing option is tenable against the climate of public opinion. The second is the possibility of a ban, as the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life accepted in his statement of 30 January, although he conceded that it could
“seem a rather harsh answer to the problem”.
He went on to say that
“an alternative approach would be to insist on greater transparency and proper monitoring of existing requirements, which is generally better than creating new rules and prohibitions.”
I agree with that; we should not compel hon. Members to dismantle arrangements that have enabled them to provide a high-quality service to their constituents. In proposing a formal mechanism for disclosure of employment of relatives, we have taken steps to introduce greater transparency, while at the same time not precluding changes that may emerge from the MEC review, with which my Committee will continue to keep in close touch on issues where we have a common interest.
Finally, I take the opportunity to remind the House of the importance of ensuring that, in all cases, an employee meets a genuine need in supporting the performance of parliamentary duties; that they are both qualified and able to do the job; that the job is actually done; and that the resulting costs, as far as they are charged to the staffing allowance, are reasonable and entirely attributable to the Member’s parliamentary work. I also remind the House of the importance of being able to demonstrate, if challenged, that the terms of any such employment are beyond reproach, and of the severe consequences of falling short of this requirement.
I commend my Committee’s proposals to the House in the hope that their implementation will help to rebuild public confidence in the House, both in our arrangements for employing staff in the light of the undoubted damage done by the events that were the subject of our fourth report, and in the ability of the House to respond quickly and positively to legitimate concerns about our arrangements.