Below is the speech Sir George made in the Chamber about new proposals for dealing with MP's allowances.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I want to make a brief contribution to this debate wearing the hat of the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) on a thoughtful speech. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), who is momentarily not in the Chamber, for making a very good maiden speech in his new capacity, setting exactly the right tone and balance for the debate.
John Bercow: So did the Leader of the House.
Sir George Young: Yes, but it was not a maiden speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton mentioned the absence of oil as a commodity for which we should provide receipts. If he had to produce receipts for all the oil that he had purchased in his life, I suspect that it would involve a very substantial sum.
I welcome the production of the new version of the Green Book and congratulate its authors. The background to their task was the mixed reception for the report by the so-called MEC 3 back in July. I hope that we are now back on track to produce a new set of rules. My Committee has an interest in clear rules with robust and reliable advice from the Department of Resources, because we want to reduce the number of times that colleagues come into contact with the House’s self-disciplinary system and are then investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and subsequently by my Committee.
I want to take issue, I am afraid, with something that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said; I do not do that very often. He started his speech by saying that he could not understand how it could be unclear when a Member signed off the application for reimbursement. If he looks through the reports from the Committee of which he was briefly a member, he will see that lack of clarity in the rules and flawed advice or procedures from the House authorities have been contributory factors in complaints against Members being upheld. There is an imperative to move towards greater clarity of the rules to avoid the sorts of problems that have arisen in the past.
Mr. Heath: Let me clarify what I said. I absolutely agree that there was sometimes a lack of clarity, which may have contributed in marginal cases. My point was about somebody having deliberately and clearly flouted the rules and written something untrue by signing their name to a certificate to say that something was incurred in support of their parliamentary duties. Like the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), I cannot understand why that is not a prosecutable offence.
Sir George Young: I take that point, but it is not always clear whether something is necessarily wholly and exclusively for parliamentary purposes, and we need to be as clear as we can.
Nick Harvey rose—
Sir George Young: I give way to another member of my Committee.
Nick Harvey: Is not one of the strengths of the regulatory systems inside Parliament that the burden of proof necessary is not that which an external court would need? The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) say that they do not understand why a prosecution did not take place in the case involved. The answer is perfectly simple—that the standard of proof that would have been required in the criminal court was not obtained, but the standard of proof necessary for the House to come to a very severe conclusion in that case was met.
Sir George Young: Indeed. That is the answer to a question that was raised earlier—why, in a particular case, the police did not prosecute but the House was able to come to a conclusion.
My Committee has an interest in the broader reputational issues of the House that have been discussed during the debate, and I think that the revised audit proposals can increase public confidence in how taxpayers’ money is spent. My view is that the vast majority of colleagues have nothing whatsoever to fear from greater transparency, and it is unfortunate that more recently an impression to the contrary may have been given. As we have just heard, where colleagues do break the rules, the disciplinary consequences can be politically terminal.
I want to refer to an issue touched on by the Leader of the House—the need to ensure that the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who is an independent Officer of the House, and the role of the Committee to which he reports are not prejudiced by the dispute resolution procedure proposed in the report. Paragraph 5 of the introduction to the report before the House makes no reference to the role of either body in determining whether expenditure is allowable, and the resolution before the House gives that task to the Committee on Members’ Allowances. It could therefore be possible for two Select Committees of this House to come to a different view on whether the rules have been broken. That would not be a good outcome.
Public confidence in our behaviour has been enhanced over the past 12 years by having an independent parliamentary commissioner whose reports we always publish. I pay tribute to the work of Philip Mawer and John Lyon; indeed, today we publish two of John Lyon’s reports. It is important that this strong independent outside element is not bypassed or undermined by the
new procedures and that the commissioner retains the discretion to determine whether to investigate and whether there has been a breach of the rules. I was grateful to the Leader of the House for the assurance that she gave on that point.
John Bercow: I agree with the thrust of the concern that my right hon. Friend is expressing. Certainly, we do not want anything to be introduced which, by accident or design, would make our procedures more opaque or decision making, if I may say so, more long-winded. Does he agree, without reference to any particular case, that where individuals are the subject of investigation, there is an important principle to bear in mind—not only that someone is innocent until proven guilty but that justice delayed is justice denied? It is incredibly important that timely decisions are reached about the fate of individual Members.
Sir George Young: I agree with that. Without referring to an individual case, one can contrast the time that the police authorities or the Crown Prosecution Service may take to reach a conclusion and the much reduced length of time that the House can take to reach a decision on an identical matter.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) for his helpful approach to the issues that I have mentioned, avoiding any conflict of conclusions on whether the rules have breached. He and my Committee had a helpful meeting on Tuesday. Between us, we can resolve two imperatives—on the one hand, preserving robust existing disciplinary procedures with the commissioner, and on the other, giving authoritative guidance to colleagues where there is uncertainty.
In paragraph 6, there is a reference to practice notes. Those will be important, and I hope that the commissioner and my Committee might be included in the consultation on these, as we have some corporate knowledge of operating them. For example, the practice notes on what is a main home may need to take account of past cases where lack of clarity has caused difficulties. The new Committee on Members’ Allowances is given the role of keeping the rules under review, but the parliamentary commissioner has a similar obligation under Standing Order No. 150, as has my Committee under Standing Order No. 149. We have a view on the content, interpretation and propriety of the rules, but the new Committee is given a similar responsibility. Again, we will need to work closely together to avoid duplication; I am sure that with good will that can be done.
I strongly endorse the principle of Members taking personal responsibility for all expenses incurred, as set out on page 7, but I wonder whether the practice notes might give some guidance on what might be seen as extravagant or luxurious, to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for City of York. I also endorse the principle of avoiding claims that damage the reputation of Parliament
On travel expenditure, am I alone in questioning the cumbersome and time-consuming new arrangements for auditing rail travel? They are far more complex than the old warrant regime. May I suggest spot checks? Proportionality is an important concept, and misuse of rail travel between Westminster and the constituency has not been a source of problems. Filling in every
detail, every month, of every rail journey between Waterloo and Andover is not, in my view, a productive use of my time.
The document has rules on communication and stationery that take up the points in my Committee’s 19th report, but it would have been helpful if we had been in the loop with regard to this document. Other bodies in the House were consulted on its drafting, but neither the commissioner nor my Committee were, and I see no good reason for that.
I also welcome the recommendation that material to be published and claimed for under the communications allowance—the newsletters—should be submitted in advance. If all colleagues do that, we will avoid a lot of problems. I welcome the operational assurance proposals. It is important that that unit within the Department Of Resources should be properly resourced and staffed by people with authority and an understanding of what the life of an MP involves.
I make a small and final plea. The claim forms are available online, but we cannot complete them on a computer. We have to print them out and fill them in by hand—not all colleagues have good handwriting—and we then have to photocopy them if we want to keep a copy before sending them off. I would like to fill it in online, print it out, sign it and send it off, and then keep the file on the computer, but the present regime does not permit that. It is a small plea, and I am sure that it is not beyond the wit of man to enable that process to take place.
Of course, we have to be open and transparent, and accountable for the money that we spend. We were sent here originally to keep an eye on what the King spent on behalf of our constituents. That responsibility as custodians of the public purse remains and we should be doubly vigilant when the money goes through our own banks. But we were also sent here to hold the Government to account and to fight for our constituents, and our energies should not be diverted from that task by unnecessary bureaucratic procedures. I believe that the proposals before us give us the chance to strike a better balance.