Sir George Young's amendment on the issues of MP's expenses was backed by the Government - who then ignored it and pre-empted the findings of the Kelly Committee by making changes to the regime
Sir George's speech is below
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Amendment (j) is in my name and that of every other member of my Committee. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said and I commend the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) for his remarks a few moments ago.
Let me read to the House what it will agree if, as seems likely, the amendment is accepted:
“That this House welcomes the Prime Minister’s decision on 23 March 2009 to invite the Committee on Standards in Public Life to inquire into Members’ allowances; believes that in order to command maximum public support for change the House should defer its conclusions until after the Committee has reported; and further believes it would be desirable for the House to have an opportunity to consider any recommendations from the Committee as early as possible.”
The Government have said that they agree with that, and it would therefore be inconsistent for them to invite the House to reach conclusions before the Committee has reported. That would stand logic on its head and I invite them to think again. If they agree with my Committee about amendment (j), they should not proceed with the subsequent motions. Anything else is inconsistent and illogical and would defy what the House had agreed to.
I do not challenge the procedural possibilities, but it appears illogical to say that we must not make decisions and then proceed to make them.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab) rose—
Sir George Young: I give way to a fellow member of my Committee.
Mr. Mullin: I am most grateful. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if the Government are unwise enough to go ahead and press the motions to a vote, abstaining is the logical action for Members to take?
Sir George Young: Or, indeed, voting against, because hon. Members will have agreed not to make a decision.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend further agree that, if a substantive amendment, which, to all intents and purposes, replaces a full text, is not to be regarded as a replacement of that text, we must reconsider the House’s procedure, which is based on amendments as a form of scrutiny? For example, yesterday’s debate on the Gurkhas might have left us with both the Liberal Democrat motion and the Government amendment standing.
Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend makes a thoughtful procedural point, which I do not propose to explore in great detail.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Sir George Young: May I begin to make the case for why my Committee acted as it did? I will give way to my right hon. Friend later.
My Committee thought long and hard before deciding to intervene in the debate. My Committee likes to cruise in the stratosphere above the turbulence of party politics, and it is no part of our agenda to pick a fight with the Prime Minister on the matter that we are considering. We are a group of colleagues, appointed by the House, to have regard to the reputation of the House. Our view is that that is best served by the action that we propose.
Indeed, far from disagreeing with the Prime Minister, we agree with him on the need for radical reform and we wrote to him on 31 March, welcoming his decision to invite Sir Christopher Kelly to conduct a thorough review of our allowances. We believe that that was the right way forward. Sir Christopher responded to the Prime Minister by rearranging his Committee’s programme to accommodate the request. He has drafted and, indeed, circulated a consultation document, asking for evidence on all the issues before the House by 5 June. At that point, I think we were on the right track.
Then, for reasons that have never been properly explained, the Prime Minister went on YouTube. I think that it would have been better to make an oral statement to the House, but perhaps I am old-fashioned. Some rushed decisions were announced. There was no consultation, even, we hear, with Cabinet colleagues. A new timetable for implementation was proposed and Kelly was pre-empted with conclusions about what should happen on key issues.
It is not surprising, given the complexity of the issues and the haste of the exercise, that the wheels came off the coach on the matter that had generated the most controversy, namely the additional costs allowance, or personal additional accommodation expenditure, as it is now known. The Prime Minister’s proposals to go on paying the money, but with no receipts, failed his own criteria of transparency and accountability.
So, today, we have “Hamlet” without the prince—decisions on some of the other matters referred to Kelly. If the reason for rushing things through was to allow the Prime Minister to say on 1 July that the ACA had been sorted, that alibi no longer exists. But rather than coming up with quick answers, we should come up with the right answers.
Miss Widdecombe: On the point that my right hon. Friend was making when I tried to intervene, which was about the inconsistency between his amendment being successful and proposals being pressed to the vote, has he received any indication from the Government about how they intend to proceed?
Sir George Young: I only heard what the Leader of the House said in her speech, which was that she accepted my amendment, but that she was none the less going to invite the House to take a decision on subsequent resolutions. I could not follow the logic of that, but that is the only information that I have.
We have two reasons for believing that we should allow Sir Christopher to proceed before we take a decision: one of principle and one of practicality. On principle, it cannot be right for the Government to ram their motion through the House as they propose. They want the House to take decisions today on resolutions tabled on Monday evening. There has been no consultation with the parties, no consultation with the Committees that will have to operate and police the system, no consultation with Back Benchers generally and little opportunity for us to discuss the matter with our staff.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: In a moment.
That sits uneasily with how the Prime Minister said he would treat the House in his first statement as Prime Minister—to restore some of the independence that we had surrendered to the Executive and, to use the words in his Green Paper, to
“rebalance power between Parliament and the Government”.
The Prime Minister began his letter of 23 March to Sir Christopher Kelly with the following words:
“As you are aware, the pay and allowances for MPs are a matter for the House of Commons.”
When pressed at Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister again said that the matter was one for the House. He was right: it is a matter for the House, and we should do what we think is right without the Government playing the loyalty card or claiming a monopoly of opinion on how best to proceed.
Still on principle, what is the point of constraining Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee with interim arrangements that may have to be changed months later? Interim changes mean that there will be further, later changes. On issues such as the employment of Members’ staff, that is frankly unfair on those affected. On principle again, with some of the resolutions, the cart has been put before the horse. On Members’ staff, I am invited to express an opinion now, and then the Commission will consider the proposition. I would prefer the Commission or Kelly to consider the proposition, and then I will express an opinion. For a range of reasons, my Committee decided unanimously that the House should be urged not to adopt instant, piecemeal or poorly considered provisions. Doing so runs the risk of creating confusion and chaos where we need consistency and consensus. The key thing is to restore public confidence, which we best achieve by allowing Sir Christopher to proceed with his work.
I also have doubts about the practicability of some of the proposals. As an example of what will now be caught by the rules on financial interests, any hon. Member who receives a £30 fee for completing an opinion poll, even though the sum is donated to a local charity, will need to register that sum. Not only that, but they will be obliged each time to register the name of the organisation, its address and the amount of time that they spent on the phone. Also, if a colleague is presented with a bottle of wine after a speaking engagement, that becomes potentially registrable as earnings, as does the time spent at the function. That is because the Government, without any consultation, have abolished the de minimis threshold for categories 1, 2 and 3 in the register, which the House confirmed without a Division only two months ago.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): There is another interesting repercussion. It appears that the third motion is intended to stop directorships with huge fees. However, some professionals have to practice to maintain their profession. Therefore, if on a Sunday morning, instead of playing golf or sitting reading the news of the Government’s disasters—
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Or going to church.
Sir Paul Beresford: Indeed, or even after going to church. If, instead of doing those things, I happen to see a few patients—this point could affect hon. Members from any part of the House—I will have to declare that if rumour is correct. However, if I went to church or played golf, which would make no difference to my constituency actions, I would not have to declare it.
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend has made a powerful point right in the middle of my speech.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I am grateful to the Chair of my Committee for giving way. Has there been any consultation with the registrar or the commissioner who would have to administer the proposed system? The practicalities that the right hon. Gentleman is outlining—and, indeed, many others—would be horrendous, and dealing with them would present real difficulties.
Sir George Young: Of course I had consultations with the registrar before I explained the implications of some of the resolutions before the House. Whether the Government have had similar consultations with the registrar, I do not know. I do not know whether it was the intention of the Leader of the House that she would have to register the bottle of wine that she might receive after making a moving speech at a dinner, but the time would be registrable.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): First, I just want to clarify that the Government did have discussions with the registrar, as would be appropriate. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong in his interpretation of how the proposals in the motion would work. They would not change category 5 in relation to gifts, benefits and hospitality. The change would relate only to directorships and remunerated employment.
Sir George Young: I said what I said after consultation with the Registrar of Members’ Interests.
I have no outside interests, but I am cautious about registering the hours as proposed. My personal view is that our constituents would be more interested, and surprised, to hear how many hours a week we work for them, rather than how many hours we do not.
My Committee has been accused of trying to kick the ball into the long grass, and misrepresented as seeking to preserve our allowances for as long as possible. That is not the case. The Kelly inquiry is not the long grass; it is the best, and possibly the last, chance to get this right. For reasons of public interest, not self-interest, we believe that it would be a mistake to go ahead as the Government plan to do. We also believe that we should not pre-empt Kelly. Only the proposals that flow from an independent inquiry will command public confidence. Let Kelly and his Committee come to their own independent conclusions; then the House can decide. In the meantime, the Government should not dictate to them, or to us.