David Heath on MPs' expenses

by Stephen Tall on April 30, 2009

As the BBC reports, the government has won a series of votes on the surviving parts of Gordon Brown’s proposed expenses reforms – but only after Gordon Brown’s main proposal, for a daily parliamentary attendance allowance to replace second homes expenses for all MPs, was ditched. Not because, as Nick Clegg pithily put it, “Bringing the Brussels gravy train to Westminster is not the way to fix our expenses system” – but simply because Labour whips fearing that it could trigger a second Parliamentary defeat for the Prime Minister in as many days. To look like John Major one day might be considered misfortune, but to look like him two days running…

The Lib Dems’ shadow leader of the house David Heath spoke for the party in the Commons, and it’s worth quoting a few chunks of his speech below:

this is a debate of great constitutional and practical importance. Unfortunately, it more resembles a Whitehall farce, given the way that the House has proceeded on the matter over the years—constantly debating it and giving more hostages to fortune, but never reaching resolutions that satisfactorily address some of the basic issues or give confidence to the public that the system meets the need.

Need is an important part of this debate. We should not walk away from the fact that Members of Parliament need expenses in order to do their jobs on behalf of their constituents. We need to make that absolutely and abundantly clear. Paying staff, renting offices and providing accommodation for Members of Parliament whose constituencies are a long way from London is part of the responsibility of the House, in order to enable Members to do their jobs properly.

But—and it is a big “but”—there are criteria that should apply to that provision of finance. It should be based on genuine need and provide what is necessary for right hon. and hon. Members to do their jobs as Members of Parliament, but not a penny more and not a penny less. That is a significant point. That provision needs a system that is transparent, so that the public can see that the money is being used effectively and properly. It also needs accountability and external audit that goes beyond what is available in the House, so that there is a guarantee that matters are being properly dealt with.

We cannot get away from the urgency of dealing with the issue. As I have said, it is a matter on which we have had endless debates. The public are sick and tired of us sitting in this Chamber and talking about our allowances, rather than the big problems that face this country. They simply do not understand why, if we purport to run the country, we cannot run our own affairs properly.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) has made it clear in what he has recently published that there ought to be matters we can agree as a matter of urgency—matters that are self-evident; matters that are clear abuses of the present system that we can remove. That is why we need the twin-track approach, dealing both with the more complex issues, about which it is quite proper to ask for Sir Christopher Kelly’s and his committee’s advice, and with those matters which I would have hoped—although I am almost doomed to disappointment in this respect—the House could see are matters that are in our hands and which we can deal with urgently today.

That is why, although the Leader of the House has accepted the amendment standing in the name of the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), I do not take the view that we should not proceed with the other motions. We have opinions on them; nevertheless, they are matters that we can quite properly discuss in the House today.

What are the concerns that the public have been expressing very loudly in recent weeks? If any Member has not heard them, they cannot have talked to many of their constituents recently, because these are real concerns. People are talking about inappropriate purchases being made at the taxpayer’s expense. Whether such purchases are typical, common or fair is neither here nor there—that is what people are concerned about. They are also concerned about the abuse of definition in relation to our identifying our principal place of residence, and about the fact that, for some hon. Members, it seems appropriate to change that definition every now and then, according to the potential income involved. That gives rise to a great deal of concern. Concern is also being expressed about unnecessary accommodation, and the possibility that people are claiming for accommodation that they do not need because they have alternative arrangements of one kind or another.

The public cannot understand why we cannot deal with these issues. Frankly, I cannot understand why we cannot deal with them even under the present system, because it is clearly stated on the forms we sign every time we submit a claim that the costs have been occasioned by parliamentary duties, although that definition seems to be remarkable wide in some cases. Nevertheless, that is the question that the public are asking.

Given the public concern, it was nothing short of an act of genius for the Prime Minister to come up with a solution that absolutely failed to meet those concerns. The process has been quite extraordinary. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam put forward his proposals and, whether people agreed with them or not, they were real proposals that addressed the issues and would have made a real difference to the way the House is perceived. The Leader of the Opposition also put forward proper proposals. They were not identical to ours, but they addressed the same issues and tried to find a way forward. At that time, we had nothing at all from the Prime Minister.

The last time we debated this matter, the Prime Minister did nothing whatever to get the proposals from the House of Commons Commission through; he did not even bother to turn up. He showed no sense of leadership. This time, he waited until the very last moment, then reluctantly agreed, when pushed several times by my right hon. Friend and by the Leader of the Opposition, that it would be a good idea to have a meeting of the three leaders to see whether there was a possibility of consensus. Yet before that meeting, which he did nothing to arrange, had even happened, he came up with a set of proposals that had apparently been written on the back of a fag packet. He did not appear to have discussed them with members of his own parliamentary party. He put them out to the press before he even had the agreement of the Cabinet, which emerged to find them already in the public domain.

As an afterthought, the Prime Minister rang round the leaders of the other parties to try to arrange a meeting that very evening, because he thought it would be a good idea to get their imprimatur for his proposals. At that meeting, he was completely belligerent and refused to accept any amendment to his perfect proposals. And he wonders why there is no consensus! Then, last week, he made his announcement to the public in a YouTube appearance that had all the awfulness of a David Brent performance. It was quite astonishing—and this was the Prime Minister addressing an issue that affects the House in an extremely important way.

The Prime Minister proposed an attendance allowance, but would it address the question of transparency? No. It would provide cash in hand with no accountability. Would it be related to real costs? No, because it would be given to every single Member of Parliament, irrespective of their needs or arrangements. Would it even be workable? No, it could not have worked within the present arrangements. The Prime Minister failed to understand that, in proposing a system that already exists for the European Parliament—doesn’t it work wonderfully there!—he was proposing that the gravy train of Europe should come to Westminster. Incidentally, that also happens at the other end of the corridor. We hear apocryphal stories of noble Members leaving the Rolls-Royce running outside while they nip in to sign in, before going home having claimed their allowance for the day. Is that the system we want? No. That is why it had to be rejected. Eventually the message even got through to the bunker, and it was not put on the Order Paper today.

I hope that we can make some progress today, because we need to do so. However, I fear that the process to date has been so farcical and absurd that it will instil little more confidence in the eyes of the public until we have the report of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee, until it does the job that we have asked it to do and until we agree the recommendations, so that we actually have a proper externally audited arrangement that bears scrutiny. At the moment, we do not have such an arrangement.