Standards & Privileges

Mark contributed to a debate which followed the publication of the Standard and Privileges Committee’s report on the allowances and expenses of MPs.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I, too, support the report; in particular, I compliment the Committee on producing it so rapidly. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) pointed out, it is only eight weeks since the coming to pass of the events that led to the necessity to produce the report. It is a great tribute to his work that the response has been so rapid.

I have a small amount of sympathy with the view that the matter should perhaps have been considered in the round along with all the Members Estimate Committee issues. That point was made by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) a moment or two ago, but as the Committee was willing to move so quickly, it makes sense to have produced the report. I hope that action will be taken in advance of the next tax year.

I fear, however, that the House is still woefully slow to wake up to the reality of public opinion surrounding the use and?I further fear?frequent misuse of allowances and expenses. The dismay and disgust of recent weeks have given way in recent days to disbelief as, collectively, we still appear to regard these issues as something of a parliamentary matter to be kept away from the prying eyes of press and public alike. It is essential that we get real. We now need a regime of openness, transparency and full disclosure. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) pointed out, that regime needs to be fit for the modern world in which we live.

I very much support virtually the entire report. It is correct that Members should be required to name members of staff with whom they have a strong personal relationship. I have some fears about the de minimis proposal, although I suspect that the events of recent months will put that to one side. I fear that a de minimis arrangement almost gives rise to the notion that paying 600 quid a year to a close member of staff to do the Christmas card list is part and parcel of the various rations. I hope that what has happened in recent weeks and months means that we will put an end to the flagrant misuse, particularly of the additional costs allowance, which we will discuss further before the summer recess.

I also want to comment briefly on behalf of my own staff. I allowed them to say what they thought about the report. Like many Members, I have never employed a member of my family as a member of staff; I was elected seven years ago. When I consulted my staff, they were concerned about much fuller disclosure, although it is something to which I would not object. However, their objection was instinctive, on the basis that it has perhaps at times been useful not to give their name over the telephone, particularly when a constituent might be violent or threatening. All my staff are here at the Palace of Westminster, in the heart of my constituency, but I am sure that the same objection applies to the staff of many Members from outside London who have constituency offices on their own patch, where staff could find themselves at some risk of assault, through either menacing telephone calls or, indeed, physical attack.

Therefore, in bringing forward this welcome first step in what I hope will be a list of disclosures, we need to recognise that the people who have suffered most are not Members of Parliament, but, in many ways, their members of staff. I am sure that they are the butt of jokes. Anyone who says that he or she works for a Member of Parliament has probably had a very difficult time over the past two months. Staff members are not particularly well remunerated by any normal standards. I would love to pay my staff working in central London considerably more, but obviously I must remain within the constraints of our budgets. We should remember that the interests of staff need to be served as well.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire for introducing his timely report so swiftly. I hope that it will reflect well, together with all the other various other reports, so that we shall put our House entirely in order in the months ahead. I fear it is inevitable that the press will wish to make much of this, but it is not just the result of a campaign put up by the Daily Mail or the Evening Standard. These issues are at the heart of many of the concerns of the constituents whom we seek to represent, and we now have it in our power to ensure that we get things right.