HC Deb 26 November 1920 vol 135 cc817-27

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the salary allotted to Members of this House, the travelling and other expenses incurred by them in connection with their Parliamentary duties, and to report."—[Colonel Gibbs.]

Commander BELLAIRS

Anyone who knows the Members of His Majesty's Government will acquit them of introducing this Resolution in a cynical spirit, but I venture to say that appearances are somewhat against them. Therefore, I appeal to the Government to leave the matter to the unfettered judgment of the House, and not to put on the Whips if we go to a Division. I say that appearances are against them, because in this matter we are going to appoint nine Members of Parliament—some of whom have loudly demanded increased emoluments by questions in this House—to inquire into their own salaries. One of the Members of Parliament on the Committee threatened a strike of Members of Parliament unless the Government brought forward proposals for increasing the salaries of Members of Parliament. After all, we owe a duty to the taxpayers, and we are supposed to protect the taxpayers. We are hardly the best body to inquire into the question of increasing our own salaries. A few Members of Parliament emulated the importunate widow, and worried the Government on this matter The Members who did so, and who are on this Committee, are sufficient to form a quorum—three will form a quorum. The Committee is formed at the tail-end of the Session, when Members are tired out, and those who are interested are more likely to attend. When Members inquire into their own salaries, the practice is capable of widespread imitation. Why should not the colliers in the coal trade inquire into their own salaries? [HON. MEMBERS: "They do."] Is it not a very dangerous policy? The miners have not the power of regulating their own salaries except by strikes.

For a Government which is not a Socialistic Government to bring forward such a proposal seems to me very dangerous. I ask what is the evidence on which we are going to base the necessity of the inquiry? There is no evidence of a widespread demand of which I know anything. The only evidence of impoverished Labour Members of Parliament is the alacrity with which certain Labour members write for what is called by them the "capitalist Press." [HON MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to get agreement on that point. There is, for instance, the prophetic member for Derby (Mr.Thomas), who has written "When Labour Rules." I should say that he writes ten times for the "capitalist" press for once that he writes for the "Daily Herald," the impeccable, impayable and irreproachable "Daily Herald." It is true. I believe, that there are one or two hard cases, but I would remind the Government and the Committee, if it be set up, that hard cases make bad law.

I feel very much handicapped on this occasion because the right hon. Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), who is a most efficient guardian of the public purse, is not present. Had I known he was not to be present, I would have asked him for a copy of his speech to help me on my way. Looking down on the Order Paper, I see that the right hon. Member is to be put on a Committee which is to be a real economy Committee. How is he to put any heart into his work when he knows that sitting next door there are Committees, one for increasing the salaries of Ministers, and another for increasing the salaries of Members? I should say that these Committees, following each other, suggest that "thereby hangs a tale." I will follow the example of those gentlemen who give us pictorial illustrations from natural history and teach wisdom by their wit. I will go to the world of natural history. The giraffes, the long-tongued ones, are those that are able to browse on the higher pastures. The short-tongued ones are not able to do so. The long-tongued giraffes are the Ministers; but the Parliamentary institutions of the giraffes have not advanced to the extent that ours have advanced. We are able to control the emoluments of Ministers, and I take it that there is something in the nature of a bargain in setting up this Committee, that we have granted the Committee to inquire into Ministerial salaries first, and that the two Committees are dependent upon each other.

I am opposed to both Committees, and I ask, are they wise? Do appearances count for nothing? At the moment the whole country is demanding economy, and we set up two Committees which can result only in increased expenditure. The increased emoluments which will probably result from this Committee will set a scale for all those Parliaments that we are to set up by devolution. We are going to set up Parliaments for Wales, Scotland and England. I hope I have given them in the order of their importance. Therefore, the result will be that we are setting up a standard of very much increased expenditure for the payment of Members and Ministers of those Parliaments. In 1911, when Members of Parliament were first paid, it was freely prophesied that we were entering on the slippery slopes of "the spoils for the victors." I remember that the argument was used that the United States Senate began with salaries of £180 a year. The salary in the United States Senate now is in the neighbourhood of £3,000 a year. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It is evident what hon. Members are expecting. We have been paid since 1911. I ask the House to consider what have we gained. Is the work better done, is the morality of Parliament higher, is its prestige higher? I remember when the present Prime Minister as Secretary of State for War introduced a Court of Inquiry Bill on a very delicate subject connected with inquiries where the other sex were concerned, I ventured to say that improper petticoat influence was as nothing compared to improper Parliamentary influence. I took up the other day a book which has just come out with the title "Experiences of a Dug-Out," by General Sir Chas. Crolwell, and in it he says: Resisting petticoat influence, I can assure you, is child's play compared to resisting Parliamentary influence. For good, straightforward, unblushing; shan't-take-no-for-an-answer jobbery give me the Member of Parliament. They are sublime in their hardihood. That can only be intensified by going on with these increases of salary. If no gain is to result, why should we be higher paid, and why set up this Committee? It is not the experience of the United States that any gain has resulted from salaries or increases of salaries. The Congress of to-day cannot compare in efficiency and in rectitude and morality with the Congress which included Washington, Franklin. and Hamilton.


And Tammany.

Commander BELLAIRS

In every item of expenditure the Government should not ask "is it useful," but "is it vital?" Is it vital to increase the salaries of Member of Parliament? I say it is not vital. I remember that Gladstone once wrote that of all changes this was the least to be desired. It is perfectly true that Gladstone changed his mind not on principle, but for expediency. This Committee is set up on a mere pretext. I believe it to be simply a sordid ambition, this desire for an increase in salaries. I recall what Hume the historian said: When ambition can be so happy as to cover its enterprises even to the person himself under the appearance of principle, it is the most incurable and inflexible of all human passions. I regret the pitiful plight into which Parliament is placed in setting up these committees. In the case of the salaries of Ministers we acknowledge that there are one or two, such as that of the Secretary for Scotland, which ought to be increased. But there the matter is obvious, and it did not want a Committee, and we do not want this Committee to consider the emoluments of Members of Parliament. I appeal to the Government to leave this question to the free and unfettered judgment of the House, and not to put on the Government whips.


We have listened to a very pleasant and rather eloquent speech about long-tongued giraffes browsing on higher pastures, but that has got nothing at all to do with the subject under consideration, and we have heard nothing from the hon. and gallant Gentleman of the real reason why a Committee of this kind should be set up. There is after all a change in the condition which exists now as compared with the condition which existed when this salary was fixed, and, if it be a salary, is anybody going to contend that a man who lives in the North of England or in Scotland—


Or in Ireland.


—in Ireland the condition is still worse—that he is adequately paid by this salary? There are two ways of looking at salary. There is the point of view of the person who pays, and that of the person who is paid. The person who says that he is satisfied with a salary of this kind for the work involved seems to me to be a person who has not got much sense of personal dignity, not to mention ambition. It does not necessarily follow that either this Committee, or the other Committee to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman referred, would recommend an increase. But it may be possible that Members who are now suffering considerable hardship may have some alleviation. May I call the attention of the hon. and gallant Member to the fact that there are Members who are conscientious, who really try to do good for the country, who have some regard for the country's honour, and really do believe in economy, and who suffer very considerably by the fact that they are Members of this House. There are cases of Members who over and over again have had to stand in a crowded third-class compartment for four or five or six hours at a stretch, because they cannot afford to travel first-class under comfortable circumstances. If when one talks about maintaining the dignity and honour and prestige of Parliament that is allowed to go on, there is no dignity or honour in it. The men who are comfortably circumstanced, and whose residences are in London, and who do not need to travel and pay expensive fares, can speak in a way different from the man who has to do those things, and to whom every penny is vital and who cannot afford first-class fare in travelling. Such a man, I think, is entitled to turn round to the other gentleman and say, "You talk about honour and dignity, but you talk from a very pleasant position; your lines after all are cast in very pleasant places, and have you carefully considered not only honour and dignity, as you understand it, but as you ought to understand it from the standpoint of others as well as your own?" Then perhaps we should hear no more of such speeches as that we have heard.

Let the Committee make its investigations. I believe there is not a single Parliament in the whole of the world, our own excepted, where Members of Parliament, travelling on national business, are required to pay their own railway fares. Is it honour and dignity on the part of Parliament to say that no man who is not a rich man shall come to the House of Commons, for that is what it amounts to, because unless a man is sub-ventioned or rich he cannot come to Par- liament? Take my own case. It costs me, living in a very tiny room in Pimlico, £250 per year. Then there are expenses of travel and the rest, and there is left, when the Income Tax authorities are finished with us, a very small amount. Unless I am subventioned by somebody or have personal riches, I cannot live as a Member of Parliament. The honour and dignity of the country demand that every man willing to serve his nation, and possessing the capacity shall be able to serve, and the most selfish argument one could use it that, because a man is comfortably circumstanced, or his friends are comfortably circumstanced, he should have a monopoly of this Parliament, and then proclaim himself an idealist in the cause of high morality and honour and prestige. I shall support the Government in setting up this Committee, because I believe it is a fair thing to do, because I believe that the country ought to see that its representatives should travel in comfort to and from London, and because I believe if this be called a salary that it should, at any rate, bear some resemblance to payment for work done.


I do not think the Members of this House ought to be afraid of the cheap criticisms made against this proposal, and I hope the Government will not agree to take off the Government Whips. The Government Whips were put on for the appointment of the Committee to deal with Ministers' remuneration—or, rather, they would have been put on had it been necessary. I am myself a member of that Committee. I know what the Members are saying and thinking about it. That Committee is not going to work in order to increase Ministers' salaries. It is only going to explore all the anomalies in connection with the payment of Ministers and the Members of this House. It does not follow that if the Committee now suggested is set up, Members' salaries will he increased. If the idea were to place the remuneration of Members of Parliament on the basis of that proper to professional men, we should be faced with such a demand that probably the House would decline to consider it. But there are many anomalies which should be put right. My hon. Friend who has just spoken (Mr. Shaw) has referred to one, and that is with regard to travelling. If hon. Members will look at the membership of the House, they will find that nearly one-third of the Members reside within bus or tube fare distances of the House of Commons. Other Members who come from Ireland, and Scotland, and the remoter parts of the Kingdom carry a very heavy burden for railway travelling. There is another point which indicates that the Committee need not necessarily consider the question of increase as an increase, and that is in regard to the matter of correspondence. Ministers of the Crown, acting as Ministers, are entitled and do use the post to deal with their constituents and to deal with their fellow-members. If I write to any Minister he can reply to me under the frank of the Government, and if any of his constituents write to him he can reply to them in the same way. But for the ordinary Member of Parliament who performs his duties as a Member the question of correspondence from one year's end to the other involves a heavy charge upon him, and one which, I repeat, is not laid upon Ministers.

I was not in the House of Commons when the question of remuneration was considered, but I have looked up the Debate. The money was never given as salary. There never was any question that the £400 which hon. Members draw, or which people think they draw—and that is a very different thing, as we who draw it know perfectly well what we get on our pink slips—was originally granted by the present Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, as expenses. Any business man knows that he is entitled to deduct from his assessable income all necessary expenses connected with his profession, but we in this House are not allowed to do that, and the Treasury or the Paymaster-General makes deductions which I am very glad to say one hon. Member of this House intends to contest in the Courts of law. To sum up, this is not a Committee which will deliberately set out to increase M.P.'s salaries, and the Government would be very foolish, and I hope the Leader of the House will see to it, if when they have set up this Committee they do not take advantage of it to explore the whole facts. The House itself will finally have to decide whether or not it will accept the Committee's recommendations. I advise hon. Members not to be afraid of the cheap kind of criticism indulged in by the hon. and gallant Member for Maidstone (Commander Bellairs).

1.0 P.M.


In supporting this Motion I want, if I may, to approach it from a personal standpoint. I did not come to Parliament to make money; I have always been a poor man. I started work at ten years of age at 1s. per week. I never lived in anything but a cottage. I have at the present moment no social ambitions or aspirations. I never asked for an increase of salary, as has been suggested by the hon. and gallant Member who spoke in opposition to this proposal. I do not write in the Press for pay, although I have written many thousands of columns for nothing. It may be I am not qualified. I hold no brief, for either expenses or anything, else in this House, to act here on behalf of any company or person either in Committee or in this House. I have no pension from the Government. I have never held a dual office as Member of Parliament and under the Government, in the Army, or Navy, or Civil Service. I wrote up the first rationing scheme that became operative in this country, and when I was asked to become a candidate for Parliament I was compelled to give up the position I held before I could be nominated at all. That position was at the Ministry of Food. Unlike many Members of Parliament, I made nothing out of the War. I worked for two or three years at 36s. a week, with no other income whatever for the first two years of the War, and doing what I think was considered rather important work in Derbyshire. The recruiting authorities would probably vouch for that. May I add I never intervene in any Debate unless I know what I am talking about. I have £400 a year only. I am not subsidised. I am not in any business. I live in my constituency, and after all it is some advantage for a Member to live in the constituency that he represents. He may be a valuable connecting link between that constituency and Parliament, and possibly of some advantage to the Government, which may desire to have first knowledge of what is happening in a constituency when there are so many things delegated to the local authorities to administer. The Member may be able to lend a helping hand.


Is not the hon. Member who is now speaking one of those whom it is proposed to nominate as a Member of the Committee? [An HON. MEMBER: "He had just been attacked before you came in."] If this Resolution pass, we shall be putting on the Committee an hon. Member who has already expressed his opinion upon the question to be investigated.


The object of appointing a Committee is to appoint impartial persons to investigate the question, and the hon. Member rather gives himself away in what he is saying.


I have not mentioned up till now what part I am going to take on this Committee, neither am I going to do so. I was giving my own experience. Perhaps I am the only man in the House who has to live on his salary. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no."]


That would be a matter for the Committee.


I obey your ruling, Sir.

Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)

I am going to make a suggestion which, I hope, will shorten this discussion, because I do not see there is much object in a long Debate at this stage. The time for debating the question, if this Committee be set up, is when the House gets its Report. This is much more a question for the House of Commons than for the Government, and I am perfectly certain that, whatever the decision of the House may be, the great majority of the House will feel, as the Government feel, that there is something here which ought to be inquired into. That is all that is being done. A short discussion took place on this subject, I think, at the beginning of this Parliament. I should be very sorry to have this looked upon as if it were a question only between the Labour party and the Government. It was impressed upon me that there was a feeling in all quarters of the House that, at all events, this subject needed to be inquired into. I think that is evident. I am not now going to debate the question as to whether or not Members of Parliament should be paid at all. It would not be in order, and I should be very unwilling to do it. But, assuming that Parliament was right in fixing a salary with a certain amount, which, I think, was £100, for expenses, it is perfectly obvious to the House that the question whether the allowance under the head of expenses, which might have been considered adequate when money was worth what it was then, is on for proper examination now, when we know how much more money is necessary to get the same services. I do not, in the least, wish to pre-judge the question, but I feel strongly that the House ought to agree to the inquiry. It is a question, however, not for the Government, but for the House. I am sure the House will approve of the inquiry, but I am quite prepared to leave it to the House to decide, without the Whips being put on.


This will not be the first occasion on which I disregard the wishes of my colleagues. I am not amenable to the Labour party or to any trade union, and it is for that reason I am speaking to-day. I know that the remarks of the first speaker will go out to the Press, and the entire object of those remarks was to make political capital against the Labour party. I want to say as a Member of this House, that had I cared, although I would not have been in this House since April, I could have had a subsidy, as there are hon. Members in this House with a subsidy to watch the interests of this or that industrial corporation. For that reason, I submit that, at least, this question should be discussed on its merits, and without attempting to make capital out of it. Everyone knows that any man who serves in this House, including the Front Bench, if he cared to use his undoubted ability in a commercial direction, could make six times the sum he is making here. Therefore, the charge that the hon. Member (Commander Bellairs) is trying to make against one party is, to say the least, cheap and nasty.


I want to raise a point which seems to me of some importance with regard to procedure. I always understood that Labour Members were appointed to Committees according to the strict rule. I would, therefore, draw attention to the fact that there are three Labours Members suggested. [HON. MEMBERS: "Only two.]

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, that a Select Committee be appointed to consider the salary allotted to Members of this House, the travelling and other expenses incurred by them in connection with their Parliamentary duties, and to report.

Sir Godfrey Collins, Major Farquharson, Major Glyn, Rear-Admiral Sir R. Hall, Mr. Hartshorn, Commander O. Locker-Lampson, Mr. Stanton, Mr. Thomas, and Mr. Charles White nominated members of the Committee.

Ordered, that the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records:

Ordered, that Three be the quorum. [Colonel Gibbs.]