HC Deb 20 July 1984 vol 64 cc617-38
Mr. Speaker

May I say a brief word to the House about the form of today's debate? Under the business motion agreed by the House last Wednesday, the Questions on items 1, 2 and 3 on today's Order Paper, and

That, in the opinion of this House, the limit on the allowance payable to a Member of this House in respect of the aggregate expenses incurred by him for his Parliamentary duties as general office expenses, on secretarial assistance and on research assistance should be determined as follows—
5 (a) for the year ending with 31st March 1985, the limit should be the amount obtained by increasing £12,000 by four-fifths of the relevant percentage,
10 (b) for any subsequent year the limit should be the amount obtained by increasing the limit applicable to the immediately preceding year by the relevant.percentage (so that, if the relevant percentage for any year is nil, the limit remains the same for that year), and for the purposes of this paragraph the limit applicable to the year ending with 31st March 1985 shall be taken to be what it would have been if in paragraph (a) above the words 'four-fifths of' had been omitted.
In this Resolution 'year' means a year ending with 31st March, and for the purposes of this Resolution—
15 (i) the relevant percentage for any year is the percentage by which the amount of salary (exclusive of allowances and overtime) payable for that year to a person in the Home Civil Service at the maximum point on the scale for Senior Personal Secretaries and in receipt of inner London weighting exceeds the corresponding amount for the immediately preceding year;
20 (ii) any fraction of a pound in the amount obtained under paragraph (a) or (b) above for any year shall be treated as whole pound if it is not less than 50 pence, but shall otherwise be disregarded.

As you have said, Mr. Speaker, the following motions are to be debated at the same time:

5 That, in the opinion of this House, the following provision should be made with respect to the rates of the car mileage allowance payable to Members travelling on Parliamentary duties and the rates applicable to the car mileage allowances payable in respect of journeys by the spouse of a Member and journeys by persons in respect of whom the 5 secretarial and research allowance of a Member is payable—
(1) The allowance payable in respect of a journey commenced in the period beginning with 1st October 1984 and ending with 31st March 1985 shall be payable—
10 (a) subject to the limit specified in paragraph (3) below, at the rate per mile shown in column 2 of the following Table in relation to the engine capacity of the vehicle used for the journey; and
(b) in respect of miles in excess of that limit, at the rate per mile shown in column 3 of that Table in relation to that engine capacity.
Engine capacity Mileage up to Limit Further mileage
15 1300cc or less 18p 11.3p
More than 1300cc and not more than 2300cc 25.9p 14.7p
More than 2300cc 39p 19.5p
20 (2) Paragraph (1) above shall have effect in relation to journeys commenced in the year beginning with 1st April 1985 and each subsequent year with the substitution, for the rates shown in the Table, of rates calculated, on the principles exemplified in Appendix I to the Report of the Independent Inquiry, from the figures in the edition of the Royal Automobile Club's Schedule of Estimated Vehicle Running Costs published in or about the April of the year in question.
25 (3) For the purpose of this Resolution the limit on the number of miles in respect of which car mileage allowance may be paid at the rate specified in column 2 of the Table shall be 10,000 miles for the period beginning with 1st October 1984 and ending with 31st March 1985 and 20,000 miles for the year beginning with 1st April 1985 and for each subsequent year.
30 (4) Arrangements shall be made for ensuring that claims made for car mileage allowance in respect of miles travelled in excess of 25,000 miles in any year are supported by particulars of the journeys to which the claims relate.
(5) In this Resolution—

on the selected amendments thereto, have to be put after three hours have elapsed. I take it, therefore, that the House will agree to debate all three items together.

I have selected all the amendments on the Order Paper.

9.37 am
The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I beg to move,

35 'the Report of the Independent Inquiry' means the Report of the Independent Inquiry into Motor Mileage Allowance for Members of Parliament to the Leader of the House of Commons (House of Commons Paper No. 469 of Session 1983–84); 'year' means a year beginning with 1st April.
That the draft Lord Chancellor's Salary Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 12th July, be approved.

There are three documents before the House for which I seek approval. They are a draft Order in Council relating to the Lord Chancellor's salary, and two motions seeking to make changes in certain allowances payable to Members of Parliament. The allowances in question are the office, secretarial and research allowance, and the car mileage allowance. The texts of those documents have appeared on the Order Paper for some days. It may assist the House, however, if I outline as briefly as I can the import of each proposed change and explain the reasoning that lies behind them.

The draft Order in Council provides for an increase in the salary payable to the Lord Chancellor with effect from 31 July and 1 November 1984. The Lord Chancellor's position is unlike that of any other member of the Government, in that he is not only a Cabinet Minister but is head of the judiciary. Accordingly, the arrangements for his remuneration differ from those for other Ministers.

The Top Salaries Review Body, taking account of the Lord Chancellor's unique position, recommended that the Lord Chancellor should be entitled to a rather higher level of remuneration than the Lord Chief Justice. The Government accepted that recommendation and gave effect to it. The Order in Council is needed to maintain that position, following the recent increase in the salaries paid to the judiciary. It mentions two separate dates, because the increase is being paid on those dates.

The second proposal for which I seek the approval of the House is a change in the arrangements for the allowances payable in respect of office equipment and secretarial and research assistance. As the House knows, the amount of that allowance has hitherto been adjusted on an ad hoc basis according to what has seemed appropriate at the time. I believe that that has not been wholly satisfactory, not least because it has required constant orders to be confirmed by Parliament. In an attempt to find a more acceptable and enduring basis for that allowance, the Government invited the Top Salaries Review Body to investigate whether an automatic method of uprating might be found. I have placed a copy of the letter from Lord Plowden, setting out the review body's recommendations, in the Library.

The review body recommended that in future the secretarial, research and office expenses allowance should be increased by the same percentage as the salary, plus London weighting, of a civil servant at the maximum point of the senior personal secretary scale. The Government accept that recommendation. The wording of the motion is not entirely straightforward, and it may be helpful if I explain the reason for it being drafted in this way. In the first place, no specific amount of money is mentioned for the amount of this year's increase. That is because the negotiations on Civil Service pay have not been concluded. That settlement will determine the amount by which the allowance will rise this year. The motion was therefore drafted with reference only to the principle of the new system, not its immediate practical effect. Under the Government's offer to the Civil Service, the limit for the allowance in the current financial year will increase to £12,437, and that rate will apply until 1 April 1985. That brings me to the second feature of the motion.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

During this process of review, has any account been taken of the work load which secretarial and research assistants might normally be expected to bear for a Member of Parliament? Do the moneys proposed take into account national insurance and other payments required for such assistance? Does my right hon. Friend have a view on whether the amount proposed is adequate for most Members of Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

The review broadly took current scales and was designed to find a formula whereby they could be uprated annually without the necessity to come back for confirmation by the House, but, as I shall explain, there are provisions for the sort of review that my hon. Friend has in mind to take place from time to time so that one can relate those factors to the other considerations.

That brings me to the second feature of the motion, which may not be easy to understand at first or second glance. This year the allowance is to be increased by only four fifths of the relevant percentage. As hon. Members will be aware, the secretarial allowance has traditionally been increased on 13 June, but it is payable, under the relevant resolution of the House, for a financial year. That has involved a cumbersome calculation, and while we propose that the allowance should increase this year on 13 June, it is our intention to bring forward the date of increase in 1985 to 1 April to coincide with the start of the financial year. Thus, the 1984 limit will apply only from 13 June 1984 to 31 March 1985, and the four fifths formula in the motion is necessary to produce the same result over the whole year as would have been achieved under the old system. The motion ensures that no loss is incurred by the approach that we have adopted. I believe that these proposals represent an equitable method of regular alteration to the allowance, without the need for frequent debate and vote.

I come to the valid point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth). No arrangement is immutable, and this one, like others, will be subject to review from time to time. I believe that the House will wish to endorse the motion.

The motion on motor mileage allowance concerns inevitably an area of some difficulty, given the widely differing circumstances of hon. Members. Whatever judgments are struck will involve some rough justice. The House will recall that until last July rates payable to Members of Parliament in respect of that allowance were tied to those applicable in the Civil Service. During the debate on hon. Members' pay and allowances on 19 July 1983 considerable unease was expressed about that link and the changes implicit in its continuance. I undertook to have the matter examined. In the meantime, hon. Members have received the higher of the two Civil Service rates introduced on 10 October 1983.

In accordance with my undertaking, I established an independent inquiry to determine the most appropriate means whereby hon. Members could be reimbursed the cost of their motor mileage. The inquiry was conducted under the chairmanship of my noble Friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil. I wish to pay tribute to him and the other members of the inquiry team—Lord Barnett and Mr. Richard Wilkes. They discharged a complex task with speed and imagination. I know that the whole House will wish to join me in thanking them for their efforts.

The report of the inquiry team recommends that the long-established link with the rate of allowance payable to civil servants should be severed. It proposes that in future the allowance should be calculated on the basis of the Royal Automobile Club schedules of motoring costs, with an enhanced element for depreciation, subject to an upper limit of 39p per mile for a car of 2600cc. The Government accept those recommendations.

Paragraph 7 of the report makes it clear that the 39p per mile figure is an upper limit and that where hon. Members use a smaller car and therefore incur lower costs they should limit their claim. In the interests of public accountability and of the proprieties being not only observed but seen to be observed, the Government propose to formalise that arrangement. Under the terms of the motion there will therefore be three tiers of allowance, calculated on the same basis as that used by the inquiry team. [Interruption.] I thought that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was throwing me a lifeline.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)


Mr. Biffen

It is all right. I can do without it.

The three tiers will apply to cars of up to 1300cc, between 1301 and 2300cc, and 2301cc and above. That makes more specific the principle of an allowance based on engine size put forward by the inquiry team in its report.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

There must be some concern about the upper limit of 39p per mile for vehicles of 2600cc. Will that not encourage hon. Members to purchase more powerful cars? Will it not be a bad consideration for the public at large? Has the Fees Office been consulted throughout on the new recommendations?

Mr. Biffen

We have worked closely with the Fees Office, because it bears the onerous task of administering the scheme. I would not come to the Dispatch Box were I not tolerably happy that what has been recommended was a manageable arrangement. With regard to whether payments that are adduced by the RAC to cover motoring costs would result in hon. Members trading up, they must make their own judgment, but I should have thought that the major concern was that we should have a system whereby motoring costs were covered. The Peyton inquiry team did not think that possibility would be a significant factor in the arrangements and, I confess, neither did I. However, this is a House of Commons matter and hon. Members must make their own judgment. I notice that no hon. Member has tabled an amendment to reduce the 39p figure.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Will my right hon. Friend explain how the Government managed to accept, apparently with enthusiasm, the independent recommendations for secretarial and mileage allowances when they found it so difficult on 19 July last year to accept independent recommendations on salaries?

Mr. Biffen

The House took the view that it regarded as appropriate on salaries and the Government accepted it. Moreover, I should point out that I stand at the Dispatch Box today with a sense of weary resignation, not enthusiasm. This is an intractable problem. Let there be no mistake about it. When the public monitor this they will not conclude that we have been engaged in a great exercise of self-deprivation. We should be under no illusions about that. The proposals are an attempt to strike a balance in an exceedingly difficult situation. Members have different motoring costs, largely related to the different types of constituency and it is difficult to find a simple, uniform system that is acceptable. The review committee made the recommendations in good faith and they seem to provide as good a basis as any for the House to try to resolve the problem.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Is not the argument that the higher rate will encourage people to buy larger cars ill founded, in that only the running costs are reimbursed? To buy a large car one needs to have or to borrow more money, which is not reflected in the allowances. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, it is."] Depreciation is included but not the cost of the car.

Mr. Biffen

In my judgment, the scales proposed will not lead to a rash of Rolls-Royces cluttering up the Members' Car Park. I am sure the House will agree that it is important that Members of Parliament should be seen to be subjecting themselves to the same disciplines as would apply elsewhere.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Whatever the arguments about the specific mileage allowances, does my right hon. Friend accept that the previous flat rate system was fairer and easier to explain to the public?

Mr. Biffen

That may be so—it is for the House to take a view on that—but Members were miserable with the flat rate system related to the Civil Service as soon as the formula was changed and they thought it was to their disadvantage. That is why the matter was brought into such sharp focus, to use the most neutral language possible, in last July's debate. Although I respect all the opinions being expressed, I should like to press on. Perhaps we could do a deal to the effect that any Member who interrupts me will not seek to speak later in this limited debate.

The Government's proposals will introduce rates of allowance for up to 20,000 miles per year of 18p per mile for cars up to 1300 cc, 25.9p for cars between 1301 cc and 2300 cc and 39p per mile for cars of 2301 cc and above. For mileage in excess of 20,000 in any one year, lower rates of 11.3p 14.7p and 19.5p per mile will apply.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

If there are grounds for differentiating between sizes of car, why is there no differentiation on grounds of distance? Why is no account taken of the fact that some constituencies are 300 miles from London or that some Members have to drive up to 400 miles per weekend to cover their constituencies, whereas for others the entire constituency is within walking distance of a railway station?

Mr. Biffen

There is a distinction in relation to distance. The practice operates in the Civil Service and in a large number of private sector companies. Any system which broadly attempts to relate motoring reimbursement to actual costs should appeal to the sense of equity of hon. Members and make good sound sense to the public outside. The reason for the difference between the rates is that the initial rate based on the RAC schedules reimburses all standing costs and running costs less the deduction for private use. The lower rate reimburses running costs with an enhancement for extra depreciation and repair costs. In both rates, the depreciation element has been enhanced to reflect the fact that Members of Parliament generally travel more than the 10,000 miles on which the RAC schedule is based. The new rates will come into effect on 1 October 1984 and be uprated on 1 April annually with the publication of revised RAC schedules.

More fundamentally, it has been represented to me that an allowance system based on engine size represents a step backwards to the system from which the House moved to a flat rate in 1964. The inquiry, however, found that a wide range of costs related to engine capacity. It seems reasonable that Members with distant or geographically large constituencies should choose to run larger than average cars because of those factors. Therefore, I accept that there are defensible reasons in equity for a multi-tier system. It may be argued that the Government, having taken that decision, should have taken the argument to its logical conclusion and proposed a six-tier system to correspond exactly with the RAC schedule of costs. I see no objection to that in principle, but one must strike a balance between absolute accuracy and ease of administration. I believe that the three-tier system combines fairness in relating allowances to costs, while avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy.

The House will have noted that paragraph 6 of the inquiry report recommends that Members wishing to claim for distances in excess of 25,000 miles a year should furnish particulars of all journeys included in their claim. It may help the House if I outline the way in which we envisage this being applied. The 25,000-mile limit will apply only to journeys undertaken by Members. Use of the vehicle by spouse or secretary qualifying for reimbursement will be treated on a de minimis basis and exempted. Similarly, travel by car in connection with Select Committee work will not count towards the 25,000-mile total.

The limit will apply only to journeys between Westminster and home constituency and within the constituency. Under the existing arrangements, Members routinely detail all journeys between Westminster and home constituency. There will be no change in that requirement. If, however, a Member feels that he is likely to exceed 25,000 miles in any given year, he will be expected to provide fuller particulars than hitherto of journeys within his constituency. The precise form in which such particulars should be provided is being considered by the House authorities.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

If a Member has more than one car in more than one band of the proposed scheme, will he have to identify which car was used for which mileage? If a Member travels by taxi, as is often necessary if one arrives by air, the cost will be greater than can be claimed through the mileage allowance. Will the Member concerned therefore be allowed to claim at the highest rate of mileage allowance?

Mr. Biffen

The answer to both questions is yes.

I accept at once that 25,000 is a somewhat arbitrary limit and that Members with distant or rural constituencies will reach it more easily and will thus be required to account for their mileage more closely than some of their southern or urban colleagues. Nevertheless, I felt it right to accept the inquiry's recommendation as an important demonstration that no special privilege or undue latitude is sought for Members of Parliament. I urge the House to consider the proposals in that spirit.

In conclusion, I suggest that the secretarial and motor mileage allowances must stand two broad tests. First, they must be equitable in relation to the costs borne. Secondly, they must be defensible to the wider public. I believe that the proposals meet those standards and I commend them to the House.

10 am

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

I beg to move amendment (a) to the proposed motion, in line 6, leave out `£12,000' and insert '£17,000'.

The amendment is concerned entirely with the amount of money made available to us for the office, secretarial and research allowance. The purpose of the amendment is to increase the amount from the level set in the motion—£12,000—to£17,000.

My intention is not to claim any privileges for us as Members of Parliament, but solely and simply to enable us to do our job better and to do justice to our secretaries and research assistants, if we have them. If we accept the amendment, the public will not take the view that we are voting perks for ourselves. They will understand that what we are doing is necessary and essential if we are to do our job properly.

An allowance of £17,000 would enable every hon. Member who so wishes to have a staff of two—one full-time secretary and one full-time research assistant. It could, of course, also be divided between two part-time secretaries and two part-time research assistants. It would also provide a minimum sum of money to enable us to buy, repair or update our typewriters and dictating equipment. Those are the minimum services that we need.

At present, the allowance is adequate for one secretary, about 0.2 per cent. of a research assistant, and the occasional purchase of a typewriter. That is not adequate. Hon. Members who have been here longer than I will say, "What are you complaining about? It was worse when I first came here." Every hon. Member will have heard that said by some older hon. Member, regardless of party. I appreciate the fact that this House is a conservative institution as well as, at the moment, alas, a Conservative one. However, we do not have to take conservatism to that extreme.

The second argument against my proposal is seldom stated explicitly, but I often suspect that the two Front Benches are in collusion about it. They reason that if they give Back Benchers more back-up and support, those Back Benchers will be able to make their lives more difficult. They want to keep us beaten down with constituency work in our offices or corridors so that we will not cause them too much trouble. That makes life easier for the Front Benches. Back Benchers are in a majority in this place We have the right to make certain demands, regardless of what Front Benchers may say to us. I hope that in that spirit the majority of Back Benchers will support my amendment.

Although I have not done the detailed research, it is difficult to find any Western Parliament where the back-up is less adequate than it is here. Almost every Western Parliament provides at least a staff of two for each Member, and so do some non-Western Parliaments. South Korea — which is hardly a byword for democratic procedures and practice — gives each Member of Parliament a staff of two.

I do not want to be accused of giving us all a pat on the back, and I hope I shall not be misunderstood, but it is my contention, based upon discussions with many Members of Parliaments throughout the world, that we work harder than the Members of any other elected assembly. I cannot prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt, but all the investigations that have been carried out and the discussions that we have had with our opposite numbers abroad tend to confirm that view.

Mr. Dykes

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a German Member of Parliament gets allowances worth £18,000, a salary of £28,000, free postage throughout the world, free telephone calls throughout the world, first-class rail travel throughout German territory and one free aircraft trip anywhere every month, subject to the approval of the relevant committee? That may seem grandiose in comparison with what we get, but I should also point out that the Bundestag processes fewer Bills per annum than we do, and yet it is a highly effective Parliament.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

More money for less work.

Mr. Dubs

I do not want to involve myself in an argument about the effectiveness of the Bundestag, but I am aware that we work longer hours and get through more work than our opposite numbers in Germany. In particular, we do more constituency case work. That is one of the key arguments, although not the only argument, in favour of my proposal.

Whether we like it or not, most of us have an ever-increasing burden of welfare or constituency case work, I welcome that fact. It is right that we should do that work. It keeps us in close touch with what is going on. That cannot be said of the many countries where Members tend not to do so much constituency work. However, the corollary is that we are short of time to cope with the wide range of other work for which we are responsible.

The public can be divided into two groups: those who are not aware of the poor facilities and back-up here and are astonished when we explain to them the problems that we face in trying to serve them; and those who know how poor the facilities are, but rightly say that it is entirely our own fault. They say that we need not put up with it, and that if we decide not to put up with it there are plenty of members of the public who would do the job in our place. We cut a poor figure when we moan about a lack of back-up, which is entirely our own fault.

I am not forgetting that there is an excellent Library, with first-class research staff. I pay tribute to the staff for all the work that they do for us. However, they cannot do for us all the work that a research assistant would do. It would be unfair of us to take to the Library all the work that we would like to take, because the staff could not cope with the burden. They have to work for all Members of Parliament. It would be helpful to have one's own research assistant, because he, or she, would understand one's approach to the job, one's problems and one's constituency.

Most of us simply do not read the bulk of the documents, circulars, White Papers and Select Committee reports which come our way. We do not have the time. Furthermore, no hon. Member would claim that his speeches or questions, or the letters that he writes to Ministers or to local authorities, are always as well thought out, researched and prepared as they should be. Civil servants must wonder why our parliamentary questions sometimes do not quite hit the mark or why the letters that we write to Ministers are rather sloppy and may not address themselves strictly to the point. The answer is that we do not have time to do such work properly.

We may also have to table a written question because we simply do not have the time to think through and draft a letter which might be more to the point. I do not agree with those who say that if all Members of Parliament have research assistants they will simply spend the time asking more questions. That would not necessarily be the outcome, but we might well ask better and more sensible questions. In any case, one of the reasons why we now ask questions is that we do not have the time to do our own digging and delving.

I hope that the House will support the amendment. It is a modest proposal that will enable us to do a better job of work for our constituents. They will therefore welcome it. It will also enable us to do justice to our secretaries and research assistants. I am sure that, sooner or later, such a change will be made and that we shall have the staff that I have talked about, so why not now?


Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I am sure that we all want to give a fair wind to the third motion on the order paper which concerns the Lord Chancellor's salary. I hope that he enjoys receiving and spending it.

I do not want to follow what the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) said about secretarial allowances as I do not believe that this is the right day to go into that matter in detail. The first motion merely gives effect to what we have already decided. A major debate of principle in regard to the level of secretarial and research back-up should be dealt with more effectively than in an amendment. If we are examining back-up for Members of Parliament and its cost, we should take account of the cost of written questions and similar matters, as the total back-up for a Member has a cost, and it might be possible, after consideration between Back-Bench party officers, to find a means of limiting total costs of back-up rather than merely the element of those costs which Members manage.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

The hon. Gentleman said that now is not the appropriate time to examine the base rate for the secretarial and research allowance. Will he bear in mind that the present allowance was fixed as part of an overall package of Members' salaries and allowances at the start of this Parliament? It was voted through in the early hours of the morning, and there was little discussion about the allowance element of that package. Surely this morning, with three hours of debate, we have a proper chance to discuss the base rate.

Mr. Bottomley

I take the hon. Gentleman's hint. I shall not continue to make that point. Others can develop the case which I do not think is appropriate for today.

It is important to lay one or two elephant traps on car mileage. I believe that the signals in the proposed scheme will get Members doing things that they would not otherwise do. That might or might not be intended. Members who have a car, the cubic capacity of which is one or two cubic centimetres below one of the limits, will feel aggrieved, and, on changing the car, will go above the limit. That will involve extra cost without giving any advantage to a Member, except assuaging a sense of grievance. There is much to be said for a common system. I do not feel that so strongly that I shall deliberately overturn what the Government are proposing, but the sooner we get back to a system that gives Members the right signals, the better.

We should try to meet Members' costs in the form of standing charges and then provide a marginal amount for petrol and a little wear and tear. The old system did not do that. The basic cost of a motor car is so many hundreds or thousands of pounds a year, and the marginal cost, which is what we should get back for marginal motoring, can be estimated with some rough justice. As I said in last year's debate, I should have been happier if the Government had linked this with Civil Service procedures, so that we had one simple rate and we could then have argued about the number of miles. I regret that the House did not take that view, as it would have been more satisfactory than what we have. Even more satisfactory would be a lump sum and a low marginal reimbursement for the low marginal costs of motoring.

Mr. Forth

Does my hon. Friend agree with our right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that after what happened last year there was some groundswell of opinion among hon. Members against what emerged? Alternatively, does my hon. Friend agree with me that, having done what we did last year, there was broad satisfaction? That is why people do not understand why we have the present proposal.

Mr. Bottomley

The simple answer is that, when a proposal is made, those who object turn out. When the previous proposal emerged, the high mileage Members objected. Now it is probably the others who are objecting.

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps I might clarify what is clearly a misunderstanding. The groundswell of resentment occurred when the House discovered that its attachment to the Civil Service formula meant a move to a system of abating payment for the first 9,000 miles and a reduced payment thereafter. The House has little sympathy for the privilege of the top rate, and I must observe that that privilege is not as secure as it will be under the scrutiny of the Inland Revenue if it continues.

Mr. Bottomley

The House should be prepared to review whatever arrangements we decide on or do not accept today so that, in the near future, we have a system under which a Member might get £1,500 a year and 10p a mile. A Member would then be indifferent about whether he or she travelled by train or by car. We should try to achieve that indifference. At the moment, a Member can retrieve most of the standing cost only by doing a high mileage. That probably involves a decision to drive when it might be more convenient and sensible to use public transport. That seems so obvious that it is likely to take the House many years to adopt it, but I have never thought that I should not come to the House and state the obvious.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are many constituencies, rural and urban, in which there is not an adequate public transport service? Because of the lack of transport, withdrawal of transport grants and other problems that have resulted from the present Government, many Members who represent constituencies in the north-west are forced to use a car to travel around constituencies and to neighbouring areas.

Mr. Bottomley

I entirely accept that point, and I thought that I had allowed for it. I am not suggesting that Members should automatically be badly off if they have to use a car for a high mileage. My point is that the system that we had was better than that which we might adopt and that the system that I am suggesting would meet most cases.

Perhaps I might make a personal point. With a London constituency and the need to use a car to get to it—a journey of about seven miles to the constituency boundary and about 10 miles in the constituency in a normal day—whatever system the House is likely to adopt will not meet my car expenses and having to have an extra car for the purpose. I do not mind that. That is rough justice, and I am one of those who do not gain under any system. Bearing that in mind, it is worth advancing sensible ideas that will lead to most Members getting most of their expenses most of the time, while avoiding the temptation to drive more often just to cover higher standing charges. Moreover, as one who has had a car with an engine capacity of 2.6 litres, another of 1.99 litres and another of 850cc, I can envisage the complications for the Fees Office and for Members of trying to make the right claim. I suspect that a bit of averaging goes on.

10.18 am
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I welcome the Government's decision to index the secretarial allowance. Our staff will therefore know that if the salaries of people who do similar work in the Civil Service increase to take account of inflation Members will be able to increase the salaries of their staff. The annual wait to discover whether that will be possible was not satisfactory.

It is right that the overall rate of secretarial allowance should have been mentioned today. I do not think that this is the wrong time or the wrong day. We can quite properly discuss the matter now. I regret that it is still not possible to employ and pay properly a full-time secretary and a full-time research assistant, constituency assistant, political assistant or whichever combination of those functions is found most convenient, out of the secretarial allowance.

The review body recognises that that is the combination of staff needed by hon. Members. It is widely accepted that that is so. Not all hon. Members wish to avail themselves of that level of service, but those who do find it increasingly difficult, for the reasons that have already been given. Some hon. Members are under particularly heavy pressure. A Liberal Member has 120,000 constituents. The amount of correspondence generated by such a number of constituents is very great. Clearly he needs staffing support to carry out his duties. Therefore, the basis of the secretarial allowance needs to be expanded to provide a modest staff of two people. That is not an unreasonable demand when we compare our work with that of legislatures that carry less extensive responsibilities than we do.

Many other expenses must be met from the secretarial allowance. An hon. Member may have to meet the increasingly high cost of advertising constituency surgeries. In my area where there are many local papers it costs between £1,600 and £1,700 a year merely to advertise the time and place of the surgery. On top of that there may be rooms to be hired and other support costs to pay. There are stationery and office costs, which are not met from the allowance, especially if an hon. Member bases much of his secretarial work in his constituency. Some hon. Members choose to base their office work in the House and others in their constituencies. There are good reasons for either choice. However, in the latter case hon. Members must meet a higher proportion of the costs. They must pay for all telephone calls and they will not have the photocopying and other facilities that are available in the House. That should be recognised. My hon. Friends and I are therefore inclined to support the amendment moved on that matter.

Many hon. Members must travel a great deal by car to carry out their duties, especially in large constituencies and for hon. Members who must travel to and from distant constituencies where public transport is not ideal. Liberal Members represent some of the largest and most distant constituencies in the United Kingdom, and so we are not strangers to the problems involved. That has not led us to be enthusiastic about the Government's proposed solutions.

The proposition involves a high top mileage rate of 39p. That is much higher than any other rate available for others who undertake public activities, services or duties. I sympathise with the Government in that they are pressed again and again for independent reports on hon. Members' allowances, salaries and facilities and to act upon them. They never do that for our pay, but always reject the independent recommendations. Are we then wrong in chiding them for appearing to accept the recommendations of an outside body? They have not accepted the recommendations of an outside body. The outside body recommended that there should be a maximum reclaimable amount of 39p per mile and that hon. Members should claim within that maximum for the costs which they incur. The Government have proposed a banding system under which hon. Members claim at a specific amount for whatever kind of car they operate. The banding system is extremely limited.

The review body understood its recommendations to mean that hon. Members would claim at the most appropriate level and treat the 39p as a maximum—in many cases a maximum far beyond what would be claimed. The Government's proposals are not expressed as maxima. It is assumed that, whatever an hon. Member's costs are, he will claim at the rate for his particular size of car. He may have a 10-year-old 2.8 litre car whose depreciation is not as great as the sum envisaged in the mileage figures. The review body understood that, which is why it recommended a single maximum and expected hon. Members to claim within it, and did not recommend a banding system. Therefore, the Government cannot get away with saying that they are implementing the review body's recommendations.

We are entitled to examine the recommendations on their merits and see what their effects will be. They are way out of line with what people in other parts of the public service can claim, whether in the Civil Service or local government. They are out of line to an extent which cannot be justified by the particular circumstances of an hon. Member's use of a car. There are other problems. There are some differences between an hon. Member and a civil servant, which is why it is defensible to say that an hon. Member should be able to claim the current top Civil Service rate for a higher mileage than can a civil servant. Hon. Members' duties necessitate higher levels of mileage than are normal in most parts of the Civil Service, where civil servants are given a car allowance rather than a car. The public understand that it should be recognised that hon. Members, unless they are Ministers or Leaders of the Opposition, are not provided with official cars, but buy their own.

The trouble with the banding structure is that it becomes a direct incentive to an hon. Member to buy a car with a higher engine capacity. If he does so, he will be entitled to claim several thousand pounds a year more for car mileage allowance.

Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak)

The hon. Gentleman's point that it will pay hon. Members to buy a bigger car cannot be true if the figures used by the independent review body are based, as they are, on the actual costs of running cars of this size as computed by the Royal Automobile Club. Therefore, the size of car will make no difference to hon. Members. The mileage rate will merely cover the running costs. The costs may be higher than those incurred by people in other public jobs, but that is because most hon. Members are doing marginal mileage on top of normal mileage. Provided one's mileage is about average, depreciation is not affected. Hon. Members' mileages massively affect depreciation.

Mr. Beith

That is not so for two reasons. First, the Government have excluded provision for one of the most frequent bands of car engine size—the range between 1,600 cc and 2.5 litres. By excluding that, many hon. Members will find that they can go for greater engine capacity without raising their costs anything like as much as the increase in the allowance they will be able to reclaim. That is why I tabled the amendment, which is designed to create an additional band covering a widespread and common size of family car. Last night I looked around the Car Park and found only two or three cars of the 39p category and about 20 cars in the middle band that I am describing.

Secondly, the higher mileage figure worked out in the RAC scales derives primarily not from higher petrol or running costs but from the higher depreciation of cars with a large engine capacity. It is clear from the RAC tables that the depreciation element makes up the larger part of the cost. An hon. Member can avoid that depreciation element if he buys a large but old car. The rate of depreciation on large old cars is minimal. An hon. Member could move into the higher-rate band at minimal increased cost and automatically become entitled to reclaim a vastly larger sum.

Mr. Bruinvels

Does it mean that there will be no incentive to keep a smaller car?

Mr. Beith

That is exactly my point. I wish to provide hon. Members with an incentive to do what I hope the whole nation will do, which is to run cars that are energy efficient, do not consume unnecessary amounts of petrol and are reasonable for the job to be done, whether to be driven around by a Member of Parliament, to transport the family or for any other purpose.

Mr. Bermingham

When the hon. Gentleman takes into account depreciation and repair costs, perhaps he should also take into account the safety factor. Does he agree that there is a direct correlation between the number of miles driven in any year and the likelihood of becoming involved in an accident? Is he further aware that for some years statistics have shown that those who drive a higher-capacity car tend to have a greater survival rate than do those who drive a lower-capacity car?

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman produces a mine of statistics. I wish to encourage hon. Members not to drive in motor cars any more than they need to. There are several reasons why the Government's proposals will encourage hon. Members to drive more than they need to. If we produce an enormous differential between what can be reclaimed by driving a car and by travelling by public transport, as these proposals would, it becomes likely that hon. Members will increasingly travel in cars, partly to reclaim the greater costs, as the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) said. It is injurious to Members' health to travel excessively in cars. Those of us who are forced, by the distances involved in constituency travel, to drive a great deal from late night meetings know how difficult and dangerous that is and how easily one can become so tired as to drop off to sleep behind the wheel. Hon. Members should be given every available incentive to travel by public transport wherever possible.

The banding system proposed by the Government in an attempt to increase accountability and to maintain simplicity is wrong and will penalise those who make the sensible decision to have a medium-sized car that does not have high petrol consumption. The Government and the House, which in the end will take the decision, should set an example to the nation by saying, "We shall not devise systems that encourage hon. Members to buy bigger, gas-guzzling cars." Hon. Members may have reasons for buying bigger and higher engine capacity cars—that is their business—but it would be a great mistake for us to provide a system which penalises those who do not buy such cars.

An alternative which the Government could have accepted would be to accept the review body's original recommendations, have the 39p as an absolute maximum and hope that hon. Members would not rush to claim the maximum figure. Another advantage of that is that the system being proposed will be expensive to operate. The banding system and the need to submit much more complicated forms will cause much bureaucracy; indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it would require about three more members of staff in the Fees Office, at a cost of about £20,000 a year, to carry out that work. I have some sympathy with the Government's belief that they had to go further to ensure that justice is seen to be done and that there is no possibility of claiming at the wrong rate, but I believe that the banding system is wrong.

What are the possibilities? We could return to the flat rate, retain the system that we have now and work from the top Civil Service rates and, if the Government believe it right to do so, we could choose a suitable cut-off point to move to a lower rate at which the depreciation arid standing charges are reasonably met. That would be a different rate from the Civil Service rate, because we are talking not about mileage allowance but about a car that is mainly, or even entirely, used for parliamentary activities. In many ways, that is the most attractive possibility, which is why I am tempted to throw out this proposal and to retain the present scheme, which is closer to most of the schemes in other public services, much easier to understand and explain and less expensive to administer.

However, if we must have this scheme — there is some chance that it will be passed by the House today—we must amend it so as to provide a reasonable basis for those who use medium-sized family cars to be able to claim at a reasonable rate and not to be given an incentive to claim at a higher rate. That is the precise purpose of my amendment, which draws upon the same RAC table but takes the next band down in that table. The figure of 29p is drawn by using the same calculation as the Government made to obtain the 39p figure. The Government took two bands and averaged them out to produce a much larger middle band. In doing so, they placed those who use normal family cars at a serious disadvantage.

Were we to pass my amendment, those who believe that it is essential for hon. Members to have larger cars and to be able to claim at the higher rate will not be prevented from doing so; but those hon. Members in the widespread category that I mentioned will retain a reasonable basis on which to run their cars. If the Government rely on the RAC figures, they must accept the evidence of those figures—that it costs about 29p a mile to run a car of that size. If we accept the banding scheme with a rate as high as 39p, we must amend it so as to remove the incentive to move into the higher bracket. That is a reasonable proposal, and the Leader of the House said in his opening speech that he had no objection in principle to the proposal. He believed that an extra band would add a further complication. I believe that the added complication would provide something more like rough justice. The original supposed justice of the scheme is much too rough for my liking.

I would much rather that we abandoned this proposal and returned to the flat-rate scheme which the House has operated for some years and which is more reasonable. But if that does not happen, the House must take the precaution of amending the Government's scheme to ensure that it does not encourage hon. Members to buy cars which consume more petrol and which they otherwise would not buy.

10.35 am
Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

I agree with most of what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, but I wish to address myself to another matter.

For my money, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is the most intelligent as well as the most agreeable member of the Cabinet; and, to do him justice, he looked properly shamefaced when he introduced this nonsensical proposal this morning. I am talking only about the car allowances, and I shall deal briefly with one aspect of them, which is the arbitrary limitation, first, to 20,000 miles, after which a reduced allowance becomes payable—I do not object to that—and thereafter to 25,000 miles, after which every hon. Member is expected to account in detail for every mile that he travels on constituency work.

That is the most lunatic proposal that has been put before the House for a long time. What possible justification can there be for taking no account of the distance of an hon. Member's constituency from London, or of the size of his constituency? I am among those who will be fairly hard hit by the proposal, in that my consituency is 250 miles from London. Therefore, just by travelling backwards and forwards to my constituency on at least 40 weekends a year I clock up 20,000 miles before I even start to travel in my constituency.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will clarify this if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the mileage between London and one's constituency does not count as part of the mileage because it is allowable anyway.

Sir Anthony Meyer

I wish that my hon. Friend was right, but my understanding is that travel between London and one's constituency is included in the 20,000 miles and the 25,000 miles. My case is nowhere near as bad as that of some of my colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Hooson)—who was here earlier but who, presumably, is unable to stay—and my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Harvey), who could not cover their constituencies adequately unless they travelled at least 300 or 400 miles every weekend. I am sure that were it not for his ministerial duties my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who represents Shropshire, North, would make equally frequent visits to his constituency. When he was in opposition he was well known for the assiduity with which he visited and travelled round his constituency. Therefore, he must feel as strongly as I do that the proposition is absurd.

It is suggested that if we travel more than 25,000 miles a year we are somehow under suspicion of fiddling our travel expenses and we are required to account for each mile that we travel. Therefore, we come under pressure to make those journeys by train. It is a good idea to use public transport as much as possible, but again we run into a snag. My wife and I am sure the wives of many other hon. Members work almost as hard in the constituency at weekends as do hon. Members, but wives are limited to 15 trips a year on travel warrants. Last year I fell foul of that system. My wife had made 16 trips to my constituency by train, and I had already covered 28,000 miles by car. Once again, I had to pay for one of my wife's trips.

I do not complain about that, but I think it is absurd that there should be any limitation on the number of trips that a wife can make per year to the constituency as against the nine trips a year which a secretary is apparently allowed to make to the constituency—a privilege of which not many hon. Members will feel obliged to take advantage—so something seems to have gone wrong there.

It seems to me that some account must be taken both of the distance of an hon. Member's constituency from London and of his need to travel within that constituency each weekend. The present formula takes no account of that. This is one of the most stupid motions to come before the House for a very long time.

10.40 am
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I am pleased to intervene in the debate to support the amendment which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) moved with great clarity and force.

This is an argument of immense importance. Over the five years that I have been here I have come to the view that this place is in need of fundamental reform in a number of ways, of which Members' allowances are one small but very important part. Unless we undertake some of these reforms we are in danger of being seen as less and less relevant in the eyes of the public.

A political system can be almost anything. It can be good or bad, honest or dishonest, right or wrong, but it cannot afford to be irrelevant. As it is seen to be less and less relevant, so it declines in importance, and so people tend not to take notice of it.

The allowances are important in all this. When I arrived here, like most other hon. Members I spent the first month or so trying to find any desk on which I could squat and put my papers. I was obliged to move them round from time to time, from place to place, until I was given one of the desks in the Cloisters below the House. The Cloisters are quite a nice place to be in terms of being central, but that corridor is totally inadequate as an office. One of the first disadvantages to strike me was that if I wanted to hang up a calendar I had to drill a hole in what I assumed was a 17th century wall. What became much more important was trying to run a sensible office system from there when there were many hon. Members lined up in the corridor, people passing to and fro along the corridor and groups of people having conversations there. I was supposed to run my office and my constituency and other work from that desk. It was utter nonsense.

As I became more involved in the politics of Northern Ireland, in 1980 and 1981, I began to take a more active interest in the prison system. I found, as a former probation officer, that that was relevant to my work. I knew when I came here that the general back-up support for Members of Parliament was bad. I also knew that the support services that I would get were far less and more useless than I had ever experienced in probation work or in a number of other jobs of that nature.

When the hunger strike and the dirty protest were well established in Northern Ireland and I became more and more involved, I found myself having telephone conversations from my desk in this public corridor with groups of people standing around when I was discussing matters with a considerable security content. At one stage when I was planning a visit to Portlaoise prison in Dublin, which was also dealing with a dirty protest at the time and had experienced circumstances similar to those which had led to the hunger strike in the Maze prison, I had a number of conversations with the Irish embassy about my proposed visit. I became more and more concerned about the security aspects of that, and I was aware that literally groups of people were overhearing my conversations. I got to the stage where the embassy was telephoning me and I was telling the caller to ring off so that I could go upstairs to an ordinary telephone box to phone him back.

I put it to the House that that is a disgrace. It is totally unacceptable in any modern democratic political system that we behave in that way. At the end of the day, we all know it. Unless we are prepared to provide good services we shall go on appearing to be irrelevant to the majority of people, and that is particularly dangerous.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea proposed the increase to £17,000, he spoke about the wages for two people — a research assistant and a personal assistant. I cannot remeber the full total that I pay my own personal assistant, including national insurance contributions, but it works out at about £8,000 per annum. With her qualifications and experience she could earn more elsewhere. If I am then to use some of the modern equipment that I should like to use and have just invested in in the form of an Apricot computer, I shall have cut out any real chance of having a research assistant at all. I have spent £3,500 on a computer system which makes a lot of sense in terms not only of a limited word processing facility but of a filing system which enables me eventually, when I can afford to buy the other part of the equipment, to call up files when I am in my constituency so that I can deal with the sorts of problems that my hon. Friend described so vividly rather than saying that I shall deal with them when I get back to the House, write a number of letters, and all the other time-consuming and wasteful ways of dealing with these matters.

So what do I do about research? Again, as my hon. Friend pointed out with clarity and force, I rely a great deal on the Library, but the Library cannot be asked to do the detailed work which is required, so I rely on individuals, and again I have been extremely fortunate in that a number of people have volunteered their services. For the past month or two I have had a man who is highly qualified but unemployed, despite his qualifications and an extremely good university reference. Until he gets a job he is working for me for nothing, simply because I cannot afford to pay him. Because I have already almost accounted for my allowance over the full year taking into account the salary of my personal assistant and the computer software costs, there is no chance of my paying him other than his expenses to and from work.

No modern nation of any significant size would tolerate for long a system as daft as this. Why we are bothering about the car allowance — and I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) — when we have not even got the basic expenses right, I do not know. I suppose that I have an environmental advantage in that I walk nearly everywhere in my constituency, but it is a London constituency, and a small one, so that is a special case. We are concentrating on a minor part of the problem when the essence of it is the lack of resources to do the job properly. We cannot go on like this if we are to be taken seriously by the public. It is no wonder that Members of Parliament lack the effective power and influence that they should have.

In a good parliamentary system the Back Benchers should be a real power house within their parties and their constituencies. Comparing the role of Members of Parliament in this part of the 20th century with that in the last century, we see clearly that they have lost power and influence. One of the reasons is that the resources to do the job properly are no longer available to them. The circumstances have changed in such a significant way that the people who have control of information are in a powerful position. Unless we have similar access to information and similar back-up and support, we shall not be able to do our job as we should in any mature and responsible democracy.

I do not believe that the Leader of the House is unsympathetic to what I am saying. I ask him to think again about the figure suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea as the very minimum. There is no reason why a Member of Parliament should be without a proper office, properly equipped, and two employees. That should be the minimum available to Members if they want it. I know that some hon. Members feel that it is not necessary, and I understand that, but they do not have to take it. I shall not insist that they take it, and nor will anyone else, but that is the minimum that should be made available.

One of the problems of the House, especially because it grew up and became so successful in the last century, is that it is still seen as a part-time occupation, with hon. Members coming here in the afternoons and evenings to decide the affairs of state, having performed their normal jobs in the mornings. That is no longer relevant in the second half of the 20th century. The danger is that those who have an office as a result of their solicitor's or business practice feel that they do not have the same need for secretarial and other back-up facilities that full-time Members need. If a Member does not have his own office, that option is not available to him. That is another basic and important fact which the Government need to take into account.

From occasional conversations with new Conservative Members, it appears that a growing number recognise that point. I ask Conservative Members to respond to that over a period. I know that some of them are doing so, and the more who do so the better. We cannot go on with 19th century practices in the second half of the 20th century and expect to continue to be seen as relevant to the needs of Britain.

10.50 am
Mr. Geoff Lawler (Bradford, North)

I, too, shall address my remarks to the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs). As one of the newer Conservative Members, I am wholeheartedly in favour of it. Not only is the time of night of the previous debate relevant, but so is the fact that some 25 per cent. of hon. Members at that time were so busy trying to find a secretary and an office, and to decide how to use the allowance, that they did not have a great deal of time to decide what size that allowance should be.

Now, with the benefit of a year's experience in this place, I find it appropriate to consider the size of the research and secretarial allowance. It has become apparent over that year that support is extremely limited. I go beyond saying that it is extremely limited, and say that A is absurdly constraining. It makes Parliament and the service given to hon. Members a laughing stock not only in Britain but to anyone from abroad. I would not argue for the sort of support that American Congressmen receive, but there must be a happy medium between the two, and we are a long way off it at the moment.

Out of the four areas of support for a Member, there is the car allowance which we are debating today, the salary — not least the salary — the cost of living allowance, and the secretarial and research allowance. The latter is the one part of the benefits available to hon. Members that gives no direct benefit to the Member. That is important because any extra penny that is added to that allowance goes directly to aiding our constituents and the way in which we do our job in our constituencies. We do not benefit from it one iota and it is right that we should not. The recent changes making salaries payable through fees makes sure that does not happen. For that reason, any increase that we can vote in the allowance will be completely acceptable to the public and to our constituents.

There are three constituent parts to the secretarial and research allowance. For me, and I think for the majority of hon. Members, the main part goes to paying for a full-time secretary in London. That point was recognised by Plowden in the top salaries review when he said that Members need the back-up of a quality private secretary. Therefore, we have to have an allowance in order to pay a salary commensurate with that quality.

Hon. Members also need someone in the constituency. If, like myself, an hon. Member has an inner city constituency, the constituency office receives constant demands. Literally hundreds of callers arrive there, and the phone rings continuously. Where, as in my constituency, there are many people from the ethnic minorities who have a greater proportion of problems than others, there is a heavy work load. Therefore, it is important that there is provision for secretarial allowance to provide for adequate back-up in the constituency.

It is not good enough that the service that we give our constituents at constituency level depends on the contributions raised by the voluntary efforts of members of our political parties. They are raising money not for that purpose, but to fight elections and to campaign. They should not have to raise money to provide a service to our constituents. That money should be provided by the secretarial allowance.

Another part of the secretarial and research allowance that has already been touched on by the hon. Member for Battersea is the research element. I decided that my £12,000 should be concentrated on employing a full-time London secretary and to provide help in my constituency office, but it means that I have nothing left towards providing research assistance. The only way for me to obtain research assistance is from the Library and through the voluntary work done mainly by foreign students. I know that the use of foreign students may not be entirely acceptable to some hon. Members, but I have found their work to be of a high standard. I have to rely on their services to provide the research back-up for my work as an hon. Member. They are an important element in our lives. They help us to keep in regular communication with our electorates and in the work that we do in the House in contributing to debates. Many would also like to think that eventually they contribute through that to the quality of legislation passing through the House. Again, it is patently absurd that as legislators we should have to rely on voluntary work by foreign students to enhance our work. We need proper full-time help. Certainly we need some proper qualified research assistance, and an allowance should be available for that.

Another element that has been raised is perhaps a newer dimension in terms of the history of this place, and that is the plethora of modern equipment that is now available to assist us with our work. The £12,000 that we currently receive probably allows us to meet two of the three or four aspects of our work. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Battersea would increase the allowance to £17,000. That is a somewhat arbitrary figure, given that the Plowden report recommended £13,000 plus £1,000 for equipment. However, it would be a helpful step forward in ensuring that hon. Members have quality support in their constituency, in London and in their research. We owe it to our constituents to provide just that support.

10.57 am
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Although I was elected a year ago at the same time as a number of Conservative Members—rather too many of them—and some Labour Members, I have still not recovered from my initial shock at the appalling working conditions that Members of Parliament have to endure in this place. Visitors, and indeed many hon. Members, may admire the many marble statues that we have around, the wonderful neo-Gothic design of Pugin, Barry's architecture and the majesty of Westminster hall, but behind that elegant facade there lurks a legislative slum.

Downstairs in the Cloisters, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) described, Members work under conditions that defy all the office and factory legislation. The Cloisters is nothing more than a fancy name for a corridor, and hon. Members might care to reflect on the fact that it is a fire trap. In the event of that unhappy eventuality, I suggest that there would probably have to be a mini-general election because of the vacancies that would arise. I hope that, if there is a fire, it is not on our side of the corridor.

The Palace of Westminster is a seedy, rundown and thoroughly useless working environment.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the debate is about the secretarial and research allowance, not about facilities in the Palace.

Mr. Banks

If I may say so, Mr. Speaker, it is about the allowance and about the working conditions that are linked to it.

Mr. Forth

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way to solve our problems would be for us to take over the GLC building?

Mr. Banks

I have alway suspected that that was one of the main reasons why the Government wanted to abolish the GLC.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are getting on to a tack which it would be unwise to follow.

Mr. Banks

It was also suggested that county hall should be turned into a hotel for rich American visitors. That proposal was made in 1892 and no doubt—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get back to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Banks

I was trying to talk us through to the statement, Mr. Speaker.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).