HC Deb 27 February 2003 vol 400 cc424-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House—

  1. (i)approves the Third Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 435); and
  2. (ii)accordingly suspends Mr Michael Trend, Member for Windsor, from the service of the House for two weeks.—[Mr. Heppell.]

1.38 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I commend to the House the motion to approve the Committee's third report, which was agreed unanimously on 12 February, and the related recommendation to suspend my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) from the service of the House for two weeks.

On 13 February, when the report was published, my hon. Friend made a personal statement in which he accepted unreservedly the report's conclusions that he had been muddled and naive in his negligent understanding of the additional costs allowance. He apologised unreservedly to Mr. Speaker and to his constituents. Hon. Members will acknowledge the speed with which my hon. Friend came to the House to accept the report's conclusions and to apologise for his conduct, and the terms in which he did that.

The background to this case was a report inThe Mail on Sunday on 15 December that my hon. Friend had returned to his house in Windsor while claiming an allowance intended to cover the cost of overnight stays in London. His reaction to the allegations was that they were wrong, and he immediately contacted the Department of Finance and Administration to confirm that his understanding was correct. While his discussions with the department did indeed confirm that he had never claimed additional costs allowance in respect of his London address, they revealed that he had seriously misunderstood the significance of identifying his main residence for this purpose.

Although my hon. Friend believed that his conduct had always been perfectly proper, he accepted that he had misunderstood the rules, and agreed to repay, without delay, the sum that he was told was due. That was done, in full, on 23 December.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards subsequently received several complaints, one of which, from a constituent, formed the basis of the commissioner's investigation.

This is the first case investigated by the present commissioner to come before the House, though not before my Committee. I pay tribute to the care and thoroughness, exemplified by this case, with which he carries out his investigations, and to the clarity of his report, published as an appendix to ours.

The commissioner concluded that my hon. Friend had claimed additional costs allowance in breach of the rules. He did not, however, find that the evidence available was sufficient to substantiate the conclusion that my hon. Friend had deliberately set out to abuse the allowance. He concluded that the evidence was certainly sufficient to justify the view that my hon. Friend was, at the least, careless or negligent in relation to the claims that he made. He also considered that it was clear that, in failing to observe the relevant rules, he had misused the allowance and consequently breached the code of conduct.

The Committee agreed that my hon. Friend was not dishonest in his belief that he had the option to choose which of his places of residence to register as his main residence for the purpose of the additional costs allowance. We recognised, as did the commissioner, that since the matter came to light my hon. Friend had cooperated fully with all the inquiries and promptly repaid the sum he was told he owed the Department. However, my hon. Friend should have recognised that his claiming additional costs allowance in relation to his Windsor home meant that the taxpayer was meeting some of the core running costs of what was in reality his main residence. He should have realised that it was wrong to sign a certificate giving the home of his friend in London as his main residence, when he was staying there infrequently. Accordingly, the Committee agreed with the commissioner that my hon. Friend was negligent, and had breached the code of conduct by making improper use of the additional costs allowance and failing strictly to observe the rules relating to the allowance.

The Committee considered very carefully what would be an appropriate penalty to recommend to the House. The consequences for my hon. Friend of what he conceded in his evidence to us was a mistake, a serious mistake", have already been severe, in bringing to an end his parliamentary career. However, we must recognise the impact of cases of improper use of allowances on public confidence in Members of Parliament and in Parliament as an institution. Of course, the sum involved in this case was very substantial.

The code of conduct requires Members to observe the highest standards in relation to payments or allowances made to them for public purposes, and Members are personally responsible for both the accuracy and the validity of their claims. Having weighed all these considerations, we recommended that my hon. Friend be suspended from the service of the House for two weeks.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I do not want to speak about the hon. Member in question, but the subject of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks prompted me to table questions regarding the manner in which the Fees Office does or does not check submissions for the additional costs allowance. Is it not important that Members of Parliament submit documentary evidence, as in any other job? The present arrangements are loose and unsatisfactory, and do no credit to the House.

Sir George Young

I should like to respond to the hon. Gentleman by saying a final word about the system to which he refers.

We are guardians of the public purse, as well as of parliamentary standards. We were concerned that more than £90,000 had been incorrectly claimed, and that this matter did not come to light through the normal system of scrutiny. We therefore welcomed the steps that are being taken to strengthen confidence in the system for claiming additional costs allowance. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman joins us in that view. We recommend that these steps be completed as quickly as possible and that they then be brought to the attention of all hon. Members. That would usefully complement the increased emphasis that we wish to place on education and prevention.

We believe that, whatever the precise solutions adopted, public confidence in Members requires that the standards that the House imposes on itself be no less effective than those that it would expect of others responsible for the expenditure of public money. Our recommendations to the House reflect that view.

1.45 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

These are sad but necessary occasions. The House has rules, and it keeps them under review. The Committee has a difficult job to do, which on this occasion, as on all others, it has done conscientiously, fairly and impartially.

My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend), as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, apologised to the House promptly and fully for what he did, and has taken the appropriate action. It is now for the House to agree with what the Committee said and bring this matter to a conclusion.

1.46 pm
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I do not wish to detain the House on this issue. The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) has made an apology, and there is a longstanding tradition that when an hon. Member does that, we accept it and draw a line. However, I wish to say a few words about the report, because hon. Members want speedy progress on the wider implications of its recommendations.

The atmosphere surrounding the whole question of sleaze has improved considerably in recent years. The change of commissioner is welcome. I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of the Committee, on the speed with which he handled the process and the way in which he did it. That has gone some way to restore confidence in Members of Parliament being able to regulate themselves. The jury remains out on that, but this is an important first step in showing that there can be confidence in the system that we have in the House.

It is extremely important that the Government pick up particular recommendations speedily so that, come the new financial year on 1 April, the proposed changes to how Members submit their claims for allowances are in place, and that they are clear and simple, with clear guidance, and include the principle of receipts for large amounts.

I also hope that the Leader of the House will agree to an early debate on the Committee's proposals, and those of the Wicks committee, which would strengthen some of the procedures for both the Committee's and the commissioner's activities. Those proposals include even stronger measures, and the sooner the House can debate them, the sooner we can build on the progress made so far on these issues.

Finally, there are inconsistencies in the punishments that can be imposed on different forms of democratically elected representatives, such as councillors and Members of Parliament, across a range of different offices. The issue needs to be examined. In the past, local councillors could be surcharged and disqualified. When the House considers the recommendations of the Wicks report and the possibility of fining Members of Parliament, I urge the Leader of the House to remove the inconsistencies, so that similar punishments are available for all of us who hold elected office, at whatever level.

1.49 pm
The Leader of the House of Commons(Mr. Robin Cook)

It is generally accepted in the House that we should we quickly to resolve recommendations from the Committee on Standards and Privileges. That is why the Government changed the business for this week, so that we could consider its report urgently. I do not intend to detain the House with a lengthy speech.

First, I thank the Committee for its work and for its expedition in producing the report very quickly. I also congratulate the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who has done a very thorough, clear and lucid job, establishing all the facts in a commendably brief period. It is right to record that he had cooperation from the Member concerned.

We fully accept the Committee's recommendation. We always do, and I hope that the House is about to endorse it unanimously. It is important that we show unity within the House in accepting recommendations that touch upon the integrity of the House and of every Member.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) questioned the adequacy of the supervision of claims for additional costs allowance. Earlier this week, I attended a meeting of the Speaker's advisory panel, at which we discussed that matter. I understand that proposals will shortly come from the Fees Office to tighten up the system, especially, as regards the reference in the letter from Mr. Archie Cameron that was produced in the commissioner's report to the House, a requirement that Members should specify on their claim form the address of the property for which they are claiming. That could have prevented the difficulty that arose in this case. That might also apply to another of the commissioner's comments on that letter in relation to documentary corroboration of the finance for which the Member had claimed. Both would be welcome and necessary steps for tightening the system and I am confident that they will achieve substantial support in the House.

David Winnick

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning my previous intervention.

As I have said outside this place, I work on the assumption that the overwhelming majority of Members on both sides of the House are perfectly honest, but would not it be helpful if documentary evidence were provided for any claim above £10, £15 or £20? If we were claiming for electricity or telephone bills and the bills were not enclosed, the Fees Office could ask the Member concerned to send on the documentary evidence. Would that be wrong?

Mr. Cook

All those matters are for consideration, but perhaps I could focus on the major issue—the one that has prompted the report: the claim for mortgage interest payments, which is by far the largest claim under the additional costs allowance. It would be desirable if, as standard practice, documentary evidence of mortgage interest paid in the course of the year or the month was supplied in support of the additional costs allowance. That would certainly have met this particular case and would, I suspect, cover a very high proportion of all claims under the additional costs allowance.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

As a new Member, I do not want to say too much about this matter, but I was struck by the fact that when I rented a flat in London the Fees Office was unwilling to make the payments direct to the letting agent so as to avoid them going through my hands at all, yet it will do so for office costs. That seems inconsistent, yet it could be a way to avoid situations such as that which we are discussing.

Mr. Cook

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. If we were to put that obligation on the Fees Office, we should have to face the staffing consequences, which might not be inconsiderable. Traditionally, we have approached such allowances on the basis that Members themselves are responsible and that they must also accept accountability for whatever they have instructed payment to be made. Furthermore, Members choose to resolve their accommodation in a variety of ways, including hotels, and it is entirely right for them to make those decisions. I am not sure that it would necessarily be consistent with that individual freedom to choose if there were a centralised payment system.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I take the point that my right hon. Friend has just made, but surely the Fees Office could make the payment if a Member opts for it to do so. He will recall the fights that occurred in the past even to get the Fees Office to pay our secretaries their salaries direct, without them having first to go through our personal accounts. Direct payment would be a much better way and overcome a major part of the problem.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend tempts me to follow him in reminiscing about the situation in the 1970s, which would, I suspect, appal some new Members who are accustomed to the rather different secretarial and office cost allowances that prevail nowadays. All those things can be improved and no particular suggestion is being ruled out, but it is important to ensure that we tighten the system. That is in hand and meetings have already taken place to discuss what should be done and hon. Members will shortly receive further advice.

I am conscious that the House wants to progress to the substantive matters of the day so, finally, I shall respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) about the report of the Wicks committee. The House will be aware that both the House of Commons Commission and the Standards and Privileges Committee published responses to the Wicks report. I fully understand the importance of discussing those reports in the House and we will ensure that there will be a debate on them before the House rises for the Easter recess. I hope that the House can broadly endorse the recommendations.

I was gratified that the Wicks committee report, which was comprehensive, did not find that we needed to do much that was fundamental to our system for integrity and for maintaining our standards. However, where it has made useful suggestions for improvement, we should consider them with a fair wind to ensure that we convince not only the Wicks committee but the wider public whom we serve that all possible improvements are made to our system of integrity and enforcement of standards, which is so important to the health of democracy in our country.

Question put and agreed to.