HC Deb 29 January 2004 vol 417 cc406-18 1.24 pm
The Leader of the House (Mr. Peter Hain)

I beg to move,


(1) There shall be a committee of this House, called the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee.

(2) The members of the committee shall be those Members who are at any time members of the House of Commons Commission pursuant to section 1 of the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978; the Speaker shall be chairman of the committee; and three shall be the quorum of the committee.

(3) The functions of the committee shall be—

(a) to codify and keep under review the provisions of the Resolutions of this House relating to expenditure charged to the Estimate for House of Commons: Members;

(b) to modify those provisions from time to time as the committee may think necessary or desirable in the interests of clarity, consistency, accountability and effective administration, and conformity with current circumstances;

(c) to provide advice, when requested by the Speaker, on the application of those provisions in individual cases;

(d) to carry out the responsibilities conferred on the Speaker by the Resolution of the House of 5th July 2001 relating to Members' Allowances, Insurance, & except the responsibility of appointing the Advisory Panel provided for in paragraph (5)(1) of that Resolution.

(4) Paragraph (3)(b) above does not empower the committee—

(a) to create a new form of charge on the Estimate for House of Commons: Members; or

(b) to increase any rate of charge or payment determined by Resolution of this House.

(5) The committee shall report to the House from time to time, and in any case not less than once a year, the provisions of the Resolutions of this House relating to expenditure charged to the Estimate for House of Commons: Members, as codified and modified pursuant to paragraph (3) of this Order.

(6) The committee shall have power to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House.

That this Order be a standing order of the House.

Mr. Speaker

With this we will also consider motion 2,

That the Resolution of the House of 20th March 1998 on the bicycle allowance be rescinded and the following provision be made in its place:

(1) That, in the opinion of this House, provision should be made as from 1st April 2004 with respect to the rates of mileage allowance payable to Members in respect of journeys by motorcycle, scooter or bicycle for which if undertaken by car, the car mileage allowance would be payable,

(a) by Members, or

(b) by spouses, children or employees paid from the staffing allowance;

(2) In respect of journeys by motorcycle or scooter, a motorcycle mileage allowance shall be payable at the same rate as the motorcycle mileage rate approved by the Inland Revenue and then in force;

(3) In respect of journeys by bicycle, a bicycle mileage allowance shall be payable at the same rate as the bicycle mileage rate approved by the Inland Revenue and then in force.

Mr. Hain

We have before us two motions. The first would set up a new Committee to oversee Members' estimate matters; the second relates to bicycle and motor cycle mileage allowances.

I will deal first with the motion establishing a new House of Commons Estimate Committee, which I have tabled with the full support of the House of Commons Commission. The motion provides for a new Committee, of the same membership as the House of Commons Commission, to be established by Standing Order to oversee Members' allowances matters in much the same way as the Commission oversees matters relating to the House administration.

The motivation for the motion is threefold. First, the intention is to improve the governance of the House. Interestingly, we find that there is a crossover between the two House of Commons estimates—between the House of Commons administration estimate, for which the House of Commons Commission has statutory responsibility, and the House of Commons Members' estimate, which does not fall within the responsibility of the Commission. For example, an increase in Members' IT provision, which falls to the Members' estimate, has implications for the back-up IT services provided by the House administration. It makes sense to bring oversight of the two estimates closer together.

Secondly, the rules on Members' allowances are governed by a large number of complex resolutions, dating as far back as 1945. They are not readily accessible, and are very hard to understand and reconcile one with another. There would be considerable benefit in consolidating and updating these resolutions and in presenting them in an accessible form that we can all understand.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Can the Leader of the House tell me whether his proposals have any implications for the role of the Audit Committee in monitoring and auditing those areas of expenses that he is now touching on?

Mr. Hain

To be honest, I am not sure, but if I can answer the right hon. Gentleman's question before the end of my speech, I will be happy to do so.

As the Standards and Privileges Committee had cause to emphasise last year, it is essential that Members be provided with clear, unambiguous information on what the rules on claiming allowances are. The new Committee would provide a vehicle for doing this. The motion provides that it should be its function to codify and keep under review the provisions of the resolutions of the House relating to the Members' estimate, modifying those provisions where necessary, and it provides for the Committee to report to the House at least once a year with a consolidated and up-to-date statement of the decisions on allowances that the House and the Committee have taken.

Thirdly, establishing the new Committee would reduce the need for minor administrative changes to be taken on the Floor of the House. I am ready to admit that this has advantages for the Government's business managers, but I believe that it also has advantages for the House as a whole.

Some Members may question whether it is right to give the Committee power to vary resolutions of the House. I agree that we should give careful thought before we do this. I point out that the proposed Standing Order contains safeguards. The Committee may modify the rules set by earlier resolutions only in so far as this is in the interests of clarity, consistency, accountability and effective administration, and conformity with current circumstances".

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

The Leader of the House has said that this allows certain resolutions to be changed. But is it not the case that at the moment we are working under dual plans? The new allowances that were introduced after the last general election can be changed by recommendations to the Speaker. What the motion does is to put all the things claimed on the same basis, as opposed to confusing the two claims. I very much welcome it.

Mr. Hain

I very much agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, very eloquently. I consider that this arrangement gives extra protection to the Speaker, and is a common-sense approach.

Paragraph 4 explicitly excludes the creation of a new form of charge or an increase to any rate of charge or payment. I emphasise that the Committee would not be empowered to create a new form of charge—such as a new expense allowance—on the Members' estimate, or to increase any rate of charge or payment determined by resolution of the House. For example, the Committee could not increase Members' pay. Such matters would have to be a matter for the House, debated on the Floor as we are debating now.

A further safeguard lies in the membership of the Committee. The Committee, like the Commission, will be chaired by the Speaker, and will contain very senior and independent-minded Back Benchers as well as the Leader of the House and shadow Leader of the House. I have no doubt that the Committee would decline to decide on a matter that it thought should properly be decided by the House. It may assist the House if I give some examples of changes that might in future be decided by the Committee.

At present the incidental expenses provision and the additional costs allowance for the allowances year beginning in April are determined by reference to the retail prices index figure for the 12 months ending in March, which is actually published in April-May. That means that we open the allowances year in April not knowing, as Members, the cash limits for the various allowances at our disposal. It would be more sensible to use the retail prices index figure for the previous December, but at present that would require a motion amending an earlier resolution of the House. This would seem to me to be an appropriate matter for the Committee to consider, rather than for the House to be detained by it.

Similarly, it has been proposed that Members who have money left in their incidental expenses provision or staffing allowance at the end of one allowances year should be able to carry some of it forward to the next, and that Members who want, for example, to move office in one allowances year should be able to draw down up to 10 per cent. of the next year's incidental expense provision early. This, too, would seem an appropriate matter for the Committee to consider, and again not a matter to detain us on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Forth

The right hon. Gentleman has said—and I very much approve of it—that the new Committee will not be able to vary the rates of allowances, but can he give us an assurance that some of the flexibilities that he is mentioning will not involve a higher charge on the taxpayer as a result? I ask that because, although the rates may not be increased, it is possible that carry-overs of the kind that he is describing would increase the overall cost to the taxpayer.

Mr. Hain

That may well be the case, but some of it may be marginal. It happens at the moment—for example, decisions on the allocation of IT equipment. Being very experienced—more experienced than I am in these matters—the right hon. Gentleman will know that many decisions that enlarge the expenditure of the House are not put to the Floor of the House. We are talking about a sensible balance between such decisions and matters of real principle, including Members' pay, which I would agree with the right hon. Gentleman would have an impact on taxpayers' costs and contributions, and which should be fully open to scrutiny and decision on the Floor of the House.

As a further example, while most of us get in our claims within two months of the end of the allowances year, the resolutions allow Members to take up to six months, and this can impede the prompt publication of accounts. The Committee could decide whether the deadline should be brought forward.

On the other hand, a proposal to create a new allowance or increase the rate of an existing allowance would continue to need a resolution of the House. The proposal on the bicycle and mileage allowances falls into this category.

Members may wonder what will be the role of the Speaker's advisory panel under the new arrangements. The panel has proved itself very useful in providing the Speaker with advice on allowances matters, and we all owe thanks to the panel and its chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), for its hard work and good sense. In future, I see it continuing in much the same way, with its valuable advice going primarily to the Members Estimate Committee, rather than directly to the Speaker. I will suggest to the Committee that it invite the Chair of the panel to attend its meetings where appropriate.

I come now to the bicycle and motor cycle mileage allowances. As I have said, this is a matter that would not fall within the competence of the Members Estimate Committee. Those Members who use a bicycle can currently claim just over 7p per mile This motion would bring the allowance into line with the figure permitted by the Inland Revenue at the relevant time. The figure is currently 20p per mile for bicycle users. It also introduces for the first time a rate for motor cycle users, again tied to the Inland Revenue rate, which is currently 24p per mile.

These changes will apply to Members' mileage, and also to staff and family travel. I can assure hon. Members that, as long as the journey concerned satisfies our own rules and meets the Inland Revenue's criteria for business mileage, these rates will not incur a tax charge.

I hope that the House will agree to tie bicycle and motor cycle mileage allowances to the Inland Revenue rate. I hope also that the House will accept the arguments for a Members Estimate Committee, since I believe that that would be in the interests of the good governance of the House. This is not a party matter, or a matter for the Government; it is a matter for the House to decide.

I have received a note, which may help the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and may help me as I read it out. On the question of the implications for the role of the Audit Committee, I am advised by the accounting officer that the proposal might have implications for its role in future, but that this is not an immediate consequence of the motion. I shall be happy to discuss this further to ensure that any concerns that the right hon. Gentleman may have are assuaged.

I commend the motions to the House.

1.35 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)(Con)

I start by associating myself with the remarks of the Leader of the House about the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and her work, and by mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who plays a very important role on her panel—the Speaker's advisory panel.

As the Leader of the House said, the purpose of the motion is that the change to the Members' estimate provisions should introduce new efficiency, improved governance and enhanced accessibility to the Members' estimate.

One of the more important features of the motion is paragraph (3), which talks about codifying and keeping under review the provisions of the resolutions of the House relating to expenditure on the Members' estimate. The problem at present is that many of the resolutions go back to 1945 and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire said, we have a new system for the more modern resolutions. Therefore, it would be extremely helpful to have one Committee to go through the process of codifying, so that we all have the same system for modest updating of the resolutions. Clearly, issues of importance affecting the rate of charge or payment, or creating new forms of charging, should be brought to the Floor of the House, and I am pleased that the agreement on the motion reflects that in paragraph (4).

It is also more efficient for the House if House of Commons Commission members have the role of deciding these issues, because the commission already deals with the administration estimate, and quite a few of the issues overlap—for example, on information technology. To have the two kinds of governance separate, as they are now, as well as being unfair to Mr. Speaker, makes it difficult for some of the governance and oversight of the administration estimate to take place. Therefore, to bring the two more closely together is a good thing.

I chair the Audit Committee. It certainly seems to be the case at present that the Committee's role is not changed by this. Even now, the Audit Committee looks at some of the work of the internal review service that we have here, which overlaps between the administration estimate and the Members' estimate. Clearly, that is a good thing.

Mr. McLoughlin:

The truth is, though, that the way in which allowances are reported will change very dramatically within the next 12 months. Mr. Speaker has written to us all saying that allowances and the claiming of allowances will be put in the public domain and published. Therefore, the oversight will be not only by an audit committee but, should it be so decided, also by the electorate. That is no bad thing.

Mr. Heald:

As my hon. Friend says, the amount of transparency is being increased dramatically.

The measure also improves governance, as did the Speaker's panel itself, and I believe that the new Green Book is an extremely effective and useful step forward. It will help a great deal with the Members' estimate. It will be more accessible to Members as well.

Looked at overall, the package should be supported. It will give us a codified set of rules, a better system for minor changes, stronger governance and an ability to oversee the two estimates and bring their governance closer together.

Finally, the bicycle and motor cycle allowance changes are in line with levels set by the Inland Revenue. The motion making those changes provides a mechanism for uprating in line with Inland Revenue levels, and is useful in terms of transparency, simplicity and efficiency—all the points that the first motion is aimed at.

1.39 pm
Mrs Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) for their kind remarks about the work of the Speaker's advisory panel. The panel plays a valuable role in providing a route for hon. Members who are perhaps dissatisfied or feel that the current allowances do not cover their needs sufficiently well. It provides a forum in which Members can voice their complaints, and all members of the panel do their very best to be accessible to other Members and to receive comments, complaints and, occasionally, compliments in the most accessible way possible.

I want to put on record my support for the motions, although I want to voice some concern. I feel that the present arrangements have worked very well over the past two years—as long as I have chaired the Speaker's advisory panel. The panel works extremely well and there is a very high attendance among its members, because they feel that they have real influence and can determine something that is terribly important to most of us in the way that we run our constituency offices and our Westminster offices. I hope that that will not change with the new arrangements because I feel that, if there were perhaps undue interference by the Members Estimate Committee, it could have the effect of making members of the Speaker's advisory panel feel that their work was not quite so valuable as it was hitherto.

Mr. Hain:

May I assure my hon. Friend as categorically as I can that that is certainly not the objective? It would not be possible for the newly constituted Members Estimate Committee—especially as it will be comprised of members of the House of Commons Commission—to cover the scope of work that the panel does so well in consulting and providing an excellent sounding board for opinion in the House. With that assurance, I hope that she will accept the proposals.

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the officials in the Department of Finance and Administration and elsewhere who have given very valuable advice and continue to work extremely hard on behalf of all of us?

Mrs. Campbell

I find those reassurances very welcome. Of course, I am sure that the Speaker's advisory panel will want to monitor the way in which its recommendations are accepted by the new Committee. I should like to endorse the remarks made by my right hon. Friend in thanking members of the Department of Finance and Administration for their hard work in administering the allowances and in ensuring that they are applied fairly.

Mr. Heald

May I associate myself with the remarks about the staff? They do a fantastic job, which we all appreciate greatly. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in fact, the Committees that report to the House of Commons Commission, by and large, have a very amicable, constructive and co-operative relationship with the Commission? I am sure that that will be the same with the panel.

Mrs. Campbell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I certainly hope that that will be the case; but, as I say, we will monitor the situation.

I should like to take the opportunity to say a few words about bicycle allowances, as I was the Member who, in 1997, urged the then Leader of the House to try to implement them. For many years, I cycled around my constituency with no allowance whatsoever. I always felt that it was desperately unfair that Members who were prepared to drive from one end of their constituencies to the other got very generous allowances—in those days, they were even more generous than they are currently—whereas I was not recognised for contributing to the environment in a different way. So I was very pleased when the House approved the bicycle allowance, which has gone up by inflation over the past few years and is currently—I am sorry that I have not had time to check this—about 7p a mile.

Given my schedule, I cycle about 1,000 miles a year on my bike.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab)

That is impressive.

Mrs. Campbell:

My hon. Friend is kind., but it is easy to clock up 1,000 miles a year. It is only about 20 or 25 miles a week. In a small constituency such as mine, it is easy to cycle from one end to the other.

I have one of those little electronic gadgets that sits at the front of my bike and tells me how fast I am travelling, how far I have gone and how long it has taken me—all very useful information that helps me to put in an accurate claim at the end of the year. Members will be aware that 7p a mile and 1,000 miles a year will produce £70, if I claim it all. However, buying a new lock and new lights and paying for a couple of maintenance services a year comes to a great deal more than £70, which does not allow me to put anything aside towards a new bicycle, and as my bicycle is now more than 20 years old, that is getting long overdue. So I very much welcome the raising of the allowance to the Inland Revenue recommended rate, which is 24p a mile, and with £240, my constituents may see me cycling around on a brand-new bicycle in the near future.

1.46 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and I want to come back to the role of her important advisory panel in due course, but perhaps I should put on record the fact that I cannot cycle much around my constituency. Not only is it 80 or 90 miles long, but the hills of Cornwall do not lend themselves to that form of exercise.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD)


Mr. Tyler

My hon. Friend is kind.

Before I come back to the advisory panel, I want to reflect for a moment on something that the Leader of the House said in business questions about the need for the House to be as accessible as possible to the public in every sense. Our work should be as visible and as easy to follow for the public—the people who send us here—as it is for hon. Members who have been here sometime. The right hon. Gentleman and I spent some time on Monday meeting a group of people from Birmingham who had been brought to the House. Even with some explanation about how the place works, they found it an extraordinarily alien situation. They felt like Martians coming into a different world. I think that he would agree that the way in which we conduct our business does not lend itself terribly well to making what we do here explicable to the general public. I suspect that anyone looking at this afternoon's debate might think that there was more mumbo-jumbo than clarity.

I very much endorse what hon. Members on both sides of the House have said about trying to make our work here more transparent and accessible to the general public. In that sense, I understand the logic and rationale that the Leader of the House has expressed for the motions. The phrase "an improvement in governance for the House" always sounds good. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) referred particularly to paragraph (3), which states that one function will be to codify and keep under review the new rules. However, I have some anxieties—some apprehension—not least of which is that when any Leader of the House comes to us, even at this stage on a Thursday afternoon, and says that there is an advantage to the Government's business managers, a few bells start to ring in my head.

My particular concern is that anything that brings back into the parliamentary discussion and decision-making process, or appears to do so, an issue about Members' allowances and remuneration that to a large extent has been seen to be taken out of the parliamentary arena and given to the Senior Salaries Review Body is a retrograde step. I hope that whoever responds to the debate will be able to say absolutely explicitly that nothing that at present is considered by the SSRB will be brought back into the purview of the proposed Committee. That is my first anxiety. I am sure that there will be a reassurance on that point.

Mr. McLoughlin

I am pretty sure that the Leader of the House said that we are basically talking about the rules that relate to allowances, not about the level of allowances. That is the clear distinction. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is a reference to the SSRB, to which a number of people have been asked to submit evidence. I stand to be corrected, but we are talking solely about the rules that relate to allowances.

Mr. Tyler

The hon. Gentleman will also agree, from his long experience in the House, that the devil is in the detail. There might be some devilish detail that might not now come under the purview of the SSRB, or that might be perceived not to. Let us remember that these sensitive issues are matters of perception, so I would like to be explicitly reassured that the SSRB will continue to consider matters objectively and independently outwith the Westminster bubble and that we will not find things drifting back.

Mr. Hain

I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance that matters such as Members' pay that are currently referred to the SSRB will properly remain as such—the public should see that they will remain as such. As the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) pointed out, the motion is about rules relating to allowances. Given the nature of the business of the House, I am sure that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) would not want to take up valuable time that could be used to discuss the Hutton report by debating whether the retail prices index figure for triggering an increase in allowances should be that as recorded on 1 April or 1 January. We should be serious and use common sense, which is what the motions are about.

Mr. Tyler

I entirely agree. The Leader of the House gives us an innocent and obviously common-sense example. I just want to be reassured that it will not be possible for things, over the years, to start to drift off to the Members Estimate Committee that frankly should be out there in the light of day. I accept his assurance, but I am putting down a marker. I hope that we will find that there will be a mechanism for the Committee to report back regularly to the House on such issues because that is extremely important.

Mr. Heald

Just to reassure the hon. Gentleman, I think that subsection (5) covers that because it requires the Committee to report to the House.

Mr. Tyler

The hon. Gentleman might misunderstand me—I am trying to be as speedy as possible. I am concerned that if there were any drift such as that that I am describing, we would have to consider not only the matters that the Committee was examining, but whether the boundaries between its work and that of the SSRB seemed to be moving. If there were a moving target, the House would wish to be informed.

My next point is equally specific, although I am sure that reassurance will be given. As the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and other hon. Members said, there is worry about long-established issues that go right back to 1945. I am quite clear that when a motion comes before the House in future, perhaps on the basis of the SSRB's present review of these matters, direct reference could be built into it regarding the Committee's role in dealing with the detail. However, there would be a different situation if a retrospective attitude were taken—if we were looking backwards. Something that the House agrees that the Committee should consider is different in degree to something that the House has considered previously that would then be considered retrospectively by the Committee. I understand the need for that to occur, but I want it to be absolutely clear that in such circumstances there might need to be a reference back to the whole House, although that would depend on the scale of the identified problem.

Finally, I return to the role of the Speaker's advisory panel. I entirely endorse the comments made about the panel and, indeed, the work done for the panel by Officers of the House. However, I did not entirely accept the assurances given by the Leader of the House to the chairman of the panel. I do not fully understand—I hope that somebody will spell this out—why the panel cannot take on some or all of the responsibilities that are now identified as necessitating the construction of a completely new Committee.

I respect all members of the Commission enormously, but they are already heavily loaded with work. The fact that they will have to sit as a shadow Commission on the Committee raises concerns. The great advantage of the advisory panel of which the hon. Member for Cambridge is a distinguished chair—I think that it has operated effectively—is that it is a Back-Bench committee. It responds to the concerns, anxieties, objectives and aspirations of all hon. Members. The Commission, by definition, is the establishment personified, and its members are very distinguished.

I would like to think that someone considered whether the panel could have taken on the responsibilities because it reports to the Speaker, who is the Chairman of the Commission. We may be inventing yet another bit of what the Leader of the House described as the governance of the House, but duplication should always be questioned to determine whether someone else could do a job equally well. I am unconvinced by the explanation of the respective roles. I entirely understand a point made by the Leader of the House because the last thing that I would want would be for the new Committee to take on the panel's responsibilities, but no one has explained why that could not happen the other way round.

I am seeking reassurance. Nothing is more unnecessarily controversial than matters that affect the way in which we do our job. I endorse entirely what the hon. Member for Cambridge said. When I first came to this place, I was lucky if I could find a desk. I did not have a phone and I could not pay a secretary—the whole thing was absurd. I could not do my duty by my constituents. We are now better funded, which is excellent, but I want to be reassured that we are not hiding in a corner some changes to our arrangements that the public might feel were going too far.

1.55 pm
Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab)

I feel a bit like Winston Churchill when he was Prime Minister and he used to wander the gardens of No. 10 Downing street saying, "I had not intended to intervene in this debate, Mr. Speaker", while dictating his speech to his secretary. I genuinely had no intention of participating in the debate. As a member of the Commission, I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for his gentle and generous comments about the members of the Commission who are with us today. However, I wish to make one point in response to his question asking why we should not form an independent panel rather than have the Commission shadow itself on these matters. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take the simple answer from me and that he would have taken it from the Leader of the House.

At this moment in time, House of Commons services are funded from the House of Commons administration estimate, for which the House of Commons Commission has statutory responsibility. Hon. Members' pay and allowances, including Members' staff matters and Members' information technology provision, are funded separately from the Members' estimate, which is governed by a range of resolutions of the House dating back to 1945, and administered under the authority of the Speaker of the House. The Speaker is advised on allowance matters by the Speaker's advisory panel, under the able chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). Given the statutory responsibility of the Commission and the fact that the advisory panel reports to the Speaker, the new arrangement is logical—we welcome the fact that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) suggested it. I hope that that answers the question asked by the hon. Member for North Cornwall.

1.57 pm
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

I welcome the motion moved by the Leader of the House. I do not think that it will change the role of the Speaker's advisory panel because it will remain as an advisory panel. In effect, the measure will create a greater stopgap because it will bring more people into the decision-making process. Although the panel, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) will, I hope, continue to make detailed recommendations, it is right for another body, rather than the Speaker alone, to oversee such matters. The Leader of the House has responsibilities to the whole House and he will be here every week to answer questions if one thinks that something is going wrong.

The proposal will not reduce accountability but broaden it. Given the way in which the allowances have changed over they ears, it is important for us to enable the measure to go forward. It is nonsense that some changes can be made to allowances via the Speaker's advisory panel with no reference to the Floor of the House, yet for other changes to require such a reference. I would much prefer to be spending this afternoon talking about my constituents' wider concerns than having a debate—okay, it will not be a long debate— that has had to be scheduled in parliamentary time and has thus taken away the House's chance to discuss other measures.

1.59 pm
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas)

This has been a short and useful debate and I am grateful to hon. Members who have spoken and intervened. I am especially grateful to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) for his support for the motions. Perhaps I should put on record our thanks to the members of the House of Commons Commission and the members of the Speaker's advisory panel. I confess that when I assumed my duties I was not aware of the intricacies of the Speaker's advisory panel. I reiterate our thanks to the chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), and the Members who serve alongside her. The discussions of the Speaker's advisory panel are extremely useful in helping us to make better decisions precisely because it is an advisory panel and not a final decision-making body. That is an important distinction.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House emphasised, the motion includes a number of safeguards. Proposals to create new forms of charge or increase any rate of charge or payment will still have to come to the Floor of the House. The circumstances in which the Members Estimate Committee may amend a resolution are tightly defined, and by linking membership to that of the House of Commons Commission, the House can be assured that the new Committee will take an impartial and considered view of what matters it should properly deal with. The motions under consideration have received support from Members on both sides on the House, and my right hon. Friend wishes to put on record his thanks to the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) for the considered role that he played in the proposals.

On the bicycle allowance, some reports this week suggested that some hon. Members believe that the proposed increase in the bicycle allowance is excessive. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, who takes advantage of the allowance. I can assure the House that there are very few Members—not enough, some would say—who do. However, my hon. Friend rebutted those arguments about an excessive increase. The cost of the increase to the public will be minimal.

As I have said, very few Members claim the bicycle allowance, and they are a minority of those of us who do, in fact, use a bicycle to get to work. Using a bicycle is not without cost, as has been said We wish to link the allowances to the Inland Revenue rates as that is a sensible principle. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) expressed concerns about the appearance and the reality of Members' allowances. It is justifiable to link them to other bodies' rates, which is why the Government increased the bicycle allowance in line with Inland Revenue rates. The 20p allowance has been introduced as part of the move away from car journeys, and it is right that we should encourage, and be seen to encourage, environmentally friendly forms of transport. There is a strong case for linking the allowance to the Inland Revenue rate, as that will mean that we will not have to debate similar motions—to reassure the hon. Member for North Cornwall, the allowances motion is separate from the estimate motion and will introduce an increase in the rate—annually on the Floor of the House.

On the motor cycle allowance, I would have liked to declare an interest, but my motor scooter was nicked the other day, so I fear that I will not be able to take advantage of the allowance for some time. Before Opposition Members start to blame the Government for the theft of my trusty scooter, I can reassure them that the police have acted swiftly and successfully to investigate the crime—[HON. MEMBERS: "Successfully?".] Not yet, I believe, although I hope that that will be the case.

In conclusion, the proposal for a Members Estimate Committee is a sensible and innovative measure, which should enhance the good governance of the House. The proposal on bicycle and motor-cycle mileage allowances is also sensible, and I hope that the House will support the motions.

Question put and agreed to.