Clearly, the issue of expenses is one that is attracting widespread media attention and is having some remarkable resonance with the public. This is not one of those issues that is confined to the Westminster world.
The focus is primarily on the Commons in respect of expenses, though not exclusively so. There is clearly a case for action, both immediate and then in terms of creating a rigorous and transparent framework for determining what is appropriate remuneration (in terms of salary and expenses) for parliamentarians. The Committee on Standards in Public Life will be reporting with its recommendations. Although it is fairly common for members of legislatures to determine their own remuneration, my view is that the issue should be determined by an external body established by statute. It would be a public (not a private) body and should be transparent in its operations.
In terms of the Lords, the more important issue, to my mind, is ensuring we have rigorous procedures in place to deal with any member who transgresses the rules relating to conduct. The sub-committee of the Privileges Committee should be reporting shortly on allegations made against four peers and the Committee itself will be reporting on what procedures should be introduced to deal with anyone found to have breached the rules. It is likely that provisions for disciplinary action will be included in the Constitutional Renewal Bill. I also see a case for us having an officer akin to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who serves the Commons. Indeed, as the Parliamentary Commissioner is part-time, there may be a case for making the post full-time and encompassing the Lords: he would then really be a ‘Parliamentary’ Commissioner.
On expenses, there is a qualitative difference between the two Houses. MPs receive a salary as parliamentarians. They also qualify for pensions when they leave the House. They receive a range of allowances to cover staff and office costs, as well as – what has been the cause of the furore – to cover having to maintain two homes if they do not represent constituencies in London.
Peers do not receive a salary for their parliamentary work. As there is no salary (and as peers in any event cannot retire) there is no pension. To enable them to attend the Lords, there are allowances. In many respects, peers are simliar to councillors. The only differences are that now allowances are paid automatically to councillors regardless of attendance (peers have to attend in order to be able to claim) and councillors do not incur costs of having to stay overnight. For a peer living in London, the only daily attendance allowances that can be claimed are for subsistence (£86.50) and secretarial/research support (£75). If one lives outside London, one can claim overnight attendance allowance (£174) for those nights one has to stay in London to attend the House. Apart from that, for those who have to travel from their main home to London, travel expenses are covered, but if you travel by public transport you use a travel card and the cost is met directly: no money goes to the peer. The allowances are based on the recommendations of the Senior Salary Review Body; they could in the future be determined by the external statutory body that I have recommended.
There are obvious problems in relation to the overnight accommodation allowance if someone has a main home in London but designates a home elsewhere as the main one. There is a case for greater clarity in terms of how this is defined; otherwise, the issue becomes not the rules but the enforcement of them. That to my mind is the main issue. I can see also the argument about those who just turn up in order to be seen and their names recorded, and then go. There is the flip side in that those who spend long days in the House, attending committees and devoting themselves to the work of the House, get no extra recompense for so doing. I detect no great desire in the House to do anything in terms of additional support for those who work hard in this way: it is seen as part of one’s duty to the House. The only thing that tends to grate is that this work gets overlooked when the attention focuses on those whose attendance is brief.
That relates to the wider issue. If only a few transgress, some members of the public assume that all members are transgressing. There are plenty of ‘they are all at it’ comments on blogs and in the correspondence columns. These comments annoy me intensely, but they reflect a common perception and one that we cannot ignore. Being simply defensive won’t wash, but at the same time we need to make clear what the position is and that it is not necessarily what people assume it to be. We do, though, need to be expeditious and rigorous in ensuring that we have in place rules and procedures that are (a) clear (b) fair (c) enforced and (d) seen to be all of these.