Brown and Cameron clash over expenses at PMQs

May 14, 2009 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

by Anna Rutter

The Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, yesterday challenged Gordon Brown to ‘show some leadership’ by scrapping MPs’ £10,000 communications allowance.

In a rather subdued Prime Minister’s Questions following days of expenses revelations from the Daily Telegraph, Mr Cameron argued that taxpayers were paying out thousands of pounds in order to tell their constituents what a ‘wonderful job’ they were doing, which was a gigantic waste of money.

He called upon the Prime Minister to save public money by scrapping the allowance immediately.

Mr Brown responded by reminding Cameron that measures had been passed in the House to save money on the London allowance and to reduce the additional cost allowance, as well as to deal with receipts that were below £25.

He acknowledged that there had been a ‘looseness’ in the interpretation of the allowance rules, but that this was a matter for the Standards Committee, not for one or two Members in the House.

Expenses continued to dominate the exchange, with Mr Cameron arguing that all expense details should be published online in real time.

The Prime Minister agreed that it was important for there to be a transparent system so that claims reported to the Fees Office were put online. This was a responsibility of the system, and should be implemented as soon as possible, he said.

Swatting the Prime Minister’s comments to the side, the Leader of the Opposition argued that the expenses scandal was a moral and ethical issue that required real political leadership to sort it out.

Nodding his head in agreement, Mr Brown declared that leadership meant leadership of the whole political system, stressing that all parties had to act together to reach an agreement.

If changes were to be made to the system, an outside, independent body was needed to restore public confidence in the system and report on the changes that could be made, he said. It was in the interest of all Members to go beyond party lines and make sure action was taken that affected the whole House.

Moving on to the cost of politics, Mr Cameron noted that Britain had more political representatives than any country other than China, and argued that the size of the Commons should be reduced.

Mr Brown expressed incredulity that Cameron was proposing an instant judgement on reducing the number of MPs, and argued that this was a matter for an independent commission.

Inferring that the Leader of the Opposition was seeking to play party politics, Mr Brown stated that it was unfortunate that they could not agree on what action needed to be taken immediately.

The expenses system had to be reformed immediately, he argued, and that today was a time for parties to come together and make the necessary changes.

Joking that the Prime Minister needed an independent commission to decide whether he had tea or coffee in the morning, Mr Cameron wondered how the House would bring about the change the country needed if they could not change themselves.

Mr Brown argued that it was precisely because Parliament had to have change that radical proposals were being put forward. If the House was to restore confidence in politics, it would require all MPs to be part of the process. The pressing priority now was to move forward with the changes that could be agreed upon in a non-partisan way.

Following Mr Cameron’s lead, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg also asked questions on expenses. Mr Clegg put to the Prime Minister that the long term solution to the expenses quagmire was to prevent MPs from making thousands of pounds by buying and selling properties funded by the taxpayer.

This was exactly the kind of issue that the Kelly Committee would be looking at, Mr Brown said, arguing that any solution that was put forward for the long term would have to command both the confidence of the House and the confidence of the public.

Seeking to take the initiative, Mr Clegg informed the House that Liberal Democrat MPs had committed to handing back any gain made from the sale of second homes funded by the taxpayer back to the public purse, and asked whether the Prime Minister could make the same pledge.

Mr Brown acknowledged that capital gains tax had to be paid on the sale of second homes, and that this was the first priority of the Kelly Committee.

Returning to questions from the backbenches, Labour MP Dari Taylor asked the Prime Minister whether he would support the campaign to help Corus steelworks remain a significant part of employment in Teeside.

Explaining the situation to the House, Mr Brown noted that Corus had entered into a contract with four other steel manufacturers that was supposed to last until 2015.

If the contract was broken, a high level of compensation would have to be paid, so the Government was urgently talking to the companies concerned to make sure that the Teeside plant remained open.

He added that the Minister for the North East and Jobcentre Plus were also making their services available to help people get new jobs if there were redundancies.

Liberal Democrat MP, Roger Williams slammed the Government for failing to understand rural problems, and asked the Prime Minister to meet with a delegation of young people from the countryside to discuss solutions.

The Government was determined to help young people in rural areas get on the housing ladder and enter the labour market, Mr Brown said, and would continue to do whatever possible to help people get jobs and expand the housing stock in rural communities.

Next, it was put to the Prime Minister that more than 100,000 children went missing in the UK every year, and asked what was being done to protect these children.

Just last week, Members had discussed lost children who were becoming part of child trafficking near Heathrow, Mr Brown said, which was completely unacceptable. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith and Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls would be looking at this specific instance immediately, he said.

In addition, the Government was also working with local authorities to ensure the best care for vulnerable children identified by border agencies or at ports, and the Immigration and Citizenship Bill would also introduce a new legal duty.

Moving on to international affairs, Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake asked what the Prime Minister would do in the next 48 hours to stop a further massacre taking place in Sri Lanka.

Responding, Mr Brown explained that he was calling for the utmost restrain from both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government and for parties to avoid civilian casualties, and would also expect civilians to be allowed to leave the conflict zones. The UN must also have full access to civilians caught up in the conflict, he said.

Britain would continue to play its part through its aid programme, he said, adding that former Defence Secretary, Des Browne had also been in the region to build up pressure for a full ceasefire.

On credit unions, Labour MP Liz Blackman wondered whether the DWP growth fund for credit unions would remain a top Government priority.

Mr Brown reminded the House that the 2009 Budget had seen an additional £18.5 million invested in credit funds, with more than 100 unions benefiting. The Government would continue to support credit unions in every part of the country, with further support and legislative backing planned for the future.


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