Association of Former Members of Parliament

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1.13 p.m.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move,

That this House welcomes the formation of the Association of Former Members of Parliament in response to the Resolution of the House of 2nd May 2001; notes that it now has a membership of over 330 former Members; acknowledges the work done by the Association and its Executive Committee; and welcomes the financial and other assistance accorded to the Association by the House of Commons Commission.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) will speak in greater detail on this issue, because he has been chairing a working group on support for former Members. Those of us who have been lucky enough to survive in the House over many elections, as I have, will have friends who are no longer Members. Some retired at an appropriate moment - we wish them all well in their retirement - but many either got squeezed out because of gratuitous boundary redistributions or lost their seats. That happened to a large number of my colleagues in the 1980s, and it also happened to Conservative colleagues in the 1990s and at the 2001 election.

Many of those who lost their seats were assiduous Members of Parliament. They had given up careers and quite high incomes, and often put great strains on their families, but they suddenly found themselves outside the House and at a loss as to their future. That is a risk that we all accept when we are elected to the House, but I have often been struck by the lack not of support in terms of pensions, which are reasonable these days, although not for people who retired some time ago, but of psychological support and recognition of the contribution that those people made to the running of the House.

Shortly before the 2001 election, our former colleague, Joe Ashton, who was just about to retire, led an informal cross-party group looking at what could be done to assist the position of former Members of Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who was then Leader of the House, facilitated a short debate in May 2001, just before the general election, which led, in effect, to the establishment of a working party to report to the Speaker. The motion identified the desire of former Members to stay in contact with each other and the possible benefits of availability of sources of personal advice and assistance for those who might have got into difficulties.

As I say, my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle will go into more detail, but I understand that the association has more than 330 members, including a former Prime Minister and a former Speaker. Any such association needs some material support, but I understand that our association funds most of its activities from subscription. However, some modest financial support and assistance in kind have been made available by the House of Commons Commission. That will continue.

The Commission considered that

"in due course the view of the House should be sought on this assistance, so that it can be put on a steadier footing".

The main purpose of tabling the motion is to allow the House to give its view. We are being asked to give broad endorsement of the Commission's approach, but not to take responsibility for specific decisions, which remain a matter for the Commission. I am extremely happy to give that endorsement. I hope that the House as a whole does so to.

1.16 p.m.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am also happy to give that endorsement. Any large organisation has clubs, societies and groupings for former members of staff, which are for people who retire in the natural way of things. Of course, many Members of the House lose their jobs, and that can come as a great shock to them. Politics is a brutal business in that sense. Therefore, the proposal seems entirely sensible. Indeed, it seems a little odd that it took so long for a grouping or association of former Members to be formed.

I pay tribute to the work of all those former Members and Members of the House who have been involved in getting the association up and running and in ensuring that it is provided with the support it needs. I am entirely happy to endorse that important, albeit limited, support that the Commission has agreed the House may give.

I would like to make a further point. There are many ways in which Members of the House can continue to learn from former Members. On a specific issue, I am very grateful for the support that Dame Marion Roe is giving to those of us who are trying to encourage more women into the House, particularly on the Conservative Benches. She is giving practical support and advice to women. It is good of former Members to be willing to do that. We should never forget the experience that they have, which can be of benefit to current Members and to the House generally.

1.17 p.m.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I am delighted to speak to the motion. On 2 May 2001 we had the original motion before the House. Of course, if it had not been for the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the debate would never have taken place. After it, the Speaker asked me to form a working group to see whether we could get an association up and running.

I was flattered by that and I wondered whether the Speaker realised that I had a background in human resources - I used to be personnel manager for a large multinational company. So, I delved into this a little further, but the reality was that I was one of only three Members who were sitting on the Benches when the debate took place. I was the obvious candidate.

The work has gone well, but when I was appointed to the post, I wondered why we had never had a formal association. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has asked that question today from the Conservative Front Bench. Throughout the world, Parliaments similar to ours all have their associations. I then realised that the reason for us not having an association for former Members is down at the other end of the building. In fact, we have an association, and it is called the House of Lords. It has been there for many centuries, but only elite former Members went to it. If what I hear is to be believed, it will be even more difficult for Members of this House to get to the other House, so I am sure that the need for the association will increase.

The working group reported to the Speaker and the then Leader of the House, and it was successful. The association of former Members now has, I think, 340 members, including two former Prime Ministers and 32 former Cabinet Ministers. They need no advice from us about how to run their business, as many of them have run the country, some of them well and some not so well.

As the Leader of the House pointed out, there was a need for this association, and the main need was for fellowship. This place is a closed community, and suddenly finding oneself on the outside is difficult when most Members live in their constituencies and are unlikely to meet one of their work colleagues walking down the street. Some successful social gatherings have taken place, and I want to put on record our thanks for the support of Speaker Martin in that regard. The Administration Committee, which was at first reluctant to accept the demands of the association, has also been helpful.

Progress has been made. When the association was started, a former Member had to have completed 15 years' service before being given permission to come into the House without having to go through security and wear a label with a date on it. That has now improved greatly. Former Members found it shaming to have to go through that procedure and felt that their contribution merited better. An office has been provided, which is welcomed by the association. The small amount of financial support provided helps to pay the association's postage costs. It has been fortunate to employ a part-time secretary, Sally Grocott - "employ" is perhaps not the right word, as I am not sure that she gets paid or gets paid regularly. As she knows the House - her husband is Chief Whip in the other place - she has been a tower of strength to the association.

The driving force behind the association, however, has been Joe Ashton. I have worked closely with him and he tires me out. Given the amount of energy that he puts into his role, he probably retired too early. The association has been fortunate to have him. Nothing is ever good enough for Joe, so we must go further and faster. He now has an all-party, mixed-gender executive that represents various regions of the United Kingdom. The House would be proud to form an executive on such a basis were it ever able to do so. Members are aware of its success, because it produces a newspaper, "Order Order", three times a year, which is now circulated with The House Magazine.

The association has asked me to raise one or two issues. First, it has asked me to raise the issue of the pension fund trustees. I served for many years as a pension fund trustee and, believe me, it is not a glamorous committee. It is perhaps a bit like that on the Crossrail Bill, but the chairman does not get paid. The law says that there should be pensioner trustees. At present, we have a pensioner trustee, who was not nominated by the association but is a member of it. The association has asked whether it can be consulted in future about the retired trustee on the pension fund, which is a reasonable request, and whether there could be more than one retired trustee on the pension fund. I hope that that suggestion will be communicated through the usual channels back to the fund trustees.

Secondly, the association asked me to raise the issue of the Members' Fund, of which, for my pains, I am also a member. I am conscious that the vast majority of Members of Parliament know nothing about the Members' Fund - they just know from their payslip that they make a £2 contribution to it every month. In reality, it is a fund for assisting former Members of Parliament or their spouses and family - the assistance is normally to spouses and family who might have fallen into some kind of financial difficulty. The laws on the fund were passed by the House in about 1935 and need revising. Members of the association understand that. If the laws are revised, however, they would like a retired association member to be a member of the Members' Fund.

I also want to raise the issue, on which the Leader of the House touched, of how we treat Members who lose their seats. Some work has been done on that, and I thought that I had secured an agreement with the usual channels that when a Member loses a seat, he or she can use part of the winding-up allowance to get expert help on returning to the labour market. A Member of Parliament who has been out of his or her profession for 10 years will find it difficult to get back into the labour market. The multinational company for which I worked would bring in consultants to assist those who had been made redundant with their CVs and advise them on their career prospects and future direction. That does not happen here. My understanding - which was wrong, as it did not happen - was that Members, if they so wished, could use part of the winding-up allowance for those purposes. I hope that that will have been provided for by the time of the next general election.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree - this did not apply to me, although I lost my seat, and I was fortunate enough to be in employment within a week - that the process can be pretty undignified when a Member loses a seat? Several former Members, no doubt on both sides of the House, have needed to get permission from the authorities to come here and collect their papers and so on, perhaps a few days after a general election. A more dignified approach is required to deal with those who have lost their seats, not only to help them in the way that my hon. Friend has suggested but to make it easier for them to collect papers and do other things that one would do normally when leaving one's employment.

Mr. Martlew: I totally accept that, and I understand that the matter is being considered. I have heard the process described as being similar to what happens when an employee has been instantly dismissed - someone will come to the person's office, help him or her to gather their papers and see them off the premises. That cannot be right. Of course, there is pressure of time - the work of the House starts again soon after the general election, and desks and so on must be available. However, the issue must be treated more sensitively. The issue in relation to passes is similar. Often, Members have felt ashamed to come back into the House through the security system. Since we have made changes, the House is a much more welcoming place to former Members.

My final point is that the amount of money made available to the association is probably less than £2,000. I realise that that is public money, and we must be careful with it. However, outside this place, a civil service retirement association or a large company would be more generous. When the House of Commons Commission considers the matter, I hope that it will see its way to being a little more generous.

I am grateful that this motion is on the Order Paper today. I am sure that all Members of the House realise that, sooner or later, they will be a former Member. I am not planning to lose my seat at the next general election, but one can never tell. We should take credit for what we have done. Some members of the association complain about the pensions and salaries that we receive and compare them with the amounts that they received, and they are right to do so; but we did set up the association. They had the opportunity to set it up, and did not do so.

When we are former Members, the association will make leaving this place better for us. We have already made it a great deal better for our colleagues and friends who left at the last election.

1.30 p.m.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I want to express not just congratulations but thanks to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), and to all who have been instrumental in setting up the association and making it work as it has. It represents an important advance in what we do for former Members. I also agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about further steps that could be taken. It is extraordinary that although we spend all our time here referring to each other, quite properly, as "the hon. Gentleman" and "the hon. Lady" in accordance with the formalities of the House, the moment a seat is lost the Member is apparently no longer an hon. Gentleman or an hon. Lady, and cannot be trusted to clear his or her desk in good order. That is an indignity that we do not need to visit on those who are inevitably distraught at their position.

In too many instances, the structures of the House are based on the assumption that someone who leaves is a member of the landed or money gentry to whom attending the House has been merely a pastime for a certain number of years, who can simply return to his estates or his job in the City, and to whom nothing really matters. That is not how things are in the real world. Most Members of Parliament nowadays burn their bridges when they come here, setting aside their former professions, trades or jobs, and when they end their time in the House they often face an uncertain future. It is important to provide such people with a proper transition.

The hon. Member for Carlisle suggested that some of the winding-up funds should be used to pay for professional advice on employment opportunities. I think that a good employer would supply such funds not from a winding-up allowance, but as a matter of course. I think that the House should provide the largest amount that it can sensibly provide, not because I want Members of Parliament to have a particular advantage but because I want us to be in a similar position to someone leaving a major company. We have all seen major redundancies in our constituencies, and we have all urged employers - some of them good employers, some not so good - to provide relocation packages so that people can find new ways into work.

I entirely endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Carlisle, and entirely concur with what was said by the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May).

1.33 p.m.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I support the motion. My wife Virginia is either a member or a potential member of the association. I have enjoyed reading the newsletter, and think that the editor deserves praise.

I do not agree with some of what has been said, but the debate is relatively limited. I think that we should all be prepared to clear our offices when an election comes, and I do not think that we need too much time in which to do it. I do not like the idea that Members of Parliament are doing a job better than any other that they could do. I am glad that we are past the times when only the poor and the rich could become Members of Parliament, and that now middle-income groups can do so.

I agree with the general points made about the importance of the solidarity and support that people receive, but I think we should bear in mind the position of spouses or partners of former Members of Parliament, especially former Members who have died. I remember a case about 20 years ago, when someone who had been the daughter-in-law and wife of distinguished Members was not be recognised when she came back here several weeks after her husband's funeral and memorial service. Although they are not members of the association, I hope that some attention will be paid to those who have been married to politics for many years.

Mr. Martlew: I should make clear that spouses can join the association.

Peter Bottomley: I am glad to hear that. I think it very appropriate.

I believe that the motion should be passed, and that we should have further discussions on what else can be done to ensure that people can be together and feel that they are contributing - if only to the fun of being in an association of former Members, but I think that they can contribute more.

1.35 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I am sorry that I was missing for a few minutes. I was in touch with - not Joe Ashton, although he has been in touch with me a great deal lately, which is why I have risen to speak, but the cardiologist. Just at the moment, that is a bit more important.

Joe Ashton was a Whip between 1976 and 1979, when we had no majority. Well, we did have a majority, but then Stonehouse went missing. He was on a Florida beach, then he turned up in Australia. Then he crossed the Floor, and Joe Ashton was given the job of being one of the Whips keeping our majority intact. They were heady days and all the rest of it, but we formed a relationship. Joe's job was to try to get me into the Lobbies. It did not always work, but I told him all those years ago that I would do him a favour some time. I got on the phone to him when he retired. It has not been mentioned yet, but Joe had a very serious illness. We had many long discussions about how he was getting on. At the time I could see that despite the grim fight that he was undertaking, there was no doubt that the proposal that he had helped to put to the House way back in 2001 - I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said that it was on 2 May - was still very much in his mind. I promised him on numerous occasions that I would raise it if necessary, in accordance with what he wanted. What I did not know was that Joe had also been briefing my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle, who has presented most of his propositions today.

Reference has been made to the composition of this place in the old days. Many Members then had formerly worked in factories or the pits. I can speak with some knowledge about pension entitlements in those days. The pension from the pits was only voluntary even in my day, and there was no pension at all when I started working as a miner. Many people who became Members of Parliament received no pension. It is true that they could have money shifted from one place to another, but people who had given 20 years' service were receiving about £100 a month - people who had worked in factories, pits and all the rest. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome(Mr. Heath) was right to say that many Members did not leave with a great deal of money. It is true that the composition of this place has changed dramatically. There are no longer 700,000 miners; you would have a job to find more than 5,000. That is why it is important to remember what the position used to be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle mentioned nominees for the parliamentary contributory pension fund and the Members' fund. That is what Members are striving for, as of right. If the Commission would consider it, I am sure that my old pal Joe Ashton, Bill Michie and all the rest who helped to form the association will be very pleased. Help with the cost of the magazine would also be appreciated, and Joe also told me that he would like to have the names and addresses of all the Members who had left, so that they could keep in contact.

So those are the proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle dealt with them previously and explained precisely what was needed, and I hope that the Commission can deal with the matter. I have done my job. I made a promise to Joe donkeys' years ago that there would come an occasion when he would be glad of my presence. I may not be in the Lobby, but I am speaking up for his association.

1.40 p.m.

Mr. Straw: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply briefly to this debate. I am very grateful to all those who have expressed their support for the motion and this proposal; that will certainly help members of the House of Commons Commission to ensure better support for the association.

On the issue of pensioner trustees, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), there is provision for one member of the trustees to be a "pensioner member", and they do not have to be a Member of this House. The current member, who was chosen last year, is Lord Naseby. He is better known to Members of this House as Michael Morris, and was MP for one of the Northampton seats for many years. I undertake to discuss with the association and the trustees whether there should be a nominee from the association, as of right, on the Board of Trustees.

With that, I urge support for the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House welcomes the formation of the Association of Former Members of Parliament in response to the Resolution of the House of 2nd May 2001; notes that it now has a membership of over 330 former Members; acknowledges the work done by the Association and its Executive Committee; and welcomes the financial and other assistance accorded to the Association by the House of Commons Commission.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB