Parliament's Speaker Lockwood Smith will meet with the Parliamentary Service Commission tomorrow night to decide on the future of MPs' international travel perk.
Smith has been under pressure to dump the perk since a cross-party push to scrap it in the wake of the Pansy Wong saga.
Wong was forced to resign as a minister following revelations her husband Sammy used the perk for a trip to China, where he sealed a business deal.
Prime Minister John Key yesterday said it was his party's strong view that the perk should be scrapped. The perk entitles experienced MPs and their partners up to 90 per cent rebates on international travel.
Smith this afternoon issued a statement saying he would consult with the Parliamentary Service Commission before deciding on the future of the perk.
"The international travel rebate entitlement is set out in the Speakers' Directions. As Speaker I can make changes to the Directions, though the Parliamentary Service Act requires me to consult with the Parliamentary Service Commission on any proposed changes," Smith said.
"I will meet with the Commission tomorrow evening. I will have no further comment until I have completed that consultation," Smith said.
PM: NO PAY FOR PERKS OK
Key says he's happy for MPs to receive nothing in return for losing their travel perks.
There is a growing consensus among MPs and party leaders that the perk should be scrapped.
"My own personal view is if there's a pay increase it should be a modest one," Key said.
"Personally if they scrap it and don't give MPs anything I'm fine with that."
Key earlier suggested a new independent authority could take over the allocation of MPs' benefits – an idea that would be the cornerstone recommendation in an imminent Law Commission report.
He said it was clear THAT there was no public confidence in the system of benefits to MPs.
"The strong view of National Party MPs is that this entitlement has now outlived its usefulness, and should be abolished as soon as possible," Key said.
The international travel perk was widely seen as "a very unusual thing" which was hard for taxpayers to reconcile, he said.
The perk is paid for by a deduction from MPs' salaries. It funds rebates on international travel for MPs and their spouses of 25, 50, 75 or 90 per cent, depending on experience.
The discount on salaries averages out to about $9600 across all 122 MPs, leading to suggestions MPs could get that amount in a salary boost if the perk were scrapped.
But Key said that would be unacceptable to him.
"Personally, I'm not supportive of a whopping great increase to MPs, just because a travel perk that they used to enjoy has been eliminated."
GOFF: CHANGE PERKS SYSTEM
Labour leader Phil Goff says the time has come for all Parliamentary perks - including travel and accommodation allowances - to be taken out of the hands of MPs and set by an independent body.
Goff said he backed Key's call for the international travel perk for MPs' to be scrapped, saying it had passed its use by date and was no longer accepted by the public.
But he said all of the perks and allowances available to MPs - including free travel for their spouses and children and accommodation allowances for those from outside Wellington should also be under the control of the Remuneration Authority.
"I'd put the whole lot in front of the Remuneration Authority. Let them decide it independently. Take it out of the hands of Parliamentarians, and I hope personally that the Remuneration Authority makes a decision to remove the prospect of personal travel, private travel, holiday travel, being part of that remuneration. It doesn't make sense, the public don't accept it, it's time that it went."
At present, accommodation and travel allowances are set in the Speaker's determination issued each year, a document that is compiled after input from representatives of all parties in Parliament.
The process is conducted in the utmost secrecy and is exempt from the Official Information Act.
Smith has moved to open the system, but only so far as issuing total figures of spending by individual MPs.
Key said other allowances like the accommodation perk "haven't been so much a bone of contention".
Changes made earlier to the ministerial accommodation allowance after controversy over housing allowances paid to Finance Minister Bill English and others had "for the most part seem to have bedded themselves down" and were seen to be fair and equitable.
"But as I said yesterday this may be the time now for us to look at the wider issue of entitlements and whether an independent body should be solely responsible for that."
WONG GOES TO GROUND
Goff said Wong, who has gone to ground since her resignation on Friday, should publicly explain her and her husband's use of the perk.
The rules say no business can be conducted while travelling on the subsidy, which in Wong's case is worth 90 per cent of the cost of a business class trip to London each year. Her husband Sammy has the same benefit.
"She needs to come out of hiding. She needs to front up and explain why she misused the taxpayers' money to support her husband's business interests overseas and John Key has to stop protecting her.
"She knows what she's done. She must be held accountable for that. She must front up and justify herself."
Goff said Wong should also resign as an MP.
"I think very clearly she has broken the rules. You cannot use your Parliamentary privileges to further personal and private business interests. She knows that she's done that."
He said there were also serious questions about a business of Wong's husband being registered to her taxpayer-funded electorate office.
"If you are having an office that is paid for by Parliamentary Service, you do not conduct private business interests from it," Goff said.
"It's not acceptable and time and again, you have seen Pansy Wong blur personal business interests and the pursuit of those interests and Parliamentary entitlements. That's not good enough."
Key said Wong would answer questions once a parliamentary inquiry into her spending was complete. He confirmed that Wong was on leave from Parliament but did not know for how long.
"I made my view quite clear; we're having a parliamentary inquiry now, that will report to the Speaker, once that information is in the public domain Pansy Wong will need to answer questions."
From his conversation with her last week it seemed clear she had no idea of the extent to which her travel allowance had been used and did not have sufficient information to answer reporters questions at this stage.
"I asked her some very direct questions, she didn't have the answers then."
It was important, meanwhile, not to subject Wong to a "kangaroo court".
Another minister, Phil Heatley, had resigned over travel and other spending and "when the report came out it was vastly different to what we thought".
Heatley has since been reinstated.
In Wong's case it had already been proven that there had been abuse of her travel perk because her husband Sammy engaged in private business while they were in China in 2008.
"That is not in doubt and that is therefore enough for her no longer to be a minister."
But there was no way of answering other questions till the Speaker's report was finished.
"I've got nothing to hide; in the end Pansy Wong as an MP will need to answer questions. I'm not expecting her to shy away from that."
- with TRACY WATKINS and JOHN HARTEVELT
- © Fairfax NZ News
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