House of Lords: Financial Support for Members — Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:35 pm on 14th December 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament 3:35 pm, 14th December 2009

My Lords, I was delighted to be invited to speak early by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, the Government Chief Whip. Perhaps I may also say, given that it has become controversial, that I wholly agree with the idea that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the Leader of the House, should reply to this debate. There is a very good reason for that. As this report was jointly commissioned by the House Committee and by the Prime Minister, it is entirely appropriate that a senior Minister should respond at the end of the debate.

As I am following the Chairman of Committees and the Leader of the House, I shall not trouble your Lordships with a lengthy speech setting out the case for accepting this Motion, as I hope that your Lordships will.

The proposal for an ad hoc committee to consider how in practice these recommendations might best be put into effect, together with the undertaking that the House Committee report back to your Lordships on the impact of that system in a year, offers a degree of flexibility. That is sensible. It is flexibility that I know many noble Lords feel is so clearly necessary. However, the noble Baroness has referred to the background of this report, and we all understand what that is. We all know that there have been abuses-by a small minority, certainly, but abuses no less. We know that, given the intense scrutiny of everyone in public life at present, we must show not just willingness to take independent advice but a positive readiness to accept it when it comes.

There are defects in the report, and I shall point out some, but I believe that they are matters that can be ironed out. I have confidence that the process recommended by the Chairman of Committees will ensure that this is done. I therefore join the noble Baroness in urging your Lordships to accept the Motion today.

Accepting the report must include adopting the architecture of the system-namely the structure of the two allowances and the amounts as proposed, and its key principles, such as the proposition that claims for overnight stays must be backed by receipts. I do not doubt for one moment the high sense of honour of your Lordships, but it would simply not be understood by the public if a system of receipting were rejected. However, there is no reason for that system to be even more complex than it need be.

When I first heard the term architecture, I thought of one of our great cathedrals. I accept the form of this cathedral. I also accept its scale. So I hope that this debate is not an occasion for unseemly haggling over the figures proposed. However, that does not mean that you must accept outright every decoration of that cathedral, every gargoyle and pediment. After all, some odd flying buttresses have been clamped onto this one by its authors.

There is the idea, for example, implicit in paragraph 3.13 of the report, that if a noble Baroness and her husband are travelling by train from Scotland to attend the State Opening, they must travel in separate compartments. There is the proposition that while noble Lords are permitted to travel by first class rail to enable them to work better, Peers who come from Northern Ireland-as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Carswell, who is not able to be here today, pointed out to me in a letter-cannot travel in the more spacious parts of the cabin. Many other examples come to mind, and no doubt your Lordships will be mentioning them either in this debate or in a letter to the new ad hoc committee. I believe that most of those issues can be sorted out.

These are perhaps minor details, but they are part of a picture that some noble Lords have put to me which suggests that there is a meanness of tone in parts of this report. It is not mean in terms of money. After all, your Lordships are not here for money. Our House has never been a place where people come to make money, and it never should be. Being a Member of this House is, and has always been, a tremendous honour. We should not deride that in any way.

This is an unpaid House that gives outstanding value for money, so I hope that the SSRB will not take it amiss if I say that I was disappointed by a statement in paragraph 2.23 that your Lordships' counterparts in Holland, Austria, Belgium and Ireland "cost significantly less". The cost of your Lordships' remuneration is £25,000 a head. In Holland, it is £46,000-nearly twice as much; in Austria, it is £96,000-four times as much; in Belgium, it is £120,000-nearly five times as much; and in Ireland, it is nearly £160,000-more than six times as much. These are just the Houses whose Members the SSRB has told the world cost considerably less than ours. In France, the cost is £110,000; in Italy, £136,000; and in the United States, £258,000. Even in Poland, the equivalents of your Lordships draw £72,000 a head on average. Dare I say that it is a little sloppy to imply that your Lordships cash in in a significantly more costly way? I believe that your Lordships do not have snouts in the trough. This report should not, and does not, change that fact but it might be a little more sensitive to the realities of life.

Many noble Lords have said to me that they feel that the report does not give due weight to differences between the two Houses. I can see why that might be so. We have to recall that when the Prime Minister commissioned the report, it was he who instructed the SSRB to,

"work closely with Sir Christopher Kelly in producing recommendations".

Mr Brown, the Prime Minister, at that time envisaged putting your Lordships under the same external regulating body as the other place-an idea pressed again in recommendation 26 of the report. Therefore, your Lordships might feel that it was the Government who pushed the authors of this report down what I believe to be a false trail. A workable allowance system for this House-unpaid, for many part-time, and for all not representative-cannot and should not replicate the Commons, which is salaried, full-time and representative.

Most of the problems that we have had recently have concerned so-called second homes. There have been flagrant examples of bad behaviour here which need to be dealt with, and that in itself is one reason why we should accept the report's demand for greater controls here. However, there is an illusion, perhaps again resulting from the Prime Minister's instruction to work with Kelly, that the second homes issue in the Commons and the second homes issue in this House are connected. I do not believe that they are.

Members of this House do not have constituencies. They do not turn up at a selection meeting where the first question they are asked is, "Will you find a home in the constituency?". You do not need a second home to do this job but what you do need, whether you live in London or not, is a place to lay your head near enough to enable you to attend your Lordships' House. That is why in July I suggested in my evidence to the SSRB that we should have a system based on one single allowance to recognise all the costs of attendance, with travel costs dealt with separately. That would have avoided the complications of trying to mend a second home system which originated with the Top Salaries Review Body in the first place and which has led to so much trouble. It was rejected, for reasons in paragraph 3.8 that I do not find wholly convincing, but rejected it has been. I have to tell your Lordships that I accept that, because we must work with what we have.

However, in respect of homes, I only wish that there had been more equitable treatment of those who own and those who rent. In a House with an average age of nearly 70, many Peers will have acquired their homes and paid off their mortgages. Would there be another walk of life where, after we have been encouraging home ownership for generations, a report would suggest, as paragraph 8.12 does, that noble Lords who own homes should sell them, incurring all the costs involved, and rent another one so as to benefit from the rent offset allowances offered? I fear that that will happen, and I shudder at the likely public reaction. Can the authors of the report seriously intend that to be a consequence of their proposals, and will they undertake to defend it if it happens?

I have also been struck by the number of noble Baronesses from all parts of the House who have asked, "Was it because all 10 of the authors of the report were men that they saw no issue in lady Peers, some of them elderly, needing financial support to rent a hotel room in Victoria rather than be in their own homes?".

Sensible though many elements of the report are, there is a great deal for an ad hoc group to look at. However, despite its defects, the report does offer a coherent basis for a system that-stripped of some of the barnacles set on it-will hold down costs, will be more transparent and can be more openly audited in a way that meets our duty of accountability. It is far from perfect, but it does what we ask. It addresses areas in which the current system no longer carries public confidence. I believe that those matters needed to be addressed. Change is never congenial, and as we have seen in other aspects of the life of this House, we do not always get it right the first time. The Members' group can take us forward on some of the details that I have mentioned, and on many others that I am sure other noble Lords will raise.

With that in mind, my firm recommendation is that we should accept the broad structure and principles of the report today, as the Chairman of Committees has asked. We shall have another opportunity to debate points of detail when the Members' group reports and when the House Committee reports back on its impact a year into its operation. The present system does not carry full confidence outside but the report offers the basis for a fresh start, and I urge my colleagues to support the Motion.