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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:40 pm on 14th December 2009.

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Photo of Lord Palmer Lord Palmer Crossbench 4:40 pm, 14th December 2009

My Lords, I am more than aware of the contempt in which Parliament is held today. I agree with many of the comments made throughout the House but I consider the detail of the report to be, quite frankly, an insult. It is quite apparent that members of the SSRB have no idea whatever of what a working Peer does-and that work, it must not be forgotten, is done in extremely cramped conditions where very few of us have an office to ourselves.

I have dedicated 19 years of my life to this House, and in the last Session for which statistics are available I attended 88.4 per cent of the sittings, despite the fact that I have a 400-mile commute to make. Often in the past, bucket-and-spade holidays with my children when they were young had to be cut short or, indeed, sacrificed altogether. I am sure that very few of your Lordships could put their hand on their heart and say that they have never "clocked in" for two minutes and then disappeared. In my 19 years I admit to having done so twice, and once was on my wedding day.

In the old days, I remember being a teller in the Lobby at 3 am when more than 400 Peers trooped through it. I wonder how many members of the SSRB are awake and working at 3 am. My dear friend the late Lord Weatherill, who was such a loved and respected Convenor of the Cross Benches, always used to remind me that for every minute you are on your feet in the Chamber, you ought to spend at least an hour in preparation. For my maiden speech, I made 99 drafts; for the first debate that I ever led on the arts and heritage, I was on my feet for 15 minutes. As a matter of interest, I kept an exact count of the number of hours I spent in preparation for that, and it came to 117 hours-I repeat, 117 hours. For those of us who sit on European sub-committees-as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, has indeed mentioned-there is an enormous amount of work and reading to be done. Every Saturday morning, I receive at least an inch of paperwork relating to our weekly meeting; again, the SSRB has totally lost account of this fact.

Every morning, my wife's final words to me are, "What time will you be back?" Of course, it is impossible to know, particularly if you are involved in a Bill. I remember preparing a speech for the last Energy Bill nine times before I delivered it on the tenth sitting day in Grand Committee. Likewise, if there are likely to be votes, as we all know, it is difficult to ascertain the exact time of the vote. It must not be forgotten that that could play complete havoc with any social life that one might try to have, let alone spending quality time with one's spouse, as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, mentioned. Again, the SSRB has completely failed to take that into account.

Now I, too, turn to travel, especially for those of us who travel long distances. It is incredulous to think that the recommendation is: if you are not working, you should travel second-class. In the past, I have often taken the sleeper to Edinburgh, and while it is difficult to sleep on such a conveyance, it is also difficult to claim that one is actually working. The idea of having to share a compartment with a complete stranger or, for that matter, another noble Lord is really unbelievable. The proposal that spouses should travel second-class on long journeys-and I emphasise that they are long journeys-while accompanying a Member of this House who might legitimately be working is, in my view, completely unacceptable. Also, as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, mentioned, the recommended six visits per annum for a spouse is just nasty and indeed mean.

With regard to overnight expenses, there are hotels where, if you are lucky, you can get a room for £140 a night. However, you might well incur a taxi fare of £20 each way. Travelling late at night, particularly for elderly female Members of this House, is a very scary experience. Not for one moment am I suggesting that any Member of your Lordships' House should stay in a five-star hotel, but it is interesting to note that some of them charge upwards of £470, plus VAT, per night, and that is before you have had a peanut, let alone breakfast.

Another aspect of parliamentary duties which has been completely overlooked is being a member of an all-party parliamentary group, of which there are 584. I am the office bearer in three of them and a member of a further six. These take time to prepare for, particularly if you are chairing a session and then have to lobby and hold telephone or face-to-face meetings with officials and/or Members of the other place. Again, the SSRB has totally failed to take that on board.

My youngest son, who, at the moment, is an unqualified accountant, is charged out at £125 an hour. If he was qualified, that would be nearer £200. If a senior partner is charged out, it is for £600 an hour. I have no idea when we will finish tonight; there are rumours that it might well be midnight. Just think: the senior partners of a firm of accountants can get paid £600 an hour.

I hope that by now I have proven how derisory the £200 per day attendance suggestion is. At the moment the cost to the taxpayer for a Member of this House is £3.81 a year. To put that in context, unaccountable government quangos with salaried members last year cost each and every UK household the staggering amount of £3,641 a year. I wonder who gives the best value.

Before I came here I had a secretary for six hours a week. Now I have to have someone for 36 hours a week to do all the things that I would normally do if I was not here. This, again, is something that the SSRB has totally failed to take into account. I agree with what other noble Lords have said about non-sitting days and secretarial allowances. One other fundamental point is that we must not forget that we all have a Writ of Summons to attend Parliament.

Your Lordships will be delighted to hear that I conclude by reiterating that I think this report is an utter insult to those of us who have dedicated our lives to working here. I greatly look forward to the reply of the noble Baroness, who is held in such respect and affection throughout the House. This report will undoubtedly have a negative effect on attendance figures, but perhaps that is exactly what Her Majesty's Government want.