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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:49 pm on 14th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Shephard of Northwold Baroness Shephard of Northwold Conservative 4:49 pm, 14th December 2009

My Lords, we have already enjoyed some lighter moments in the course of this debate, but, fundamentally, it is an extremely serious debate. Its seriousness is equalled only by the seriousness of the situation in which the institution of Parliament finds itself. The SSRB report says that our debate is taking place against,

"a climate of unprecedented public concern arising from serious abuse by some MPs of their expenses system".

It continues:

"While not on the same scale, there have been some allegations of abuses of the expenses system in the House of Lords".

This creeping contempt for the institution of Parliament has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. Many noble Lords know much better than I, a relative newcomer, that the House of Lords is one of the most extraordinary institutions in the world. We also know that while this is one of the largest second Chambers in the world, it is the least costly, as has been pointed out. We cost the taxpayer less than a third of the cost of the House of Commons. That is not based on allowances; that is the total cost. We also sit for more days, scrutinise more legislation and sit for longer hours than any other second Chamber in the world. I know these facts because I constantly dish them out as I travel about doing outreach work on behalf of the Lord Speaker, as do many other noble Lords. When you produce these facts for the enormous variety of groups addressed by many colleagues in this House, people are first astonished, and then extremely, and pleasantly, surprised.

Our unsalaried Members bring to our legislative functions the broadest possible range of experience, wisdom and knowledge from all parts of British society. This, too, has already been mentioned. Our membership is more diverse in terms of gender, faith and race than that of the House of Commons. Our work also benefits from the expertise of Members with a wide range of disabilities.

We are being asked today to agree the architecture. We need to make the Leader of the House aware that people do not like the term "architecture". I wonder how much easier this process would be if "framework" had been used. People do not like "architecture"; it is not just the gargoyles, it is the architecture as well. I shall refer to the framework of new arrangements for our fees and allowances. We are also being asked to agree to the establishment of an ad hoc committee to examine the practicalities of their application. I suggest that, as we debate them, we need to have in the forefront of our minds not only the reputation of our House and of the whole institution of Parliament but the question of whether the SSRB proposals will damage or enhance the unique qualities of the House as a legislative Chamber and, in particular, whether their adoption will make it easier or more difficult for people from all walks of life to become Members. The majority of speakers who have mentioned this seem to feel that the proposals may well make it more difficult to maintain our diverse representation.

Many noble Lords are deeply unhappy that this matter has to be debated. I do not share that view, given the events and feelings in another place. We rightly pride ourselves on being a self-regulating House, but if we do not debate this and do not take decisions for ourselves, someone else will do it for us. After all, it is very clear from the report that the Prime Minister himself has demanded that this exercise result in a reduction in costs.

Many feel that the proposals do not take into account noble Lords' wide variety of circumstances. I share that view. I find it shocking and incredible that the SSRB does not have one woman member. I did not think that that was legal. I understand that, not long ago, the SSRB interviewed people for the five vacancies but could not find a single woman to fill them. I hope it is watching, because if it advertises again, it may well find people suitable to help it in its deliberations. Indeed, if there had been women on the SSRB, its proposals would have recognised the issues surrounding Members having to ring up an agency late at night to see whether a hotel somewhere in Brixton could accommodate them. We cannot use taxis; that is also right. We routinely sit later than the other place-that is another point. If there had been women on the SSRB, someone would have said that older women might find such arrangements difficult.

Some of the proposals are unfriendly to families, spouses and partners. Much has been made of the suggestion that noble Lords may travel first class only if they are working. This introduces a whole new range of inspectorates. Or should the public be alerted to spot whether a noble Lord is working in the first class compartment? Of course, it could be more embarrassing when we examine what goes on in sleepers. But what we are certain of is that your spouse cannot be in the sleeper with you. You will be in a first class sleeper but your spouse will be in guard's van, as far as I can make out. I do not wish to appear to be sexist, but I cannot help feeling that a woman member of the SSRB-just one-might have spotted this nonsense before it got into print.

I am also very concerned, as are we all, that the new arrangements should not result in people becoming Peers only because they can afford to, and because they live within the M25. One of the marvellous things about this House-I have already mentioned diversity-is its geographical diversity, which enriches every debate and consideration that we make. Paragraph 1.15 of the report gives a nod to this concern and then dismisses it. We have heard already-and we shall certainly hear more in this debate-from those who strongly believe that that concern should not be dismissed so lightly.

The detail of exactly how the new arrangements will work is of key importance. That detail has been raised again and again. If the Motion is eventually agreed, the ad hoc committee will have much work to do. The so-called architecture-namely the introduction of the merged daily fee-will undoubtedly cause difficulty for some. On the other hand, it would bring clarity, certainty and even comprehensibility to a system which we all accept has just grown.

We cannot ignore the crisis of confidence in the public mind with regard to the whole of Parliament. Although that crisis has been caused largely by events in another place, we are not, in the public's mind, absolved from the responsibility of reforming ourselves. It was this House which agreed that the whole issue of our allowances should be subjected to the outside scrutiny of the SSRB. We have its report. Its conclusions are unacceptable to some, but most of us think that they need to be refined in detail.

As I said, I am a relative newcomer to this House. In my four and a half years here, I have grown to understand and to value more than I can say its unique qualities, the respect it rightly receives from the public and the extraordinary and vital position that it occupies in the legislative structure of our country. I would not wish for any of that respect to be lost or diminished by our taking the wrong decision today. We have the prized tradition of regulating ourselves. The Motion enables us to continue that tradition and I intend to support it.