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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:59 pm on 14th December 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Nickson Lord Nickson Crossbench 4:59 pm, 14th December 2009

My Lords, after those five Exocets, perhaps I should declare an interest-not a pecuniary one but as a former chairman of the SSRB rather a long time ago. Then, 40 per cent of our membership were women, and a tremendous contribution they made too. When, as my noble friend Lord Butler will well remember, I succeeded my predecessor, Lord Plowden, he said to me, "My boy, if you take this on, you do realise that it is the ultimate poison pill". That was 20 years ago and I am still here. In those days, not only were women well represented on the SSRB but we carried out our roles voluntarily-in our own time and without pay. That is as may be.

Having heard those five speeches, I well understand the concern that many noble Lords have about the details of the report, but I support wholeheartedly the Motion in the name of the House Committee and the line taken by the Government. I draw a parallel with what happened to a report that was presented to another place in 1992-93, for which I suppose I had responsibility as the author, and with what happened in the other place. I very much hope that, despite their reservations, your Lordships will look at the bigger picture.

As has been said many times in this debate and in the one held a fortnight ago on the report of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the ripples of public opinion, to use a current phrase, may only just be lapping the sandbags around the Peers' Entrance and we may not have had the catastrophic flooding that occurred in the climate change of public opinion relating to politicians in another place. However, we must realise that, whether we talk about the architecture, the cathedral or the framework, we absolutely have to accept that it would be a tragic mistake for this House to reject a report that was commissioned by this House and, through the Prime Minister, the Government. It would be a very great mistake to reject it.

I am not saying that all the detail is perfect, as it very clearly is not; nor am I saying that any of the reports for which I was responsible for six years were perfect-they were not. I cannot remember a single report that was totally accepted in every detail by the Government. Sometimes reports were staged for reasons of economic imperative and so on; sometimes details were altered; and sometimes one felt that some of the details were altered just to keep us on our toes. In one case, I remember that when we returned, bloodied, to discuss what had happened to our report, I was so moved by what had occurred that I instructed the staff of the OME to play the last Sir Humphrey episode of "Yes, Prime Minister", and the parallels were very great. We did that instead of reading the minutes.

I want to refer, in particular, to a report commissioned in 1991 on office cost allowances in another place. I shall not bore your Lordships with it too much but one recommendation was made in order that Members of Parliament could achieve,

"higher standards of employment practice".

One objective was that,

"the way in which the allowances are used should meet high standards of public accountability and employment practice".

When the report was debated, it was rejected, together with the architecture and the framework. Many of your Lordships were almost certainly in the other place at the time, and the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, may remember this, as he told me shortly afterwards what had happened when, as John MacGregor, he was Lord President. However, the report was rejected and the Members in another place voted themselves 20 per cent more than had been recommended. I want to read three short extracts from that debate:

"Let us not fool ourselves: whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, it is being observed by the public out there, and the public are about to undergo an economic phase in which they will have not inflation-plus rises but perhaps inflation-minus rises. They will ask themselves why we are behaving like a 1970s trade union and awarding ourselves increases for reasons that they will never understand".

The second quote is:

"The Government commission an independent report. They establish a committee of people who are distinguished in their fields, under the chairmanship of Sir David Nickson. The secretariat is provided by the Office of Manpower Economics"- and consultants are used. It continues:

"The committee takes many months to do its work. It takes evidence from hon. Members on both sides of the House", and so on. The report is then rejected.

My final quote is:

"The Government"- in this case, the House-

"if they propose to deal with these matters by referring them to review bodies"- to an independent outside body, in this case the Senior Salaries Review Body-

"must decide in advance to accept the review bodies' reports".-[Hansard, Commons, 14/07/92; cols. 1086-91.]

In general terms, they must accept the recommendations made. That report was rejected. Had it not been rejected and had its architecture or some of its framework been adopted, I think that very many of the problems that we have seen in recent months might not have occurred.

I have two last points but I do not want to go into any detail. I am not saying that everything is perfect. When I chaired the SSRB, it was called the Top Salaries Review Body. I felt that that title was slightly inappropriate and your Lordships may feel that the change to the Senior Salaries Review Body was perhaps a wise one at the time. It is entirely right that the House Committee should consider this matter. No doubt it will consider the points made so eloquently by many noble Lords who are unhappy but, when the time comes to consider this, I urge the House to accept the report in broad principles, as it would be most unfortunate if we took a different view.