HL Deb 30 July 1997 vol 582 cc181-5

3.14 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the Second Report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 20).—(The Chairman Of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

1. Sub-Committee membership Viscount Devonport was appointed to the Administration and Works Sub-Committee.

2. House of Lords Annual Report and Accounts The Committee approved the Annual Report and Accounts for 1996–97.

3. The Lord Chancellor's Residence The Committee were informed that the Finance and Staff Sub-Committee had approved the estimated cost of £650,000, outside the current Estimate, for a major refurbishment of the Lord Chancellor's Residence.

4. Mobile telephones and pagers The Committee agreed rules for the use of mobile telephones and pagers in the House of Lords as follows: 1. Mobile telephones—

  1. (a) must be silent in all public areas of the House including the Chamber.
  2. (b) may only be used in offices or where conventional telephones are located: and
  3. (c) may not be used while moving around the House.
2. There should be no bar to the use of pagers, provided that they are silent. In the Chamber and Committees of the House pagers must not be used to transmit messages to Peers for use in proceedings.

5. Staff pay The Committee took note with approval of the 1997 pay awards to House of Lords staff; the cost to the paybill will be 3.8%.

6. Lords' Reimbursement Allowances The Committee were informed of the annual up-rating of the motor mileage allowance in line with the increase in the Retail Price Index. From 1 April 1997, the rate of motor mileage allowance was increased by 1.2 pence to 48.4 pence for the first 20,000 miles for the period to 31 March 1998. Further mileage in this period would be payable at the rate of 22.3 pence per mile.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I should like to thank the committee for its work and begin by saying that any remarks that I may make now are no reflection on its work which is very much appreciated by us all.

I wish to make two points. I refer first to paragraph 3 which is headed "The Lord Chancellor's Residence". On 14th July, speaking out against "fat cat lawyers" the Lord Chancellor pleased many of us who have pursued that subject for some time. The noble and learned Lord earned our gratitude for that courageous attack, but he will have earned the enmity of a number of vested interests. Therefore we have a duty to protect the Lord Chancellor. I believe that far more detail should be given about the sum of two-thirds of a million pounds which is to be spent on his residence. We learn from the minutes of the Offices Committee meeting on 22nd July that that expenditure had not been considered before the general election, so clearly something serious must have been discovered—possibly severe structural damage or large quantities of asbestos. More detail would be most helpful.

I turn now to paragraph 4 which is headed "Mobile telephones and pagers". It may interest your Lordships to know that when I was Government Chief Whip in another place in a rather more difficult situation than pertains no—in fact, we lost our majority when the late John Stonehouse crossed the Floor and by the time the Government finally fell, he was out on parole—it was suggested that Members should be issued with bleepers or pagers. I refused—for three reasons. First, I thought that my beleaguered troops were entitled to some privacy from time to time. Secondly, I felt that bleepers would diminish their stature as public representatives. Thirdly, I thought that the possession of bleepers might dilute Members' sense of personal responsibility in some way. I may well have been wrong. I am an old-fashioned, out-of-date chap, but one wonders what heights Gladstone, Disraeli and Sir Winston Churchill might have reached had they been on the end of a pager, being monitored to stay on message.

Where is the impetus coming from for all these changes we are being asked to absorb? On 19th March the Offices Committee before this one spoke about the enhanced message service, mentioning a consultation process that was to last until September 1997. Here we are, the Recess about to start, and no mention in the report of that consultation process or how it is going. What we have managed to elicit is that the review by the consultants, Deloitte and Touche, cost £144,667.18 of which your Lordships' share is £23,725.41. The cost is entirely made up of consultants' time and averages out at over £1,100 per day.

Who is this to help? I sometimes wonder because, as your Lordships will know, over the past three weeks the tickertape just outside the Prince's Chamber has been on the blink. Most of the time it has not been working at all. When it first broke down a notice appeared saying, "Engineer called". That put me in mind of St. MatthewChapter 22, verse 14: many are called, but few are chosen", because it seems to have had no visible effect. As a minister's son, I feel that occasionally I must work in such references to show that my childhood was not entirely wasted.

After all these weeks of inactivity, with that acme of timing which makes our public servants the envy of the world, lo and behold within three hours of this possible debate in your Lordships' House, the engineers are installing a new tape. I hardly need add that they are having difficulty with it, but no doubt we shall be well serviced through the Recess.

I wonder whether there is a hidden agenda and whether we are being softened up in order to be taken over by the spin doctors. I believe that when such reports are before us we have a duty to scrutinise them carefully because the reputation of this House is very valuable and must be protected.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, perhaps I may follow the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, and ask the Chairman of Committees to help us on the second line of paragraph 3. It is most important. We want to know on what all that money is to be spent.

Referring to paragraph 6, all of us must buy petrol for our vehicles, especially those of us who are disabled. Why have the Government put up the cost of petrol by 4p. but allowed your Lordships only 1.2p? Perhaps the Chairman of Committees can assist.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, when the noble Lord comes to reply, can he inform the House how many students' maintenance fees and tuition fees it will take to pay for the improvements to the Lord Chancellor's house?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I find it difficult to compete with some of the humour from which we have benefited this afternoon. I deal first with one of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve. She referred to the uprating of the allowance referred to in paragraph 6. In accordance with the normal practices of your Lordships' House and committees, that has been uprated according to the retail prices index. It has been done in the normal way. I cannot add anything to that save to assure the noble Baroness that the customary practice has been followed.

The noble Lords, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe and Lord Glenamara, and the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, asked about the Lord Chancellor's residence. I understand the point that has been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, but as always this is a matter of priorities. I have never been too impressed by the argument that there are other items on which money can be spent and that in the view of some people money can be better spent in one way than in another. The trouble with that argument is that, if one follows it to its logical conclusion, one will never do anything about any matters other than those singled out for priority treatment for perfectly understandable reasons by particular individuals. For example, it might be said that the arts would suffer completely because some argued that there were better ways of spending that money. The noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, has indicated that money should be spent in a particular way. It may well be that provision is being made in another direction. That is not my responsibility. But that is a laudable aim anyway.

As far as concerns expenditure on the Lord Chancellor's residence, the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, said that this matter was not raised before the election. It has been raised since the election, and I for one am grateful that it has. This is a very worthwhile and necessary project. It has been thoroughly examined by the relevant committees of your Lordships' House: first, the Administration and Works Sub-Committee; secondly, the Finance and Staff Sub-Committee; and, thirdly, the Offices Committee which has made this report to your Lordships' House. All of those committees took the view that this matter had to be dealt with.

Turning to the reasons for the expenditure, the intention is to restore the Lord Chancellor's residence to the highest standards of decoration expected by the Palace, by your Lordships and another place in accordance with the original designs of Pugin. This has not been done for many years. I understand that at least 10 years have elapsed since a major renovation of the Lord Chancellor's residence has taken place. It is high time that this work was undertaken, and I wholeheartedly commend it to your Lordships.

I have already said that the matter was thoroughly examined by all the relevant committees of your Lordships' House. There was no dissenting voice in any of those committees on this proposal. I for one am grateful to the leaderships (if I may put it collectively) in the various parts of your Lordships' House, including the Convenorship of the Cross-Bench Peers, for their support in those committees. There was no doubt that this refurbishment was regarded as necessary. This must also be seen in a positive and productive light for another reason. All of those committees very much welcomed the proposal of the Lord Chancellor that the residence should be opened up to visitors. Your Lordships may feel that that is desirable. In addition, as a result of his good offices, major paintings will be made available if the project goes ahead in the Lord Chancellor's residence. I understand that one very valuable major painting would also be made available to your Lordships' House on which our own curator of works of art is very keen.

It is right to deal with the detail of these matters as Members of your Lordships' House seek to do this afternoon and as the various committees have sought to do. But one should not lose sight of the major long-term objective when considering matters of this kind. The Palace of Westminster is a great historic institution and a place of great constitutional significance. Both architecturally and in various ways it is a place of national and international significance. So long as I am given by your Lordships the opportunity to play a small part in the guardianship—I hesitate to say "custodianship"—of this place, I believe that we owe a duty to future generations to ensure that this historic and important building is maintained in such a way that future generations can appreciate it. That is one fundamental point that should be borne in mind.

I do not wish to take up too much of your Lordships' time because of the weighty business that is to follow. However, points have been raised that I should seek to deal with. As to the ticker-tape machine, on my way back from lunch I observed that that matter was being attended to. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, for answering his own question before I have a chance to get to it.

The only other point that I make about pagers and telephones is that these matters have been before your Lordships in the past. As recommended by your Lordships' committees, these proposals are intended to benefit your Lordships. I would be trespassing a little if I went into any detail this afternoon on the message improvement system because that does not arise in this House. However, I mention in passing—because I promised a noble Baroness that I would raise this matter if I had an opportunity to do so—the question of pagers, in particular vibrating pagers. Following our previous session on vibrating pagers and the hazards of placing them in some pockets, I was asked by the noble Baroness to whom I have just referred on my way out of the Chamber why I had not suggested what ladies might do with them. I informed the noble Baroness that I had that in mind but thought that I had said quite enough about it already. I believed that they could be placed in handbags if outfits did not have any pockets, but I was informed that they would not attract attention to themselves as well as they would in pockets. I am not so sure about that. The sight of a trembling handbag, perhaps beside a noble Baroness on the Government Front Bench—I use that only as an example—is a vision too menacing to contemplate. To some timid souls such as I, that might be an indication that the handbag was about to be wielded with violence. I would not want to suggest that that is something that should happen. I hope that, apart from that, I have to some extent dealt with the points that have been raised. I commend the Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.