HL Deb 30 July 1998 vol 592 cc1611-4

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consideration they have given to improving the working hours and conditions of the House of Lords in line with proposals being put forward for the House of Commons by the Leader of that House.

Lord Carter

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have put forward a number of proposals to the Modernisation Committee of another place. The most recent include: Thursday sittings to be advanced by three hours to end at 7 p.m.; a constituency week to coincide with half-terms in February and October; Standing Committees to sit during the Recess; and consideration to be given to altering the normal sitting day so that it begins at 1.30 p.m. and ends at 9.30 p.m.

Not all of those proposals are relevant to your Lordships' House and they would in any case be matters for the Procedure Committee. As Chief Whip, I would be willing to put appropriate proposals to that committee but, of course, in this as in all other matters, your Lordships' House proceeds by agreement.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I think that I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he agree that many noble Lords on all sides of your Lordships' House would find morning sittings difficult because, obviously, they like to try to earn the odd shilling, which is perfectly understandable? In those circumstances, would he accept that it might be worth thinking the unthinkable and considering even paying noble Lords who attended morning sittings?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I cannot help reflecting on the fate of the last Minister who was required to think the unthinkable! The noble Lord puts forward an interesting idea about morning sittings. Your Lordships occasionally sit in the mornings, principally on Fridays and before the Recess. As we know, the other place does so regularly on Wednesdays. But there is no guarantee that sitting in the morning means rising earlier at night. As all Chief Whips know, business expands to fill the time available. Many of your Lordships find the mornings useful for other work; for instance, in this House serving on important Select Committees, such as that chaired by my noble friend, and away from the House to earn a living.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip accept that no working procedure will compensate for either the overload of Parliament or the imbalance of business between the two Houses? Will he also agree that this is the longest Session since 1979–80 and that the average daily sitting has increased by about one hour since that time?

Will the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip and the noble Baroness the Leader of the House make it their summer task to convince their colleagues in the Cabinet that it should give more business to the House of Lords at the beginning of the Session so as to avoid it having to scrutinise important constitutional business in the middle of the night?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord is wrong about the House sitting longer on average. This Session, the House has sat for an average of six hours and 57 minutes each day. That is in line with the average sitting time under the previous Administration. But as we know, this Government have delivered a heavy programme of legislation and there is still more to come. It is comparable to the 1979–80 Session because it is an 18-month Session of a government which was elected after a period in opposition in the spring of 1979, and in our case in the spring of 1997.

I am sure that the whole House will agree that the sweeping nature of the Government's majority in May last year, combined with a wide-ranging manifesto for reform on which we were elected, has meant that it is inevitable that there will be a number of major items of legislation this Session. I believe that the number of Bills for Royal Assent by the summer break is fewer in this Session than in that of 1979–80. The statistics on the average sitting time of the House indicate that, while it has been a long Session, the Government have, with the co-operation of the noble Lord, managed their programme to ensure that their important priorities are delivered without having to force your Lordships to sit late into the night on too many occasions. I should add that there has been no all-night Sitting in this House this Session—so far.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that all Opposition parties in this House, and no doubt in the House of Commons, complain about an overloaded legislative programme, which translated means a programme that they do not support?

As regards the serious point made by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, would it not be a good idea to have the matter considered at the next meeting of the Procedure Committee? Perhaps the noble Lord might arrange for a memorandum to be placed before that committee, reminding the House of the most valuable report of the late Lord Rippon of Hexham, who made a number of proposals which, unhappily, were not supported by the then government?

Lord Carter

My Lords, that is an excellent idea and I will undertake to do that.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, will the Government kindly bear in mind that one Peer's better working conditions and hours may be another Peer's worse working conditions and hours? Will he give the matter a great deal of thought and advice before altering the status quo?

Lord Carter

My Lords, yes, that is a view I have heard on almost every occasion in relation to making a change in this House.

Lord Renton

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that Members of this House do a wonderful job with great expertise without being paid any salary? I would not compare the expertise of Members of another place with what is to be found in your Lordships' House, but they do cost the taxpayer a large amount of money, whereas we cost the taxpayer scarcely anything. If change is not necessary, is it better not to change?

Lord Carter

My Lords, the question of the payment of a salary to Peers has been suggested a number of times. We all know that many of your Lordships work long and hard for very little financial reward. I can remember my own time in opposition. But there are considerable practical difficulties with any such proposal in what I think is fair to describe as a predominantly amateur House with a very variable membership. It is true that your Lordships can be rightly proud of the value for money that this House provides for the Government.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in an earlier reply my noble friend referred to the fact that a number of noble Lords need to earn a living outside, as he described it. Your Lordships' House reached the stage some years ago at which, in order to get business through the House, there needed to be an increasing number of full-time Peers and not part-timers. On that basis, should we not be looking at a more generous scheme of allowances than the very poor one that we have at present?

Lord Carter

My Lords, as I understand it, the question of your Lordships' allowances was considered some time ago and it was decided that it should be looked at again in, I believe, the year 2000 by the Top Salaries Review Body.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, in view of the heavy strain on Members of this House, should we not introduce a retirement age?

Lord Carter

My Lords, that has also been suggested. Perhaps the noble Lord would like me to prepare a paper on that suggestion. However, the problem is as to what age I should put in the paper.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, whatever is done about working hours and conditions, I ask the noble Lord to ensure that nothing will ever be done to inhibit the freedom of Back-Benchers in this House to initiate debates and ask questions, unlike the position in another place.

Lord Carter

My Lords, as the Government Chief Whip, I love the idea of Back-Benchers asking questions and initiating debates and playing the very full part which they do in the work of the House.