HL Deb 22 June 1999 vol 602 cc907-14

(". The House of Lords may make provision for hereditary peers who cease to be members of the House of Lords by virtue of this Act to retain their right to host welfare and charitable events in the Palace of Westminster.")

The noble Earl said: My Lords, after the seven-and-a quarter hours of flamboyant oratory to which we have been listening this afternoon on the wide issues of this House, I may appear somewhat parochial. Very few of your Lordships have been able or indeed willing to escape the warm embrace of some charitable undertaking that needed some kind of a "social jerk", if I may use that term, to get itself into the limelight. Everyone knows what you mean by "a charity". It could be a charity recognised by the Charity Commission. One would not want the Charity Commission to become burdened by a whole flood of new registrations of often rather small charities.

Thanks to the standard works of reference and information stored by the Library research department, I have a list as long as my arm, or very nearly so, of those of your Lordships who have either been caught in this net or who have gladly or readily walked into it. All charitable enterprises require publicity. The fashionable route to that end is the engagement of a noble Lord in some capacity or another, usually as a patron but quite often as a committee member. It is undeniably something of a plus for some people to be able in conversation to say, "I was at the Houses of Parliament the other day". When people say that, it usually disguises the fact that they went to a reception hosted by one of your Lordships to the advantage of a charity. My concern is that, in view of a certain ambiguity in the Government's notes on the Bill to which I shall refer in a moment, we should make it clear that even those Peers who will eventually be disqualified from sitting in the House because they are hereditaries may still enjoy the facilities of the House for such receptions or entertainments that benefit a charitable purpose.

How does one define a charity? The answer to that question is that a charity is something recognised by the Charity Commission, although one does not want to burden it with a flood of new registrations of quite tiny operations. But surely it is for the House of Lords to determine its own rules as to what may or may not go on here—to be precise, through your Lordships' Offices Committee.

On this, there may be a relevant precedent in the arrangements long since made for retiring Members of the Bishops' Bench. A desire was expressed some years ago that, once the Bishops had left the House in their formal diocesan capacity, they should still be allowed to enjoy some of the facilities; notably, sitting on the steps of the Throne and enjoying the facilities of the Refreshment Department. Those two points were referred to the Offices Committee, and in both cases a favourable answer was given.

In composing my amendment, I took care to seek what advice I could get. I was told that the department of your Lordships' House to which it might fall to decide about hosting charitable events would most likely be the Offices Committee. That committee acts for the House as a whole, so my amendment is drafted as follows: The House of Lords may make provision".

It is hardly for the Bill, on the very face of its text, to tell your Lordships' House how it should decide on such a matter: hence the simple phrase: The House of Lords"—

embracing whatever administrative element is relevant to that— may make provision".

I hope that the Government will be able to respond in a sympathetic way to this rather small request. It is small in the sense that it does not affect an enormous number of noble Lords but there are more than 100 noble Lords who are in some way involved in charities of a kind and who are glad of the facilities offered by the House for an occasional reception on their behalf.

The Explanatory Notes on the Bill are slightly ambiguous. In paragraph 7 on page 2 we are told that, Hereditary peers will also lose the right … to use the facilities of the House that are available to members, such as its library, research and restaurant facilities".

On the other hand, there follows a rather more favourable passage: The removal of these rights does not prevent the House from deciding to grant some rights to use the facilities of the House to a hereditary peer under the exercise of its own authority".

Therefore, on occasion it is up to the House to decide what it wants to do.

Without wishing to encroach on the amendment in the Marshalled List that is linked with mine, which relates to access to the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, that gives rise to a similar problem. It is a matter for the House to decide. I hope that tonight we shall hear that the Government look favourably on this general approach. I beg to move.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I have asked for my Amendment No. 58A to be de-coupled and to speak to it in its place in the Marshalled List. I believe that it is not appropriate to talk about religious affairs at the same time as welfare and charitable functions.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale. I agree with everything that he said in support of the amendment. Charities also enjoy the proximity of the House of Commons next door and are very pleased to have MPs drop in and take part in events that are hosted in this House. There is a long tradition, which I am sure the Government foster, of support by Peers of charities in this House. It would be a pity if this change damaged that tradition.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I have a good deal of sympathy with the amendment moved by the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, and also that relating to the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. This is a problem. On the other hand, why should the amendment be so restrictive? Why should it relate only to welfare and charitable events? There are daughters' wedding receptions and other events, such as birthday parties and so on. I would have thought that there was a case for noble Lords being able to book the accommodation for those purposes.

On the other hand, the noble Earl is either a Member of the House or he is not. If he is no longer a Member I do not believe that these rights should apply. However, there can be a compromise. Bookings that go into next year have already been made; indeed, I have one myself. Is it possible for the Offices Committee to consider giving an interim period of grace of, say, six months during which these bookings can apply, but for no longer? I put that to the Government and hope that they will consider it. I am very glad that the noble Earl raises the point, which I believe requires consideration.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Lauderdale. Members of your Lordships' House perhaps come under more pressure than ordinary members of the public to accept positions as officers of charitable organisations, or at least to lend assistance to them from time to time. The general public assume that the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships' House carries with it an obligation to use that privilege in ways that assist charitable and deserving causes.

Many noble Lords clearly recognise this obligation, or feel minded to do their best to assist charities with which they have become associated. I think the public belief that noble Lords have an obligation to assist charitable organisations will not disappear with the enactment of the Bill. In order to assist those noble Lords who have agreed to help various charitable organisations to continue to discharge their duties, I hope that the Government will be minded to support my noble friend's amendment.

There is another point. We have heard from time to time about hybridity during the course of our deliberations on the Bill. I had no idea what hybridity was until I heard about it in connection with the Bill. I understand that a Bill may be hybrid if it treats the private, as opposed to public, interests of some members of a class of people as opposed to others of the same class in a different manner. It seems to me a bogus argument that if measures that invoke charges of hybridity are contained within standing orders rather than within the Bill itself, that should be acceptable. Furthermore, I believe that all Peers are a single class of people, and that legislation that treated the private interests of all hereditary Peers differently from the private interests of all life Peers might itself be hybrid.

It is argued that the rights to sit, speak and vote in your Lordships' House do not form part of your Lordships' private interests, but rather your Lordships' public interests. I am inclined to agree with that view. However, I believe that the right to act as host of charitable events within this Palace of Westminster forms part of your Lordships' private interests and I cannot understand how the Examiners could do otherwise than find the Bill to be hybrid, at least in respect of this matter.

I hope that the Minister, or the Government Chief Whip, will agree that it makes sense to reduce as far as possible the risk that the Bill will be found to be hybrid and that to accept my noble friend's amendment would therefore be not only sensible but also clearly in the interests of a large number of worthy charitable causes which rely on the continuing support of noble Lords, many of whom are hereditary Peers.

I also urge the Government to agree to Amendment No. 58A, moved by my noble friend Lord Rotherwick.

Noble Lords


11.30 p.m.

Viscount Trenchard

I do not believe that it is right that some noble Lords who are today Members of your Lordships' House should lose the right to use the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am extremely obliged to the noble Viscount for giving way. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, said that he was decoupling Amendment No. 58A. It is therefore not in this group. It will be spoken to later in its place on the Marshalled List.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I apologise. In thinking about this matter, one point which has not been raised during deliberations on the Bill is the question of who will be able to use St Margaret's Church, Westminster, which is the church of the House of Commons, but which noble Lords are also allowed to use by leave of Members of another place. If there were an amendment on this subject, I feel that it would be grouped with the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Lauderdale. That is also a matter that your Lordships might wish to consider in future.

Lord Mancroft

My Lords, I had not intended to speak to the amendment of the noble Earl. But he has an important point. I also understand the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. I do not agree with the concept that Members of this House, after the Bill has been passed, should enjoy club rights. That would be some form of privilege. But though the hosting of charitable events may be seen by some as a privilege, it is a duty. It is not to the disadvantage of former noble Lords if that is not allowed to occur; it is to the disadvantage of the charities. It is significant that there has been a long connection between the charitable sector and hereditary Peers and life Peers. When part of that link is broken, it will be difficult for some areas of the charitable sector.

I do not take the view that after the Bill has gone through noble Lords could still hold parties here. I think that would be called part of club rights, although I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, is going to have a party; I am sure it will be an excellent party.

The issue of holding charitable events is something that the Government, or the House, could look at in due course. It may be something that could not continue for ever, but if we could find a way of allowing it to fade—to wither on the vine, to use the expression that has been used in other connections—it might be quite helpful. It is not necessarily an issue that we want to have a great debate about, but my noble friend Lord Lauderdale has raised a point that we could, without causing any harm elsewhere, resolve with a little care.

Lord Newby

My Lords, I was extremely grateful when the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, wrote to me to give me advance notice that he was putting down this amendment. But unfortunately the receipt of the letter had an effect opposite to that which he was seeking. He was right in one respect, in that I am involved with a number of charities. However, unfortunately, no doubt partly because I am a relative novice, my track record in securing the booking of a room for any charity for which I have attempted to do that is dismal. Other noble Lords who have been doing it for much longer than I have booked up months and years in advance. So when I realised that the competition for the very small number of rooms available for such events might be greatly reduced with the exclusion from your Lordships' House of the hereditary peerage, I thought that my stock with those charities for which I have so far failed to book a room would rise, and therefore I became an even greater adherent of the principles behind the Bill.

There are within the life peerage a large number of people who are involved with charities and who often find it extremely difficult to book rooms. I have considerable respect and support for what the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, said about the possibility of phasing out this privilege, particularly given that there are very long time factors in booking such rooms, but surely this is a matter for the Offices Committee and not for a new clause.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, we sympathise with the sentiments of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lauderdale. It must be admitted that an unfortunate consequence of the Bill when it is enacted will be a diminution, at least for a time, of the relationship between this House and the many charitable and welfare organisations that rely upon members of the hereditary peerage to provide connections. That will be regrettable.

Of course—and I have no doubt that the Government will seek to make this point—it is the case that over time that slack, if I may put it like that, will be taken up by the membership of the interim Chamber. But we should not be blind to the reality that this is likely to take time and that it will cause a degree of inconvenience and disruption to the charities and welfare organisations involved.

No doubt, as many other noble Lords have said, the Government will, with some justification, also suggest that this should more properly be a matter for the Standing Orders and committees of the House. I have no difficulty with that. None the less, I am tempted to suggest that it would be helpful if the Minister who replies could show some sensitivity, perhaps even charity, towards this issue.

We should take guidance from the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and his very sensible suggestion that in the circumstances a period of grace might be sensible. Bearing in mind the lateness of the hour, and with tongue slightly in cheek, I would pick up the noble Lord's suggestion of six months and, this late at night, suggest six years.

Lord Carter

My Lords, first, I welcome the noble Lord, the Earl of Northesk, who I think has just made his first appearance at the Dispatch Box, to his new role on the Front Bench. On the Back Benches he certainly earned his spurs on this Bill.

The purpose of Amendment No. 45 is to allow hereditary Peers who are currently Members of the House of Lords to continue hosting welfare and charitable events in the House of Lords, even after their removal from the House. The amendment requires the House of Lords to make provision, presumably in Standing Orders, to allow hereditary Peers who are removed from the House of Lords by the Bill to retain their existing right to host welfare and charitable events in the Palace of Westminster.

We have already had a number of debates on the general issue of club rights and the House is by now well aware of the Government's position on this matter. We do not believe that it is right for former Members of this House to continue to have any special rights in relation to its premises. Those rights go with membership. When membership ceases, so, we believe, do all rights which are the privileges of membership. As we have said previously, even if there were not that strong argument of principle, we do not believe that it is appropriate to make provision for such matters in statute.

The noble Earl's amendment contains a token recognition of this. It does not make express provision in the Bill for hereditary Peers to retain the right to hold welfare and charitable events, but rather imposes a requirement on the House to make provision for that. We believe that that is merely playing with words and comes to exactly the same thing.

The statute would effectively prescribe the content of the Standing Order. Your Lordships' House would operate merely as a rubber stamp. I do not believe that your Lordships' House is likely to be tempted to proceed down that route in this or any other matter touching on its own arrangements. It is a matter for the new House. I might add that there is also the question of how such a requirement could be enforced. How would your Lordships' House be answerable for failing to make such a provision in Standing Orders?

I fully recognise the noble intentions of the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, in seeking to allow hereditary Peers to retain access to the House for the purpose of hosting charitable events. I am conscious that many charities benefit from the support and sponsorship of Members of your Lordships' House, including of course many hereditary Peers. One of the benefits of having a Peer as a patron is not so much that he, or she, can engineer functions in the Palace of Westminster, but rather that he can speak up on the Floor of the House on behalf of whatever cause he is associated with and seek to represent its interests in debate. Once hereditary Peers lose the fundamental rights to sit and vote in your Lordships' House, that benefit will be gone—and I do not suppose that any number of functions in this splendid Palace could make up for it. Furthermore, there will be a problem with the definition of "charitable" and "welfare" events.

I should like to make a practical point. We all know the heavy demand there is for the function rooms in the House. Very often, they are booked two years in advance. It would, I think, be highly invidious if a request by an existing Member of the House to hold a function on a particular date had to be denied because the room had already been booked by a non-Member. I can well imagine such a situation arising and I do not believe that the House ought to place its Members in that position.

As regards the period of grace, touched on by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi, it is an interesting idea but it is a matter for the new House. I took the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, about the effect of the amendment on the hybridity of the Bill, but I shall need carefully to read what he said. As regards the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. I do not believe that there will be a shortage of Peers in the new House who will be able to host such events. The House will contain more than 600 life Peers. There will be plenty of Peers available to host welfare and charity events, and others. For all those reasons, I hope that the noble Earl will withdraw his amendment.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, it would be idle to pretend that I am pleased to hear what the Chief Whip has said. It will all be in the record and not greatly to his credit. I can see his point that this is not an issue that should be on the face of the Bill, but the Government's notes are contradictory in this regard. I have quoted the two passages which contradict one another. I am disappointed in the noble Lord's response, which will not be to his credit or that of the Government. However, it will all be in the record; and if and when the time comes, the record will be turned up and reviewed.

If the time were more favourable I would have been tempted to test the mood of the House, but at this late hour I shall not do so. I say in the nicest possible way that it is not an act of surrender when I beg leave, in a moment, to withdraw my amendment. It has been a great disappointment. There was also the uncharitable way in which the Chief Whip responded to a very modest appeal to the basic good sense of the House. I am not asking anyone to decide in advance. I am simply asking that should a disenfranchised Peer such as myself have the opportunity or be invited by a charity to do something I am able to come back and ask permission. I hope that that may be allowed. On the assumption that that will be so, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at fifteen minutes before midnight.