HL Deb 18 October 1999 vol 605 cc739-42

2.54 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

asked the Leader of the House:

What steps are to be taken and when to determine what privileges and facilities, if any, are to be accorded by the House to those hereditary peers who are to lose their right to speak, vote and enjoy the privileges hitherto available to them as Members of this House.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, following the last meeting of the House's Offices Committee in July, the usual channels, in this case including the Cross Benchers, were charged with exploring this issue. They decided to consult the Library and Computers and Refreshment sub-committees. The results of those consultations will be discussed at the next meeting of the Offices Committee at the end of this month. I understand that the usual channels consider that the present House cannot make decisions about any arrangements which might affect the new House. That would certainly be the view of the Government.

Baroness Park on Monmouth

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. However, may I urge the Government and the committees concerned to reconsider? I do so first because it will be vital that the servants of the House—the Doorkeepers, the Attendants and so forth—should have clear briefing as to what is to happen once the change has been made. Secondly, I suggest that it is part of the honour of this House that it should be seen to treat honourably and not shabbily those who are leaving and who have served it and the country well. It is all very well to say that the matter might be considered in the next Session, but by then the time will have come and gone. I urge the Government to reconsider.

Furthermore, will the noble Baroness use this opportunity to correct press reports of remarks allegedly made by her at the Labour Party conference which, if they were truly reported—and they concern this matter—were, to say the least, graceless? I feel sure that as Leader of the whole House, she would never have spoken in that way. Will she now correct those reports?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am afraid that in response to the noble Baroness's final point, I cannot correct what I do not know. As I have no personal recollection of referring to the Offices Committee, or to any matter which would be within its provenance, at the Labour Party conference, perhaps the noble Baroness has misread a press report or is incorrect in her assumptions.

Of course it is appropriate that the officers of this committee and people she refers to as "Doorkeepers and so forth" should be properly briefed on their responsibilities. I am sure that the people responsible for that—not myself, of course—will undertake to do so.

As regards the relevance of the Offices Committee to the decision, I reiterate what I said in my original Answer. This is a matter for the Offices Committee and the whole House. I understand, however, that the agreement is that the decision is for the next House.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, will the noble Baroness recognise the relevance of Hamlet's words of his father: Die two months ago, and not forgotten yet? Then there's hope a great man's memory may outlive his life half a year"; or King Lear's words to his daughters: How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is To have a thankless child!"?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, no, I do not recognise the relevance of that. I am sure that individual hereditary Peers who have given great service to this House, which has been acknowledged, would not wish to be remembered necessarily in terms of their club privileges in this House. Their contributions have been substantial and not relevant to those matters.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that at no time before the House considered the Lords reform Bill and during the passage of that Bill did the Government commit themselves to anything of the nature contained in the Question? Indeed, a number of amendments to the Bill were considered and rejected, if not by this House, certainly by the other place. Does my noble friend not consider that to give such a privilege to people who are not Members of Parliament that is, not Members of this House—would be ludicrous and make a mockery of this House?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, as I am sure my noble friend would agree, we spent many hours, during both Committee and Report stages of the Bill in this House, on matters which, as the Government constantly said in replying to amendments, were matters for the House and for its committees rather than matters for an Act of Parliament. We have consistently taken that position on the question of the relevance of club privileges to membership of this House. I am sure that my noble friend will not be surprised to hear me reiterate the point I made many times during our debates on the Bill that this is indeed a legislature, not a club.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, as a point of information, am I not correct in supposing that ex-Members of another place enjoy no privileges once they have lost their membership, save unless they become Members of this House?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, that is not quite correct. The position is that Members of another place of at least 15 years' standing have certain limited privileges. Those privileges do not include the ability to entertain guests or to use any other related facilities of the House.

Baroness Young

My Lords, for many people this is a serious issue. When the Offices Committee comes to report to the House, will the noble Baroness consider the feelings of many Peers who have served in the House and whose families have served in the House for a long time and who have given distinguished service to the country? That cannot be equated with having some kind of club principle or privilege. No one, so far as I know, thinks of the House of Lords as a club, but there are many organisations which give to former members certain recognised privileges on leaving. If that principle were not considered properly, it would lead 10 a great deal of discredit for the whole House of Lords.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I have no doubt that the principle will be considered properly. In response to the noble Baroness, I reiterate my remarks to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. Many individual hereditary Peers will be remembered for their great contributions to this House and to previous Houses. Personally, I do not see that that should necessarily be associated with use of the cafeteria.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness the Leader of the House that the decisions must be taken by the new House. However, does she agree that it is right that the various committees of the present House should at least look at the position so that the new House will be able to reach a decision quickly after it comes into being? Does she further agree that it would be sympathetic and in keeping with the way in which the other place treats ex-colleagues if, when the new House comes about, our ex-colleagues were treated with a great deal more sympathy than—dare I say—the noble Baroness sometimes exhibits?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I challenge the noble Lord to identify anything in my remarks today which could not be described as sympathetic. The point I am making is that that is irrelevant to the present House. As I said in my original reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, the matter has been considered by the relevant committees, is being considered—and, in response to the noble Baroness—has, in my view, been properly considered. The next meeting of the Offices Committee, I understand, will be at the end of the month, but although it may make recommendations to this House, it is not empowered to make decisions either for this House or the next.

Lord Monson

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that, contrary to recent press allegations, the taxpayer does not subsidise food and, drink in this House, whether consumed by hereditary Peers or life Peers?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the strictly accurate description is that the premises here are subsidised. Taking the restaurant as an example, we all enjoy the benefit of eating in a subsidised place which is very different, for example, from buying lunch in Victoria Street. To that extent it is subsidised.

Lord Colwyn

My Lords, I too am tempted to give a reply to that last question. Will the noble Baroness please confirm that the role of the sub-committee, despite the leaking of our conclusions to the Daily Telegraph, is purely advisory in providing options for consideration by the Offices Committee and later by the whole House?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

Yes, my Lords. I am sorry if I was unclear in my response to earlier questions, notably the question of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. Of course that is indeed true.

Lord Montague of Oxford

My Lords, is there not a risk that the country at large, with the benefit of a media which are not always helpful, might say that this House is merely a club and make mischief by suggesting that if hereditaries continue to possess club membership it is nothing more than a gigantic old boys' network at work? On the one hand, they have gone; on the other, they are still there.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I should always hesitate to prejudge any position taken by the media. However, it is interesting to see that that was the position taken by the editorial in the Daily Telegraph at the end of last week.