HL Deb 05 July 2001 vol 626 cc875-85

3.32 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

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

The resolution before the House increases the maxima for allowances for day subsistence, overnight attendance and secretarial support and extends the range of circumstances in which your Lordships would be eligible for these allowances.

As your Lordships are aware, they were recommended by the independent Senior Salaries Review Body. The SSRB report was published in March this year. It made clear that Peers should not be out of pocket as a result of carrying out their parliamentary duties and concluded that the present levels of allowances failed to fulfil that important principle.

Evidence indicated that the current day subsistence allowance of £37 did not cover many of the incidental costs incurred by Peers in attending this House. The SSRB recommended that the day subsistence allowance should be raised to a maximum of £60 per day.

It also recommended that the overnight allowance should be increased from £84 to a maximum of £120 payable for each night following a day of attendance, and for the preceding night, where a Member attends a sitting of this House or of a committee. That increase reflects better the rising costs of hotels in London. Extending eligibility to six days rather than five, where that is necessary, will, I hope be regarded as only a fair recognition of the work carried out by Members of this House.

The SSRB recommended that the secretarial allowance should be raised from £36 to a maximum of £50 a day. That is payable, on claim, for the number of days on which the Member attends the House, or an official delegation, or is on a committee visit away from the House, and for a maximum of a further 40 days where such an expense has been necessarily incurred. There is an increase of 10 days to the additional number of days your Lordships could be paid for secretarial assistance and some welcome flexibility on the definition of an eligible day.

Your Lordships will be extremely pleased to know that we shall shortly be bringing forward an order to provide for increases to the salaries of Lords Ministers—I pause for approval—as recommended elsewhere in the SSRB's report. That will mean that Lords Ministers will receive an additional £2,000 per annum this year from 20th June and a further £2,000 next year, in April 2002. That will ensure that the cash differential between the salaries of Ministers in the other place and in this House does not widen. There is even better news. That increase will also apply to the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Henley. Lords Ministers' night subsistence allowance automatically rises on a formula which is worked out as 220 times the overnight allowance.

It is plain from the evidence and the comments in the report that not all noble Lords are fully aware of what costs may be reimbursed or the proper basis for any claim. The SSRB has therefore made the eminently sensible recommendation that the House authorities should publish a guide which sets out the appropriate information and I am sure that your Lordships will feel that that will be of assistance and convenience to us all.

The report contains a recommendation that we ought to have free postage on business matters in the same way as those in the Commons. The Chairman of Committees said that, if that meets with the approval of the House, the relevant committee will attend to that question first. It is not entirely straightforward but it seems anomalous that your Lordships may have free use of a telephone but not free postage on the same basis as the Commons. So the postage question is likely to be dealt with first, followed by the question of written guidance and the question of further upgrading of hotel costs in the future.

The recommendations are entirely a matter for your Lordships. The SSRB raised wider questions. Should noble Lords feel that matters outside the ambit of this Motion are usefully to be considered, I am of course more than happy to take them away and discuss them appropriately. I commend the Motion to the House.

Moved to resolve, That this House approves the following proposals with respect to expenses incurred by Members of this House after 19th June 2001— (1) For the purposes of paragraph (1) of the resolution of 20th July 1994 (office, secretarial and research allowance), the appropriate amount for expenses incurred in the period beginning with 20th June 2001 and ending with 31st July 2001 should be £50; and paragraph (3)(b) of the 1994 resolution should apply as if that were the appropriate amount for expenses incurred in the year preceding 1st August 2001. (2) In paragraph (1) of the 1994 resolution, the reference to attendance at relevant sittings or meetings should include a reference to attendance on visits away from the House—

  1. (a) as a member of an official delegation; or
  2. (b) as a member of a committee of this House.
(3) The days which a Lord may specify under paragraph (4) of the 1994 resolution—
  1. (a) should include days on which this House sits but which are not days of attendance by him; and
  2. (b) should be subject to a maximum of 40.
(4) In determining, in accordance with paragraph (2) of the resolution of 25th July 1991, the limit on the expenses which a Lord may recover under paragraph (1)(a) of that resolution (day subsistence), the maximum daily amount for a day in the period beginning with 20th June 2001 and ending with 31st July 2001 should be £60; and paragraph (7)(b) of the 1994 resolution should apply as if that were the maximum daily amount for a day in the year preceding 1st August 2001. (5) In determining, in accordance with paragraph (4) of the 1991 resolution, the limit on the expenses which a Lord may recover under paragraph (1)(b) of that resolution (night subsistence). the maximum daily amount for a day in the period beginning with 20th June 2001 and ending with 3Ist July 2001 should be £120; and paragraph (8)(b) of the 1994 resolution should apply as if that were the maximum daily amount for a day in the year preceding 1st August 2001. (6) For the purposes of paragraph (4) of the 1991 resolution there should be added to the maximum daily amount for the days referred to there the maximum daily amount for each other day which falls immediately before a day of attendance at a sitting of this House if the Lord incurs expenses in staying overnight away from his only or main residence before the sitting and it is necessary for him to do so for the purpose of attendance at the sitting.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am pleased to support the Motion to which the Leader of the House spoke. However, I do not entirely welcome the report; it failed to deal with some of the recommendations, which I shall raise in a moment.

I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who worked with others on all sides of the House so as to present a case to the SSRB. That followed a lot of work done prior to the 1997 general election and it is extraordinary how long it has taken to reach this stage.

There are positive aspects. It is important that we retain the attendance-related rather than the salary system of payment. After all, this is still a part-time and voluntary House and the system should therefore stay that way unless and until a new House is in place and determines otherwise.

The recommendations provide a significant uprating of Back-Bench allowances and secretarial expenses. I should have liked to see the secretarial assistance extended across the year. But, as a first go, we should certainly accept what is proposed. And I very much welcome the increase in ministerial pay, not just because of my own position, but also as genuine recognition of the burden that is placed upon government Ministers in this House who have to respond for their entire departments rather than just their specific subject interest.

Some aspects of the report were sloppy. For instance, on page 29 it talks about myself and the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, as being business managers in the House of Lords. I am sure that that is a position that both he and I should very much like to have. It talks about the Appointments Commission nominating people's Peers or people's Peers being nominated by businesses, trade unions, charities and others. Of course, as we all know, they are self-nominated and not nominated by those bodies.

The report also has a curious phrase on page 17 where it says that, The House now sees itself as much more business oriented … Members expect to contribute in a professional way". I am not sure what "business oriented" means and in what way debates were not "professional" over the course of the past few years. I wonder therefore how much the SSRB understands the way in which this House operates.

In relation to the demerits, I regret that the committee rejected the suggestion that severance pay should be made available for Ministers and officeholders who retire over the age of 65. I see the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who I believe to be over that age, and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who was Leader of the Opposition. The idea that just because one accepts a ministerial office to which may be attached a ministerial pension—none of my colleagues who exists on those pensions will ever be rich men on the back of them—should not mean that there should not also be severance pay for Ministers over the age of 65.

I would also like to have seen recognition of the special work carried out by senior Ministers in this House. I refer in particular to the work done in the last Parliament by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. We suggest in our evidence that up to four senior Ministers in this House should be given pay equivalent to those of Cabinet rank.

I fail to understand why the Senior Salaries Review Body has accepted that Members of another place should have the joy of visits from their spouses up to 15 times per year but that your Lordships should have that only twice per year. Two trips in 177 days is not much for those who live far away. Perhaps that is one of the items upon which the noble and learned Lord will reflect in future.

A more serious position is that of the Opposition and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers. I made clear in my evidence that it is time to recognise that there is a difference between Opposition spokesmen and spokeswomen and Back-Benchers. For the record, perhaps it will be useful to remind noble Lords that apart from myself and my noble friend Lord Henley, the Chief Whip, all Opposition and Liberal Democrat Front-Benchers work on the same basis as Back-Benchers.

I believe that there are simple solutions to this problem; perhaps the extension of the ministerial secretarial allowance or a strong case for deemed attendance. When Front-Benchers are working from home at their computers they have excellent access to information but they have to leave home and come to this House in order to claim their expenses.

I turn finally to the question of free postage, which I hoped would be able to be dealt with in this Motion. I am not sure why we have to wait for a committee of the House to agree it, although I am sure that it will be agreed. Certainly, we shall lend our support to the Government in so doing.

I apologise for responding at length. We do not have many opportunities to do so. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will feel that some of these points are worth pursuing and perhaps we can see changes to what I regard as serious injustices which still exist in this House.

Lord Roper

My Lords, we, on these Benches, also support the Motions put forward by the Lord Privy Seal. We are grateful that the Government have moved quickly and backdated the proposals in the 48th report of the Senior Salaries Review Body to the beginning of this Parliament.

We are also grateful for the work done by the group of Back-Benchers in which the noble Lord, Lord Graham, played an active part, as did my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. That was an important example of the way in which Back-Benchers can ensure that their views are put forward. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for raising the problems of those who work on the Front Benches on this side of the House and hope that that matter will be carefully considered in future.

As he stated, there are two matters on which we want to see early action taken. I am glad that the Leader of the House mentioned the question of free postage, which is referred to in paragraph 4.36 of the report. It is important that early action is taken.

Similarly, a number of my noble friends pointed out to me the fact that although in paragraph 4.40 reference is made to the difference between this place and the other place as regards spouse travel, no recommendation is made in the report. However, it seems that that is a matter to which early attention should be paid.

A number of my noble friends have spoken to me—they may well wish to intervene in the debate—about the necessity for noble Lords to maintain their professional knowledge. They referred to the absence in the report or anywhere else of provisions to enable them to attend professional conferences on matters which they cover in this House. This is a complicated matter on which a good deal of further examination is needed. Perhaps I may draw that to the attention of the Leader of the House in the hope that it can be examined within further studies, either within committees of the House or by a subsequent report of the Senior Salaries Review Body.

We welcome the Motions tabled today and the assurances we have received from the Leader of the House.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I gave notice to my noble and learned friend the Lord Privy Seal of my intention to raise a relatively minor matter. I hope that he may be able to give a sympathetic response. I wonder whether the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (A FPS) could be included in the section of the resolution which deals with relevant sittings and meetings. I declare an interest as one of the nine Members of your Lordships' House who are participating in the scheme this year. I understand from Sir Neil Thorne, the chairman of the scheme, that it is intended in future that there should be six Members of this House who join the scheme each year. Therefore, this issue will return year after year.

Members of this House will know that the AFPS enjoys universal cross-party support and that the Ministry of Defence is particularly keen that parliamentarians who are not old enough to have enjoyed the experience of National Service should be able to learn about the services at first hand through their membership of AFPS. In the other place, Members participating in the AFPS are able to reclaim expenses under the extended travel scheme as they are viewed as wholly, necessarily and exclusively incurred in the carrying out of parliamentary duties. My request to my noble and learned friend is that we in this House should treat the AFPS in the same way and regard visits away from the House on AFPS duties on the same basis as membership of an official delegation or other committee of this House.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I should like to follow up the point made by my noble friend Lord Roper about the possible reimbursement of expenses for attendance at professional meetings. My noble friend Lord Methuen is not in his place because he is attending the first meeting of the Science and Technology Select Committee. He has asked me to say that he is disappointed that provision has not been made for such expenses.

Members of professional bodies are now encouraged, indeed in many cases required, to participate in continual professional development. He would like to see a method whereby Members of the House could be enabled in appropriate circumstances to participate in such activities without the embarrassment of soliciting beneficial or free attendance. He considers it to be to the advantage of this House that Members participate in such events so that they can be better informed on relevant topics which may arise in the House or in Select Committees. For example, there was recently a conference on signalling safety organised by the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers which he would very much have liked to attend but could not do so because of the cost. He hopes that this proposal might be further considered and looks forward to a constructive response.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I am glad that the subject of free postage has been mentioned. The postbag received by many Peers becomes bulkier day by day on matters relating to the House. I welcome the statement and hope that an early report is made to the House

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, in leading the informal group in preparing certain submissions to the House.

There is one point that I should like to raise. I particularly welcome the better provision for office expenses. The previous figures were ludicrous. They are not particularly generous now compared to the £48,000 plus which Members of another place receive for office and research expenditure.

There is a related point. I recognise that it is understandably not included in the report we are considering but it is directly and inextricably related. I refer to office accommodation. Frankly, we need basic office space. I am meek in what I want; namely, a worktop for a computer and space to be able to write; adequate shelving and adequate files. That is all I ask for. Many noble Lords do not have that; I am fortunate in that I do. I have only just achieved it. I do not know how many noble Lords are aware that 14 of us have been given notice that we are to be removed from our present accommodation to make space for additional civil servants from the Lord Chancellor's Department. I am sure that we shall be offered other accommodation. However, I believe that that reflects the wrong priority. It sends the wrong message. Having thoroughly supported the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in beautifying his house, I hope that as he is sitting on the Front Bench he will think again about that proposal.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful for the kind words which have been said about the manner in which we have reached the present stage. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that this has been an unfolding story in which he has played a part. I well recall in 1995, together with others, trying to press the chairman of the Senior Salaries Review Body, but we did not make much progress.

The House should not be timid in asking for what it believes it is entitled to have. Far too often in my life people say, "What is the point of asking? We will only be turned down". Unless we ask and ask in the proper manner—I do not mean in a servile manner but in a dignified manner—we shall not get anything.

I believe that the present outcome is eminently satisfactory. Reference was made to the collegiate nature of the representation. In the past, each Bench followed its particular interest, but on 8th July 1999, when my noble friend Lord Carter brought to the House the ministerial salaries review, I took the opportunity to say that I support Ministers but asked about the workers and the rest of us. He had to be diplomatic, as he always is, but he reminded us that an opportunity would soon arise, and it did.

With the approval of the senior Whips, I set up a small committee and the House should have placed on the record its indebtedness to those who served on it. Its members were the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and myself. The eight representatives of the four Benches met six times and we did not always agree. However, we did agree that we must concentrate on the three pillars of the existing regime and see whether we could improve them. We gathered together the evidence and submitted it. Other noble Lords submitted evidence individually.

I made a point of going back to my group two or three times during the process in order to remind Members where we were and to consult. Suggestions were made and they were incorporated in a document which was approved—not every word and comma, but it was approved. When I saw Sir Michael Perry, he went out of his way to say that the submission was well put together and that it saved him and his committee a great deal of work in drawing things together. It was well received and I should like to place on the record the indebtedness of the House and those affected by the report to Sir Michael Perry and his committee. We are also indebted to the Leader of the House and to the Chief Whip because representations had to be made to the Prime Minister, the Treasury and others and we have not been let down.

Reference was made to certain matters that should have been included. I am sorry that the issue of spouses' comparability was not included. A number of Members of this House receive 15 spouse journey tickets—they are the Ministers—and they always have. I do not understand the grounds on which it is believed necessary for the spouse of a Minister, who has a busy life, to be able to come to London in order to be helpful, sympathetic and comforting while other noble Lords—I do not include myself because I live near to London—are denied. That is a small but significant issue. There ought not to be a differentiation on such a matter between Ministers and Back Benchers in this House. I hope that in reply the Leader of the House will indicate some sympathy with the suggestion. This House and its committees ought to have some powers; they ought to be able to take action without the constant need to go to the Senior Salaries Review Body to dot every "i" and cross every "t".

I also hope that he will reconsider another vexing issue. Some Members of this House are part of parliamentary delegations who go about their business but are disadvantaged. Members of the other place receive the comparable overnight allowance in an annual payment. Whenever they travel abroad, they receive their allowances and their hotel accommodation is paid. In addition, they have received their overnight allowance, but Members of your Lordships' House have not. The chairman of a committee told me that there are in mind trips abroad which might take three days. During that time, Peers will be denied their overnight allowance which is used to pay the rent of a London flat. Eventually, the question will be asked, -Do we really need to go for three days"—which is what they should do—"or should we cut it down to one or two days?". The quality of the work done in this House could well be affected by the impact of such payments. I hope that the Minister will take account of it.

At the end of the day we never get what we want. In the play, A View from the Bridge, by Arthur Miller, the interlocutor said at the end of a terrible time, "We in this community settle for half-. I believe that we have obtained more than half; we have obtained considerably more than what we wanted. However, there is still a need to press the case. I am grateful to all those colleagues I mentioned who helped us to get as far as we have. We are grateful to the Minister and his colleagues but there is still work to be done.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord consider the point already raised about journeys from Scotland? I do not restrict my wife to two journeys a year, but perhaps I may remind the Minister that the fare to London is not the only expense incurred in bringing a wife down. It would be only fair that the number of journeys should rise considerably, perhaps to once a month or 12 times a year. It is ludicrous that Members of the Commons and others are entitled to 15 journeys for their spouses while we in the House of Lords are entitled to only two. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will give that point considerable attention.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, having been flushed from cover, perhaps I may briefly say how much I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I pay tribute to his sure and experienced touch at the helm of the committee in what were difficult—hardly dangerous—waters.

We were concerned entirely with reimbursement and not remuneration, which may come in the second stage of re form. Our concern was purely to address the anomalies and inequalities which had built up over the years. The cross-party view which formed was pretty well unanimous at all times, although perhaps occasionally there were differences on peripheral matters and on matters of emphasis.

However, the main theme was that it was totally unacceptable that in a working House in the 21st century Members might be out of pocket as a result of attending to their parliamentary duties. I believe that the recommended changes will correct the long-standing concerns which we have on these matters and I commend them to the whole House.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I pay a tribute to my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton for the work that he has done. I make two very brief points on those issues which are still in abeyance in order to help the process along. I deal first with postage. To help the committee in its deliberations, those of us who use e-mails can communicate with the world from here at no cost; similarly, those who use faxes can use that method of communication as telephone calls throughout the UK. However, if we want to send letters we must pay for them, which is inconsistent and illogical. The cost will not be high because we can use e-mails and other devices.

Secondly, I refer to noble Lords who serve on committees of this House outside London. I include visits by the CPA and IPA and perhaps others; for example, the British-Irish inter-parliamentary body, of which I am a member. I believe that it is illogical and unfair that noble Lords should be perhaps several hundred pounds out of pocket because they attend on official business, which is just the same as being in this Chamber. The fact is that virtually none of those costs is defrayed through being away. Even if one takes the subsistence allowance it is all swings and roundabouts; on some days it costs more than one receives and on other days less. If one uses that argument, it is illogical that noble Lords should be denied subsistence money when they are away because somebody happens to provide a meal while they attend a meeting of a Select Committee or whatever.

This is an important point. I hope that when they look at it the powers that be in this House will identify a list of bodies and committees—the CPA and the like, in addition to Select Committees of the House—in respect of which any Member of the House will be entitled to his full allowances for the days that he attends.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am very grateful for the typically generous tribute which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in particular and a number of other noble Lords paid to my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton. My noble friend has worked a very long time and has been an extremely skilful steersman of an enterprise which, by and large, has proved satisfactory.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, inquired of me why it was that in the Commons there were 15 spouse tickets a year but only two a year for Back-Benchers in this House. I am not sure that the answer readily came to mind, but it occurred to me that perhaps, given your Lordships' immaculate standards of behaviour throughout the year, two checking visits were quite sufficient, whereas elsewhere the position was different. As the noble Baroness rightly observed, Ministers are in quite a different category.

I believe that one or two questions can be dealt with generally. The noble Lord, Lord Roper, and my noble friends Lord Faulkner and Lord Dubs raised questions which are dealt with in paragraph 4.20 of the report. It was concluded that, attendance remains the most appropriate basis for the subsistence allowances. We also consider that all expenses properly incurred"— I believe that this is the point raised by my noble friend Lord Dubs— on authorised parliamentary business away from the House should be reimbursed separately". Importantly, There is a clear view that not all such expenses can be claimed although we are told by the Accountants Office that they are claimable". I believe that that is another reason why more information should be available.

I take on board the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, about attendance—I believe that he spoke on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Methuen—at professional conferences. Those are the kinds of questions to which we may need to return in considering the proper ambit of authorised parliamentary business. I believe that that observation applies in particular to the question raised by my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester about the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. He said that there would be six Members of this House on that body. I believe that that is also a matter to be looked at.

My noble friends Lord Hoyle and Lord Dubs asked for an early resolution of the "postage" question. I have already indicated that the Chairman of Committees is to have the first meeting of the relevant committee next week. Therefore, I do not believe that any delay is looked to.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, raised questions which I believe went wider than this Motion. He referred to accommodation in the Palace. I believe that that is a complaint which chimes with everyone. Almost no one has decent accommodation. I reproach myself because I do have decent accommodation. I did not really want to mention it in case the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, tapped on my door to ask for a little space at the corner of the table. It is a difficult question. I hope that we shall be able to provide a desk for every Peer who wants one by the time we resume in the autumn. It will not be perfect because almost no one will have a room of his own. The conditions are not good, but we are subject to the constraints of the building.

If there are any other matters which occur to noble Lords perhaps they can be directed to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. The noble Lord should be able to draw up a list of suggestions made either today or in correspondence so that we can look at them. I cannot give any guarantees for the future, but the Chief Whip and I both believe that if we are doing a job of public importance, as I believe we are, we are entitled to the provision of reasonable assistance. I do not believe that this resolution does more than that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.