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House of Lords: Reform

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their latest estimate of the cost of running a reformed House of Lords in the first transitional year of its operation.

My Lords, the costs of a reformed House will depend on a number of variables. In particular, both the net cost and total cost of salaries and allowances will depend on the transitional arrangements and the number of Members. We intend to consider the views of the Joint Committee before finalising our proposals for the reform of this House.

With respect to the Leader, that is not the most satisfying response I have had to a Question. I find it particularly odd that we have no figures when Governments of all persuasions manage to tell us how much an aircraft carrier will cost but cannot workout what 300 senators will cost. It is particularly unsatisfactory because the Deputy Prime Minister has already announced to the country that his flagship Bill in the next Session, announced ahead of the Queen’s Speech, will be a Lords reform Bill. He has apparently done this without having the faintest idea of what his project will cost. I hope that I might therefore ask the Leader, on behalf of the House, to speak to the Deputy Prime Minister and ask him please to give us the detailed costings with all those variables, which he must have. If he does not give us an answer, the suspicion will be that he knows it will cost a lot more than the present House and he is simply too embarrassed to tell us.

I am sorry if I disappointed the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. It may have been in his estimation an unsatisfactory reply, but that does not stop it being true. The fact is that the Government have not made a final decision on the arrangements for the House, particularly on the transitional arrangements or the size of the House. There is a process of pre-legislative scrutiny continuing under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and until that process is over we will not be able to come up with these figures. However, as is perfectly normal, if a Bill is published after the Queen’s Speech in the next Session of Parliament, it will include a financial memorandum with a detailed breakdown of the costs of a new House.

But does my noble friend still hold to the view that an elected House would be more expensive than the present House? That being the case, and bearing in mind the current financial straits that the country is in, is it really a good use of public money to have a highly expensive elected House when, at the moment, we have a highly effective House that is capable of being reformed without being elected?

My Lords, there is no doubt that this is an effective House and a very good value House and therefore I hold to a view that I have made public in the past: that a reformed House, directly elected and with fully salaried Members, would cost more than the current House. However, it would have a legitimacy, and a power and authority, which this House does not have. I remind the House, as I have done many times, that at the last general election all three main parties carried a commitment in their manifestos to reform this House.

Should not addiction to constitutional reform be treated with the same bracing cure as addiction to welfare benefits? Will the Government set a cap on the amount that ordinary, decent, hard-working British citizens are to be required to pay to support the constitutional reform dependency of the Liberal Democrats?

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks as though his own party did not stand on a manifesto of reform of your Lordships’ House, which it did.

My Lords, will my noble friend take due account of the very exaggerated estimates of the potential cost, which do not take into account the fact that the allowances of current Members of the House are untaxed while, presumably, a salaried Member of the new House would be taxed? Has my noble friend taken note of the fact that Mr Mark Harper, the Minister responsible for the Bill, has indicated to the Joint Committee in open session that at present a Member of this House based in London can take home more than an MP?

I agree with my noble friend on the question of taxation, and indeed with my honourable friend Mark Harper, the Minister in the House of Commons. However, I am not sure that that is a very useful comparison. After all, it would require a Peer living in London to turn up every single day, and one of the strengths of this House is that it is part-time and people choose to come when they feel that they have something of value to contribute.

My Lords, how do the Government’s proposals for reform fit in with rumours in the House of Commons that the Government are about to pack the House of Lords with an additional 50—perhaps even more than 50—coalition Peers? Where are they going to sit, where are they going to park and where are they going to have their offices?

My Lords, I am sure that issues such as where new Peers may or may not park are at the top of the agenda in the highest echelons of the Government. I too have heard this rumour but I have no idea where it came from. I thought initially that it was something to do with the Cross Benches as there was a letter in one of the newspapers from a leading Cross-Bench Member. There is no plan to pack the House with at least 60 government supporters. It would look absurd and it would be absurd.

My Lords, if it becomes possible for that figure to come out—we all appreciate the difficulties that have been enunciated—can we be sure that, at the same time as it is published, figures for the expense of running the House of Commons and of running the current House of Lords are side by side with it?

My Lords, I understand the point that my noble friend is making. The comparative figures between this House and the House of Commons are already in the public domain and are well understood. As I said, this House provides very good value for money.

My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader has placed great emphasis on the report of the Joint Committee scrutinising the draft Bill. What arrangements will be made for that report to be carefully scrutinised by your Lordships’ House in good time?

How to scrutinise the scrutineers, my Lords. I have not yet given great thought to how this House will do that, but there will be discussions in the usual channels. It is likely that in the new Session of Parliament we will find an opportunity at least to debate the Joint Committee’s report, and we will make an announcement in due course.

My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader mentioned variables in relation to cost and I quite understand the variables. As the Joint Committee itself is looking at variables, may I ask the noble Lord whether the Joint Committee is looking at the variable costs?

My Lords, I am not responsible for the Joint Committee and nor are the Government. There are 26 members of the Joint Committee, including Members of the Cross Benches and a Bishop, so I am sure that if they wish to study the variables, in whichever shape or form they wish to, they will be able to do so and they will be able to attach figures to them.