Order of Consideration Motion
My Lords, during these short recesses my noble friend Lord Trefgarne said to me that there has been an outbreak of common sense in your Lordships’ House this morning, and I hope that will turn out to be true. Before I turn to the Motion, I express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, and his colleagues for their brevity on the previous Bill. I have to admit that when I first saw that the subterranean Bill had been tabled before mine, I had suspicions that it had more to do with undermining my Bill than anything else but, on listening to the debate and being educated on the subject—I have to admit that I am not familiar with subterranean matters in the Ettrick Valley—it has made me even more glad that I do not live in London. Again, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who was as good as his word because he is known in this House to be—how can I put it politely?—highly articulate, but he kept his remarks very short.
I hope that I can crave the indulgence of the House if I use this opportunity to make the only speech I intend to make during the time left to us today in order to describe what has happened since the Committee stage taken in October. The reason for the Order of Consideration Motion is that I wish to remove the part of the Bill proposing a statutory Appointments Commission. I shall explain briefly why I wish to do so. The truth is that since the Bill was given a Second Reading a long time ago, the Government have come forward with their own plans for a statutory Appointments Commission in the course of their promised Bill, which will come to us in the next Session. It seemed to me to be a waste of time to attempt in a Private Member’s Bill to do what the Government are planning to do anyway in a very different way later on.
The other reason I wanted to remove it was that when I looked at the original Order Paper, some 25 amendments had been tabled of which three related to the other matters and all the rest concerned the Appointments Commission, so there was also a practical reason for taking it out of the Bill. By putting those amendments at the end, once we have dealt with the other three issues, we can take these clauses out of the Bill one by one. That will enable us to proceed in an orderly manner.
The most important part of the Bill that we are now considering is, I would submit, the retirement section. Here again major progress has been made since October. The House will recall that the all-party committee under the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, recommended that the House should take statutory powers to introduce a retirement scheme. While I shall not quote the report in detail, the committee also said that that should be done without expense to the public purse and within the budget of your Lordships’ House. Since then, I have had discussions with four Members of the Cabinet. I am not going to name them, but I will say that one was a Liberal Democrat and the other three were Conservatives. We talked about what sort of scheme might be introduced if we give the House the necessary statutory authority.
At present, those Peers who attend regularly, by which I mean almost every day, can take home in allowances over the course of a year something over £40,000. In my discussions with Ministers, who agreed that this is a sensible proposal, a scheme could be devised which has two caps on it. The Government are keen on capping payments and I suspect that capping any kind of terminal allowance would be quite popular. These details are not in the Bill, but I shall give noble Lords an indication of the kind of discussions that have been going on. If a cap were set at £30,000, that would be the same as the tax-free allowance on redundancy payments made in the outside world and so would be quite acceptable and in line with other occupations.
We suggested that the other cap would be that the maximum amount any Member could claim would be no more than they claimed in the last Session of Parliament. That would prevent Members who come only occasionally suddenly deciding to claim a large lump sum. With that in place, I think that the scheme would be financially neutral. The taxpayer would benefit after one year because no more payments would be made to those who leave. I also suggest that there should be a minimum payment of something like £5,000 to deal with those Members who no longer attend for reasons of frailty, but who have given great service to the House and may wish to take advantage of this proposal.
The point of passing today the statutory provision is that we could possibly then see, in short order, the number of Members of the House being reduced to below that of Members of the House of Commons; in other words, from some 800 who will shortly receive the Writ of Summons for the new Session down to below 650. That would be very desirable and is, as I say, the most important part of the Bill.
The second part, which would remain in the Bill if we passed this Motion, is the power to expel, in line with the rule in the House of Commons, those who are guilty of major breaches of the law. This has become rather more topical following the removal of a knighthood from a member of the banking fraternity. Many people have asked why in the House of Lords we have no means of expelling those who commit serious offences. I am conscious that I have not dealt with the point raised by my noble friend Lord Dobbs in his speech a few weeks ago that we could, if necessary, add to that part of the Bill at Third Reading, but at the moment it would simply bring the rule in this House into line with the rule in the other place.
The third part is the controversial one, which is to end the hereditary by-elections. It is that part which has met with strong objection from a number of our colleagues in the House. I have not changed my view that the hereditary by-elections, particularly in the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, are really quite farcical. In the 21st century to have elections to Parliament by heredity by three votes to one is simply absurd. On the other hand, other Members of the House feel strongly about the principle that undertakings were given back in 1999 that the numbers would continue to be topped up until major reforms were made. That has been the issue between us and what has caused the sudden appearance of some 300 amendments, which is a perfectly legitimate parliamentary tactic in order to scupper the Bill. However, there have been congenial discussions between us and we have agreed that, provided I take Clause 10 out of the Bill, these amendments will not be moved. The result would be that today we would end up securing voluntary retirement and compulsory expulsion, both of which would be useful reforms.
I ought to make clear that, if we now agree this Motion, the first point of substance is to take out Clause 10. I have learned—and this may come as a shock to other Members—that because we had a vote in Committee to keep Clause 10 in, it will require unanimity on Report to take it out. In other words, when I to move to delete Clause 10, it will take only one Member of your Lordships’ House to shout “Not content” for us to fail in the endeavour. If we fail in that endeavour, the prospect of legislating at all today will be lost. I appeal to Members to watch carefully and to accept the guidance of the Lord Speaker, who has been extremely helpful in this matter. I beg to move.
My Lords, I was not going to be grateful to my noble friend, but I am. I should have pointed out that I have been promised that if we get through the Report stage today, a day will be given for Third Reading. After that, the Bill can go to the other place.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for his helpful explanation. Can he confirm that the point he made about allowances is, as I think he put it, in formal discussions? Can he say whether that was a commitment entered into by the Government? Can he further confirm that the Bill does not deal with the issue of allowances?
I said that. There is absolutely no undertaking from the Government as to what kind of scheme they would introduce. However, as the committee of the other noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made clear, we need a statutory provision in order that a scheme can be introduced. My discussions have simply been speculative about what kind of scheme might be introduced. It will be for the Government to come forward with a scheme, which the House can then approve, disapprove or amend in due course.
I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington.
There are Members of your Lordships’ House—not many—who feel an onerous responsibility because they are not able to leave permanently and would prefer to do so. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for raising this issue and I am grateful that the financial aspects to which he referred are not part of our considerations today. I am sure that there are Members of the other place, who may not be in their places as we speak, who will look with interest at the number of amendments which may be brought forward to other parts of its Bill. This may be infectious in the future were another Bill to come before your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Steel and agree that common sense has broken out. I too would like to ask him a question about allowances: was any consideration given to allowances for the hereditary Peers who were removed in 1999?
My noble friend mentioned that no other amendment would be moved. The House knows that I have given him notice that I will move one amendment to seek clarification on what he has discussed with the Government since the Committee stage. In Committee he gave an assurance that he would discuss the matter of those who had been in prison. I shall not press the amendment; it is for elucidation and to get it on the official record
I am grateful, in particular, to my noble friends Lord Trefgarne and Lord Steel for working all hours last night and this morning to bring common sense to this legislation.
If I heard him right, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said that he would not be speaking again on the Bill today. I hoped that he was referring to this Motion because, in Committee, I moved a number of amendments to Clauses 12, 15 and 16 and the noble Lord agreed to consider those amendments. I withdrew them and said that I would come back on Report. I hope that when I move them later, the noble Lord will feel able to respond to them.
My Lords, it might be helpful if I say that, in view of the speed with which the Bill has been changing, with parts going in and out, the Government do not have a formal position on where we now are. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that I am not aware of any discussions on the financial implications of leave of absence. However, the Government will look at what emerges from the Report stage today. I am conscious that a number of noble Lords have trains to take, in not the easiest of weather, to other parts of the United Kingdom later today, so we are determined to finish by three o’clock. The Government will take note of what the House decides and see what further progress can be made. If there is a general feeling that common sense is breaking out in this modest step on House of Lords reform, let us hope that common sense breaks out on all Benches in the House in the future.