Motion to Agree
1. The Resolution of the House of 20 July 2010 (House of Lords Allowance) shall temporarily cease to have effect in respect of attendances after 20 April 2020.
2. Members of this House, except any Member who receives a salary under the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 and the Chairman and Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, should be entitled to an allowance in respect of each day of attendance on or after 21 April 2020.
3. “Attendance” means attendance—
a) at a sitting of this House or a Committee of this House,
b) at a virtual proceeding of this House or a virtual meeting of a Committee of this House, or
c) on such other Parliamentary business as may be determined by the House of Lords Commission.
4. The amount of the allowance payable to a Member in respect of a day of attendance should be £162.
5. In respect of attendance at a physical sitting or virtual proceeding of this House only Members who speak during the sitting or the proceeding, or who are otherwise necessary to the proceedings, should be entitled to an allowance.
6. In respect of attendance at a Committee of this House, only Members of that Committee or Members authorised to attend a meeting of such a Committee by the Chair should be entitled to an allowance.
My Lords, both Houses have been operating under unprecedented circumstances over the last few weeks and I know I speak for the whole commission membership when I convey thanks to all those who have heeded government health advice and remained away from the House to take part wherever possible in remote proceedings.
Over recent weeks, many of your Lordships, myself included, have had to adapt to considerable technological changes, which have been challenging at times. Although there have been teething issues along the way, we can be both proud and grateful to all those involved who have supported and enabled us to continue to perform our roles as parliamentarians, be that communicating government policy or holding the Government to account.
However, these unprecedented circumstances have raised specific issues around allowances—a situation we are seeking to address through this Motion. The overwhelming majority of Members of your Lordships’ House are not paid a salary but instead are entitled to claim an allowance which recompenses noble Lords for the costs incurred and associated with physically attending the House to undertake parliamentary work. Now that we are working remotely and in the majority of cases not attending the House in person, the commission has agreed that the amount Members are able to claim needs to reflect this new, temporary situation.
Alongside a change in the rate of the daily allowance, the commission has also agreed that we should more precisely define participation in our proceedings. After careful consideration and lengthy discussions, the commission has proposed that the current allowance system be temporarily suspended and the maximum daily claimable rate be reduced from £323 per day to £162.
Eligibility for the temporary allowance will be based on direct contributions in the proceedings of the day, which will be reflected in the public record. This reduced rate applies to Members whether they are actively participating online in a Virtual Proceeding or in the significantly reduced number of physical sittings that take place in this Chamber. Members participating directly in the important work of our Select Committees will also be eligible for the new temporary allowance at the same rate. Simply following proceedings online or signing up to a speakers’ list does not meet these eligibility criteria.
The commission agreed that the half-day flat rate of £162 was the most appropriate amount for the temporary allowance as it aligns with the amount available to those participating in parliamentary business away from Westminster under normal circumstances. Of course, the proposals before your Lordships’ House also retain the current position that a Member does not have to claim anything should they feel so inclined.
The Motion proposes that the temporary allowance arrangements be applied retrospectively from 21 April, when we returned from the Easter Recess and began our new way of working, so that Members are able to claim for remote participation from that date. These changes to our allowance system will of course be kept under constant review.
I am aware that there are very different views across the House and across all Benches about the detail of these proposals. No commission member took these decisions lightly. However, at a time when millions of people across the country are having to adapt to working remotely and are facing considerable financial challenges of their own, it is right that we have adapted our financial arrangements and our burden on the taxpayer to reflect the current working environment we face. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
At end to insert—
“7. The House of Lords Commission must determine whether the provisions of paragraphs 1 to 6 either
(a) should continue to be in effect, or
(b) should be replaced with an alternative entitlement to allowances,
and in either case must bring a resolution to that effect before this House on, or before, 30 June 2020.”
My Lords, as a former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and now as a Deputy to the Lord Speaker, I tend to approach these issues not just from a party point of view but from an institutional point of view, trying to understand the impact of any decisions that might be made on the institutions that we are privileged to be able to serve.
Listening to a number of noble Lords across the House, it is clear to me that there is an increasing loss of trust that the House is being treated properly. Yesterday’s Private Notice Question, asked by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, and the supplementary questions to it gave one example. However, the issue goes back much further than the Covid-19 outbreak—to, for example, suggestions that during restoration and renewal the House of Lords should be shuffled off to York, not in order to pay respect to the people in the north of England but to marginalise the influence of the House.
Recent briefings from 10 Downing Street about cutting out anyone over the age of 65 and moving to electing Peers are not thoughtful, creative comments but simply destructive threats whose purpose is to shut down debate in this place. Indeed, that seems to be the Government’s strategy. Having a very large majority in the House of Commons, it is only in your Lordships’ House that real, meaningful dissent is possible. Holding the Government to account is an essential role of Parliament, and that requires the possibility of not just asking questions of government but, from time to time, saying to government, “No, you’ve got it wrong.” In the case of this Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, it is clear that there have been misjudgments and mistakes, some very serious.
I hear Ministers trying to gloss over such questions by saying that there will be time to address them later. That is true, but the time to learn from the mishandling is not just afterwards in the preparation for the next global pandemic, which we all hope will be as far away as the last one a century ago; no, we need to learn lessons as quickly as possible now to save lives. The Government need to hear the reality of what is going on in the health and care sector and in society as a whole.
In such national crises, the initial posture of society is of course to rally round the Government in the hope of finding clear leadership. However, when things do not go well and we find that the level of deaths in our country is one of the worst and that government promises are misleading or unfulfilled, trust, very properly, gives way to criticism. If that criticism is not heard and heeded—for example, in your Lordships’ House—accountability is not fulfilled. If it is heard and heeded, accountability is fulfilled, but, if not, the criticism gives way to hostility and a breakdown of trust and working relationships.
One thing that emerged when I tabled this amendment was that it was not possible for the Opposition effectively to oppose the Government’s position. We are not able to vote in our virtual sittings, although the suggestion that this is not technically possible is, frankly, misleading. As we in the Liberal Democrat group have found, it is perfectly possible to vote using the reaction feature in the Zoom program if one wants votes to take place.
It was also made clear to me that the House authorities did not want votes to take place in the Chamber, the Lobbies or the Royal Gallery, despite arrangements having been made some time ago, because of anxieties about the health of clerking staff. As a doctor and a psychiatrist, I am of course very alert to such issues, but the result is that it is not possible for this House to vote on any issue or to be clear whether the Government’s position has the support of the House. We are told that it will be at least four or five weeks before that capacity is technically available to us in the virtual sittings.
I am very sceptical. It seems that there is an attempt by the Government’s strategist and senior advisor to ensure that your Lordships’ House is muzzled and sidelined during this time of national crisis, and, as populist and authoritarian leaders around the world are doing, to use this crisis to make permanent changes in favour of an untrammelled Executive. That is why I propose that by the end of June the House of Lords Commission should be required to put forward any proposals that it has, whether to continue the arrangements currently being pushed through or to have a return to more reasonable arrangements for the work of the House.
The noble Baroness and her colleagues may feel that what is being proposed is reasonable and appropriate—although to suggest to people in the world at large that working online is not real work at all is hardly appropriate—but if that is the case, the rest of your Lordships’ House would expect that those who make the decision should change their practices and reduce their allowances voluntarily to reduce their substantial emoluments as an indication of some measure of solidarity. After all, we have had too many examples already of leading figures making rules that apply to other people, but not observing them themselves in respect of the Covid-19 crisis.
This House has changed enormously since I came here almost a quarter of a century ago. Those journalists who do not trouble to read our Hansard or come down the Corridor to familiarise themselves with the House as it now is will not be familiar with the fact that there is now a much wider range of age, gender, ethnic and religious diversity, and, particularly, income. The House authorities ought also to appreciate that those who come from well beyond London and the south-east have particular needs if they are to properly represent the concerns of those in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.
I do not agree with the terms of the Motion brought forward by the Leader of the House, but I have no real way of voting against it. I know from my experience in Northern Ireland that when people find that they cannot express their concerns by voting for change, it leads to a breakdown in trust and relationships, without which no institution or society can work harmoniously. That is why I appeal to her to find a way to take on board my request, which does not take away from the content of the Motion but simply requires it to be reviewed when one could reasonably expect that voting would be possible in a virtual sitting. There are various ways she could do this, and I hope that she will find a way.
I believe that the amendment would have the overwhelming support of the House if it could vote and show it. It is the welfare of the future of the House, not just now but in the long term, that is at stake. I beg to move.
My Lords, I think that everybody on the commission and a large majority of your Lordships’ House accepts that during these unprecedented times and with us moving temporarily to a virtual House, it was right that the current allowance system should be changed and that Members should receive a reduced amount. There was disagreement on the commission about how much that reduction might be. I argued for a somewhat larger amount; others argued for a much lower figure. The figure in today’s Motion reflects what might be thought of as the centre of gravity of opinion on the commission.
As I said, I wholly accept that some reduction was appropriate. I declare an interest in that I am a recipient of allowances. However, I should point out for clarity that this proposal will, given the constraints on people speaking and the reduction in Select Committee sittings, result in reduction in allowances received by individual Members of between three-quarters and seven-eighths of what people might reasonably otherwise have expected to receive. This is particularly hard on people from Scotland, Wales and the English regions who have unbreakable rental contracts on flats in London. It must, therefore, be seen very much as a temporary expedient.
Any discussion on allowances must be framed against the question: what is the point of your Lordships’ House? Unless we are clear about that we cannot have any clarity about what value to ascribe to it.
Like all institutions, we have a temptation to exaggerate our own importance, but if Parliament ever had a crucial role to play, then it is at this moment in our national history when we are facing a combination of an immediate crisis and, looking forward, a clear need to reassess the nature of our economy and how to better run society for the benefit of all its members. Parliament is the pre-eminent forum for undertaking that role, and your Lordships’ House is an integral part of Parliament.
That helps to explain the frustration of many of my colleagues and many others across the House about the pace at which we have adopted new proceedings, why they believe that we should not be departing from the long-held principle that any Peer who wishes to speak in a debate should be able to do so, why they want to move to electronic voting without delay, and why they support moves to a virtual House in the short term but are keen to move to a hybrid House, as the Commons already have, as soon as possible. On that latter point, they do so because their experience of questioning Ministers and taking part in debates remotely is that it is a pale imitation of the real thing. There is no possibility of really putting Ministers under pressure in the sterilised environment of the virtual world. I believe that even Cicero would have struggled to make a significant impact via the medium of Zoom.
Their frustrations are exacerbated by what they see as a concerted attempt by the Leader and the Government to denigrate the work of this House. We are used to the Government threatening the Lords with some kind of draconian retribution when they think we might kick up rough, but the Sunday Times article hit a new low. Despite the assertion yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord True, that the proposal that all of us over the age of 65 are too clapped out to do any real work did not represent government policy—I am sure that the newly ennobled noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, will be particularly grateful for that—the article was an attempt to reduce the standing of your Lordships’ House as a corporate body in the eyes of the electorate. It was a disgrace, and I hope the noble Baroness the Leader will take this opportunity to repudiate not just the proposals in it but also its tone.
Having said that, I was pleased to see that the Government are allegedly considering replacing the current House with an elected Chamber, a proposition that has of course been supported in the Lobbies in the past by Members of the Cabinet, including Michael Gove. Perhaps the noble Baroness could tell us the state of government thinking on that proposal.
If your Lordships’ House is to continue, either with its broadly current membership or on any other basis, the way in which we make it possible for people of all backgrounds and from all parts of the country to play a full part needs to be uppermost in our mind. We are not a Chamber just of the affluent part-time retirees for whom membership comes with a sense of noblesse oblige. The previous Labour Government introduced great strides in making this House more diverse and more reflective of the country as a whole, and we strongly supported that. We must not allow the current crisis to turn the clock back.
That brings us back to allowances. The Government have accepted that the scheme before the House today is temporary, but “temporary” is an extremely slippery word and, indeed, a slippery concept. I argued at the commission that we should have either a review or a sunset clause on today’s proposals by the end of June, by which stage hopefully we will have a hybrid House in operation. If they are not reviewed at that point, people who live at some distance from Westminster and who have to pay for accommodation here will be spending all or more of their allowances on accommodation, and some simply will not be able to afford to do it. They will therefore not be able to participate fully in the work of the House. I am sure no one believes that having a Londoncentric House is desirable, but that will be the consequence if the proposal before us today is anything more than a temporary expedient.
There is a very strong argument for having a longer-term external review of the allowances system, and I would support that, but in approving the Motion today the House must provide a mechanism for the longer term. I therefore support the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Alderdice, and I look forward to reverting to a fully functioning House as quickly as health considerations allow.
My Lords, there are two issues here: allowances and the wider issue of the conduct of the House during the lockdown, as was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Newby.
The Leader of the House concentrated her remarks on allowances. On that specific issue, I agree with the commission’s proposal for the reasons that the Leader gave. In a time of great crisis when people are making great sacrifices, it is absolutely right that we follow suit. The right compromise on this is a halved allowance, for the reasons given by the noble Baroness. That should continue for as long as we are meeting virtually because the actual costs that most noble Lords—I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that it is not true of all noble Lords—need to meet are lower.
However, I agree entirely with the thrust of the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Alderdice, about the conduct of the House in lockdown, including that our arrangements should be considered emergency arrangements—because they are, or at least I hope that they are, unless the Government make further changes—to deal with an emergency situation. I say this directly to the Leader: the great concern among many Members is that the emergency changes we are all willingly making to meet the exigencies of this crisis may become permanent. As all of us who have dealt with these situations in other contexts know, precedent always becomes the justification for further changes, particularly in dealing with the proceedings of Parliament. Some key aspects of the arrangements for the House in lockdown are causing acute concern; the noble Lords who just spoke were absolutely right to raise them.
Very significant departures from established practice have been taking place. From time immemorial, it has been a principle that noble Lords who wish to participate in our debates can do so. For the first time, as far as I am aware, in the eight centuries of the history of the House of Lords, under changes that are not even the subject of specific resolutions of the House but are the consequence of going online, noble Lords are being told that they cannot participate in the proceedings of the House. The Motion in the name of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, which we will debate this afternoon, goes to the heart of the crisis facing the country: the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the poor and disadvantaged. Many noble Lords have been told that they cannot participate in this debate because of the arbitrary three-hour time limit that has been imposed and because of the exigencies of the Virtual Proceedings.
The answer is obvious: the proceedings should be longer. There is no reason why we should sit for only three hours. We could sit for five hours. We are sitting only on a limited number of days anyway. Many of us think that we should sit for longer. The noble Baroness can correct me but my understanding is that the Government have been the motive force in restricting our sittings and not holding more debates or longer ones. It is absolutely within our control to fix this.
The second issue is that of a wholly virtual House. It is obvious now to anybody who considers what has happened that the Procedure Committee and the House of Lords Commission made a major error in the arrangements that they put in place for our proceedings after 21 April. They should have moved immediately to a hybrid House, as the House of Commons did. Indeed, it has made a great success of it. I just came into your Lordships’ House from watching Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister was doing a perfectly good job of answering questions and dealing with points made by both the leader of the Opposition in the House and MPs joining via Zoom. That has kept the House of Commons at the centre of the public debate; it has not become invisible. We went wholly virtual, which was a huge mistake —the Procedure Committee needs to get a grip on this when it meets next Monday—and which made us wholly invisible. For the first week of our Sitting, proceedings were not even broadcast, which is a major departure from established parliamentary practice. They are now being broadcast but, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, rightly said, they are not getting a fraction of the attention they get when they take place in this Chamber.
We need to speak bluntly at this point. The Procedure Committee has been very seriously remiss in meeting its duties to the House and to the public, and I hope that it will get a grip and that the Senior Deputy Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord McFall, will fulfil his duties to the House as a whole and not simply implement the wishes of the Government regarding the arrangements for the lockdown.
I hope also that three issues can be addressed immediately. The first is the move towards a hybrid House, so that we can fulfil our duties to the public and do not become invisible. The second is that noble Lords who wish to speak in debates can continue to do so, because that is absolutely central to the performance of their parliamentary duties. If that means longer debates, we should have longer debates—we are here to serve the public, not to serve ourselves. The third aspect, which is vital, is the proceedings on legislation. Your Lordships’ House is a legislature. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, said that we are tempted to exaggerate our importance, but we should not underplay in any way our importance as a legislature. We make the law and there is no more important function in the country than making the law.
Under the arrangements that we are going to debate in a moment, the rights of noble Lords to participate in the Committee stages of Bills and to fulfil their constitutional functions are being severely circumscribed, and for no good reason. If we had a hybrid House, people would be able to participate in Committee proceedings as normal. We have an absolutely unprecedented situation whereby noble Lords who want to engage in the Committee stages of Bills next week have to give advance notice. This has never happened in the history of the House of Lords: that for Members to participate in consideration of a Bill, they have to give advance notice. The whole point of debate is that there is give and take and people come in as they see how debates continue. I have tabled an amendment that would ensure the automatic recommittal of Bills which have been considered only virtually in Committee, so amendments could be moved thereafter.
We have grave responsibilities to the public during this crisis: to debate the challenges facing the country and to bring to Ministers’ attention the severe tribulations being suffered by millions of people up and down the country. We can do that only if we can make our voices heard, and if we can sit properly. I do not believe that the Procedure Committee has enabled us to do that, so it needs to take immediate radical, remedial action before our constitutional duties are severely undermined.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and a pleasant novelty to agree with every word that he has said. I speak in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.
When I entered your Lordships’ House four and a half years ago, I spoke of the deep sense of privilege. But I was also very aware that that was underscored by the knowledge that I am not in any way, shape or form a member of a privileged elite. My fear is that the decision we are discussing today perpetuates the dangerous myth that that is all the House of Lords is about, visible or invisible: that people assume that we are simply part—that we are the epicentre—of the privileged elite.
I do not believe that is true. I know from my own situation and the situation of other Members that they rely on the income that the allowances bring to live in the real world. I joined this House in the knowledge that I would take a drop in my income. I did so in good faith, believing that I would receive an income in the service of my country, but that faith has been sorely tested by the announcement on allowances because the decision takes no account of the fact that some Members are not wealthy and have a huge mortgage, as I do, that some Members have a ministerial pension and that some Members are nowhere near retirement age.
This decision hangs those of us who live in that part of the real world out to dry. This is not a lifestyle issue; it is a question of livelihood. How on earth am I meant to live without the income that the allowances give? Has anyone explained that to the media? Has my noble friend, for whom I have great respect, fought for my interest? How many members of the House of Lords Commission have a mortgage and how many are not in receipt of a pension? As the Lord Privy Seal rightly said, no Member has to claim any allowance, but some Members need to do so.
Your Lordships’ House needs to reassert itself. I urge the Lord Privy Seal to withdraw this Motion until the House has an opportunity to debate it fully or, if she cannot do that, at the very least to accept the amendment so skilfully advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.
I declare an interest as someone who receives and claims allowances. I am, I think, the only representative today of the usual channels, and I would like to make a few remarks about how this system will work. No one in their right mind wants to debate allowances—that is reflected in the attendance today—and nobody really wants to make arguments on the subject. I accept that the focus of our work must be on the crisis, how the country is affected health-wise and how we are to come through it job-wise. However, there must be an understanding in the House that many of us accept that there has to be some form of short-term response to protect the reputation of the House, but we should not support it if we think it will undermine our work, effectiveness and reputation in the longer term.
In the short term, as my colleague and noble friend Lord Newby pointed out, the halving of the allowances that we are talking about is not the case. It is more like a quartering. Few people will be able to make more than one intervention a week. If the commission also put out a press release emphasising the benefits of cost-savings, which I accept there were, it raises fears that this is a permanent solution and it will be politically difficult if we then have to put the costs up again.
Turning to my role in the usual channels, I shall tell the House a little about the difficulties of what will happen in the short term and why this must be a short-term solution. Too many Peers will have to intervene in Questions and debates and, more importantly, good people will stand aside to allow others who need the financial support to do so. They will not speak or ask questions when we most need them to do so. The Chief Whips—I am sorry to use this analogy, but 50 years ago I spent time in the London docks—are making me like a shop steward in the casual system who will determine who speaks, who deals with the rationing of questions and, effectively, who gets their income. I do not want that role, and nor should the House want the Whips to have that role.
In the short term, a number of Peers have contractual obligations with their rents. These are the people really committed to this place and who therefore do really good work; they provide for themselves to do that and take out contractual rental commitments. With this level of allowances—I remind everybody that the allowances are for expenses—I think most people who have those contractual arrangements, certainly those in my group, will not be able to meet them, probably through the summer, by the looks of things.
Thirdly, one in 10 of my group is supported by an intern or a member of staff paid for by my group. That means that 10 people’s jobs are uncertain at the moment, should this scheme go ahead in the long term. All those people contribute behind the scenes to the work of this House. We do not see them; they support us. They will face a lot of uncertainty and the Peers will have to make up their minds whether to give up their contractual obligations to those people. So do not think that it is just us who will be hit by this; there are also the staff who support us. That is on top of all the people paid for by the various state funds, do not let us forget that.
What I am really saying to the House is that the commission needs to show leadership—I would have done. I think I behaved in this way in any organisation that I ran as a manager: if I cut people’s wages or made people redundant, I cut my wages. I did not take a wage increase or a bonus. That should flow across our organisation, if we are to provide leadership in the short term.
This scheme cannot last in the medium term; it is a short-term response. I accept that, so let us make it so. Therefore, in the short term—we do not want to wait until 29 June to do this; we need to start now—we need to define what work in the House means, because it does not mean just intervening in the Chamber, so that we can introduce a new revised scheme when we have the hybrid Parliament working in June and onwards. It is sadly not acceptable that we should settle our own allowances and money—the Commons has come to realise this—so we need an independent review, which will take a bit longer. That is why we need a short-term solution after this scheme is approved today. We need something longer-term, to be looked at independently and outside.
That is the advice I give this House. Obviously, we accept that we have to do something in the short term, but it would be very unfair on the effectiveness of this House and its Members if this is seen as anything other than a short-term, temporary scheme.
I, too, am speaking in favour of my noble friend Lord Alderdice’s amendment. Having come through the virus, I am able to be here and am glad to have the opportunity. Many of my colleagues, of course, cannot be here.
The United Kingdom is going through an extraordinary crisis and the Government have much that they must tackle. This is a global crisis with huge implications. As the noble Baroness will know, over 200 Members of the House that she leads have written to the Lord Speaker, making the point that it is our duty as Members of the House of Lords both to help the Government and hold them to account. Given the gravity of this crisis, we need urgently at least to return to our normal sitting pattern. We rightly allowed the Commons to be prioritised in setting up hybrid procedures. Now that it has been done, the same must urgently happen here. As the letter says, the implications of the pandemic are huge. There are issues of health and safety, economic damage, civil liberties and human rights, and many aspects of each. There is so much to cover. Just yesterday, the Lords examined the financial stability report, which had passed unseen by the Commons because it had not even been published when they waved it through.
Internationally, some Governments and others seem to be taking advantage of the cover of coronavirus. It is our responsibility to make sure that a spotlight is shone there too, given that the United Kingdom aspires to global leadership and is a member of the UN Security Council. Therefore, there is more for us to do, not less, so all effort must be put into the Lords returning as the second and scrutinising part of Parliament, and impediment must not be placed in the way of that. However, it has been, as the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and my noble friends Lord Stoneham, Lord Newby and Lord Alderdice have made plain.
I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, said about a ministerial pension. I was an unpaid Minister through most of the coalition. The Government Chief Whip said at the time that none of us would lose out. Clearly, we need a sunset clause for this proposal, which assumes that we will be working less, not more. If this proposal is to go through, clearly the salaried members of the commission must show leadership by voluntarily taking a pay cut, not to 80% but along the lines that will result from this proposal. The sooner we at least move back to our usual days and hours in this crisis, the better.
My Lords, it is quite clear from the comments we have heard already that we indeed live in extraordinary times for our country. Indeed, I do not recall ever speaking to such an empty Chamber. That is not because I am a brilliant speaker whom everyone floods in to listen to; it is because Members take their responsibilities seriously and are in the Chamber to take part in the work that we do.
On the very day it was announced that the number of deaths in the UK from coronavirus is now the highest in Europe, we also got more information on the alarming number of deaths in social care situations. It is very sobering for us to be here today talking about the issues before us. What is happening across the world brings enormous responsibilities not only for the Government but for the opposition parties. Parliament also has responsibilities—to ensure that those on the front line have the equipment, the protection and the support that they need, and that those trying to manage their lives through this crisis and beyond know that they have all the support and information which government and society should provide for them.
The Government decide the Order of Business. I am sorry that the first item up today was allowances. It has been reflected in the speeches that we have heard. Not one person has talked about the allowances without talking about how the House operates. My noble friend Lord Adonis has some amendments on this later, but he touched on it when he spoke earlier. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, when moving his Motion, spoke about how the House operates and our responsibilities. I would prefer the allowances Motion to be much further down the agenda. I hope that the Minister can take that back and discuss it with the usual channels. It was not the most important item before us today. Having said that, it is important, and has caused a lot of discussion.
I will speak briefly on some of the other issues, but on the issue of allowances the Minister’s comments about the difficulties in reaching this compromise Motion before us reflect the inadequacies of the current system of allowances that we have heard about from others. Those deficiencies cannot be corrected in a Motion during a crisis. The existing system and the new system being proposed also reflect the perception of Parliament. Both are predicated on being physically or virtually in the Chamber, and now we have the added criterion, which the Minister supports, that at Oral Questions, even if someone is on the list to speak, they have to be engaged in listening at least 30 minutes beforehand. If somebody else speaks for too long and goes over—and I do not want to curtail Ministers from giving complete answers to questions—and do not get in, that is no longer deemed a participation, even though they are present in the virtual chamber.
The problem with that is that it perpetuates the myth that the only work of value that parliamentarians do is that which occurs in the Chamber, whether virtual or physical. I had this discussion when I was a Member of the other place. It was always an issue for constituents. They would turn on the TV and see whether you were present in the Chamber, and if you were not there they would wonder what you were doing. As parliamentarians from both Houses, we have to say what our role is, and it is not predicated on just a few words of a speech in the Chamber.
The Minister and I, through our responsibilities, which take far longer to fulfil virtually than they do when we are physically in the building, are paid representatives of this House. That recognises the other work that we do outside the Chamber. But there is a difficulty. She has a number of government Ministers who are unpaid. They are working very hard. I know that, because members of my own Front Bench are regularly in meetings and conversations leading up to legislation about the current situation and the future business of the House. Most of the work undertaken by Ministers on the Front Bench is paid—six are not—but none of the Front Bench in my party, the Official Opposition, are paid. For all those meetings and all the work that they do, they are not recognised in any way at all. There is no recognition, including financial recognition, unless they ask a question or speak in a debate. That is the point which other noble Lords have made about the role of our work.
On the Minister’s point about noble Lords not having to claim anything, we all know that is the case, and there are a few who may choose not to do so. But we ought to be clear that the days when independent means allowed someone to have a seat in Parliament without any payment—lots of millionaires were able to work as often as they liked without any payment at all—have long gone. That no longer reflects what the House of Lords, the second Chamber of our Parliament, does. I hope that she will reflect on that. We know that is still the situation for some, but I would not make a thing of it, given that it applies to so few Members of your Lordships’ House.
There have been difficulties in reaching this temporary position, partly because of the compromises involved, and partly because it does not recognise anything other than saying a few words or making a speech in a virtual or physical Chamber.
I want to ask the Minister a couple of things. First, she will know that as the Leader of this House she bears an enormous responsibility for its reputation. It would be helpful if she could recognise and thank those who, during this time, have put an awful lot of effort into holding the Government to account, not for party political points but because the Government have to get this right. We cannot go through this crisis without that natural role of scrutiny and challenge to get the best possible decision-making in the interests of people in this country, who are suffering through a terrible ordeal. That role of scrutiny and challenge is vital in normal times; it is even more so in times of crisis.
I hope that she will also be able to consider and reflect upon some of the other points that have been raised. As Leader of the Opposition, and considering her role as Leader of the House, I would be interested to know what discussions she has had in government about the role of your Lordships’ House. There was an awful story in the Sunday Times, briefed by somebody in the Government. The noble Lord, Lord True, was absolutely right to say what nonsense it was, but somebody in government was talking to a newspaper in those terms, and that is inappropriate.
I will say something about online proceedings now rather than come back when the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, moves his Motions, should he choose to do so. Obviously, Virtual Proceedings are inadequate; they will never be as good as the real thing. All of us want to get back to the point where we can fulfil our responsibilities in the way we want to fulfil them. The whole House wants that, and I hope the Government want that too. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised a number of issues. Those are the kinds of issues—I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, as I say this—which the usual channels are grappling with daily. The allowances add another complication, but ensuring as much proper scrutiny of the Government as possible and ensuring that Members can contribute and use their expertise is an ongoing challenge and struggle.
We want to go back to normal business as soon as it is safe for this House—that includes all the staff of this House, including cleaners, caterers, doorkeepers and clerks of the House, as well as noble Lords—to do so. We may have to do that in stages, but we have to recognise that technology can take us only so far.
I hope the noble Baroness can confirm that, in Committee, the proceedings will not be as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, fears; that there will be far more flexibility and latitude to ensure that noble Lords are not excluded; and that the first day in Committee should allow for Second Reading speeches, so that those broad, general points can be put on the record as well.
There is a lot more work to do. The Motion before us is a difficult one. It has to be accepted at this stage but, as has been said, it needs to be under constant review.
I thank all noble Lords for their comments. I am going to restrict my comments on this Motion to allowances, because we will come on to some broader points that noble Lords raised on other issues in debating the next Motion. However, I am very happy to reiterate the words of my noble friend Lord True yesterday: there is absolutely no basis to the Sunday Times story. It is not government policy and nothing that I recognise, and I am very sorry for the hurt and upset it has caused in your Lordships’ House. I put on record again that it is not true.
Regarding the number of contributions, this debate has made clear the difficult decisions and balances that the commission had to strike in coming up with these proposals. I completely recognise, as we all do, the very real-life consequences once decisions have been made. That is why, as I said in my opening remarks, the allowance will be under constant review. We are in a moving picture and in unprecedented times, as I think everybody recognises. We are doing our best to move as and when we can to ensure that we take all this into account.
The voting Lobbies have been set up, but I very much hope that the noble Lord will not feel the need to use them today. I reiterate that this is under constant review. It is temporary, along with all the proceedings that we are undertaking. However, despite all the issues raised by noble Lords, and the restrictions we are dealing with in the Virtual Proceedings, I believe that we are able to do our job in very difficult circumstances. We are all very grateful to all those supporting us in being able to do so, notwithstanding the very real impact this is having on so many people’s lives.
The noble Baroness has not really addressed the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Alderdice. Can she confirm whether she personally, and on behalf of the Government, believes that there should be a review? If so, when does she believe that should happen by? If she does not think so, on what basis does she think we can continue with what everybody accepts is an unacceptable, temporary situation, without any sense of when it might come to an end?
As the noble Lord is aware, since he is on the commission, this is not a government decision but a decision of the commission, on whose behalf I am speaking. The Motion makes it clear that it is a temporary arrangement. As noble Lords know, I have said that it is under constant review. We can discuss with the Lord Speaker what that reviewing may look like, but it is not my decision alone as I am part of the commission.
We will have to see when and how we start to move. We are anticipating new guidance over the weekend on what restrictions will be happening. I am sure that all of us in the House will look at how to implement them. We all want to return as a House, as everyone has stated, but we have to stick to government guidelines and ensure that we have a safe working environment for Peers and staff. We have put Virtual Proceedings in place and are trying to roll them out. We are trying to increase the amount of business being done in Virtual Proceedings, which we will obviously discuss on the next Motion as we look to take more legislative stages online.
This is a constantly moving issue. I can assure noble Lords that—whether they know it or not—my staff and team, through the usual channels and with all the other leaders, are working constantly to ensure that we are doing our best to allow noble Lords the opportunities to address the issues that they want to.
I want to press the noble Baroness further, because I asked about her role as the Lord Privy Seal. I appreciate that she speaks as a member of the commission, but she is a member of it as the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of this House. What discussions has she had with the Government? In her role as Lord Privy Seal—a position that I think Thomas Cromwell held as well—it would be nice to know that she had been discussing the role of this House with the Government.
Yes, I am very happy to say so. One of the only other items on an agenda largely about coronavirus, in Cabinet and elsewhere, is that of parliamentary business. I am therefore able to give regular updates on the work of the Lords. I have been discussing with my Commons colleagues the work they are doing and how we can roll that out, and I am of course raising House of Lords’ issues on a regular basis within government; that is my job and that is what I do.
As I have said, these issues are under constant review. We are looking at them all the time, but a sunset clause sets an arbitrary date. These are temporary measures and we are looking to develop things. Lots of ideas have been mentioned today about how we may wish to move forward, and we are committed to that. I think that that negates the need for specific dates.
I do not think the noble Baroness answered the question that I raised. In showing leadership, she must go back to the commission this week, or next week—whenever it is due to meet—to start some of the work that will be required when this scheme ends. It is not good enough to wait until the end of June. We have work to do to define what business in the House means. Is she prepared to go back to the commission and recommend that that work should start straightaway?
I am sure that all members of the commission—a number of whom are here today—including me, will take that on board. We meet regularly, and I am sure that such discussions will happen. The noble Lord is absolutely right: as this develops, there needs to be thinking on allowances, our proceedings and a move to a hybrid House. We will need to have regular conversations to make sure that we can come up with solutions that work for Members and for the business of this House.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who participated in this debate—a slightly longer one than perhaps we might have expected, but that shows the strength of concern and feeling. I confess to a degree of disappointment. I do not think that the noble Baroness, or the Government in general, quite understand the import of what was being said. I focused more on the institutional than the individual consequences, which other noble Lords spoke to— I shall not name everyone who participated.
As she finished, the noble Baroness spoke about the fact that we are expecting announcements at the weekend on what will happen, and of course we look forward to that. But it is another example of the same problem. Her right honourable friend the Prime Minister chose not to do it in the House of Commons but to do it on a Sunday evening, when he would be the focus. The Speaker in another place has made it clear that that is not proper parliamentary process or procedure. It is crucial that these matters are brought back to Parliament and that Parliament is given its place.
The noble Baroness could have, without accepting the amendment, given an undertaking to fulfil its requirements on her own word, and I would have accepted that. I think that we will all have to go away and reflect on the consequences. I hope that she and her colleagues will realise that they have now created a situation where trust has got to be built, rather than depended upon, because some of it has simply evaporated. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, as is the proper process in your Lordships’ House. I do so not because I agree with the Motion, but because it is what we have to do.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.