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House of Lords: Allowance

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 22 July 2020

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That 1. The Resolution of the House of 6 May 2020 (House of Lords Allowance) shall have effect, and shall be deemed to have had effect from 8 June 2020, as follows–

a) For paragraph 5, substitute–

“5. In respect of attendance at a physical sitting or virtual proceeding of this House Members should only be entitled to an allowance if–

a) they speak during the sitting or proceeding, or

b) they are otherwise necessary to the sitting or proceeding, or

c) they are on the Speaker’s List for the item of business and present when that business is taken (but that entitlement only arises to claim once in respect of that item).”; and

b) At the end, insert–

“7. Notwithstanding the previous Resolutions of the House, travel and related expenses can only be claimed by Members attending physically to whom paragraph 5 applies.”

2. The Resolution of the House of 6 May 2020 (House of Lords Allowance) (as amended) shall cease to have effect on 1 September 2020, and the Resolution of the House of 20 July 2010 (House of Lords Allowance) shall temporarily cease to have effect in respect of attendances after 1 September 2020.

3. 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 2 September 2020 as provided for below.

4. “Attendance” means virtual or physical attendance–

a) at a sitting or virtual proceeding of this House,

b) at a meeting or 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.

5. In respect of virtual attendance at a sitting or proceeding of this House Members should only be entitled to an allowance if–

a) they speak during the sitting or proceeding, or

b) they are otherwise necessary to the sitting or proceeding, or

c) they are on the Speaker’s List for the item of business and present when that business is taken (and in that case, the entitlement is only to claim once in respect of that item).

6. In respect of attendance under paragraph (4)(b), only Members of that Committee, or Members authorised to attend a meeting of such a Committee by the Chair, should be entitled to claim an allowance.

7. The amount of the allowance payable to a Member should be–

a) £323, or

b) £162, if paragraph 5 applies or if the only attendance of the Member is to vote using the remote voting system pursuant to the Resolution of this House of 4 June 2020.

8. Members of this House specified in paragraph 3 may be entitled to a supplementary daily allowance for Parliamentary work as–

a) a designated spokesperson for the Official Opposition or the Liberal Democrat Party, or

b) the chair of such committee of the House, or such other body, as may be determined from time to time by the House of Lords Commission.

9. The maximum entitlements applicable for the purposes of paragraph 8 are–

a) 10 additional days per month (if paragraph 8(a) applies), and

b) 5 additional days per month (if paragraph 8(b) applies),

provided that for any month the total number of days claimed for does not exceed the total number of sitting days of the House in that month.

10. The provisions of this Resolution shall be applied in accordance with guidance issued under the authority of the House of Lords Commission.

My Lords, at its meeting last Thursday, the House of Lords Commission agreed on an updated set of proposals relating to the financial support available to Members to enable them to carry out their parliamentary duties.

The Lord Speaker, the Senior Deputy Speaker, the leaders of the three main parties and the Cross-Bench Convenor are all members of the commission, as are the chairs of the services and finance committees, two Back-Benchers and two external Members. A summary of the proposals were sent to noble Lords on Friday, and the full details are in the Motion on the Order Paper. In short, if this Motion is agreed to, the current temporary arrangements, which have been in place since May, will, from September, be replaced by a further temporary system that will reflect the expectation and, I think, desire that many more noble Lords will attend and carry out their parliamentary duties here at Westminster, rather than remotely.

In recognition that some noble Lords will be unable or would prefer not to attend in person, but wish to contribute to our proceedings, the proposals maintain the current arrangements for those participating virtually. The commission believes that these proposals also better recognise the work carried out by the Opposition’s Front Benches and our Select Committee chairs. From September, committee chairs and designated opposition Front-Benchers will have access to a limited supplementary daily allowance.

The House authorities are working very hard to ensure that all Members who want to return in September can do so in a way that is compatible with the latest public health guidance, so that Parliament is a safe, Covid-secure working environment. The House authorities will update noble Lords on these plans before we rise for the summer.

This has been an unprecedented period. Although we can be proud that the House has adapted so quickly to significant challenges the current crisis has raised, and that so many noble Lords have been able to participate in our hybrid proceedings, it has certainly not been without its difficulties. In particular, we have had to make difficult decisions in relation to allowances, none of which has been taken lightly by members of the commission. We fully appreciate the concern and impact these have had on Members across the House. On behalf of the commission, I thank all noble Lords for their forbearance and patience. We believe that the changes which will be brought into effect by this Motion represent a positive and clear step towards the return to normal we all want to see as soon as possible, and I hope noble Lords will support them. I beg to move.

I have received notice that the following noble Lords wish to speak: the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and the noble Lords, Lord Newby, Lord Shinkwin and Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon.

I would prefer to hear from the Back-Benchers before speaking. I am surprised to be called. Would it be in order for Back- Benchers to speak and for me to speak after them?

My Lords, every situation can teach us something. The experience of the last few months might have plunged some noble Lords into significant debt, but it is none the less valuable in the lessons that it teaches us as a self-regulating House. I think it is fair to say that the most important lesson is that we must avoid at all costs reinforcing the unfair perception that your Lordships’ House is the exclusive preserve of privilege and wealth. Diversity is our strongest defence against that charge, which is why we need to recognise that some noble Lords will inevitably have neither inherited nor acquired wealth but will have significant outgoings. That is normal and must be taken into account, and I thank the Lords Commission for doing so in its latest decision.

However, apart from the personal consequences of suddenly having very little income, it has been very unsettling to see such decision-making power wielded in secrecy and without any accountability to a parliamentary Chamber that is meant to be self-regulating. I therefore think that, to move forward, we need to get our own House in order by injecting some transparency and accountability into the system. Most importantly, we urgently need to strengthen the legitimacy of the Lords Commission in future by holding an election of its chair and deputy chair by the whole House, by holding open meetings of the Lords Commission, by ensuring advanced publication of Lords Commission papers, and by having a quarterly Lords Commission Question Time with its chair, held in the Chamber, as in the House of Commons.

I will close on this point. Specifically with regard to the position of the Clerk of the Parliaments, I know that I am not alone in being concerned that the postholder wields huge authority without any real accountability to the House. I therefore suggest that the contract for such a hugely important role should not be extended in future without it having been put to and agreed by the House first, and the details of the package, the job description and objectives having been made available in the Library a week before consideration.

I first praise the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for speaking out on issues that he has felt strongly about over recent weeks. It is never easy to talk about parliamentary allowances, because your words are capable of being distorted and you become a bit of a target. If he has opinions to provide to your Lordships’ Chamber, he should do so, and he is brave to speak out. I have different points to make, but I welcome his contribution.

I also thank the noble Baroness the Leader for her introduction, for making sure that the information for today was available early and for the supplementary information that has been provided this morning. I recognise that the last few months have been difficult for all concerned. I have praised the staff of the House before. They have done an outstanding job in difficult circumstances. But I also think that the Leader has steered us through these times in a responsible and admirable way.

I have two points, partly spurred on by the use of the word “temporary” to describe this second version of the temporary scheme that we are going through. That word was used to me in the spring of 2011 when I questioned the new allowances scheme. I was told that it was a temporary move to remove the abuses that had been taking place and bring in something that would be simple to administer, but that it would be reviewed quickly and we would return to overnight reimbursement in the near future.

That, of course, has not happened. If, over the nine years since, those Members who live in London or have property in London—I suspect that the vast majority in this House have either inherited that property or had it paid for by the state as Members of the House of Commons—have attended every sitting of this House since Easter 2011, they will have gained more than £200,000 from the change in the allowance system that was brought in, when the previous overnight allowance, which I think was about £160 to £170, was mopped into the daily allowance so that everybody in the House could claim it, not just those who actually had overnight costs from being in London.

This has happened in the same decade when every party leader, in the House of Commons and here, has expressed a desire to bring more people from more parts of the country, with different experiences and backgrounds, into your Lordships’ Chamber. At a time when that is the expressed aim, there is institutional discrimination against those Members who do not live in London and the south-east. That discrimination has never been tackled by the commission, successive Leaders or any of the political parties. I think that that is shameful. I have said it here before and I will say it again today.

I raise this today because we have an opportunity. I want to be positive rather than just negative about what has happened. There is an opportunity, given that these temporary arrangements have had to be put in place, to reduce the daily allowance for all Members and to reinstate some overnight allowance for those Members who have to travel from other parts of the country and do not own property in London. There must be an opportunity over these coming months, as we use this new temporary system, to make a change—to do the right thing. I ask the House of Lords Commission to give that serious consideration. The time is right. I think that it would suit the public mood, but it would also be the right thing to do, not only for the individuals concerned but for the diversity of this House and the attendance of Members from around the whole of the United Kingdom.

My second point is a bit more specific. It is not far off some of the principles behind the points made by the previous speaker. I should perhaps say first of all that my comments on this in no way affect or change my ability to reclaim the legitimate travel costs that I have incurred in attending the Chamber physically over the last few weeks, because on each of those weeks I made a contribution in the Chamber and I will receive my full travel reimbursement, as is right and proper.

However, I am not happy at all about the situation where changes to the regulations and the interpretation of the travel allowance are being backdated. If someone has attended this Chamber over the past seven weeks but on the day was not able, for whatever reason, to go on the relevant Questions list, perhaps because they were not chosen by their Whip, and they incurred legitimate travel costs to be here, if they were not on a list for the day or days they were here that week, they will not get the travel reimbursed, which they paid at the time assuming that that was okay.

I have raised this with the Clerk of the Parliaments, in correspondence with the Leaders and with the Lord Speaker. I think it is wrong that the travel allowance changes should be rigidly backdated. There should be some flexibility for anyone caught up in that situation. I am lucky and fortunate not to be in that position, but at least one or two Members of your Lordships’ House might be.

This raises an issue of principle about the allowances system. Members’ ability to reclaim their travel expenses should not depend on their party Whips selecting them for the list to speak in your Lordships’ Chamber. It is wrong to have a system so rigid that if someone travels to London with a legitimate desire to contribute to a debate, but because of the numbers that have applied, is then not selected for their party’s list of Members to speak, they then must pay their own travel, having come here with the best of intentions. The rigidity of the proposal before us today, with no exceptions allowed for special circumstances, will work against Members from Northern Ireland, Scotland and perhaps the north of England.

I strongly welcome the very good change to help compensate those Members who do extra work, for example as chairs of committees. That should be bedded into the system for the future. However, these things, whether allowances for chairs of committees or claiming reimbursement for travel, should not be in the hands of the Whips. If we are going down this route, we must find a better way of deciding who can participate, where party Whips do not have that level of control over the financial reimbursement—not allowances—that would then be available to Members of your Lordships’ House. I would welcome the Leader’s comments in respect of those two points.

My Lords, the commission spent many weeks and many meetings attempting to provide a new temporary system that would be fair to everyone; those who can attend, those who cannot attend, those who speak a lot and those who do not speak as often. This proved quite difficult to achieve, but after a very long and winding road, we produced a system which is as near as we could get it to satisfying all the legitimate requirements of Members of your Lordships’ House. It still has anomalies. Some people will still legitimately feel disadvantaged by it, but any system broadly based on our current one is bound to have anomalies, and we have minimised them. Therefore, I strongly support the Motion.

While I am happy with the allowance system, or as happy as I am ever likely to be with such a system, I am concerned about the plans for the physical operation, not only of the Chamber, but also of all the ancillary services, when we return in September. We are expecting a lot more people to be here and, as things stand, the House cannot accommodate us. There are plans, which we will hear about before we rise, showing some mitigations of the current, very strict requirements in your Lordships’ House, but I am concerned that the degree of rigour with which some of the restrictions are being applied in your Lordships’ House is completely out of kilter with what is happening in the country at large. I recognise that many Peers are older and more vulnerable, but we must look very carefully at all our practices to ensure that we get back, as far as possible, to a system whereby not only the allowances allow people to attend, but also that we allow people, when they get here, to operate as parliamentarians, the nature of which requires a lot of close personal interaction. We will have to look at this in September. For today, it is very important that we can give people certainty about the allowance system from September, so that they can plan what they will do in the autumn. This Motion will give them that degree of certainty.

My Lords, when the Minister introduced this, she made it sound so easy—as though the commission met and agreed these proposals, when it was actually a long, winding and rocky road to find agreement, because we were dealing with contentious matters. On the point made by my noble friend Lord McConnell and the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, the days when this House was the preserve of the landed gentry have long gone. As we have seen, many Members who have participated in the work of the House, and who I am sure the Minister will join me in paying tribute to, have shown the value of the work that this House does. That should always be our priority, which we have shown ourselves to be ready for. All decisions are about compromise. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, that the House has a new role. The commission brings proposals to your Lordships’ House for agreement, and the only body that can agree these proposals or otherwise is this House and the Members taking part in it. It is the ultimate preserve of this House whether it wishes to accept the proposals.

My noble friend Lord McConnell spoke of the imperfections in this temporary system and outlined one. That is one of the things we will address in the proposals going forward. This is a compromise—a way forward in a temporary system that a lot of people had to grapple with to find a way for the House to operate better, recognising the contributions not only of individual Members but of this House and its role in legislation. This week we have dealt with the Business and Planning Bill, where significant amendments that were not dealt with in the House of Commons were sent back to the House of Commons with the agreement of all parties. Last night, those Members dealing with the Agriculture Bill were in your Lordships’ House until midnight debating it, and that could happen tomorrow night as well. We also have the Second Reading of the immigration Bill coming up. We must recognise that we all need to get back to normal working as soon as possible, before we forget what that is, because working in these circumstances is a lot harder for everybody in many ways. As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, it is about not only the allowances but how we operate and fulfil our functions.

There were those who were very cynical and sceptical that this House could embrace technology as we have done to conduct our business. Members of the other place are envious of our remote voting system. As their queue snakes around Parliament and they pretend to socially distance, many are very concerned for their welfare and that of their colleagues. The system that we have adopted is infinitely preferable.

While I accept that there will be imperfections and that we all have concerns, the allowance system before us today recognises a number of issues, particularly the frustrations of Back-Benchers who cannot contribute virtually and wish to come into your Lordships’ House. As I have said to my Front-Benchers, and I am grateful for their support in this, the work of the House of Lords is often like a swan; it appears to be going smoothly on top, but if only one could see the furious paddling underneath, including those of us on the Teams channels, WhatsApp channels and email channels managing our business during the days and the enormous amount of work that Peers are involved in that is never seen. These proposals recognise that, and the work of our committees.

With more Peers attending, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about the arrangements in place is important. The most important thing is to keep ourselves, each other and our families safe. I hope that we can get some more people into the Chamber and we will have a second Hybrid Chamber operating as well, but I also mean around the building. When I get in early, I talk to cleaning staff and catering staff. They also have concerns, so we must ensure that, whatever we do and however we operate, processes are in place to ensure the safety not only of Peers but of the staff of the House, and not only those in funny clothes but also those cleaning the place and ensuring that we are fed and watered. Can the Minister say something about that? Does she have any comments on the wearing of face masks in the Palace? Also, on testing, if any member of staff or noble Lord has symptoms, what will the procedures be for them being tested, and are there any proposals for preventive testing or preventive support?

On balance, these proposals are an important step forward. I see this not just as something that is happening today. In all the decisions being taken, there must be a process. Having dealt with very difficult circumstances, we are moving to a position from which we can return to normal. That must be part of the process, because it is where we all want to be.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today. I agree with the noble Baroness about the commission bringing proposals to the House and the House ultimately having to make decisions on them.

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said about travel, but I am afraid that the commission’s decision has been set out. He is rightly expressing his view, which is doubtless shared by many Members of the House, that there needs to be a review of the allowance system overall. I am sure that the members of the commission will have heard his comments, and that there are Back-Benchers who have a lot of sympathy with him.

These are challenging times. We have had to develop a system for the working of the House, as opposed to allowances, which we all know is not perfect, but we have all worked together to do our best to ensure that noble Lords can be involved and can contribute to the important work we want to do. We all accept that this is by no means perfect, which is why we are all very keen to move towards a return to normality—whatever normality finally becomes. But as the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said, we have to make sure that as we return, hopefully, in larger numbers in September, we do so in a safe, Covid-secure way, not just for us and all our colleagues but for the staff of the House.

The noble Baroness asked about masks; obviously, as government guidance may change, we will keep that in mind. For instance, in our new Grand Committee that will start in September, we have moved to “one metre with mitigation”, so masks will be worn as you enter because that ensures Covid security, whereas in the Chamber we are two metres apart. So, I suspect we may find in different parts of the House different ways of making sure that we comply with the guidelines. I encourage all noble Lords to bring face coverings with them, but there is already a supply of masks in the Hallkeeper’s Lodge, in St Stephen’s Hall, should people require them. Ah—the noble Lord has pulled one out, and I saw the noble Baroness come in with one earlier. It is the responsibility of all of us to make sure that we keep ourselves and all our colleagues safe.

The noble Baroness also asked about testing. The House authorities have consulted Public Health England on the provision of different types of testing on the Parliamentary Estate, how they could be put in place and how effective they will be in increasing the safety of Members and staff. Members can already get infection testing, as the public can, but I know that as more people come back, guidance changes and testing becomes available in other ways, the authorities are exploring how and whether it could be offered in the most convenient way to Members, but without creating further issues of too many people in one place.

These are all challenges that we will all be working on together, and I appreciate noble Lords’ comments. As the noble Baroness said, I certainly did not mean my remarks to make it sound like this has been easy—it has not—but I hope noble Lords feel that we have taken a step forward. I assure all noble Lords that their concerns have registered with all of us and we greatly appreciate everything they have done. I hope that at this point I can wish all noble Lords a very happy August Recess, and I look forward to seeing many more noble Lords back, I hope, in September.

Motion agreed.

My Lords, we need to have the changeover and to respect social distancing, we need to adjourn for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.