Wednesday 8 December 2021
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, Members are encouraged to leave some distance between themselves and others and to wear a face covering when not speaking. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
House of Lords: Governance
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, looking round the Moses Room this afternoon, I see a galaxy of stars of Members—and not Members—who have a great history in this House. Therefore, while my notes say that I am very pleased to have this opportunity to open the debate, my expression should be rather stronger than that.
At the outset, I thought it would be helpful and useful to set out some of the details about this conundrum of the governance of the House—the beginning of an answer to the question that was asked several times during our debate on 25 October: who runs the House? I shall start with the officeholders in the House.
The Lord Speaker presides over proceedings in the Chamber, chairs the senior domestic committee—the House of Lords Commission—is the primary ambassador for the work of the House, has formal responsibility for the security of the Lords’ part of the Parliamentary Estate and is one of the three “key holders” of Westminster Hall. The Leader of the House, in addition to her ministerial responsibilities, has a wider task of upholding the rights and interests of the House as a whole. This gives her a particular role in the governance of the House, in addition to her membership of the commission.
I recognise the roles of noble Lords who make up the usual channels: the Leaders and Chief Whips of the main party groups and the Convenor of the Cross Benches. They all play a crucial role in the governance of the House through their various memberships of the House’s domestic committees and the arrangement of business. Finally, as Senior Deputy Speaker, I am deputy chair of the commission and chair of a number of the House’s domestic committees, and I exercise general supervision and control over private Bills and hybrid instruments. I also speak on and answer any Oral and Written Questions concerning the administration of the House, the work of the House of Lords Commission and the work of the committees I chair.
Moving on to those domestic committees, in July 2016, the House agreed to the implementation of proposals that were developed through an extensive governance review undertaken by the Leader’s Group on Governance, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard of Northwold. This included the creation of a new senior committee, the House of Lords Commission, to provide high-level strategic and political direction for the House of Lords administration on behalf of the House and to monitor the performance of the administration. The commission engages on strategic matters such as restoration and renewal, the financial and business plans provided by the administration, security, allowances and the ongoing response to Covid-19. The commission is supported by three other committees: the Services Committee, the Finance Committee and the Audit Committee.
The Services Committee agrees day-to-day policy on Member-facing services, such as catering, digital, property and office services, and on the use of facilities. It provides advice to the commission on strategic policy decisions in relation to such services. For example, the Services Committee has been reviewing the House’s fire evacuation policy, our health and well-being policies, and the new travel office contract. The Finance Committee considers expenditure on services provided from the estimate for the House of Lords, and reports to the commission about forecast outturn and estimate and financial plans submitted by the management board, and monitors the financial performance of the House administration. The Audit Committee considers internal and external audit reports and the management responses to such reports, and provides advice to the Clerk of the Parliaments. The chairs of each of these committees sit on the commission.
Taken together, 31 noble Lords serve on these committees: officeholders, the usual channels and Back-Bench Members. We work together across the committees with the best intent to enable the House to flourish. That is the structure the House agreed following the governance review recommendation for what might be termed Member-led corporate governance.
I now turn to the official-led administration, which supports our work as Members. The House administration is led by the Clerk of the Parliaments. By statute, the Clerk of the Parliaments is appointed by Her Majesty by letters patent. He is the chief executive of the House of Lords and the chief procedural adviser to the House. The Clerk of the Parliaments is also specified in statute as the accounting officer and the corporate officer for the House, and the statutory employer of House of Lords staff. He is responsible for all aspects of the services provided by the administration for Members, the public and other interested parties. In discharging his duties, he is supported by a wide range of staff; in particular by the management board, which he chairs. The management board takes strategic and corporate decisions for the House administration within the policy framework set by the commission. The Clerk of the Parliaments and the management board lead the House administration with the objective to support and strengthen the work of the House of Lords. In this, they are guided by four values: inclusivity, professionalism, respect and responsibility.
While this is, to some extent, an answer to the question of who runs the House of Lords, I readily recognise that it hides a wealth of detail, not least the constant interactions between committee members, officeholders and Members from all around the House. But, as I have found in coming back to the House, in a sense, since May, it is not simple, sometimes, to put one’s finger on where decisions are to be made. It was, in part, in recognition of the complexity of our work, the importance of ensuring we meet the highest standards of good governance, and ensuring that the Member-led and official-led elements of our governance system worked in close partnership with one another for the benefit of the House, that the commission asked for an independent external management review to be carried out.
The report of the external management review, published earlier this year, made a broad range of recommendations. The majority focused on the internal management of the House administration. There are three recommendations that it would be particularly useful to cover here.
First, the report proposed that the commission be put on a statutory footing, with a separate legal entity to act as the employer of House staff. Essentially, this would remove from the Clerk of the Parliaments his current statutory responsibilities and place them with the commission. It would allow for clear lines of direction and delegation from the commission to the administration. It would be a radical and complex shift away from the current situation. The commission has treated this recommendation with caution; noble Lords may also have views on this matter.
Secondly, the EMR, as I will describe the review, recommended that the governance arrangements of the House, particularly the relationship between the commission and the Clerk of the Parliaments, be set out clearly in a governance statement to bring clarity to questions of who is accountable and responsible for what. The report of the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, made similar recommendations. Work on putting this recommendation into effect is under way, and I anticipate the commission being able to make a statement in the spring.
Thirdly, the report recommended the appointment of a Chief Operating Officer. It is important not to underestimate the complexity, scope and range of services that are provided by the House of Lords administration. Much of it goes on behind the scenes, often in partnership with the House of Commons, and is visible to us only when something directly affects us. It is quite distinct from the procedural work that we see every day to support our proceedings.
The responsibility for overseeing and managing this work falls to the Clerk of the Parliaments as accounting officer and corporate officer of the House. With this in mind, the review highlighted a need for additional senior-level capacity in the administration’s management structure specifically to enhance the administration’s performance in relation to the work outside the Chamber and committees—broadly speaking, to support the Clerk of the Parliaments in his role as chief executive of the administration. A recruitment process for this post was undertaken earlier this year and an appointment made. Mr Andy Helliwell will join the administration on 3 January.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister; I hope that it is in order.
I have here a briefing from the House of Lords Library on the organisation of the House of Lords administration, which is of course excellent. Nowhere does it mention Members, who ought not so much to be represented but to whom the administration needs to be accountable. Secondly, the appointment of the new—what is he?
Chief Operating Officer!
Yes, him. Would the Minister say that he feels that, in the past few years, the clerks have been unable to fulfil the function that this new person will do? I think that the clerks have been admirable in the way they have carried out their duties. I did not mean to interrupt, and of course I will speak to this later, but I wanted to make that point before the Minister got any further.
It is fair to say that a considerable proportion of my speech opened with the Member-led governance of this House and its huge importance. My remarks relate to my understanding, which is about Member-led governance; I have then referred to the administration, which we rely on very closely.
All I can say is that we have identified that extra support is needed for the Clerk of the Parliaments. We have excellent people working for us, as I shall say with greater emphasis shortly, but the truth is that it is a very demanding job, as I outlined. The Clerk of the Parliaments’ responsibilities are extremely great. Therefore, the endorsed view was that there should be extra support, outside the Chamber and committee work, to help the Clerk of the Parliaments with the very considerable responsibilities that we have placed in one person.
This has been a brisk gallop around the essential aspects of our governance structure. It would be remiss of me, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, not to highlight the excellent work of the administration and of Members, both individually and collectively, for the good of the House. The work of our committees, communications, outreach, digital, heritage and conservation, maintenance, catering, security and more is all supported and enabled by good governance.
While I may not be able to answer in detail the many points that will be made in today’s consideration, or debate—whatever we wish to call it—I assure your Lordships that I shall listen carefully. If I am permitted to say so, I know that a number of other people are listening carefully, both here and outside the Moses Room. I very much look forward to hearing what noble Lords have to say. It is the case that my door is proverbially always open, as is that of the Clerk of the Parliaments. The Lord Speaker intends to hold a series of townhall meetings, at which I will be present with the Clerk of the Parliaments, the chair of the Services Committee and those of other committees, as appropriate, to ensure that all noble Lords feel that their voice is heard.
We all accept that the effective, responsible and professional governance of our House is essential, as is noble Lords having confidence in it. To me, in my role, that is of huge importance and significance. The whole purpose of good governance is to support and strengthen the House in the delivery of its vital constitutional role. All of us with a position in the governance structures I have described take our roles very seriously, and at all times we seek to work as a team to discharge our responsibilities for the benefit of the House, its Members, its staff and, importantly, the public we all serve. I beg to move.
Noble Lords will forgive me if I feel somewhat nervous at being promoted so high in the batting order, particularly as something bad happened to the England cricket captain in that position earlier on.
The Library briefing, to which reference has been made and which came out a few days ago, points out that, during the past 30 years, there have been 10 reviews that have seen duties and responsibilities move around from one body to another. The latest, and perhaps most significant, development is one that has just been referred to: the imminent arrival of the Chief Operating Officer, charged specifically with
“overseeing major change initiatives and programmes.”
Based largely on the five years that I spent as chair of the Administration Committee in the House of Commons—I understand that we are now allowed to refer to the House in that way, as opposed to “the other place”—I would, if I may, like to suggest one or two initiatives. The first, and obviously most important, is security. We are all too conscious of the threat of fire to people in the Palace. I am not sure that all of us, despite taking on some forms of training, would be up to it if an emergency arose. I once found myself in the Royal Gallery with a party from the House of Commons when there was a fire alarm. I had absolutely no idea how to make an escape from there with my guests because I had not been trained in all parts of the Palace. I suspect that that works the other way round as well.
Of course, there is the fact that our fire precautions are on the basis of getting people out of this building safely, whereas all the physical work that has been done for other reasons in the last few years has been to make it difficult for people to get in. If those physical barriers are there, they also work the other way round, which is something to which I do not think sufficient thought has yet been given. There is also the other outside threat that we are all too conscious of, which could intensify as more movement is created by Members of this House having to move across Parliament Square, from one part to another, once R&R takes place.
We are also entitled to point out that the Palace is part of a world heritage site that requires safeguarding. I would have no compunction in closing the square to traffic, however controversial that might be and however much it might put us in argument with Westminster City Council. Some say that it cannot be done, but a Transport Minister some years ago said that what you have to do is put the barriers up at 4 am and the traffic will find its way round them in the end.
My second point relates to visitors. I do not think we treat our visitors as well as we should. To criticise Westminster City Council again, we were not allowed to put a shelter on the pathway down to the Cromwell Green entrance to protect them from the vagaries of the weather. We can do better than that. Very early on when I became chair of the Administration Committee, I had a formal meeting with the then Lord Speaker, who said to me, “Alan, what on earth are we going to do about these tours?” We are taking people in at the point at which they should exit, taking them through the building and then turning them around, causing complete congestion in the process.
We might also look at the possibility of a Palace-wide approach to catering. Many other services have been brought together over the years, and it seems that this is one that has received insufficient attention. The purpose would be to encourage more of us to eat on the estate, and that would then require variety; although the food standards might be high, you do not want to eat the same meal or have the same selection on every occasion. That should be looked at, and I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, might not be entirely put off by that idea.
Finally, I offer this thought. As Members of this noble House, we need to be aware of the critics who circle us. They range from those who would prefer an elected Chamber to the one we have, to those wanting a unicameral Parliament. I would like the public to have a more constant reminder of the vast amount of serious scrutiny that is undertaken in this House. I suggest we explore the possibility and practicality of establishing a dedicated TV channel, whereby the business of this House can be projected more effectively.
I say all that, which is probably enough, without mentioning R&R, which I am sure might come up in the rest of our debate.
My Lords, I share the previous speaker’s nervousness, faced with, as we were told, the stars of this House; I feel that I am a minor asteroid, perhaps. I put my name down on the list because I wanted to listen and perhaps ask an occasional question. One thing I have learned is that, if you come to a debate, it is a good idea to put your name down, just in case. That will not prevent me making some points.
Obviously, I am a newcomer—I have been here just over a year. In some ways, perhaps that is an advantage, because I see the House in a different light. The governance of the House is certainly a mystery to me. One problem is that it lies between different words—governance, management, administration—without us being clear as to how the terms differ and what exactly each of them means.
However, I have had the advantage of serving on the Finance Committee for a year, which provides an overall insight into the work of the House; I hope that I have gained something from that. I have also read the useful Library paper; it tells us interesting things and is also interesting for what it does not tell us—I will come to that in a minute. I would be particularly interested to hear whether noble Lords have views on where the Library paper has got it wrong.
I have three specific points to make. First, I am still puzzled by the role and functions of the Chief Operating Officer. I wonder whether there is any news on the appointment. It is notoriously difficult to insert a new post into an established structure because the existing postholders all have their interests and power relationships. Someone coming in, potentially from outside, will always be difficult. It is perhaps literally our own version of “Game of Thrones”, since we have thrones—that is a little joke.
What I have never really understood—perhaps it has never been spelled out sufficiently—is why having this role is a clear criticism of how things were before. I am not aware of anywhere where those criticisms are clearly set out. It would be useful to know what they are. It is also worth noting that the Chief Operating Officer will have the title of “deputy”. To me, that means a role that is equivalent to that of the chief. If someone is a deputy, they are not an assistant or another executive; they are someone who stands in for the chief. When you give someone that title, that is what you mean.
Secondly—and this point is missing from the Library briefing, so perhaps people could expand on it—there is hardly any reference to the usual channels. In truth, one suspects that much of the governance is undertaken through the usual channels, but those of us who are new or somewhat distant do not really get a look in. Decisions are taken but it is never entirely clear where they were taken and who took them.
Thirdly—I have plenty of time—we are told in the Library briefing that there are approximately 670 staff. They provide us with a significant reservoir of knowledge and experience but, judging from the Library briefing, they hardly exist. There is very little reference to the contribution that staff can make to the governance of the House, let alone any reference to the potential role that the trade unions that represent them could play. Perhaps the Senior Deputy Speaker could tell us a bit more about whether their absence from these discussions is an accurate reflection of their absence from any involvement in governance, or whether there is some hidden involvement.
There are two levels to the involvement of staff. In any organisation, managers and senior managers will be reluctant to distribute power to other levels within the organisation. But in a representative organisation where there are members being served, there is immense pressure on senior executives to be the sole channel of communication with the members; they will always want to be the sole means by which the staff express views to the members. I have experienced it in local government and in the trade union movement. I think that it is inevitable but, as Members here, does that serve us well? That is no criticism of the senior staff, but maybe there are ways of opening up channels of communication greater than just with the senior officials.
To conclude, I think that, generally, what we fail to achieve in the information that has been given to us is a distinction between the formal structure of administration and the shadow structure—how things are really run. The first remains a bit of a mystery but has become a bit clearer with these discussions; the second is still totally opaque.
My Lords, I have also been promoted somewhat up the batting order, as they say, but I will try to survive the first ball. The first thing that struck me about this debate is how one-sided it is. I believe that the noble Lord who has just spoken is the only Labour Party speaker we have; we do of course have my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who is a refugee from the Labour Party. We have virtually no Lib Dems—I can see one here, but maybe there is another. I just wonder whether we do not start off from the disadvantage of being rather biased in what we have got.
I have been here somewhat longer than the noble Lord who just spoke—not a huge amount of time; eight years—and I can tell him that I am as mystified as he is about how the place works in its essential parts. What I do notice is a crushing lack of any level of democracy in any part of any structure in this House. We vote for absolutely nothing among our peers. I begin with a straightforward criticism: I believe that that is one reason why none of the party leaders is sitting with us this afternoon. They owe nothing to us. None of the people who are the usual channels is voted for by any of the people who are ruled by these usual channels. That is a major disadvantage in trying to run and modernise the House.
My second point is that we certainly have a complex decision-making structure. I despair at what the Chief Operating Officer is going to do. We have, and we need, clear levels of responsibility within Parliament; in inserting another person—and of course we have just engaged a HR person—we seem to be putting in staff as an alternative to looking at the structure that we are dealing with.
I give two examples. From a very early stage in this building, I noticed that, for all the talk about its unrepresentative nature and everybody being London based, one reason for this could well be that no one who lives outside London gets an overnight allowance for staying in a hotel. I know that there were problems in the past—10 or 12 years ago—but many organisations have devised systems that are foolproof; for example, look at our Treasury and the Civil Service scheme, or the scheme I used to use when I worked in local government. You can devise systems. To me, it is utterly wrong that people should be asked to come down from Scotland, or from a long way away, at a different level of remuneration than applies to those who live in London or who, like me, can commute backwards and forwards to Cambridge—at, of course, a daily cost to the House—which is probably 50% of what they would spend if they had an allowance.
The main point I make is that I have been chasing this round for years. There is no way in which an ordinary Member of this House can table a resolution which is looked at anywhere. The most I have managed to achieve, having gone round the houses about three times, is being told “You’ll get nowhere with this until the Leader of the House is willing to put it on the agenda. And she’s not.” The first thing we need is a way for Members of this House to have an influence on the way that it is run—an ability to put proposals forward, to have them debated and to know what is happening.
My second point is this: the way in which we treat the Members who are no longer here is an absolute disgrace. People retire, they leave, and there is one line in Hansard, if they are lucky: “We would like to thank the noble Lord for all his service”. But there is no structure to keep them informed and there is no system of ever inviting them back once a year for a drink with the Speaker. Okay, they have certain dining rights, but there is no structure whereby we can know what happens to retired Members. It is completely left to chance. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, who was a friend of mine, died a few days ago. The Labour Whip told the Conservative Whip and it came out on our Whip, but there have been many instances where noble Lords have passed away and we have known nothing about it at all. If we have missed the day in the House, we probably have not even realised that much. I put it to the new Speaker that we should look at this. He offered to send his assistant to talk to me. This is not the way to treat Members of this House. We need a better structure going forward.
My third point is this: we need a way where an ordinary Member knows of someone or other in the administration who they can go to with virtually any problem that they have. I had 10 years in the European Parliament in a very obscure role called Chairman of the College of Quaestors. We were basically the complaints service, but people knew that they could come to us with any complaint and we would at least know where to go and where to push them. I used to manage it by walking around the building—it was called being on foot patrol, for those with a military background—and people would come up to me and give me their problems, and that is how we got round the freedom of information requests. I put it to noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord opposite, that we need a structure where Members of any grade can feel that there is someone or other who will be able to feed their concerns into the machine and come back to them with some sort of answer.
Those are a few thoughts. I hope they are of value and that I at least survived the first ball.
My Lords, I remind your Lordships of two comments made in our recent debate on procedures. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said:
“I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House for 20 years, but I have never found out who runs this place. I feel continually bounced. It is as though they have been to the Barnes Wallis bouncing school to get things through your Lordships’ House.”—[Official Report, 25/10/21; col. 526-27.]
The Noble Lord, Lord Kerr said:
“As a very young man, I worked in the Moscow embassy trying to find out what was going on in the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union. It was difficult, but it is as hard to find out in advance what is going to happen in the Procedure and Privileges Committee of this House.”—[Official Report, 25/10/21; col. 539.]
In spite of a noble attempt by the Senior Deputy Speaker to shed some light, I fear I am not sure if I am much wiser. By the way, I still think that a camel is a horse designed by committee.
The opaqueness referred to by those two distinguished Members of this House I have just mentioned did not matter so much when our self-governing House, its traditions and its way of doing things were respected. Recently, there has been a tendency to modernise for the sake of being modern, and to do so with little or no respect for the House and those symbols which not only underwrite the continuity of the House but in some cases are an important part of the way the House does things.
There is a strong case for modernisation where it is appropriate and where it makes an improvement. For example, an efficient IT service is a modernisation which is a great improvement to the good running of the House, with no disturbance to your Lordships or deterioration to the well-being of all concerned. Assuming it is well implemented, it is a huge addition for one and all.
I respectfully suggest that getting rid of wigs and court dress is the exact opposite. Court dress and wigs transform the clerk from another person we all know and see around the House to an officer of this House, with the corresponding authority and respect. To sneak in the present dress under the cover of Covid, and with no authority from the House, is unacceptable. If whoever took this decision believes that getting rid of the symbolic dress would enhance the reputation of the House by making it appear more modern, they display a woeful case of misplaced navel-gazing and a lack of contact with the real world. They do not seem to understand that there is a value in tradition which is understood and appreciated throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, even if it is not appreciated by the metropolitan elite. If the argument for dressing down is so convincing, let it be put to the House.
Publishing Select Committee reports on a Wednesday—if you are lucky—or a Thursday, when many have left the House, and looking for approval the following Monday is a disgrace. To push the things through the House without time for the matter concerned to be considered properly does not give the House a chance to take a thoughtful view.
In recent years, the job specification for Black Rod was altered and two jobs created where the one job had worked perfectly well for as long as anyone can remember. Is this a job creation scheme of the sort we read about in “Parkinson’s Law”? The change to Black Rod’s role meant that a Director of Facilities was thought to be needed. Delightful as the individual is, I have to say that things worked perfectly well before that appointment, and the food was both better and cheaper. I dare say that the Director of Facilities is not directly responsible for catering, but could somebody please take a lesson from the other place, where the food is half the price and twice as good?
The place of your Lordships in this House is being consistently downgraded. I will not take up more of your Lordships’ time by going through the many examples of this—we would be here for a very long time. What used to be there to support your Lordships has acquired a life of its own. Those whom the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Kerr, found so mysterious have become the all-important element of this House. Enhancing and enlarging their role seems to have become their prime purpose. Providing support for the work of your Lordships should be the raison d’être of all those employed in this House. If it is not, what are they here for? It is worth noting that it is a characteristic of an organisation in decline that it concentrates on increasing its top management unnecessarily.
My Lords, suffice it to say that I am sure nobody wants me to go through the very great number of changes made to our governance since I first came into your Lordship’s House, in 1999. The Senior Deputy Speaker has spoken of some of the more recent ones, of course. However, a reading of the really excellent briefing from our Library will give everyone the details they may need.
As the only virtual participant this afternoon, I really want to speak about my own experience, now that I am a virtual player. This has changed my perception of how we run ourselves. During the time—quite recently, really—when we were mostly participating through PeerHub and just a few Members were able to sit in the House, I was busily working away up in North Yorkshire, where I am at the moment, learning about Zoom and Teams, and doing my job as a Whip. This was very much harder remotely than being in the Chamber, where one could nip in and out and nudge colleagues to remind them when they should come in—or better, relay to them the messages from our office on whatever piece of business we were dealing with.
Many people thought that we were having a very easy time of it, sitting on our sofas, making cups of tea, et cetera. But the truth was that, as a Whip, one had to be alert to what was happening on the screen, at all times. I say “screen”, when in fact I was working, as I am today, on at least two screens: my desktop computer and my laptop for business in the Chamber and Grand Committee, and my iPad for the emails that were constantly coming in. Then there was the chat function in Teams. This was the crucial piece of information-sharing between the chair, the clerks, the Whips, et cetera. I held it constantly, as I scrolled between my own colleagues, telling them of any changes to the business, keeping in touch with the app and constantly responding to messages. My husband took a photograph of me one day, juggling all this information, so that I would remember it when things got back to normal.
As it happens, it never will now for me. I have been admitted to the House assistance scheme, which allows those of us unable, because of disability, to participate as fully in House business as possible. The incredible Digital Service has made this possible, so I now go through the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit when I want to participate. I put on record my huge thanks to it for the support and help it has given those few of us in this category. We simply could not have carried on without it.
In fact, we have all had to learn new skills since the beginning of the pandemic, and many people have worked extremely hard to ensure that we could all use these facilities when we needed to. So I ask the Senior Deputy Speaker: is all the infrastructure still in place in case we have to go back to some form of remote working? If not, how quickly might it be brought back into operation?
Another one of the many examples of how our work has changed is the programme instigated by our first Lord Speaker for Peers’ outreach, which asked Peers to go into schools to talk about our work with students. I was on the first working party that helped pull this together, and I have visited many schools in my region, thoroughly enjoying a Friday off to talk to the young people. The Lord Speaker’s office organised it all, and I very much looked forward to playing my part in educating them about what we do. That changed, and morphed into Learn with the Lords—an online communication with schools, which our excellent education unit runs. This has enabled many of us who participate in the programme to visit many more schools and, for me, a chance to go to parts of the country I would never have visited in the old days of the programme. In fact, on Monday, I am off to Exeter and, half an hour later, to Newcastle upon Tyne. This can be achieved only through the parliamentary communications unit, which I commend to your Lordships.
There are some glitches, of course, and after the debate we had the other day about how we should take things forward, I will watch with interest how Question Time in the House is dealt with; although it has to be better than it was the other week, when no less than three virtual speakers—I was one of them—came in one after the other, to the utter dismay of Members who were physically in the House and unable to ask their own questions before the time allowed was up. Now we are to wait until the eye of the Leader is caught and a signal sent from our Front Bench to indicate that one, or possibly two, of our virtual Members should be called. I am not at all sure how this can be achieved in a fair and equitable way, but time will tell, so I will not condemn it out of hand.
We virtuals have other rules to follow, which do not apply to those Members who are able to get into the Chamber, but I am pretty content to see how things develop. Once again, I am enormously glad that the House has accepted that disabled Peers can still participate in the work of the House. If we have learned anything from this wretched pandemic, it is that technology has enabled us to work in many different ways, which has, incidentally, saved the House quite a lot of money—certainly in my case—in travelling costs at least.
My Lords, the very helpful briefing provided by the Library for this debate under- lines what a mess your Lordships’ House is in. There have been reviews of the structure, governance and administration of the House almost constantly for the last 30 years. They have increasingly focused on managerialism at all levels of the House, but it is far from clear that any of them have made our House more efficient or more effective, and I have not seen any cost-benefit analyses on either an ex ante or an ex post basis. What is clear, however, is that cumulatively they have served to increase the distance between the Members of your Lordships’ House and how the House is run. The reviews have never focused on what the House is about or what would make it carry out its functions better. Rather, they have become ever-more elaborate deckchair rearrangements, and we should be in no doubt that they have driven the costs of your Lordships’ House up.
During this accretion of change and reorganisation, we seem to have lost sight of the defining feature of the House: that it is a self-regulating House—or at least it was in the past. That should be the guiding star which leads us forward. We should look at each change, whether in the pipeline now or proposed for the future, through the lens of whether it enhances or impairs Members’ involvement in the House. I generally believe that we should not go back and seek to recreate the past. The past never was as glorious as we remember it, and not all change is bad or unwelcome. We must set our eyes on the future and work to improve things.
I believe that the weaknesses that we should focus on are threefold. First, we should ensure that the commission, together with all the committees and structures that sit beneath it, genuinely acts on behalf of the Members of your Lordships’ House and is accountable to the House. It is not superior to Members; it should resist the temptation to issue edicts and it must be more transparent. Its modus operandi needs to include far more genuine consultation with Members.
Secondly, we need to be clear about the relative roles of the administration and the Members of your Lordships’ House. I believe we have lost sight of the fact that the administration exists to serve the House and its Members. Some of this can be laid at the door of the various reviews, but I suspect that the problems go deeper than that. How did it come to pass that the clerks abandoned court dress and wigs in the Chamber of your Lordships’ House without the House’s authority, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising? How did the clerks’ furniture at the table in our Chamber get replaced with chairs that belong in a call centre? What lay behind the shift from the customary address of noble Lords collectively as “My Lords”, which we ourselves use, to the more demotic “Dear all”? These may be small things individually, but they are symbols, and symbols are often more powerful than structures and rules.
Thirdly, Members, particularly Back-Bench Members, need to be more involved in decision-making. This is partly about consultation, to which I have already referred, but we also need to look at how the appointments of Members to the key committees are made—whether we can get better Back-Bench involvement through the existing appointment mechanisms or whether those mechanisms themselves need to be reformed.
A part of me wants to review the effectiveness of some of the structures created in recent years. Is the commission adding value? Why does it have a remit of giving “political direction”, as the Library briefing tells us? Why do we have a Finance Committee as well as an Audit Committee? Is the Services Committee Member-focused? Does a slavish following of private sector governance by the inclusion of outsiders on both the commission and the management board achieve anything for the effectiveness of the House? I am in danger of setting up another series of reviews, but that would be the wrong solution and would not address the essence of our problems.
We need to become more focused on what Members do in your Lordships’ House and become Member-driven again. This means ensuring that our structures work for Members. But that does not need another review—it needs a paradigm shift.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords—I use that term advisedly, given our previous speaker—welcome back. I will endeavour to follow the excellent speeches we have had so far. I will focus on just one issue, highlighting the governance of the key decisions necessary to make progress on restoration and renewal. This cuts across both Chambers, but this is my opportunity as a Peer to raise it in this one. I should perhaps mention that I served until quite recently on the Finance Committee and am now on the Audit Committee. One of my first questions was indeed, as the previous speaker alluded to: why do we have two? But that is for another day.
The Members of the two Houses have the right to decide when, and even whether, to move out and let R&R get fully under way. I know that it would be heretical to question whether essential infrastructural, engineering and health and safety decisions such as these should be made in that way. I cannot bring to mind another public or private sector organisation where that would be the case.
In reserving that right, Members also need to be clear on their associated responsibility for the eye-watering costs being incurred in the interim by delays in the necessary decision-making. The R&R project bodies—the sponsor body and the delivery authority—are set up, staff are appointed and costs are being incurred, but the final decision on going ahead depends on decision-making by parliamentarians to fix conclusively whether or not they are even willing to move out.
I thought the matter had been voted on and settled months ago, but it appears that it will be considered once again and voted on in January. I am not going to stray into the financial implications of one or even both Houses refusing to move out. I simply note that this would very substantially increase R&R costs. My point today is simply this: it is about the money being wasted through delay. I believe that well over £100 million —in fact closer to £200 million—has so far been spent on R&R, despite it not having started and no intrusive surveys having yet taken place.
Substantial sums of public money—in the order of £10 million a month, I believe—will continue to be spent simply on maintaining these buildings and keeping them safe until they can be worked on, for example, keeping the sewerage system going and the fire precautions updated. Much of this expenditure will be nugatory, which is to say that it will not be part of the R&R transformation but is required simply to keep the place ticking over until a decision is made by Parliament and R&R goes ahead in the form that it decides. I believe that not all who govern this decision—nor their constituents, in the case of MPs—are fully aware of the costs that are now being run up in this way. I therefore ask the Senior Deputy Speaker to obtain these figures, which are publicly available, and bring them to daylight. Can he bring further attention to this governance bottleneck? I urge both Houses to exercise their governance roles in this area to enable a speedy and conclusive resolution.
My Lords, in the six years since I was introduced to your Lordships’ House, I have come to appreciate even more than I already did what a truly amazing institution it is. However, I have also come to appreciate that one particular aspect of our governance represents a real reputational risk that we need urgently to address so that we can focus on the important procedural issues that other noble Lords have rightly mentioned.
We talk a good talk on tackling disability inequality in the laws that we pass, but the sad fact is that we do not walk the walk in how we treat our disabled Members. Indeed, I suggest that the public would be shocked by the extent to which our governance perpetuates disability inequality here in Your Lordships’ House. We may have passed into law the duty to make reasonable adjustments because of disability but one would never know that from our governance and the way in which your Lordships’ House operates.
Let me provide two examples. In any other professional environment, the fact that I had to learn to talk again and now live with a speech difficulty following life-saving neurosurgery would prompt questions about whether I needed extra time to speak, but not here. I blame no individual for the system we have inherited, but that does not remove responsibility from those who now have the power to change a system that is fundamentally unfair and discriminatory.
As noble Lords may know, I live with brittle bones. In every sphere in which I worked until I joined your Lordships’ House, including the private sector, I knew that I would be supported if I needed to take time off to recover from a fracture. However, the harsh reality of serving in your Lordships’ House is that, if I broke my leg later today and had to have surgery that necessitated weeks of being incapacitated, I would be completely on my own. For the first time in my professional life, I would be entirely without financial security because the unfair, discriminatory presumption is that not only would I not have a disability that incurred such financial risk but I would have the independent financial means to support myself. I do not. Just when I would be at my most vulnerable because of my disability and possibly unable to contribute, even remotely, to the business of the House for several weeks, your Lordships’ House would effectively wash its hands of me.
My Lords, there is another Division in the House. The Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, although I have never encountered such systemic disability discrimination before, I do believe in self-regulation. But I also believe we need to recognise where the reputational risk of self-regulation outweighs the benefits. Trying to self-regulate on disability discrimination when we have already passed legislation on it is a no-win situation. It is simply a gift for the critics of your Lordships’ House, because it says that there is one rule for them and another for everyone else. I am sure none of us needs reminding at the current time how well that goes down with the public. The current situation with regards to the treatment of disabled Members of your Lordships’ House gives self-regulation a bad name. If we want to protect the reputation of this wonderful House, which I do, we should stop applying self-regulation to this particular matter.
We have a choice. Do we begin the new year in breach of the disability discrimination legislation that we ourselves have passed, or does the House of Lords Commission use its meeting next week to extricate your Lordships’ House from this totally invidious position and make clear that we recognise we have a moral duty to be a beacon of best practice, rather than an exception to it?
In conclusion, that is why I urge the commission to commit unequivocally to respect and apply both the letter and the spirit of disability discrimination legislation to disabled Members of your Lordships’ House, with immediate effect. Let us remove this shameful, invidious aspect from our governance, and thereby achieve a goal we all share: to ensure our governance protects and strengthens, rather than undermines, this amazing institution.
My Lords, I am pleased indeed to follow my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, who I am sure all noble Lords here presently admire greatly. His contribution to this House belies any notion of his disability whatever. I am also delighted to be able to thank my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker for his speedy response to our debate on 25 October. It was quite a passionate debate and, I think, a difficult one for the House, but the Senior Deputy Speaker responded speedily by withdrawing the recommendation, and the Prince’s Chamber was soon back to normal, with the Pugin tables in their place and the pass readers—placed there for the possibility of their being used for ballots—removed.
This debate itself was a commitment made as a result of that debate. I do not know about other noble Lords but I have found that the excellent briefing from the Library just confirms my understanding that I really do not understand how this House is governed, administered or, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, said, managed. Management is perhaps a missing ingredient of that document, because this is about management as much as anything, and management that affects the Members of this House.
We have, as a result of the debate and yet another report, moved to a change to Oral Questions, which I think has been generally welcomed by noble Lords as being much more real, lively and spontaneous than it was. I think that is a good decision made by the committee and approved by the House.
My noble friend referred to Member-led governance. I wish it were so, but I do not believe that this House does have Member-led governance. If one looks at the way in which we decide matters in this House, there is no sense that suggestions are presented to the House before decisions are made on them. Usually, committees are presented with suggestions, they make a decision and then the House has to approve it. It may be that any other system would be time-consuming and difficult, but I cannot believe that it is impossible for the structures of this House to consult Members more about changes that are being envisaged. Such changes affect us in our daily life in this place and they affect the happiness of this House. I believe that this House functions best when it is content with itself, when it is collegiate in its decision-making and when it is scrutinising legislation and feels it is doing something positive in its democratic role.
I was, for five years, a member of the usual channels, and a pretty active one. I tried to be—I hope I was—effective in that task, but I never really got to grips with what is in this briefing. In many cases it is so arcane, so complex and so difficult to understand exactly what each individual part does in contribution to each other. For example, the external members of the commission are appointed by the management board through “fair and open competition”. What is the application? How does one become an external member of this House? What is the fair and open competition? Who actually selects the individuals through that fair and open competition?
When one analyses it at depth, one sees that that is a feature that no doubt goes throughout a lot of other things. Take, for example, the Chief Operating Officer appointment. He is not even mentioned in this diagram—I am sorry to use a visual aid, but noble Lords can see the chart in the Library briefing for themselves. There is no mention of the Chief Operating Officer and where he fits into this structure. He is yet another cog in the machine. This motor—this device that is the governance, administration and management of this House—is so complex that I do not believe any of us fully understands it, even those of us who have participated, or do participate, in its processes.
I believe that this has weakened our ability as a House to cope with things such as R&R and the threat that the House of Commons perhaps wants to remain in the Palace of Westminster. This would mean it moving out of its Chamber into ours; we would have to stay elsewhere while its Chamber and ours are done up, so we could be out of this House for 15 years or so. That may be a rumour, but we are not very well qualified to deal with it.
In my view, this is an overdue debate. I believe that we should have plenty of opportunity to discuss these matters during the daily course of our lives in this place.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow our former Chief Whip, who has become much more benign—even cuddly—than he was in the old days. I thank my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker for organising this debate so rapidly. However, as others have commented, I am extremely surprised that, although our present Chief Whip was here at the beginning and has been throughout, the Lord Speaker and the Leader of the House are not here—I beg your pardon. I do apologise; I did not see the Leader of the House there earlier.
I was in a Cabinet meeting, so I am afraid that I had to miss the start of the debate.
I completely apologise; I probably missed her because of her mask.
I think that this is one of the most important debates I have attended since I joined the House some 31 years ago. Taking into account our rapid recovery from Covid-19, the fast-changing and dangerous world in which we live and the extraordinary advance of science and technology, I feel that the consideration of today’s debate is most timely. This House is considered to be the finest revising Chamber in the world, and all those serving on these committees do this House great credit. However, we have sadly lost public trust, and that goes for the other place as well. The City of London is in a similar position. As one of the greatest democracies in the world, it is vital that both institutions use every endeavour to regain that trust.
I publicly thank Michael Torrance, the clerk in Simon Burton’s office, for producing so rapidly this rather splendid Library briefing. It is an extraordinary piece of work. I have to say, personally, I learned much of which I was totally unaware. The sheer complexity of all the committees on which a great number of people serve is heavily intertwined with the other place.
We are very fortunate to have Simon Burton as our Clerk of the Parliaments, who provides us with wise procedural and constitutional advice. His knowledge has been acquired over many years, as he has served in many parliamentary roles. Many Peers here will remember that there was an extraordinary move to find someone from outside this House for this role; I was involved with others to stop such an unsuitable appointment taking place. This causes me to follow through what my noble friend Lord Haselhurst and others have commented on: the appointment of the new COO. This came up over a year and a half ago, by the way. I wanted information about what was being sought and what was being said publicly and put out, but initially I was totally refused it. It just so happened that I knew the senior partner of the headhunters; he kindly put me in the picture.
It caused me a huge problem at that stage when the point was built up that somebody with that background or a lack of knowledge about this place could be considered for the deputy. That is very concerning indeed. I will go even further. We were told a few weeks ago that he would also have political involvement. Nobody has as yet explained to me what “political” actually means.
To return to this document, like many organisations of such standing, an array of committees nearly always seems to create silos, major bureaucracy, cost and, worst of all, major delays, causing great frustration. Some months ago, it was publicly stated in our House that its governance should change. All employed on our estate and the service committees should report to, work for and service the peerage. During the pandemic, one was in touch, in many cases on Zoom, with many who served us during those difficult times. They were and are outstanding. They are splendid people. Nothing was too much bother, and I must say that the security and the police have been excellent.
When we all had the honour of being asked to become a Member of this House, we swore the oath of allegiance to serve Her Majesty the Queen and serve her in Parliament. Governance change would help us to use our best endeavours to serve the people of this country.
Many Peers have come from the other place with great experience. Many have served in senior ministerial roles. Many of us have not had a specific political background but have served and still serve in the most senior roles in the worldwide private sector, and of course in other key areas such as defence, medicine and the law. Might I say that we bring a touch of wisdom? As was stated in the House the other day, our role, when appropriate, is to hold the Government in power to account. We must use this combined experience and expertise in what I believe is our other key role of quiet influence to help the highly talented people in the other, elected Chamber to carry out their responsibilities.
Finally, early yesterday morning, I spoke to two of the key seniors in the other place, who are in absolute agreement that such a change in governance is of vital importance to them. They asked me to mention this to noble Lords today. I hope that my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker feels that such a change in governance, while retaining tradition, will be beneficial to both Houses, thereby enhancing the reputation and influence of the mother of Parliaments worldwide in the years to come.
My Lords, I beg to differ with my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Sterling, that this by any benchmark is the “finest revising Chamber in the world”. I am not sure what the benchmark is. Perhaps we should put whether we should continue to the people by referendum. I recall several hundred votes against the people’s will on Brexit. That was not revising; that was hard politics. It was duplicating the role of the House of Commons, yet there was vote after vote after vote.
To be perfectly honest, having come here from the Commons, my observation is that the level of debate here is often as dismal as it is there because it is a replication. Our amendments are often replications. I am looking for the “revising” and I am seeing the political challenges in an unelected House. I have had plenty of disagreements with the Government but I am not elected here. There is the option to be elected in the House of Commons and, for better or worse, the people decide things. This is a gentleman’s club—although the one development over the years is that it now allows women in, so perhaps it is more accurately described as a private club. The only thing lacking from the traditions of the House in this debate is the brandy and cigars, with a butler to serve them.
There needs to be a level of reality. I suspect that nobody here would second a resolution for us to have a referendum to abolish this place. What vote would we get? It would be the overwhelming consensus of the British people that we should go. Frankly, the only problem would be those people who do not bother to vote; they would certainly be the majority because, a bit like with police and crime commissioners, most people care so little about us they would not even bother to vote to get rid of something they regard as irrelevant to their lives.
So what should we, as a non-elected Chamber that is bad at revising, do? We should change the way we think about this place. Who is debating the big changes in society? The Commons does not; it never finds the time or structure to do that. We are about to move to a society with cryptocurrencies and virtually no cash; it is one of the biggest social changes in our lifetime. Where is the debate on that? I do not mean debate for an hour, two hours or three hours—I mean weeks and weeks of it. Then there is the internet and how we cope with it. It should not be through party-political or government programmes and resolutions; we must think it through. Is that not where the expertise of those of us present and the rest of the House could contribute significantly on behalf of the country? I put it to your Lordships that that expertise is precisely why people are put in here, and yet we pretend to be a revising Chamber.
Even when it comes to managing the place, frankly, it is a nonsense that, in this Covid nightmare, I and everyone else have to go into the Chamber to try to ask a Question when we had a perfectly good system that allowed people to be selected to go in and reduced the number of people in the Chamber at any one time—I would call that a health strategy for this House. I thought that the voting system that was rejected, which led to this debate taking place, was excellent. But oh no, having a system where one could go through and vote by machine, paid for at great expense, is not for unelected Members.
This is the only private club where you do not pay to join but are paid to attend. Yet noble Lords believe it is valid that we get sound advice on a matter such as that but it is then for us, the Members, to choose whether we should have this, that or the other thing. It is a bit like Yorkshire County Cricket Club. It survived for 200 years and its members ran it but one day, oops, it is in disintegration. It may not even survive; it probably will, but only by cleaning out the stable, as the public might put it.
I do not think that we need that here. We have to wise up to where the world is at. Who runs this place? I will tell you: the Whips run it. There were 804 committee members when I last counted, and four of them are non-affiliates. I happen to be one of them—that is why I did the count, not that I am bothered about being on a committee. Non-affiliates make up 10% of the House, but only four out of the 800 committee members. It is the Whips who decide things. There is more power for the Whips here than there is in the Commons. It is a different kind of system—for example, they cannot force people to vote and there is no re-election—but the power is just the same.
As members of a private club, paid to attend, we should have a management structure. The only sponsor we could get for this building would be the Wildlife Trusts, given the amount of wildlife that wanders round the corridors—the mice, the rats—because this decrepit building needs an overhaul. I think the people of York are celebrating that we have chosen not to burden ourselves on them, but of course we should get out and let this building be modernised. It is not fit for the last century, never mind this one. If that is the professional advice, we should take it.
We should be embracing technology and having the big debates on the big issues. I do not mean that we should give away our revising powers—do not get me wrong—but let us not pretend that the majority of the votes in here are about improving legislation through revising it, because we know they are not. They are about party politicking and challenging legislation. I have been a party politician all my life, so I love that kind of thing, but it does not seem to me to be the fundamental role of this place. Let us have it properly managed. Let us move with the times. Perhaps then, we might even survive.
My Lords, it will be very difficult to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mann. I do not think he and I have been in a debate before and I have to say that I agree with much of what he said and I disagree with much of what he said. But I think that, very early in his career in your Lordships’ House, he is in danger of slipping into his own anecdotage; I hope he will be rescued from that.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to have the Senior Deputy Speaker speaking to us and replying on behalf of the administration. It is very early in his career, and therefore I hope he recognises the tremendous interest in this subject, signalled by the number of people who have bothered to come along on a Wednesday afternoon to share with him, in the privacy of this Room—and perhaps a bit wider—their views on the state of this House and particularly its governance.
First, let me give a bit of philosophy about this House. What are we? As a House of Parliament, we are a unique institution. We have unique rhythms, responsibilities and needs. The House cannot be run by those people who are insensitive to its nature, nor by those who invoke any new fashionable strand from some management school—that way madness lies.
In a way, the long list in the Library briefing of all the reviews that have taken place over the last 20 years leads me to believe that there has been a collective loss of confidence by the administration itself. So I want to say something very positive about the clerks of this House, who do a magnificent job and have done for as long as I have been in this House. It is that combination of intelligence, expertise and hard work that makes it so good, and they have learned about us as we have learned about him. It is no accident that the Clerk of the Parliaments himself was once my private secretary—I regard that as being a very good thing. Before he was my private secretary, he was private secretary to the Chief Whip of the then Labour Government. That shows how you need to have people steeped in the culture of the House of Lords, rather than bringing people in from outside who will never be able to learn or understand what we are all about. We are different from a local authority or a cricket club, or practically any other organisation in this country, apart, perhaps, from the House of Commons.
I am sorry that I interrupted the Senior Deputy Speaker in his opening remarks, but it struck me that at no point was he talking about the Members, and I wanted to say a little something about service. We are here to try to serve the needs of the nation and legislation and the great debates of today. We come here and expect a service to be provided, so that we can go about our business as effectively as possible. We have wonderful staff in this House, from the doorkeepers who greet us to the catering staff who provide us with food—it is absolutely magnificent. But there is a sense, over the course of the last few years, of an increased bureaucracy that makes everything much more leaden than it once was. My noble friend Lady Noakes talked about the chairs that have suddenly been changed: they are cheap and nasty chairs, rather than the magnificent chairs we had in the past. None of this is done with any consultation or any feel for the fabric and fibre of how this House actually operates.
I wholly understand that Covid has been the biggest challenge that this House has had to face for very many years. It has come through it admirably, and we have been able to continue our work, so everything I say about the organisation needs to be seen through that prism. I hope that, one day, we will be over all that has happened and can get back to the kind of House that we had before.
I mentioned the organisational chart earlier. It is a very pretty picture with lots of little boxes and beautiful arrows that go all over the place, and at the bottom there is a sign that says “represents”. I thought “Aha! Here we are. We’re going to talk about the Members of the House”, but it does not. It talks about another range of sub-committees. At no point does it reflect the people in this House whom it is here to serve.
On the apparition of lay members on some of our most senior committees, you have to spend so much time trying to explain to them why things are done in a particular way and getting them to understand the workings of the House that I see no merit in having lay members of the House for a short amount of time to try to learn about us and give us some sort of non-executive expertise. This House just does not need non-executive expertise; if anything, we are a House of non-executives. We all bring so much experience from other aspects of our lives.
I shall take up the point made very well by my noble friend Lady Noakes about the political direction of the House. It is in the terms of reference of the commission. I thought that political direction was rather directed by other people, not by the House of Lords Commission. It certainly should not be.
There are small and trivial points to make about the catering department which I will not bother to do at the moment, except to say that there used to be an excellent system where many of us who asked for it were billed monthly by direct debit. It was an extremely good system. It has been done away with, for no reason that anybody can understand, including the poor old staff, who shrug their shoulders and say that the decision was not made there. Who made the decision? We do not know. That is one example.
We are a special House. We need to be treated specially. I am not looking for great answers today from the Senior Deputy Speaker, but I hope that in his deliberations over the festive season he will think carefully about the representations made today.
How sweet of you to say so. My noble friend said this is a special place. I would describe this House as an unusual place—in fact, I usually describe it as rather weird to friends of mine. In that, I much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mann. It is extremely unusual. However, it also does some rather good work, and I mention that because the noble Lord, Lord Mann, was rather hard on the House. For instance, the recent amendment tabled by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, about sewage in rivers has changed the way the Government are dealing with sewage in rivers. Similarly, my noble friend Lord Moylan’s amendment on hate crimes may yet change the way the police deal with them.
Who runs the House? The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said that the commission is the ambassador for the work of the House and one or two other things. That left me slightly confused. It does not seem that it runs the House. However, I shall focus on the Ellenbogen inquiry report. Paragraph 24 states:
“the House of Lords is a self-regulating house; power ultimately resting with its members”.
You could have slightly fooled me. It is a very thorough report. It goes on for 131 pages with appendices. It is an inquiry into bullying and harassment in the House of Lords. Those who have been here longer than me may disagree, but I am not entirely clear what the problem was that she was trying to identify. I will look at the evidence in the report. Of course we would like to hope that all of us, every Member of this House and, indeed, every member of society behaves properly. Sadly, we also know that they do not, some, as described in this report at para 167, because of “declining health”, which is a bit of a euphemism, frankly. We all know what she means and, short of a medical order, it is difficult to instruct people in declining health to retire. Perhaps we could look at that, but it is another matter.
The report deals with misbehaviour. I say to the clerks listening to this that a lot of the junior staff complain about their line managers telling them what to do and not listening to their ideas when, the report assumes, the junior staff must know better than those who are more experienced. However, I want to focus on the Peers who misbehave. Largely, we talk about discourtesy and some sexual harassment; again, declining health may come in, particularly for the latter. The report talks about elderly offenders; usual suspects are also discussed. It is sad and an embarrassment to us all. They are described as “creepy”, which they are, but that is hardly unique to Parliament and it applies to a very small number of people.
Of course this should be addressed—it has been, up to a point, and I think we would all strive to help with that—but, on Members’ conduct towards staff, I quote paragraph 159:
“With depressing predictability, the same members of the House were named by contributor after contributor”.
Paragraph 160 says that another person told Naomi Ellenbogen:
“‘It makes my skin crawl when people say “M’Lord”’.”
If that is the case, that person is possibly working in the wrong place. When I was in the Army on the streets of Belfast, I used to call all the people in west Belfast, many of whom might have wanted to kill me, “Sir” and “Madam” because that is the easy way to do it. When I talked to constituents in the other place I would also call them “Sir” and “Madam”, largely because I could never remember their names. If you went to a decent shop, such as Waitrose—or, dare I say, Lidl—you would expect people to be polite to you and probably still call you “Sir” or “Madam”.
I suggest that we need to read the comments on which the Ellenbogen report is based because out of it came the Valuing Everyone training, which is mandatory and for which several people have left the House. The venerable 90 year-old Baroness, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, was threatened with discipline. I did it—I am sure that we all did—and found it surprisingly entertaining, funnily enough. With me were a former Prime Minister and a man who is a friend but whom I knew for his behaviour from when I was a Whip in the other place. On at least one occasion he was complained about for being incredibly rude to a police officer, but there was also a pattern so it did not happen just once. I fear that he is the sort of person to which this sort of training is directed, but he got every answer to every question absolutely right. Do you think it worked? Do you think it will change his behaviour? I very much doubt it.
Frankly, I fear that the training was a complete waste of time. A nice person was doing it—she told me that she had been in equality training for 20 years—but what good did it do? I ask the Senior Deputy Speaker: how much did it cost? Was it properly put out to tender? What specific qualifications did Naomi Ellenbogen have when she was selected? Finally, on the Valuing Everyone training, are we going to have to do “appropriate refresher training” every three years, as the report says? I really think that it is nonsense.
Above all, I come back to this point: who is responsible for all this? It is rather embarrassing and demeaning, not to individuals like me but to the House, not to know who is running and responsible for things. In paragraph 221, the report recommends appointing a director-general—we now have the Chief Operating Officer—but this is just bureaucratic job creation, as was mentioned by—
Well, by my noble friend Lord Howard, but yes, by everybody else. Lead administration is better than top-heavy administration. I have seen that throughout my life. You need a streamlined administration so that you have fewer chiefs, fewer expensive staff and offices supporting them, less duplication and fewer meetings. Frankly, you also have less cost and quicker decisions. I fear that the way this House is going is the wrong way, as my noble friend Lord Howard said. It is a sign of a declining institution when you start having burgeoning bureaucracy. As my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said, we need to have confidence in this House and sort out who runs it and who is accountable.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Robathan, with whose every remark I strongly agree. I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for introducing this important debate. It is clear that there has been growing unhappiness expressed by many noble Lords as to how the House is run and how decisions are taken. I recognise how difficult it has been to operate the House during the pandemic; credit is rightly due to those who worked hard to ensure that the hybrid House could continue to perform its essential roles of scrutinising legislation and trying to hold the Government to account. We had all hoped that the pandemic would be behind us by now but, alas, the omicron variant has delayed the removal of the remaining precautionary measures. However, I am optimistic that the mutated virus causes infections no more serious than those with which we are accustomed to living anyway, without having to restrict personal freedoms, which the British people will not stand for.
I have always believed that your Lordships’ House is self-regulating, and that decisions to change working practices and the way we do things happen only when supported by a clear majority and after proper debate. Many decisions during the last 21 months have been taken at very short notice and generally without any serious debate. In many cases, it has not been clear who took a decision or when it was taken. Before the establishment of the commission, responsibility was believed to rest in the hands of the Leader of the House, who would operate through the usual channels to determine whether there was support for a particular measure. That is described in the External Management Review, conducted by Keith Leslie, as “leadership by convention”. The review found that your Lordships’ House is “stuck in the middle” between that system and a transparent system of accountability. I fear that accountability for decisions is now even more opaque than it was when Mr Leslie published his review.
There appears to have been a continuing gradual accretion of power to the commission, but that is chaired by the Lord Speaker, who is not accountable to the House. I do not understand why it is not chaired by the Leader, who is so accountable. Furthermore, I do not understand why or how the commission could possibly be responsible for the political direction of the House, as already mentioned by my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lord Strathclyde. I understand that certain changes to our modus operandi were necessary as a result of the pandemic, but I had understood that the House would revert completely to the status quo ante, from which position we could consider carefully whether we wished to introduce any of those, or other changes, on a permanent basis.
In particular, as my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising has already told the Committee, I was given to understand that the clerks would return to their traditional uniforms of court dress and wigs once the need to maintain the hybrid House had passed. I welcome the fact that the clerks have again adopted a uniform, but it is not the same as what they wore before the pandemic. I believe that the clerks should return to their traditional uniforms and not make changes on a permanent basis without a decision by the House. That may not be the most important concern of your Lordships, but the manner in which the decision to change the uniforms was made has upset many.
Similarly, as has already been referred to, the decision by the Services Committee to discontinue the monthly accounts on the grounds that we are not compliant with the payment card industry data security standards is very strange, because other membership organisations with similar numbers of members appear to have had no difficulty whatever in becoming compliant. It is extraordinary that this matter was not quickly rectified months ago.
Many of your Lordships share my preference for the old writing paper. I was told that the old, embossed paper was too expensive, but I believe that the quantity we use today is greatly reduced in this digital age and, on the occasions when we do still need to use it, quality and appearance are important.
As for the changes to the catering facilities and the dining rooms, I understand that some Peers like the present use of the Members’ part of the Peers’ Dining Room as the Bishops’ Bar, but it has no bar. Also, to some extent, it duplicates the Peers’ Guest Room in function. Moving the long table to the guests’ part of the Peers’ Dining Room means that the long table is now clearly visible and audible to guests, which I think is undesirable.
I also refer to the Code of Conduct, which seems to lengthen inexorably at an alarming rate. The inclusion of the requirement to attend “Valuing Everyone” training opens the code to ridicule and resentment.
The need to appoint Tellers greatly restricts frivolous Divisions. Their wands bestow authority. Voting should return to the Lobbies exclusively at an early date.
I shall not labour the House by repeating other changes to which noble Lords have referred, but I ask the Senior Deputy Speaker to act on the opinions of many noble Lords and agree with the Leader, the Lord Speaker, the Clerk of the Parliaments and others a return in all respects to the status quo ante, from which position any permanent changes should be adequately debated and approved before implementation.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker for tabling this debate and declare my interest as a partner of the Shaftesbury Partnership, which is exploring some of the tools for governance that I will mention in my speech.
As is right with this House, given its rich and long history as an essential part of our unwritten constitution, it is normal to expect it to flex as times and needs change, while rightly maintaining our traditions. This is no different when it comes to how it is itself governed. I fear, however, that there is a tendency to start not by asking ourselves why we are here and what is the appropriate way to achieve that through governance, but by imposing management structures, dress, furniture and approaches more common in, say, the business world as part of modernisation; or by putting in place training, codes of conduct and rules, as others have mentioned, to counter the caricature of our being a House that is outdated, costly and not always honourable.
As a result, we sometimes forget that we exist primarily to revise legislation or, to put it more plainly, to help make better laws. Our internal governance in both the Chamber and committees, as well as all the support and management of this building and the operations that enable us to do what we do, ought always to flow from that mission: to make better laws. By this yard-stick, on one level, we are doing a pretty good job. At least a third of the amendments we suggest to the other place are accepted and, at the last count, our costs, if you think of us in terms of being around 300 to 400 full-time equivalent lawmakers, are equivalent to those of many other Parliaments around the world. Given that many of us are part-time, it is not off the scale. I do not think that our comparison to the Chinese Parliament is fair as it meets only a few weeks a year.
To top it all off, we are actually quite innovative, despite appearances—not least if you go way back to the idea of being an advisory Chamber to the sovereign or, today, to the Executive and to the other place, but also in the way we discuss and amend laws. As I first observed when I arrived a decade ago, we are a kind of legislative Wikipedia, where we as Peers operate a bit like editors and moderators when we are working at our best. Of course, our adoption of remote voting has in fact allowed us to leapfrog the other place by enabling wider participation, whether during lockdown or after, and to enable information to flow better to help us all make better decisions. This is something to celebrate, not be ashamed of, as long as it helps us make better laws.
Where do we need to improve? Other Peers have mentioned matters relating to the administration of the place and how it could be more transparent and consultative so I will not focus on them, except to ask how they help us make better laws rather than just being reactions to the latest set of media attacks.
There is an area we need to improve: how much our laws are actually used in the courts and deployed for the benefit of the public. Recent analysis indicates that a good number of laws passed by this House and the other place, especially those forced through using statutory instruments, delegated powers, and other Executive measures, were not used at all, or not much, on the ground or in the courts. If you take that as an output as part of an outcome—the better governance of the realm—then input all the debates, speeches and work that we carry out, and the money spent supporting what we do across both our own and the other House, you could argue that there is room to improve.
I have not done the calculation but I suggest that this would come down to several million pounds per law actually used. You might do this calculation every 10 years on a rolling average to take account of laws that get dropped by the Government or courts if they are not useful. Everything we do could flow from this one metric, which you could then optimise based on the quality of laws, the cost of the administration and our allowances leading to the laws and how many get actually used. Ultimately, it is about how much we involve the public, experts, lawyers and judges—whose disappearance from this place I truly lament—to increase the chances of laws working and being used.
We need to build on the success that is born out of innovation. What can be done to improve the chances of us making better laws more efficiently? Strangely, it is not the hours of speeches in the Chamber that improve our hit rate, as it were, nor, I would argue, how we were appointed or elected or in how many codes of conduct we have and how representative we are. Wikipedia does not elect its moderators and is essentially self-governed, like us. Its moderators are not measured by speaking time in chambers, but they seem to create a pretty good encyclopaedia for relatively little cost.
We need to build on the success born out of the innovations in governance that enabled us to be one of the first Parliaments—the mother of Parliaments, in fact—and the first in the land to vote remotely. We ought to partner with the likes of Jimmy Wales to create our own legislative Wiki, which could enable Peers, and one day the public, to interact with draft laws, help shape priorities, suggest changes, predict what might work or not, and know what is being discussed at any one time and why. We ought to harness philanthropic resources and have virtual versions of our Chamber and committees—a Lords metaverse—so that people can learn more about what we do, virtually enact debates and law-making, and understand how we make our laws.
We ought to involve judges and experts in the public to help red-team our laws, supporting committees but kicking the tyres and sense-checking whether what we propose will work on the ground. Every law ought to be road-tested with the public, six months or a year after it has been passed, using technology such as swarm-based feedback, to check whether it is working and being used for the intended purpose. We should harness a rating system, a bit like Tripadvisor or Amazon, to rank laws to encourage a better hit rate.
Finally, I shall close by exploring what this focus on our mission to make good laws might imply in terms of our size. Many noble Lords know my view, which is that we should have a tenure-based system, not a cut-off by age but on the principle that, each time the Prime Minister appoints a Peer, he ought to be able to select from the 10 longest-serving Peers and invite one or two to retire. Over time, this could get us down to an optimal size. The question is how small we need to be in order still to make good laws. Again, if we follow the concept of our being a Wikipedia for law, the question would be how many domains of law we need to make laws on and how many experts we need to moderate those domains. Where there are domains such as STEM, where we are lacking expertise, that might help those nominating new Peers chose people to help fill the gap.
It is time we innovated again to govern well, while honouring what is working well.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wei. I very much agree with his desire to get greater public involvement in, understanding of and engagement with the operation of your Lordships’ House.
Today, we have the rare luxury of a seven-minute speaking slot, despite the subject, the operation of your Lordships’ House, being what some might dismiss uncharitably as navel-gazing—this being, as we are always told, the unelected House, limited in power and so unable to block the Government doing things, even when we know they are wrong. That is, of course, two minutes longer than we had yesterday to speak on the enormous changes to our NHS proposed in the Health and Care Bill.
I begin by apologising to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, and doing some violence to his division of governance, management and administration, by simply classifying three things into those groups. First, if we look at administration as being about the fabric of this place, we see that there are clearly issues. I am not terribly interested in them, because I think this place should be turned into what it clearly is—a museum—and we could get a new, modern, functional institution; Birmingham would be the obvious place.
On management, if we think about staff, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and say how wonderful I have found the staff in the Bill Office, the Table Office, the Library—I do not want to miss anyone out here—and the canteen, and the doorkeepers. So many staff are absolutely brilliant. Like the noble Lord, Lord Davies, I want to think about the unions, and I worry about how some of the staff are treated sometimes; I hope that the unions stand up for them.
That brings me to the third category, which is governance. I will focus on what are generally referred to as the usual channels, on which there was a short paragraph or two in the Library briefing. Given that we have quite some time, I thought I would step back and take a very long view that reflects my current reading: David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. It focuses particularly on the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic, with a reminder that people tens of thousands of years ago were just as intelligent and creative as we are today—they were biologically identical—and arguably more so, given that they did not have the foundation of the centuries of development on which we build. I do not fully have time to explore this fascinating issue—I definitely recommend a read—but the point I want to draw from it for our subject is that humans have created many different ways of getting together and making decisions. The authors, and many modern archaeologists, posit that we do not require hierarchical, rigid structures, or monarchs or aristocrats, to operate societies, just people gathering together and deciding new ways of doing things.
It is interesting that many have referred to your Lordships’ House being self-governing. That might, at least in theory, be what you would describe as an anarchist collective. In that frame, I will explore some possibilities for governance of your Lordships’ House, particularly regarding what is done by the usual channels. It struck me that we have structures very like those with which many nations and groups are now successfully experimenting: citizen’s or people’s assemblies—representative groups that seek to arrive at consensus decision-making, as has been done in the UK and France with the climate assemblies, in Ireland on the difficult issues of abortion and equal marriage, and in some local contexts in the UK, some organised by the Government. These are forms of deliberative democracy. They sound a little like the townhall meetings that the Senior Deputy Speaker proposed. I suggest that these are structures rather like our Select Committees: groups that hear expert evidence, carefully weigh and examine it, and arrive at conclusions.
The way that the usual channels make decisions is utterly opaque and utterly unknown, as many noble Lords pointed out. What if it was replaced with a representative committee that operated openly and made decisions based on evidence and testimony expressed as the will of the House? I have previously raised issues about Select Committees, notably the fact that membership is decided on the basis of allocation by four groups, effectively excluding a large and increasing part of the House’s membership. But they are broadly representative —far more so than the usual channels—and from everything I hear, not having had the opportunity to participate myself, they operate in a broadly collegiate and constructive way. My suggestion is that that is how we reorganise the decisions made by the usual channels.
I started by saying that some might view all this as navel-gazing, but the fact is that what happens in your Lordships’ House is astonishingly important in our current circumstances; we are far more representative of the country than the elected other place, where 44% of the votes in 2019 got Boris Johnson 100% of the power. Looking at the fact that our Cross Benches have the balance of power in your Lordships’ House, they are quite a representative group, a little like a citizen’s assembly or perhaps the kind of structures the noble Lord, Lord Wei, suggested.
I have looked at the big scale, but I want to pick up on a couple of small and immediate points. The first is the disappointment that I know is shared by many Peers about our return to a free-for-all at Oral Questions; here I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach. We know that there is a gender discrimination aspect to that, although that is not the only discrimination. It benefits the loud, the pushy and the experienced—and yes, I know which of those categories I might belong in.
The second point I wish to raise specifically is about the current deeply uncertain situation concerning Covid-19—indeed, I believe announcements are being made as I speak. Media reports suggest that the Government are about to announce a work from home directive. I do not expect the Senior Deputy Speaker to comment on that, or indeed on the procedures of the House right at this moment, but I very strongly propose that we should hear tomorrow about what will happen in your Lordships’ House in light of the Covid situation. I expect that we will see significant changes. On this point, I will finish by coming back to and reflecting on the unsuitability of the fabric of this place. I really hate to think what a carbon dioxide monitor would show in this Room at this moment because I do not think that it is anything resembling Covid-secure.
My Lords, I will first talk about two things which I think are works in progress. The first is the External Management Review, which the Senior Deputy Speaker referred to in his opening remarks. I believe that he has a certain responsibility for what is going to happen as a result of this document, which was published in January last year. It is also fully covered in the excellent Library review, with a big shopping list. Probably the most controversial suggestion in it is that the commission should be made statutory. Your Lordships will wonder whether the present Administration in Downing Street would have any interest in providing parliamentary time for such a thing to happen, but that is probably the most dramatic recommendation in this review. The review is problematic, and I will come back to that.
Secondly, there are a number of things in this House’s relationship with the Government and the House of Commons that are a work in progress and need attention. Indeed, those relationships should be a very high priority in any system for running this House.
Before I start on these two issues, we are still, whether we like it or not, a self-regulated House, and we depend upon self-discipline. We do not set our own agenda, except to a very limited extent. We do not select our Members. We get the business that comes from the Government of the day and the business that comes from events. Of course, with our committee structure, we can think about events and make suggestions about the best way in which things might go.
Reverting for a minute to the External Management Review, before going out to buy a 133-page report, it would have been of interest for the House to have known at the time what it was going to cost and the qualifications of the people who were going to do it. I have to report that when I got to about page 50, I thought, “Unfortunately, the two people writing this report do not understand the House of Lords.” Their minds were on the governance of limited liability companies.
I have had to face up to annual general meetings, and I knew the systems of governance that I had to be aware of. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, we have legislation of our own, and you know very clearly where you are on the matter of governance. In a charity—and the review mentions Samaritans—you know very clearly what your system of governance is, but it is not nearly as easy to define and be certain about what sort of system of governance this House should have. My perception is that you cannot expect it to be legally enforceable and you have to rely, as we always did, on conventions and on peer group pressure: “This is the way that we do things, and this is the way that we don’t do things.” That culture in this House is extremely important.
I am not very optimistic about this external management review, despite the very long and well-composed shopping list in the Library report. I think, if I were to sum it up, it is an example of naval-gazing and of looking inwards when an institution should always be very careful to be looking outwards.
That takes to me to my second subject, briefly. We have two reports: Government by Diktat and Democracy Denied? For the 20 years that I have been here and on both what was then called the Merits Committee and the Delegated Powers Committee, we have always been concerned, and we have been advised by our legal advisers and our clerks, quite brilliantly, about the dangers of framework Bills and legislation that takes a lot of powers but does not really tell you how it is going to be used. These two reports have highlighted that. It seems to me that the way that the usual channels and the Leader respond to these two reports and advise the House on how to respond is an extremely important piece of work in progress.
I also think that, in a minor key, the way that the Government deal with Written Questions is pretty disgraceful. If anybody wants to look at a good example, I recommend the Answers about the Holocaust memorial that is planned for Victoria Tower Gardens. If ever there were, over a period of seven years next January, a list of non-Answers to Questions, they are an example. Again, I think that the authorities—if I may call them that—in this House should be taking up the issue of the standard of replies to Written Questions.
If I might suggest it, in concluding, it seems to me much more important that the commission and the usual channels concentrate on our relationship with the other House and what it is about it that is working well or not working so well, with us as a revising Chamber, fully appointed and, in the end, always giving way but, in the run-up to giving way, trying to make as much sense as we possibly can.
My Lords, it seems a very long time ago that the Senior Deputy Speaker opened this debate, which he did with the question of who runs this House. With all due respect—which means I disagree with him—I think he should have asked who owns this House, because we do. My noble friend Lord Eccles raised the question of whether we are like a limited company—no, we are not, and we are not like a charity, such as Samaritans, the chair of which authored the External Management Review.
We are more like a partnership, and noble Lords are all the partners in this business. Everybody else serves us—they are our servants. So, when the noble Lord in his opening remarks said that we are run by this committee and that committee, we have appointed those committees. We must always remember that they would not be there if we had not passed some Motion through the House to ensure that they were there.
Perhaps the problem is that they have taken on a life of their own and have not become as accountable as they should be to us, the Members in this House. I cast my mind back to when it was decided that we should no longer have retired three-star people from the Armed Forces as Black Rod. It is interesting that that decision was taken. Who took it? I do not remember being consulted on the issue. I think it is rather important that we have an input as to who Black Rod should be. When the new Black Rod we have now was appointed, many of the powers of Black Rod were transferred to the Clerk of the Parliaments. When we read the External Management Review, it says that the Clerk of the Parliaments is overloaded with responsibilities, so it does not seem to have been a very clever move; therefore, the justification for having a Chief Operating Officer was because the Clerk of the Parliaments was overloaded.
Personally, I get a bit disturbed when we start creating new posts costing tens of thousands of pounds, because one of the remits of the external management review was to save money. I have to tell noble Lords that we will not save money by creating new people in big positions such as Chief Operating Officer. Therefore, the question I have for the Senior Deputy Speaker is this: did we consider reinstating the powers and building up the position of Black Rod so that they could take over many of the new responsibilities that have been given to the Chief Operating Officer? Had that happened, I think we would be in a very different position today.
As it is, we have had this report from the man who runs the Samaritans—I used to be a Samaritan. I was rather surprised because, had he written a report similar to this for the Samaritans, he would have started out with a mission statement as to what the Samaritans are all about. You need mission statements at the beginning of long, complicated reports because they become referral points as to whether you are actually doing what the mission statement says. Our mission statement should be quite short and simple: it should be that we hold the Government to account and try to improve legislation as it passes through Parliament. That would be quite enough and we would have something to refer back to but, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said, there was no mention in this External Management Review of the Members. It should have mentioned the Members because we own the whole of this outfit, and the whole point of what this House is doing is that we should be served properly to meet the mission statement of what we are trying to do.
What I shall do, if it is all right with the Senior Deputy Speaker, is give him a bit of advice. We have to get much more open about what is going on and get away from this concept that things are being done in our name without our having any input whatever into what happens. I think that he should come to our House at least twice a year and do two things. First, he should produce proposals. If there is tremendous controversy about whether the clerks should wear wigs and what uniforms they should be in, why do we not have a stimulating debate on it? There are obviously arguments on both sides: I am sure the clerks will claim that they are hot and sticky and expensive to maintain but, on the other hand, my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising thinks that they are part of our tradition and we should go back to them. Let us debate it and make the decision on the Floor of the House, then everybody will be happy because we all abide by democratic decisions. I think that, when he has radical proposals, he should bring them to the House and we should debate them and vote on them, not slide them through as orders on a Monday when the thing has only been put down on a Thursday afternoon and nobody has noticed. Give us early notice, give us the facts at our fingertips and let us debate and make a decision on it. We believe in democracy, and that is what we should do.
The other problem with the Shephard report, as the External Management Review says, is that it made endless recommendations but none of them were followed through. So the Senior Deputy Speaker should also produce progress reports on decisions that have already been taken and are taking time to get through to say how well they are doing. We need much more openness about the way we operate. I think that the Senior Deputy Speaker will then get the support of Members of your Lordships’ House for what he wants to do.
My Lords, there is a Division in the House. The Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I put my name down for this debate because I did not understand what the governance of this House was. I did not know that we were governed by anybody; I thought that we were self-governing. Since I came here 30 years ago nobody has stopped me doing anything, unless I said something in the Chamber that I was not supposed to say.
In a sense we are a peculiar organisation, as many noble Lords have said, because we are all grown up and we know far too much about governance, debate, protest and so on. I thought that this debate was what Lord Whitelaw a few years ago called “stirring up apathy”, in that nobody was really concerned about how many committees we have and what they do. I have never been bothered to know that. I only knew about the Chairmen of Committees because they stood up and said something after Oral Questions and we all had to pay attention. A very nice person called John MacKay—Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish—was Chairman of Committees for a while, but sadly he died very young. Apart from having Chairmen of Committees, I do not know why we need any other officials.
The peculiar thing that we have heard about in this debate is that we had four committees but now there are going to be two. I presume that that is all right, because I have never taken any interest in what these committees do. They do not bother me and I do not bother them—that governance is best that governs the least. I thought that everything was all right as far as the governance of the House of Lords was concerned.
I have a final few complaints to make but only one is major. The Bishops’ Bar has somehow been abolished. It was the nicest thing about the House of Lords, but it has been abolished without anybody asking me whether it should be.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I am very pleased that I shall go down in the record as a noble Lord who had to make a seven-minute speech and managed to stretch it out to 25 minutes, not through his own fault.
I was saying that I have never had the feeling that I was being governed by anybody, and that is the nice thing about your Lordships’ House. There are some useful people who do various useful things for us, but I do not think they are doing anything very much. Except, as I was saying before I was interrupted, I do not know what has happened to the Bishops’ Bar, which is one of the nicest things about this outfit. It has been taken off the map and become a vaccination centre. Nobody has explained to me why this happened. Why do we have to go into this not very satisfactory new arrangement in the main Dining Room? I should have liked at least one statement to be made by the Chairman of Committees or whoever is is responsible. When will we get the Bishops’ Bar back?
Let me say one thing about this topic. In a sense, we are such a collection of people that if you say, “Have you any complaints?”, we can think of many complaints. One constructive thing, which is not on the agenda but is very important and I have thought about for a long time, was referred to a little by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. It is not a question that the Chairman of Committees can deal with, but I ask it anyway. It is on Peer poverty. I am very serious about this.
I know that there are people who come here out of a sense of public service and for whom the daily allowance is not adequate. These are people who come from outside London. They are very badly treated by the system. They have to have some permanent residence here if they come here from Scotland, Lancashire or wherever, and they have to pay for the weekends, when they are not getting any money for that. I have talked to people, but it is not the sort of topic you can raise in public, because the tabloids would laugh at you because we are all called “Lords”: how could Lords have any financial problems?
I do not know who deals with this, but at some stage somebody ought to put upa case that our allowance ought to compensate us for the expense of coming here. Being a London Peer, I am quite happy. I have my freedom pass and can take a bus, so I have no problems. I have a house here. But some people are seriously losing money. I know some women who had worked in social work and voluntary work and were chosen to come here, but they are out of pocket. I do not think we should allow that sort of thing.
If I was like that, who would I go to complain to in this place? I do not know. I actually do not know who I complain to about anything. For example, since coming back after the pandemic I have felt that the acoustics are not as good as they used to be in the main Chamber. I thought I was going deaf, but I have talked with four or five noble Lords and they are finding it difficult to hear. I do not know who to say that to.
Some useful things are needed but I am more or less happy with the way I am governed—or not governed. I am very grateful that other people want to volunteer for these things. I want to volunteer only for Chairman of Committees, which is a paid job, but I am not going to get it, so let it be.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Desai. As other noble Lords have done, I wish to focus my remarks on the House of Lords External Management Review dated 27 January 2021, which was commissioned by the House of Lords Commission to review the governance, management and organisation of the House.
This review provided a crucial opportunity to consider the role and remit of the commission since its inception in 2016 and its place within the make-up of the Lords. Unfortunately, its authors give the impression that the commission is responsible for the overall leadership of the House. In practice, of course, the commission should avoid entirely any infringement on the constitutional element and role of the House of Lords. Contrary to the findings of the report, programmes for “change” that are essential to our workings—for example, communications and digital—should not be aligned with “organisational”, “constitutional” and “rebuilding”, whatever “rebuilding” is meant to mean. Indeed, I was not aware that your Lordships’ House was broken.
My first question to the Senior Deputy Speaker is: has the commission decided which observations, conclusions and recommendations it accepts? Prior to requests made on the floor of the House on 25 October 2021, had it occurred to the commission that we, the Members of the House of Lords, might have the right to know? The report sets out a plethora of recommendations for “change” and piecemeal implementation of those changes should surely not have begun before the commission had either rejected any conclusions and recommendations or at least remedied its own—it seems numerous—shortcomings exposed in the report. In fact, the entire report is littered with criticism of the commission yet, other than a sentence on its website, the commission has remained, until now, virtually silent as to its response.
Some fundamentals are exposed; for example, we learn that:
“It has been hard to disentangle some of the governance structures and establish where accountability lies.”
Has the commission now appointed a programme director and an oversight panel, as suggested, in order to provide commission direction and support? Judging by the findings regarding the capabilities of the commission, its members need help. In addition, while the commission is
“too large and too busy”,
the management board is clearly not fit for purpose given that, as the report states:
“Current … management style and practice is insufficiently effective or agile in dealing with an increasingly complex context of projects and change”.
So, the relationship between the commission and the management board needs attention. I understand that, until earlier this year, the two had barely met—if at all—which is a damning indictment of the current workings of the commission. The report states that:
“The Commission is invisible to most of the staff we spoke to and the Management Board is invisible to many Members of the Commission.”
In addition, a lack of transparency does not appear to have been of concern either. I wonder what the two lay members think and whether they are happy with the findings of this review—and who are they?
The principal author of the report, Keith Leslie, states that
“Leadership in the House of Lords has much in common with leading at Samaritans”.
Having chaired the advisory board of the Samaritans UK for seven years, I can confirm that the House of Lords has very little in common with the Samaritans. Nor should the House of Lords, a self-regulating institution, be in any way aligned with any corporate or not-for-profit structure. Leadership in every sense of the word is crucial. However, we are told that the leadership from the commission is “ineffective”. In addition, there is no clear reference to the role of the Leader of the House of Lords, which is quite strange given that the Leader, the Lord Privy Seal, is supposed to be the Leader of the whole House. Also, is it not extraordinary that the Government of the day have precisely two out of 12 seats on the commission? Has not anyone questioned this since 2016?
The report makes 37 recommendations for change, which are
“all well-proven across the UK public sector”.
Alarm bells should immediately ring at this point, as huge swathes of the public sector are severely inefficient and ineffective with poor outcomes and poor value for money. Dame Kate Bingham—who had a truly transformational response to Covid—recently referred in a speech to Civil Service “inertia” and a “broken Whitehall”, so I suggest that the public sector is hardly a worthy role model for instituting change to the administration and governance of your Lordships’ House.
Although the report is peppered with the word “change”, with references to committees that some of us have never heard of, including the Steering Group for Change, some proposals make complete sense in principle, particularly with regard to people development of all staff across the estate. Human resources is of course important, although the current emphasis on diversity must not remove focus from ability, skills and experience, coupled with clear pathways for career progression. In this regard, the report exposes a serious flaw wherein it states that:
“The current targets on ethnicity are to attain 38% of applications from BAME candidates with a proportionate 38% offer rate, aligned to the economically active population of central London.”
This percentage, which assumes that central London exists as an island without its 1.1 million daily commuters, equates to actual discrimination and is not positive action under the Equality Act 2010. It ignores the fact that the House of Lords is a national institution and should be open to employment from across the UK.
On a positive note, improved communications and the ongoing and frankly extremely good focus on delivery of digital support are key. Is it so complicated that we need an entire change to our organisational structure? Clarity and simplicity speak volumes.
There is good news I would add to the report, which is that while more than 600 members of staff to support around 800 Peers is an extraordinary ratio, the staff are a very precious asset to us all. While it is unwritten, I hope that I speak for all fellow Peers when I say that we value their presence and their support enormously. So much of what makes this House frankly unique is that unspoken relationship, and it echoes the point I made recently on the Floor of the House that this place is ours collectively, as if it were our second home, and it would not be worth a jot without that unspoken and indefinable support.
In conclusion, unbridled change to our governance and structures without respect for our customs and traditions would be bad enough. Change without communication from the commission and allowing opportunities for open discussion and debate among all Members would be a disaster.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Buscombe who has given a splendid analysis of that report and in the process said some very disturbing things that should concern anybody who loves this place. Any noble Lord who feels it has a valid role, as I do, must be concerned.
As far as I am concerned, this debate really began not on 25 October but last year—or was it the end of the previous year?—when we were suddenly confronted, without any warning, with compulsory training in how to behave. That, for me, is when it began. It was compounded when we had that extraordinary business of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, the former Deputy Prime Minister my noble friend Lord Heseltine and so on being lined up for criticism. I really felt that it was a place where things were happening without our being prepared in any way. It made me question the governance of the House.
My noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach made an excellent speech about this extraordinary document produced by the Library. We are very grateful for it, just as we are very grateful for the Library and those who serve in it, but it is about as comprehensible as the manual which came with my computer. Not having had a computer before lockdown occurred, I relied on two half-hour sessions on the telephone with someone from the wonderful Parliamentary Digital Service. This document is gobbledegook. We need to refine, as well as define, exactly how this House should work and what it should do.
I jotted down a few things. A number of colleagues have referred to the wigs issue. It is entirely reasonable to believe that the traditional dress is right or that it needs changing, but the way in which it was changed was utterly unacceptable. We now have a degree of formality in the uniform, and I am pleased but, as my noble friend Lady Noakes said, it is slightly spoilt by the fact that the clerks sit on call-centre chairs. If the old chairs are not brought back, surely in our wonderful Gothic Chamber we could have some made that fit in with the spirit of the place.
There are so many other things. We had that vote on 25 October. I spoke and voted on that not just because a different voting system was suggested. I was quite in favour of a reader for the cards as a temporary expedient, but when you read the report, you realised that they were trying to do away with the Tellers and change our system of voting in perpetuity. A temporary expedient was being used surreptitiously to change something fundamental.
I am afraid that has been a hallmark of the Covid period. Covid was a reason for many things, and I warmly congratulate all those staff who made it possible for us to function, but others have made it an excuse, rather than a reason. We will have to live with this scourge for a very long time, and we must live in a way that is consistent with the dignity and the proper practices of the House.
I am delighted and grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, is here. He is chairman of the Services Committee, and he is a man who has truly listened to a number of concerns and complaints that some of us have made—and very grateful we are for that. I hope he will be able to do something about the payment system, to which a number of colleagues have referred, because it is quite absurd that we cannot have a monthly account paid by direct debit. Instead, if we have a coffee, we have to pay for it; if we have lunch, we have to pay for it. Sometimes, it is a little embarrassing when one has guests. It would be far better to go back to that system, and I hope we will, just as I hope we will reinstate, when the necessary use for Covid tests—I use it twice a week myself—has been dealt with, we need the Bishops’ Bar as it was. We need the Long Table in the private room, the Long Room. That will help us to have more guests in, anyhow.
I shall refer to two things that have not been referred to at all. I am deeply disturbed that the House is signed up to Stonewall. A number of government departments have detached themselves; I believe the Commons has now detached itself, but we are dependent on Stonewall. Stonewall came into being for a particular reason, but a number of those who brought it into being, such as Matthew Parris, have denounced the way it has embraced the gender issue in a very disturbing way, and I do not believe your Lordships’ House should be signed up to it. We should have the opportunity to say we do not want to be signed up to this.
Another thing has come to my notice. In the other place, they have a doctor on duty. We do not. We decided, apparently—or those who decide for us decided —that it was not a justifiable expense. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, has been campaigning on this and feels it is a justifiable expense. I very much hope that he will be able to persuade his colleagues on the Services Committee that, in your Lordships’ House, where the average age is over 70—and I am well above that—there should be medical attention on hand. I urge the noble Lord to continue his campaign.
Who does what was again illustrated today, because when my noble friend the Chief Whip read out the Motion about the appointment of the European liaison group, or whatever it is called, I got up briefly—I did not want to detain the House on a busy day—to point out that it might be a good idea if this unique, new body were chosen, elected, by us, those who will serve there. I truly think there should be more opportunity for us to decide who serves us on a variety of committees.
I will end there, because I have gone over my time, for which I apologise, but I hope some of these points will be taken to heart.
My Lords, this debate has been a case of cognitus interruptus if ever I have seen one. Sometimes those who are last in the batting order do not have much option other than to go in and have a bit of a slog. So I suggest that our House is in some peril. Our reputation in the wider world has shrunk, our support in the House of Commons has shrunk, and I would argue that our effectiveness as a revising Chamber has shrunk.
As my noble friend Lady Noakes said so exquisitely and eloquently, there is a growing distance between the management of our House and its Members. Who runs this House? We keep being told that it is self-regulating, but that is no longer the case. So many others in this debate have made these points very eloquently, and as a tail-end Charlie I do not think there is any purpose in my repeating them, except to say that I support so many of them.
But since we are tackling the subject of the governance of the House, perhaps I can hit over the head the rumour that we are soon to have another 30 Peers parachuted in to this place. These rumours are clearly fanciful. Why would a Prime Minister want to damage both his own reputation and the reputation of this House by stuffing another 30 Peers on to our Benches? We would end up looking like a Christmas goose, stuffed so full that we simply burst—folie de foie gras, you might say. On that note, the banning of foie gras from our dining room was yet another of those decisions which none of us participated in—it is probably tucked up somewhere with the clerks’ wigs.
What is the question to which another 30 Peers is the answer? I suppose it might be argued that the Opposition in this House have become so bloody-minded that the Government need all those Peers in order to get their business done. The other day, I asked our wonderful Library to look at some statistics to see whether 30 Peers would save the day for Ollie the Octopus, Lucy Lobster and all those other vital bits of government legislation that get kicked about. Of the last 100 Divisions in this House, the Government have won only 27. Another eight Divisions were unwhipped, which leaves 65 Divisions, all of which were won by the pesky Opposition. What difference would another 30 Tory Peers have made to that? Very little, actually, because two-thirds of those government defeats were inflicted by margins of 30 votes or more.
So saving the Government’s legislation will not come simply by stuffing the goose—and, as we have heard so many times this afternoon, neither will it come through more administrators, more bureaucracy or, as my noble friend Lord Cormack has just explained, more training videos like the coruscating Valuing Everyone training, which did not value us; it insulted us.
We and our institutions are in a very delicate place. We are vulnerable and perhaps in some peril. I am afraid that very few of the changes put forward in recent times have done anything to improve our public standing. We should not take it for granted that no Government would bother taking an axe to this goose, because I can foresee a moment when a governing party—yes, even my own—will include in its manifesto a pledge to get rid of this House because it would be the popular thing to do. I wonder what any new layer of management or bureaucratic gift-wrapping will do to deal with this threat.
My noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker, for whom I have the deepest personal respect and affection, is a sensible and a sensitive man. He has listened today and heard from a glorious former Leader of this House, a hugely respected former Chief Whip and many other senior and experienced Members, all speaking with a similar voice. It is a hymn that he needs to listen to; because I know him so well, I am sure that he will listen to it.
My Lords, I understand that it is in the nature of the rules of a debate such as this that, if there is a gap, I am allowed two minutes to fill it.
Next week, I am going to my first school to talk about this House. I have listened to this debate carefully and I shall study Hansard very carefully tomorrow because, if I am asked by a clever sixth-former, “Who runs this place?”, I need to have a very good answer. I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for having this debate. I feel, in my case, as though it is part of my induction as a new Member—people know that I am a new Member —and, rather like civilisation in Britain, having more of these would be a very good thing. I am conscious, also, that governance is a very complex thing in a self-regulating House.
When I look at the House, I am conscious of the fact that we are all equal but there are different levels of participation nevertheless. There is a core—someone will know what it is; perhaps 450 or more—of Members who attend regularly. There is a penumbra who come on fewer occasions but make great contributions, and I suppose there are some Members whom we might call semi-detached. I have yet to meet any more than a small proportion of the total membership of the House.
I understand that Covid has made the most tremendous difference to the way in which this House operates. I suppose we are feeling our way back to what we consider normal. I am interested to hear today of all the different small decisions that Members feel have been taken without their being consulted; I think that there is quite a lot of unease about that in many places.
I am also very concerned about the public reputation of this House, which is why I did not expect to find myself agreeing with a great deal of what the noble Lord who has just spoken said in that regard. I have always thought that a future Conservative Government might well decide to go for broke and suggest abolition, so we must be careful as to how we present ourselves. More openness and transparency is a very good thing.
On the Chief Operating Officer, I can only assume that it is a proposal partly designed to take the burden off the Clerk of the Parliaments, who bears a very heavy load of responsibility. I have found in my short time here that the quality of the staff we have is amazingly good. It was a great pleasure, as part of my induction, to meet the Clerk of the Parliaments and talk about it. As for the townhall meetings, I look forward to seeing what they will be like, but anything that can help us to breathe life into the House we are supposed to be will be a very good thing.
My Lords, this has been an illuminating and instructive debate. A lot of ground has been covered. I am not going to be able to respond to all the detailed points, inevitably. That may please your Lordships but I do not want any noble Lord to think, because of the very detailed and important points that have been made, that I have not made a note, because I definitely have. We need to work on them.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, mentioned interest. I actually think that we should up our game. All noble Lords are here because they have a deep commitment to this House and what it does for this nation. I am looking at a lot of people who have served the public interest for a very long time. Our job and task, in my view, is to be the custodians of our generation and hand over a House that can continue the absolutely vital role I believe it needs to fulfil for our country.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred to self-regulation. In point of fact, we had a consideration only last week of how, as a House, we wanted to proceed in terms of self-regulation. I believe that it is a very cherished principle and a sign of the maturity of this House.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle referred to, sort of, anarchy—I believe that our self-regulation is about a responsibility that we all have to maintain order and ensure that business is conducted properly. I think it is incumbent on all Members to respect the House’s traditions of self-regulation, mutual respect, forbearance and courtesy. I have been looking very carefully at the conduct of Question Time, and I think that what was missing—that vibrancy—has in fact come about. I very much hope that those noble Lords who were concerned about this will, with time, agree—the noble Baroness is shaking her head, but I think she should give this a little longer rather than taking a view only three days in.
When it comes to the governance of the House, there have to be formal arrangements. We obviously have the custodianship of public funds and powers that are vested appropriately in staff such as the Clerk of the Parliaments and indeed committees, such as the commission. I have noted the point about the commission. I have to say that, having been at Defra for six years, I came back and suddenly found that there was a commission, and I am now seeking to work within the commission, but also to make this House breathe. One thing that I felt very strongly about, in accepting this great honour, is that our purpose is to make the House flourish, not ensuring that the reverse happens. My experience—I am so glad that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, is here and, indeed, during the passage of this debate, members of usual channels, all of them very busy—is that there is not a single person I know of both Members and staff who does not wish the very best for this House; they are united in that purpose.
So, we need to do better. We need to do better not only in our internal communications with noble Lords but in the very important point, in my view, that has been raised by the noble Lords, Lord Haselhurst and Lord Wei, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, at the end about ensuring that the House of Lords is represented properly and fully in the national discourse. That is where we should be promoting the work that we do. That is why I want to highlight the tireless work of staff in promoting the work that your Lordships undertake. Everyone always looks at the dark side, unfortunately, but since our return from the Summer Recess, there have been 2,968 print or online articles or broadcast features about the work of the House of Lords committees, a clear reflection on the experience and expertise of the House.
I also want to say something to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. I absolutely am in tune with her that we need to ensure that we engage with the widest range of talent to come to work in the House from all members of the public and all parts of the country. We need to be open and professional, and all of us—I know that everyone here does—need to treat everyone with courtesy and respect.
I have a great sheaf of questions to answer, which will be impossible in the time, but I want to run through some very important features of what has been discussed. The noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, referred to joint working with the House of Commons catering service. That is tremendously important; I know that our catering and retail services collaborate very effectively in joint working. Indeed, the senior management of both teams meet weekly to share best practice, ideas and solution and to ensure that we align strategically and operationally—gosh, that is quite a lot of jargon, but I hope that noble Lords will understand what I mean. It is valuable that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, is here as he chairs the Services Committee. These are areas where this collaboration can enhance what we have and ensure that noble Lords are well equipped with what they need. Digital was mentioned in particular, I think, as another success of innovation.
Fire evacuation was mentioned. I mentioned in my opening remarks that the Services Committee has that under review and consideration. If noble Lords are concerned about any issues of that variety, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and the Services Committee actively want to ensure that the House has the services it requires.
The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, referred to two excellent reports. I attended their webinar launch, and the Government will respond in due course. They highlight the fine examples of what the House does best: detailed, expert, cross-party scrutiny of issues of national importance. I always think it is a great mistake to give an uninformative answer, whether to an Oral Question or a Written Question, because all it does is invite further questions, so my encouragement is always to answer the question.
The noble Lord, Lord Wei, mentioned innovation again. I am not very technical myself, but I am committed to the view that we should be road-testing laws, as he mentioned. I am glad, for instance, that the Liaison Committee has yet again proposed a post-legislative scrutiny committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred to confidence. One reason why I think that this debate, which we will carry on by varying forms, is essential is because I want this House to be confident of itself. I am not sure that I feel part of an ownership of the House of Lords; I see us as custodians of a hugely important institution. It is of enormous import. I certainly see confidence as part of my responsibility: to work with noble Lords to make sure that they are confident in how this House is run.
A number of points were made about catering accounts and access to GPs. They are all matters I will be working on with the noble Lord, Lord Touhig.
Questions of workplace culture were raised by several noble Lords. The point has been very much hoisted, I assure noble Lords. Obviously we must all treat everyone, staff members, individually and collectively, with respect. We need to attend to how that can best work for noble Lords.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, mentioned this: if there was ever a need to have hybrid working, for whatever reason, the technology is there, but this would need to be agreed by the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, referred to a number of matters. My door is, as they say proverbially, open, as is the Lord Speaker’s. Noble Lords are not employees and are not salaried, but we want to ensure that all noble Lords can participate. That is why I am very pleased that we were able to work a system that has enabled virtual contributions for Members with long-term disabilities. At its meeting next week, the commission will also consider the issue of allowances claimable by Members with long-term disabilities who participate remotely.
A number of points were made about consultation—another word I have taken back. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, that that was one of the considerations I took back from 25 October, and before that. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who used the word “bounced”. I am determined that noble Lords are not bounced in any proposals that I am responsible for bringing forward. Unless it is an emergency, when it would be commonsensical that something had to be dealt with promptly, there will be proper time for noble Lords to digest and come back. I also pick up the point that, before it gets into that tube, an understanding and a consensus should be growing around a particular subject, because I assure noble Lords that I do not want to take back reports that have involved a lot of work because noble Lords were very unhappy about them. That is a waste of everyone’s time. I say that very strongly.
R&R was mentioned, including by the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell. Again, this is a key factor for our House and the other place which we must deal with responsibly. The figures are enormous. The chair of the Finance Committee—the noble Lord, Lord Vaux—was here earlier. This is a matter on which he and I and other noble Lords that are dealing with this matter, with responsibility from the House of Lords, are very concerned about.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, raised a point about allowances. This is a matter for the commission. The current system is not perfect, but it was felt at the time that the better option was to put in place a simpler and clearer scheme, rather than one that was increasingly complex, bureaucratic and could get us into difficulties. I do not want to say any more than that.
The noble Lords, Lord Balfe and Lord Davies of Brixton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, spoke about the role of the COO. This decision was made before my time, but I understand that it was to bring greater capacity and, indeed, a range of experience. As I said specifically, this is not to do with our affairs in the Chamber or committees. Frankly—I can say this, but the Clerk of the Parliaments could not—this is about the enormous burden of responsibility we place on the Clerk of the Parliaments and to ensure that his role remains possible with all the other responsibilities he has. That is very important. I obviously want to ensure that we have the results and success that we all want from that appointment. One thing I will say off-script is that when I looked at some of our arrangements for management and administration, I thought there was quite a lot of streamlining and work still to be done. Doing that in those areas would be for the benefit of the House in terms of value for money and perhaps getting a less bureaucratic—I might even say Byzantine—system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, raised a point about the intent of the commission. I have attended those meetings since May, and I have never at any moment thought that our consideration—whether internal or external members, or individually or collectively—did anything but work for the best interests of the House and, of course, for the public we serve. I would also say, again in my experience, that the privilege of working with the administration and management is their focus on wanting to support and strengthen the House.
Two noble Lords raised the interesting question of why we have both a Finance Committee and Audit Committee. That came out of the Leader’s Group on Governance chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard. It was considered by the House Committee at the time and approved by the House, but this is obviously something I want to work through.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, and others mentioned the Bishops’ Bar. Having used it all the time I have been here, I know that it is very highly regarded. This has been the subject of a Members’ survey; it is under active consideration by the Services Committee, which is keen to hear noble Lords’ views on this matter. We have to accept, with the current arrangements, that the Bishops’ Bar is a very small space; that is probably why we like it. But it is currently being used, I think very valuably, as the Covid testing centre. It is very convenient. I am now going there once a day to have a test because it is so straightforward and very easy and because it is an important thing to do.
On Stonewall, this is up for renewal and consideration in February of next year. In January, our HR director will be involved in considering the business case and return on investment for this membership and I am very grateful to noble Lords for some of the expressions that have been raised today, which I shall ensure form part of that consideration.
I have not answered all the questions, I know, and there are some clear ones, but I can sense I am starting to test the patience of noble Lords. I like the directness and frankness of many of my former noble friends—former in one sense only. I believe, and I think all noble Lords believe, or I hope they do, warts and all, that we have a vital role to fulfil. We must ensure that our governance and organisation support the House in carrying out that role. As well as having a continuous focus, as we do, on holding the Government to account, I think we should have a long-term perspective as to the custodians of this institution. I think the noble Lord, Lord Mann raised this. I did not agree with that all he said, but I think he hit on some very important points. We must be professional, responsible, respectful and inclusive. We must have the highest standards of governance for a public sector body and we must be mindful of our reputation and public expectations, mindful of the point of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that we are unique.
We must also have due regard and recognition to our culture, our history and our heritage. This was raised by a number of noble Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, in particular. It is important that we all work together to find the right balance between these aspects of our work, between traditional virtues and modern best practice, so I am very grateful for the engagement of today’s debate. The Lord Speaker will be holding these town hall meetings. The first is planned to be held on Tuesday 25 January—please, mark in diaries. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, of Epsom, raised another important word, “openness”. I am not a secretive person and I want this House to be as open and transparent, and as accountable and effective, as possible. We must demystify some of the issues that have been raised by all noble Lords today, so I encourage attendance.
I conclude, noble Lords will be pleased to know, by saying that I believe that the House is a constitutional safety valve. We ask the Executive and the elected House to think again. This House is an essential part of upholding our constitutional arrangements and I believe we should be confident of our purpose. The noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Robathan, raised the point of confidence. I think we should, I repeat, be confident of our purpose. I believe this requires statesmanship and judgment.
This House has an extraordinary range of experience to offer to the national discourse; that is why good governance of the House must be of the top order and why I believe this debate has been constructive and valuable and, if I may say, continuing. I am not in a position to wave a magic wand and resolve all the issues that have troubled noble Lords, perhaps over a little while, perhaps, but I hope that with openness and dialogue, some of these matters can be resolved in a responsible manner in a way that enables noble Lords not only to derive satisfaction from coming here, but to ensure that the primary reason we are here can be fulfilled.
I can say that there has been fair and open competition since 2001. The first few recruitments still led to the appointment of former generals.
Committee adjourned at 8.09 pm.