Debates between Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale and Lord Shinkwin during the 2019 Parliament

House of Lords: Allowance

Debate between Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale and Lord Shinkwin
Wednesday 22nd July 2020

(3 years, 11 months ago)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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