When Parliament returns there may be a new spotlight on the pay and expenses arrangements for Peers. And quite right too – they are just as messy as those for MPs.
Unjustifiably, the present rules mean Peers claim tax-free “allowances” for attendance, and as recent media stories have confirmed, that encourages people to just ‘pop in’ for a matter of moments and then zip off. Many have outside interests and jobs elsewhere, so the Lords seems to be more a sort of allowances vending machine than it is a place of regular and serious work. Naturally that is frustrating for those of us who are there most of the time. Only a minority of the Members are “working Peers” – that is, we have the peerage to do a job, not to access fancy notepaper and a convenient dining club.
Another anomaly is that when the Recess comes the allowances all but stop. A limited “office costs” allowance is there for 40 non-sitting days, a strange arrangement given that the Summer Recess alone runs for 82 days. It means that if you employ someone for research assistance and secretarial support, you should in theory enforce unpaid holidays on them, just because Parliament has this absurd system of disappearing for three months at a time. Also, the amount of the present allowance means there is a risk of breaching national minimum wage legislation.
Lord Norton has already made reference to some possible changes, and I’m happy to consider all the options. It’s not clear, though, why it wouldn’t be sensible to make Peers see their position as a job, for which attendance is expected (my colleague Lord Steel has proposals to dismiss people who don’t come in), and make us pay tax on a proper salary – which should be less than that of MPs, since our workload is markedly lighter. There should then be proper (but modest) provision for employing an assistant, preferably tapping into the full payroll arrangements they have in the House of Commons. At present, if you want to employ someone, you claim the allowance for yourself and then pass it on. That’s so obviously open to abuse, and it should change.
There will have to be a debate, too, about how to assist Peers who, like me, do not live in London. I have lived in Cornwall for 40 years, even before I was MP there, and I still do now. If we want a diverse House of Lords, representing every part of the UK, provision has to be made to ensure people can live in other parts of the country and have somewhere to stay in London.
The trouble is that any progress will be set in the context that Peers are unaccountable. What if there are abuses? In the Commons, there have been star chambers, scrutiny panels, deselections, ignominious resignations. At our end, because we don’t have the basic accountability structure brought about by elections, whatever arrangements we come up with to replace the status quo, whether extravagant or Spartan, the public will be frozen out. And until real reform comes there will be far too many Peers on the payroll.
Meanwhile, in the very first weeks of a Recess lasting nearly 12 weeks there are already huge national issues to address. Wouldn’t it be good to have at least one House of Parliament back in September, doing its job, and holding Ministers to account?