I was the only woman to speak in Lord Tyler’s debate on constitutional renewal last Thursday, and characteristically perhaps for a woman I looked at the domestic governance arrangements inside the House which I observe do not serve well the business of the House. The House is unable to respond swiftly and effectively to crises as we saw during the expenses debacle. We do not adhere to the fundamental principles of good corporate governance; these are clear leadership, overt lines of accountability, fit-for-purpose processes and clear mechanisms for proper engagement by Members. Unless we get our own House in order, we will never be able to assert the important role of Parliament in relation to the Executive, play our proper complementary role to the Commons or become a modern, proactive second chamber, whether or not we change the membership and whether it is elected or not. Members need to develop a sense of ownership of the House in relation to its administration and the way that we determine the business. I fully understand that the Government are entitled to get their business through this place in a timely manner.
Before coming here, I had naively believed that the government Executive and Parliament were two separate things and that the House of Lords would have governance and accountability systems in place that would be explicit, written and connect me as a back-bencher with the business of the House. I was given the Grey Book, which is supposed to tell us about the house administration systems but in fact leaves out one vital component, the “Usual Channels”. The Usual Channels are in fact the chief whips of the three main political parties who of course are there to do their political leaders’ bidding. All important committees of the house whether serving the administration or business are dominated by this group, which has no formal powers but is all powerful. Even the desk that I am allowed to sit at in parliament is determined by the Usual Channels. The Usual Channels are the lead weight that keeps the moribund body of self-governance from floating to the surface for some air.
The role of the Management Board as the executive implementation of House Committee strategy and policy is clear. We are served by a talented administrative Management Board of clerks and directors of services who, to give them their due, have been in the vanguard of developing the annual plan, the strategic planning round, the risk register and so on, and who are improving daily the ways in which they serve us. It is we who let them down by our old fashioned procedures.
We should perhaps reassess the potential for the Lord Speaker to play a real leadership role in parliamentary business, both inside and outside the Chamber. It is of pre-eminent importance that we should prise the administration and business of this House from out of the control of government and politically negotiated deals to allow the House of Lords to exercise its proper functions.
In his reply to my points and many other peers’ points about the business ararngements in the house, the Minister Lord Bach said that a review “ is a matter for the House authorities-I mention to the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, that they are not quite the same as the usual channels”.
I rarely have the temerity to interrupt a minister in his response speech but Lord Butler of Brockwell leapt up “Will the Minister explain to a rookie what the difference is between the House authorities and the usual channels?” Lord Bach smiled “As I said that, I realised that I had probably made a mistake that the noble Lord might well come back at me about. No, I cannot explain the difference. I am sure that, with his experience, he will understand that there probably are some subtle differences, but they are well beyond me.”
And if the former cabinet secretary calls himself a ‘rookie’ in his understanding of the House of Lords, what hope for little old me?