Allowances Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord True Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, on 13 March, the House of Lords Commission agreed to restore an overnight allowance scheme to provide specific accommodation support for Members who live outside Greater London. The resolution that I move as Leader today will put into effect the proposals agreed in the commission report published on 21 March.

The original impetus for this came from the chairs of the Back-Bench party groups in your Lordships’ House. Having reached a cross-party consensus as to the principle and extent of any additional financial support, as I suggested would be necessary, they approached me to present their case to the commission. I agreed to do so. The commission agreed the proposals and I am putting them to the House today. The resolution that noble Lords see before them reflects the recommended proposals of the party chairs and the usual channels. I know that they do not meet everyone’s aspirations, but I submit that they represent a compromise and a balance.

For the avoidance of doubt, as an officeholder and a resident of the Greater London area, I have no personal interest whatever in this change. Indeed, I supported my noble friend Lord Strathclyde in the design of the current approach to allowances. It was intended to be, in my noble friend’s words,

“direct, transparent and accountable, a scheme that is simple and not open to abuse”.—[Official Report, 20/7/10; col. 916.]

In the same way, I submit that the current measure before your Lordships passes those tests as simple, transparent and accountable, and is appropriate to meet the changing burdens currently faced by many Peers.

To summarise, if this Motion is agreed to, Members whose registered address is outside the Greater London area may claim towards the expense of overnight accommodation in Greater London in a hotel, club or similar accommodation while away from their registered residential address for the specific purpose of attending sittings of the House. The maximum that can be claimed for each eligible overnight stay is £100, and it will be reimbursed only on production of a receipt. If the room costs less than £100, only the receipted cost of the room will be paid. The number of overnight claims cannot exceed the number of recorded attendances a Member has in a given week. A review will take place of this new scheme after 12 months.

As many Peers travel daily from far beyond the M25, and Members who seek accommodation inside London pay an increasing price for undertaking their parliamentary duties, I pass over the fact that it is far more sustainable to have Peers staying over rather than commuting daily. But I submit that this House must be accessible to all, regardless of financial status and location. We have, and I mean no offence, become far too much a House of the south-east of England. It is not right that some noble Lords may be deterred from coming to this House because attendance would impose a significant financial burden on them. In responding to this, the commission seeks to ensure that geographic and economic disparities do not dictate the conduct of Parliament.

I believe that the proposal strikes a balance. We must all be mindful that money we spend in this place is not our own. Any scheme that seeks to support parliamentarians must be proportionate to both the purpose it seeks to address and the implications for the public purse. In this case, the commission considers that a flat rate that sits below the average cost of London hotel accommodation is a proportionate figure. This proposed ceiling is well below—indeed, less than half—that which is offered to our good colleagues in the other place.

I return to my first point: the scheme is simple, easy to check, and aimed to avoid abuse. This House will rightly come down hard—very hard—on any who may seek to abuse it. We have placed a review of the scheme after 12 months to ensure that the allowance is working as it should, and the House will expect that every Peer will stand on their honour in this regard.

If this resolution is passed, the scheme will come into effect after the Easter Recess. I will of course continue to welcome Members’ views on this matter, though I know that very many have fed into the cross-party consultations in the various groups, and I thank them for that. I hope that this scheme may support participation in this House, and I thank the noble Lords who worked on the proposals, the usual channels and the convenor for their support for this resolution. I commend it to the House and I beg to move.

Lord Balfe Portrait Lord Balfe (Con)
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I welcome this proposal, and the points I wish to make are made in a friendly manner, not a critical one. I am concerned about the interpretation of the words “similar accommodation”. I wonder whether the noble Lord the Leader of the House would consider whether a requirement that the accommodation is registered for VAT should be part of the scheme. I understand that this is fairly common within the Civil Service. I also wonder why we are reinventing a wheel and why we do not just adopt the same system as applies to Treasury officials who come to London for meetings and are part of the Home Civil Service. This seems a very easy thing to incorporate into our rules. I am concerned that the absence of any mention of VAT and the loose wording “similar accommodation” could lead to loopholes. As a person who was responsible for closing many loopholes in the European Parliament scheme, I am well aware of where loopholes can be found.

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Portrait Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Lab)
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My Lords, it would be wrong of me not to comment on this, having been the Member who first raised this about a decade ago when we first raised the annual allowance. I welcome the report and the Motion in the name of the Leader of the House. I thank him personally. He may have been involved in the original scheme and the mistakes that were made then, but I welcome very much his efforts as Leader, with, I am sure, the support of the Lord Speaker and others, to make sure that this change came before the House today. It is long overdue and very welcome.

I also want to thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes. When I gave up the campaign on this issue through sheer exhaustion, he took up the cause. He deserves some credit on behalf of all of us who live outside London for making sure that this change comes forward.

The initial scheme, which was introduced in the month in which I came into this House, was wrong. In order to stop people who live in London abusing the old scheme, it has resulted in all of them receiving significant financial benefit during the last 14 years, while every Member who lives outside London and who uses overnight accommodation in London had their allowance cut in July 2010 and has suffered financially ever since.