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6.25 p.m.

Lord Bancroft: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for this debate. It is extremely timely given the attention currently being paid to the role, the powers and the composition of this House. Despite the inordinate length of the speakers' list tonight I should like to see reasonably regular short debates on the report and accounts. It is important, of course, that the debates should not become a catalogue of housekeeping whinges on the one hand or a succession of self-congratulatory puffs on the other. If I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, steered his usual neat course between the two.

If there were to be regular debates I venture to hope that they would be reflective and perhaps mildly self-critical in character. I shall try to follow the noble Lord in that mode. As the noble Lord has said, the annual report and accounts are an admirable innovation and this is only the third year that they have been combined. The Clerk of the Parliaments and his staff deserve our thanks, together, of course, with the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees, the Offices Committee and the sub-committees to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred.

I suggest that we need to look at the report in the context of the role of this House and the staff who support it. I would not even dare to pluck at the trouser of Bagehot, nor would it be appropriate in this debate to try to do so. However, Bagehot's description of the Queen's private rights, in relation to her Ministers, to be consulted, to encourage and to warn, has also come to be an apt description of the second Chamber's ability publicly to influence and, if need be, embarrass, Her Majesty's Ministers. We can debate, revise, initiate and, under strict limits, delay legislation on the Floor of the House. Through our debates we can encourage and warn Ministers more generally. Through our Select Committees we can scrutinise both government and European Union legislation and inform Ministers of our views. Now that we have regular ad hoc Select Committees to buttress the two permanent Select Committees, we can advise Ministers, the European Union, and indeed a much bigger audience, if it wishes to listen--on the whole it does not get a chance to do so because our proceedings are not reported to it--on a wide variety of issues.

I now mention a small but, I think, not unimportant point. I suggest it might be preferable to refer to special Select Committees rather than to ad hoc Select Committees. The latter have an uncomfortable

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hand-to-mouth ring about them. Some of your Lordships know that I have a vision of this House, through the unique experience of its Select Committee membership and the talented clerks and specialist advisers who serve them, becoming, over time, the think-tank to the nation. This vision owes nothing at all to complacency or to self-congratulation. It derives from a profound belief that there is a deficiency in our national machinery of government, the notorious hole at the centre. By that I mean the lack of an intellectual counterpoise to the random sucking in of powers, but not responsibilities, to Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street and No. 70 Whitehall.

I suggest that some of the in-filling of that hole might be provided by a development of our Select Committee system. It would give value for money, as the report before us demonstrates. Peers, as unpaid Members, come cheap. The report tells us on page 19 that the Committee Office spent, on all forms of support, under £1 million last year and came under budget by £0.25 million. Its total permanent staff was 21, of whom only eight were clerks. It would be difficult to conceive of better value for money. Is not that an area in which we might judiciously add to the resources available?

That brings me to costs, which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, rightly mentioned. As I said, Peers come cheap, certainly compared with our colleagues in another place or Members of the European Parliament. We also come cheap compared with our colleagues in other Commonwealth upper chambers. Figures published in 1993 show that the annual cost per Member of the Australian Senate was £480,000; of the Canadian Senate, £195,000; and of our own Chamber, £89,000, assuming in our case a working House of only 404 Members. The figures also show that unelected Members, for example, British Peers and Canadian Senators, come cheaper than their elected opposite numbers in other second chambers, and even then we are only half the price of a Canadian Senator. That causes a twitch both to my value for money nostril and my constitutional nostril.

I shall say a word about security costs. I am aware that to raise the subject here is akin to bearing stale buns and sucked eggs into the Chamber. Nevertheless, the sums that both Houses spend on security raises us to an unaccustomed top position in the international league tables of parliamentary costs. We usually come bottom. I find that this House spends more proportionately on security than any other chamber in the world, including Israel. Even so, the percentages of the total of each assembly which are devoted to security are mildly surprising. The latest figures that I have show that many countries come in at between 2 per cent. and 3 per cent; Israel at 14 per cent; the House of Commons at nearly 15 per cent; and the House of Lords at 20 per cent. I ask, with a polite Jeeves-like cough, whether that is perhaps an area where modest savings might be made to offset any increases to strengthen the Select Committee system. That complies with my Treasury background where one does not suggest increases in expenditure without suggesting also offsetting savings. I acknowledge that to some extent we are House of Commons

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driven here, so our 40 per cent. share of security costs turned out to be just under £5 million in 1994-95. The relevant paragraphs in the report are 10 to 16 and 22 to 25. That cost of £5 million compares with just under £1 million in the same year for the Committee Office.

I venture a word about sitting hours, while recognising that that matter is already at the forefront of many minds. It has been said that the other place sits for more hours a year than any other parliamentary assembly in the world and, perhaps until recently, the dubious honour of the second place is taken by your Lordships' House. The hours which this House sat increased from 465 in 1959-60 to 1,213 in 1985-86, and fell to 1,077 in 1988-89. Since then, interestingly, they have fallen back further and now seem to average about 950 hours a year. In 1993-94, for example, we sat for 971 hours and last year for 904 hours--or 967, depending on the figures one obtains, as the noble Lord observed. Whether that is due to the remedial measures that we ourselves have taken or the gentle decrease in the amount of government legislation is a moot point, but probably the latter. It would be interesting, purely academically, to see whether a change in the political colour of the Government and a greater legislative load would increase our sitting hours again. That is perhaps an academic exercise which some Members of the House would not wish to take further than academia.

We have to recognise that the greater part of sitting time is taken up by debating legislation--mainly government legislation--on the Floor of the House. Paragraph 10 of the report deals with that matter. Therefore, a large part of the responsibility for the workload facing the two Houses falls not on Parliament but on the Executive. Even so, the evidence seems to point to the need for yet more legislative work being taken in Committee and off the Floor of the House if there is to be any realistic possibility of further reducing sitting hours.

We are all agreed that it is neither wise nor therapeutic for a House whose average age is in the mid sixties to be revising important legislation very late at night or in the small hours. The initiatives which have been taken in recent years, particularly following the admirable report of the group under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham, in 1994, are indeed welcome. They have substantially reduced late night sittings, but are they enough? Paragraphs 10 to 16 of the report are relevant here.

Finally, I turn to the staff. We all acknowledge, as did the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, with deep gratitude the selfless efficiency, the kindness and dedication shown by staff at every level. Without them and their cheerful virtues this would be an inefficient and melancholy place. We all agree on the great improvements which have been made in the financial control systems in recent years. My concern is about the modish preoccupation with running the public service like a private sector business. I have some knowledge of both. That preoccupation is acceptable up to a point, but it can be all too easily pushed beyond the limits both of acceptability and credibility. I find some of the language unsympathetic--customers, contractors, market testing, transparency--a vocabulary which my noble friend

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Lord Croham once memorably described as mid-Atlantic Cherokee. Are we to be referred to as "my noble customer"?

Then there are the obeisances towards gods which are suitable to the private sector and some parts of the public service. I have to remonstrate gently with those who believe that, for example, performance related pay is applicable to our tiny and devoted band of clerks. Here, co-operation, collegiality and transferability rather than financial competition are the essence. My own experience is that in very small public service organisations it creates extra work, worry and strained working relationships--and to what end? The same question might be asked, for example, of pay negotiations. Paragraphs 50 to 52 of the report are very relevant here.

I must confess, too, to acute concern about the Government's apparent intention to privatise the Civil Service recruitment and assessment service. I still regard the suggestion with incredulity. That body recruits both the graduate entry and fast stream. It also recruits on an agency basis the clerks for both Houses of Parliaments, and, incidentally the staff for the security services. Many organisations, including perhaps this House, may sooner rather than later feel compelled to do their own recruitment in order to preserve public service attitudes and standards--more work, more costs. Some of us will wish to return to the general subject of public service recruitment on another occasion.

I have detained the House too long. However, having exercised but not exorcised some antique and some mint-fresh King Charles' heads, I end where I began. I thank most warmly the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for initiating the debate. I hope that it will be the first of many on this most important annual publication. I assure the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees that I do not expect him to comment on, let alone answer, all the questions that I have raised.

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