This is my fourth annual letter to Members. Despite the dramatic changes in Parliament following the General Election, the twin challenges of strengthening our internal governance structures and improving our performance as a legislative Chamber, against a background of deep public concern, still dominate much of today’s agenda. Progress has been made on both fronts during the year. Every Member of the House swearing in at the start of this Parliament signed up to the new Code of Conduct; the independent Lords Commissioner for Standards, Paul Kernaghan, has taken up his post, supporting and complementing the robust work of the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct.
These steps towards better governance were essential, but if we are to rebuild trust in Parliament, we must also become a more effective second Chamber. I welcome the Leader of the House’s decision to set up a group to look at the working practices of the House and possible changes and improvements. In October last year, I hosted a seminar on “Strengthening Parliament: the role of the House of Lords”, after which a number of Members met in informal groups to draw up three reports for discussion more widely throughout the House. These reports will feed into the Leader’s Group, as will the views expressed in recent debates on this topic. I am optimistic that there are practical ways in which we can improve our already effective performance as a revising Chamber, and play our full part in holding the Government to account, scrutinising and improving legislation and in expert committee inquiry.
Finding a solution to the issue of financial support for Members has not been an easy task, given the wide variety both of individual circumstances and differing contributions of Members to the work of the House. Neither the SSRB recommendations nor those of the Wakeham Group have met with universal accord, but there is agreement that robust action must now be taken. The Leader of the House has brought forward proposals to replace the current expenses based system with a greatly simplified scheme, which is attendance based and treats all Members equally in terms of a daily allowance. Despite the inevitable “rough justice” of this proposal, given the differing circumstances of Members, its advantages in terms of clarity, simplicity and comprehensibility to the outside world, together with minimal costs of administration and bureaucracy, seem to be gaining support.
As well as looking inwards, however, we must continue to engage with the public and redouble our efforts to explain our role and activities. The outreach programme is now making a real contribution to improving public understanding of Parliament. In particular, the Peers in Schools programme goes from strength to strength, with 125 visits this year and 500 requests for next. It will be a challenge to meet this scale of demand and my gratitude goes to all the peers already involved, together with the hope that other Members will also wish to play their part.
Another feature of the year has been the success of the programme of River Room Seminars - a bringing together of a group of peers with specialist experience and expertise in a given area to debate important issues with senior media commentators. Events this year focussing on a “New International Order for the 21st Century” and “Parliament, Policy and Punishment” were both extremely lively, authoritative, and well received by the journalists involved.
Other outreach activities have included:
- the annual Chamber Event where, as part of the national Shine Youth Festival, we saw 200 young people hold a debate in the Chamber on reversing negative stereotypes of their age-group
- Lord Puttnam’s inaugural Robing Room Lecture especially for young people on the topic of political engagement and the digital age, which was broadcast by BBC Parliament and is featured on social networking websites
- the annual Mile End Group Lecture delivered by Baroness Manningham-Buller, to much media interest, on “Reflections on Intelligence”
- my own lectures in December to the Hansard Society on “Ermine, Ethics and Engagement – Evolution in the House of Lords”; and on “New Politics, Old Problems: the House of Lords 2010”, to the Constitution Unit at UCL last month
- the Lord Speaker’s competition for young people, which this year attracted a record 470 entries, the three winners of which were able to give evidence to a Select Committee.
The River Room continues to be extremely well used, with over 40 charities holding events there throughout the year, two supported from the personal charitable fund I set up on my appointment.
The past year has also seen much overseas activity. Alongside continuing work in support of the IPU and the CPA, I have met Speakers from Ukraine, Pakistan, Bahrain, Portugal, Japan and Thailand. I have visited Budapest to represent the UK at the 20th Anniversary Commemoration of the fall of the Iron Curtain; Delhi for the Commonwealth Speakers’ Conference; and Oman at the invitation of the Oman State Council. Everywhere I travel I am struck by the privilege of representing a Chamber so respected around the world – and by what we can learn from the courage and innovation of other parliamentarians.
I cannot end without mention of the debate on the future of the House itself. While there seems to be universal agreement that the House needs to be smaller, it is actually getting larger by the day, creating very real practical issues both within and outside the Chamber. I look forward to the suggestions from the Leader’s Group set up to consider ways for Members to leave the House. Beyond such immediate issues are the Coalition Government’s plans to introduce by the end of the year a draft bill to create a wholly or mainly elected House. No-one studying the House’s recent debate on this subject could under-estimate the scale of the constitutional issues involved, nor the range of views about the way forward. For my part, the gold standard against which any proposed reform, radical or incremental, should be assessed is whether it will enhance the quality of our performance as a legislative Chamber, and the contribution we make to the work of Parliament.
In a year that has presented real challenges for many in the House, I owe even more than usual a debt of gratitude to those who have been so generous with their support: the staff of the House, especially in my own office, the Chairman of Committees and the Deputy Speakers, and many others all around the House.