What automatically guarantees a full Chamber in the House of Lords? The answer is when Noble Lords an opportunity to talk about themselves. (Debates on sex and in particular on what some peers regard as “deviant” sexual practices admittedly come a close second.)
Today, the House got on to its favourite subject within a few minutes of the start, when Baroness Deech asked “Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make proposals relating to the titles used by the husbands of women members of the House of Lords.” This produced a typically self-indulgent exchange with a number of noble Lords speaking with a clear eye on getting mentioned in “Today in Parliament”.
Lord Willy Bach for the Government tried to play it straight, saying:
“My Lords, the Government have no plans to alter the existing arrangements in relation to the use of courtesy titles or styles for the husbands of women Members of the House of Lords.”
However, the exchanges that followed were in danger of getting out of hand with fond reminiscences of “frissons” in hotels:
“Baroness Deech: I thank the Minister for his Answer, albeit that it was disappointing. The Equality Bill is wending its way through this House. Does he accept that equality between the sexes should start in this Chamber? If a male Peer’s wife is always a Lady, why should not the same courtesy be extended to the husband of a woman Peer, who I am sure has done just as much to support their spouse? If the issue is trivial, titles should either be extended to husbands or confined only to the recipient.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is an anomalous situation whereby a woman takes her husband’s title but a man does not take his wife’s. I suspect that the reason is that the UK honours system of names and titles is complex and is rooted in history. In recent history, thankfully, the position of women has changed dramatically. However, notwithstanding that, I have to tell the House that the Government are not aware of any great anxiety or urgent desire for change in this respect.
Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that when my husband was alive, he loved being called “m’lord”; he loved putting his drinks on my bill; and it added a certain frisson to staying in an hotel together?
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, the House will be aware that the wives of Bishops need to be considered as well, as they do not have any title. If the Minister was minded to resolve the anomaly without addressing the concerns potentially of Bishops’ wives, he might have a deputation of them on his doorstep, which is not a prospect I should wish on him.
Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, in supporting my noble friend Lady Deech in her suggestion, does this matter not go a little further than that? For example, is it not the case that the wife of a Knight Bachelor has the title “Lady”? Therefore, is there not an argument for the husband of a Dame of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire to have an equivalent title as well? While I understand the Minister’s statement that the Government have no proposals on these matters, might there not be a case to refer these matters to a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House?
Lord Bach: My Lords, there is always a case for referring any matter that is raised in your Lordships’ House to a Select Committee. I am not sure that this is the best case. The Public Administration Select Committee of another place looked inter alia at titles and name changing honours. While recognising that this issue was contentious, it recommended the phasing out of knighthoods and what it called damehoods. In February 2005, the Government’s response was that they did not believe that the case had been made for phasing out the awards of knighthoods and damehoods or knights bachelor. They said that they play a well respected, understood and valued part in our national life.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, if we are quick, we could hear from my noble friend and then the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, at one level of course this is an amusing topic and we can all have a jolly good laugh at each other’s expense, but the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has made a serious point. This is not an anomaly, it is discrimination. It is discrimination that a man may confer on his wife an honour that a woman may not confer on her husband. It is perfectly straightforward and I see many heads nodding in agreement. Does not my noble friend think that there is some way of addressing a discrimination that we practise and laugh about?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I actually agree with my noble friend that this is an issue that has a serious side to it. The Government are not going to act on it in the near future, but that does not take away from the fact that this matter is serious.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I get an even greater frisson than the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, in hotels. Is it not the answer to this that you can call yourself anything you wish? Earlier this year there was a Lord in the dock who got 10 years. But surely, after today’s debate, the husband of a lady Peer should be called the “honourable breadwinner”.
Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord asked two questions, but I am going to mention only the first. On “frisson”, I think that the noble Lord gives us too much information.”
The remark about the “honourable breadwinner” was, of course, a reminder that this exchange was but an hors d’oeuvre for the main feast of self-indulgence: four and a half hours of debate on the proposals from the Senior Salaries Review Board to change the rules on the payment of allowances to Members of the House.
The SSRB’s proposals are not popular with many Members, in particular the changes proposed for those living outside London in respect of overnight payments. It is clear that the SSRB’s report seems likely to create many anomalies and is not as well-grounded in evidence as might have been expected.
At one point the chorus of complaint – from all parts of the House – looked set to provoke a rejection of what the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Greaves described as “a shoddy affair”, saying:
“If it had come to me as a local councillor on Pendle Borough Council, I would have been rude about it. I would have said that it was a pretty shoddy affair and sent it back to be reworked. I am advised that calling a report shoddy is probably not the right thing to do in your Lordships’ House, so I shall say that I find it disappointing. A number of speakers have said that the report does not seem to be based on a clear and full understanding of the present position in the House—who the people are here and what we individually do. One thing that screams out to me from it is a series of assertions. The report says “We believe” in a number of places, which should be reserved for religions and not for reports of this nature.”
It took an intervention from the former Head of MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller, to remind the House of the context in which the debate was taking place, when she said:
“My Lords, I stand with some hesitation at this stage in the evening, when it is late and because I am a new girl in this House—or, I should say, a new pensioner. That gives me a fresh look at some of these issues, so perhaps I might get back from the detail and talk generally. Unfortunately, it is the case that this House appears to many citizens of this country to be comprised of elderly people who enjoy being photographed in fancy dress. Despite the excellent work done by the Lord Speaker and others, I believe that there is little appreciation of the meticulous work done here in scrutinising legislation, nor of the impressive work of committees. Debates are sometimes noticed, usually in comparison to those of another place. Even I, 30 years a public servant …. did not understand the vital work done here.
Therefore, when there are allegations that Peers have abused their trust—the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, referred to 29, not a trivial number—and when it is known that the police have referred cases to the Crown Prosecution Service, this House is cut little slack by public opinion. I am not surprised by what has happened, which led to the remit of the SSRB. When I joined your Lordships’ House, I studied the guidance on what are variously called expenses, allowances and financial support for Peers. Those are different terms; to my mind, they mean different things. I found the terminology confusing, the definitions vague and the rules fuzzy. I was surprised that expenses could be paid without receipts; any public organisation with such practices in its handling of taxpayers’ money would be pilloried by the National Audit Office, not to mention the Public Accounts Committee in another place. Yet I came to understand that expenses had somehow mutated into allowances in acknowledgement of the substantial commitment made by Members of this House.
…. I thought that I was in a minority of one in thinking that the SSRB had not done a bad job, given its very tricky remit. I felt and feel that these arrangements have to change. I do not find its tone insulting; I do not regard myself as being entitled to use public money unless it is clear, accountable and verifiable. I know that there are concerns about the detail, and I have listened with interest to what Peers have said about that. Yet I still believe that the principles of the report are good, and I hope that the ad hoc committee can sort out some of the details, because I believe the allegations about the abuse of taxpayers’ money have eroded trust, not only in the Commons but here and in Parliament as a whole.
If we are to begin to regain that, we have little option but to accept the recommendations in broad terms…. Precisely because we have no constituents, we have to be sensitive to public opinion. I am not arguing that we should be led by it … but precisely because, for the moment at least, we cannot be kicked out of this House we must be sure that our rules on expenses and allowances are quite clear and fair, that they follow the principles of the diversity of this House, and that they are properly auditable. That is a basis for re-establishing confidence in this House’s key contribution to the work of the UK Parliament, and I will support the Motion on that basis.”
Eventually, the House agreed – without a vote – to accept “the principles and architecture” of the SSRB report.