Sunday, 27 June 2010

Supporting Crossbenchers

“Cranborne” money has been provided to opposition parties since 1996. It provides financial assistance to opposition parties, enabling them to employ administrative and research staff. The crossbenchers are not a party, but individuals who sit in the House of Lords. There is a "Convenor" who represents this diverse group of peers in discussions with other parties about he arrangement of business and in other matters. There is a website about Crossbenchers accessible here. They obviously have less need for administrative support than the parties - but a sterling job has been done by a series of Convenors - and some assistance has been given since 1999.

On Thursday a short debate followed the introduction of a motion concerning the Cranborne money. An excellent speech was made by Baroness Boothroyd which can be viewed here (from 48 min 14 secs into the recording).

She said

My Lords, this is an important resolution. It is cloaked in technical terms and it affects the way in which opposition parties are funded in this House to help them perform their parliamentary duties. Sadly, no one would know that without recourse to Hansard and to the resolution of 2002 that the Government seek to amend. I regret that. Where public funds and parliamentary accountability are involved, the Government need to be more transparent.

I believe that the Motion before us is more than a tidying-up operation. Rightly, it recognises the changed fortunes of the Liberal Democrats; wrongly—unless I am corrected—it implies a severe cut in the distribution of Cranborne money to the opposition parties in this House by no less than 30 per cent. At the same time, it does less than justice to Cross-Benchers, whose independence will always disbar them from office and who operate on a shoestring.

The Cross-Benchers came late to the party when Cranborne money was distributed for the first time in 1997. They had to wait two years. By that time, the cake had been cut and they were handed the smallest slice—a meagre slice, some would say. Cross-Benchers received £10,000 out of a total allocation of £291,000. Our relative position has improved slightly, but it remains at a subsistence level. I am really quite shocked at the disproportionate way in which Cranborne money has been divided during the past 13 years. To some, the Cross-Bench share was almost a joke.

Eight years ago, when Lord Williams of Mostyn increased the Cross-Bench allocation to £35,000, he laughingly remarked:

“I stand amazed at our generosity”.—[Official Report, 30/7/02; col. 820.]

My colleagues were grateful all the same.

Last year, the Cross-Bench Convenor, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, received the princely sum of £61,003—a substantial percentage increase, you might say, but that was only because the starting point was so low. Cross-Benchers had trailed so far behind they were almost out of sight.

The £60,000 a year allows our Convenor to employ one full-time and one part-time assistant to administer her office and respond to the needs of the 187 Cross-Bench Peers. She also represents us in consultations with the Government and other parties. She sits on some nine House committees. I pay tribute to her fortitude, but it is wrong that she should have to bear so heavy a burden without adequate support.

In contrast, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats last year shared the rest of the Cranborne money on a 2:1 ratio. In 12 months, they received £770,000. If that is not lop-sided, I do not know what is. Sinn Fein received more than the Cross-Benchers for its non-performance in the Commons. Despite the refusal of five Sinn Fein Members to take the oath of allegiance, Sinn Fein netted £96,000 to finance what the previous Government described as “representative business”, a term capable of many interpretations. I take these figures from an excellent research paper on the public funding of opposition parties produced by the Commons Library. The section on the way in which the Cranborne money operates makes eye-popping reading.

Sadly, unless the Leader of the House enlightens us otherwise, this Motion makes matters worse. In the absence of further information, the Government appear intent on returning to the Treasury the funds previously allocated to the Liberal Democrats. If that is right, the total amount of Cranborne money available to the Opposition will be reduced by nearly a third, all without reference or explanation to this House.

A clever lawyer might argue that the Cross-Benchers are entitled to all the Cranborne money that went to the Liberal Democrats—not that I would think such thoughts, of course. But the pecking order set out in the resolution of 2002 is clear. Then, the Cross-Benchers were in third place; now, they are in second place. It is a position that the Government choose to ignore to save money and—who knows?—perhaps to reassure their junior partner that its entitlement to Cranborne money is secure if the coalition fails. I do not challenge Labour’s entitlement to the £475,000 which the Conservatives received as the Official Opposition last year—that is, of course, on top of the salaries paid to their Leader and their Chief Whip. Nor do I begrudge Ministers the command of resources needed to formulate their policies, run their departments and present their case as persuasively as possible. I do, however, believe in fair play and hope that the Government do too.

As the House knows, we on these Benches belong to no party. We have no common platform or agreed policies, and no leader. We speak and vote according to judgment and conscience, without the discipline of Whips to guide us through the Lobbies, and we may be swept away if this House is replaced by an elected Chamber. However, while we are here Cross-Benchers will, I know, do their duty to Parliament and to the country. They need adequate resources to do so. We are not partisans but share the same principles and, I believe, perform a useful role.

These Benches do not need the hundreds of thousands of pounds that routinely go to opposition parties. Your Lordships may be surprised to know that during Labour’s period of office, the Conservatives received over £4 million in Cranborne money, the Liberal Democrats £2 million and the Cross-Benchers £400,000. I was a Whip in Harold Wilson’s Government when the first public funds were allocated to opposition parties in the Commons. The aim was to improve the parliamentary effectiveness of parties and groups not in government. I hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will agree that the need to do so has not changed. He is long experienced in the travails of opposition, and I hope that he will review the allocation of Cranborne money in the light of my unashamed appeal for a better deal for these Benches. I do not seek generosity; I seek fairness. Fairness will do for me.