House of Lords reform: what next ? - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents


7  Voluntary retirement

47. Procedurally, until 2011 the only option available to peers to "retire" was to take a leave of absence. However, in line with the recommendations of the Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House, an informal voluntary retirement scheme was introduced in 2011. This scheme allows Members to write to the Clerk of the Parliaments indicating their wish permanently to retire. As of July 2013, only three Members had taken advantage of the scheme, and two of those had been non-attenders for some years.[103] The broad consensus in the written evidence we received was that the current voluntary retirement scheme had not been effective and had had no notable impact. [104]

48. According to David Beamish, "the fundamental weakness of the informal voluntary retirement scheme is the lack of an incentive".[105] Lord Hunt of Wirral told us that, at present, "the benefits attaching to membership" are a "significant incentive to stay".[106] David Beamish explained that Members are entitled to claim £300 in respect of any day on which they attend the House of Lords. He also highlighted other benefits to membership, including IT equipment and access to facilities and papers, before noting that, "in the absence of any offsetting incentives, retirement is unlikely to be an attractive option for many members".[107]

49. The 2011 Leader's Group report suggested that it would be worthwhile to investigate whether a "modest pension, or payment on retirement" would provide peers with an incentive to take up voluntary retirement whilst also providing an overall saving to the taxpayer.[108] This idea was discussed in some of the written and oral evidence we received.[109] David Beamish's evidence confirmed that savings could be made, "provided that those retiring are not replaced by new appointees, as the compensation would relate only to the daily allowance, whereas the savings would extend to travel costs which would no longer be incurred, and to the provision of accommodation and facilities."[110] However, despite this, there was little support for this type of financial incentive among those who gave oral evidence to us; Lord Hennessy, for instance, stated that the public "would not understand" the rationale behind such a move.[111] Another financial alternative discussed in David Beamish's evidence was a proposal that the House might withhold some financial or other support from those who have, for instance, reached a certain age, or served for a certain number of years, or attended fewer than a certain proportion of sittings, or some combination thereof. David Beamish noted that "gradual withdrawal of financial support would provide a way of showing that the House is serious about retirement".[112]

50. Another option we discussed with witnesses was the introduction of a ceremony to mark the service of retiring Members. As Lord Hennessy stated, the lack of take-up of the voluntary scheme is partly due to the fact that "if people depart they would like some recognition of what they have done for the House. It does not necessarily have to be financial, but some sort of acknowledgement of services rendered might be worth exploring."[113] He suggested creating a "decommissioning ceremony" and argued that "people would like rites of passage and the recognition of good service and so on. It could be done with dignity."[114] Lord Hunt of Wirral concurred: "When we introduce a peer, there is a ceremony. Why shouldn't there be a ceremony to mark the distinguished contribution of a peer who has decided to retire with dignity?"[115]

51. The evidence we received suggested that, if the voluntary retirement scheme is to be more successful, it is imperative also to address the key political disincentive that is currently hindering take-up, namely that peers are reluctant to leave voluntarily because they are concerned about the impact their departure will have on party balance. As Dr Russell explained: "any member taking voluntary retirement at present simply weakens their party/group, with no guarantee that they will be replaced. Until a proportionality formula is established, any such system is likely to fail."[116]

52. Lord Hunt of Wirral suggested that voluntary retirement could be more actively promoted by party leaders and the convenor of Cross-bench peers and that "they should appeal to the recognition of the institutional interest of the House rather than individual interest in just seeking retirement of those who do not contribute effectively [...] and they could invite them to consider their position. There should be more political agreement about what proportion of seats for each party and the Cross-Benches there should be".[117] Dr Russell suggested that an appropriate goal might be to establish equality between the two main parties in the short term, with volunteer retirees sought to reach this target if necessary. She noted that here, the present position is "propitious because Labour retains only a small numerical advantage over the Conservatives (222 to 213)." She went on to argue that:

    Equality might therefore be relatively easily achieved. But agreeing such a formula would be delicate, and would almost certainly need to be agreed through cross-party talks, particularly if party peers were being asked to cooperate with the retirement element. No such formula would succeed if it were merely imposed.[118]

53. There was broad consensus in the evidence we received that the voluntary retirement scheme introduced in 2011 has not been a success and it has clearly had no notable impact on the size of the House. We believe it is incumbent upon the party leaders in the House of Lords and the Convener of the Cross-bench peers actively to encourage peers to consider retirement. Although this will undoubtedly be a delicate task, it is very much in the interests of parties and Cross-benchers to see the size of the House reduced in an equitable manner. We support the idea that some form of ceremony in recognition of service provided to the House should take place for peers who decide to take voluntary retirement.

A STRENGTHENED LEAVE OF ABSENCE SCHEME?

54. One other option we discussed with witnesses is whether the current leave of absence scheme could be strengthened. As recently as 2012 the scheme was bolstered to bring it into line with the recommendations of the Leader's Group chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral. As a result of this, the Clerk of Parliaments now writes at the start of each session to Members who have attended rarely in the previous session inviting them to apply for a leave of absence. The invitation can be accepted or declined according to the decision of the individual Member. Members who do not reply within three months are granted a leave of absence automatically. Since May 2012 it has led to 16 peers agreeing to take a leave of absence and a further four being granted a leave of absence after failing to reply within three months. As a result, the number of peers on a leave of absence is now 42, much higher than in recent years. Lord Hunt of Wirral told us that the fact that the innovation had encouraged a number of peers who had been attending to take a leave of absence highlights its success.[119]

55. In his written evidence, David Beamish detailed how the scheme could be further strengthened through changes to Standing Orders, "making more forceful use of the leave of absence scheme to reduce numbers".[120] He suggested:

    The House could set a minimum level of attendance required of its members [...]. Such a rule would have to allow for exceptions, where members had a valid and time-limited reason [...] for being unable to attend. It has also been suggested to me that there ought to be a mechanism (perhaps via a committee) for exempting especially distinguished members. [...]

    The question then arises - what could the House do to those who failed to comply? [...] I do not believe that a Member could be suspended in such circumstances. However, I believe that it would be within the House's power to deem such Members to have applied for leave of absence. Such leave is, by definition, voluntary—enforced leave of absence, without the option of terminating it, would be tantamount to suspension, as well as being a contradiction in terms. It would therefore be essential that leave granted in such circumstances could be terminated in the normal way, by the Member giving three months' notice of his or her intention to return to the House. This would allow Members to mend their ways, and return to the House, on the understanding that they would henceforth attend more regularly. On this basis, I believe a strengthened leave of absence scheme would be lawful.[121]

56. Since the House of Lords strengthened its leave of absence scheme, take-up has increased. We welcome suggestions to bolster this scheme further by setting a minimum level of attendance, with appropriate exceptions. As with the issue of voluntary retirement, we believe that the political parties in the Lords ought to do more to encourage take up of the leave of absence scheme and should offer their support for a strengthened scheme, with a view to implementing it within this Parliament.


103   Ev w50 Back

104   Ev w2; Ev w5; Ev w15; Ev w30; Ev w32  Back

105   Ev w50 Back

106   Q 92 Back

107   Ev w50 Back

108   "Members Leaving the House", Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House, HL Paper 83, Session 2010-2011, 13 January 2011, para 47. Back

109   Ev w9; Ev w10 Back

110   Ev w50 Back

111   Q 72 ff Back

112   Ev w51  Back

113   Q 72 [Lord Hennessy] Back

114   Q 109 Back

115   Q 192 Back

116   Ev w41. See also Ev w52 [David Beamish]  Back

117   Q 164 [David Beamish] Back

118   Ev w43. See also Q 131 Back

119   Q 190 Back

120   Ev w52 Back

121   Ev w52 Back


 
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Prepared 17 October 2013