House of Lords
Thursday, 19 July 2007.
The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.
Introduction: Lord Darzi of Denham
My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Rating (Empty Properties) Act,
Appropriation (No. 2) Act,
Mental Health Act,
Concessionary Bus Travel Act,
Vehicle Registration Marks Act,
Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act,
Parliament (Joint Departments) Act,
Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act,
Whitehaven Harbour Act,
London Local Authorities Act.
My Lords, the Government recognise the important contribution of bees as pollinators and the threat posed by pests and pathogens. The bee health programme is led in England and Wales by the National Bee Unit, which monitors bee colonies and investigates pests and disease and cases involving significant losses. The department is currently preparing a draft strategy for bee health and will be consulting stakeholders on the future aims and priorities for the programme.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and for pointing out that we get much more from bees than simply honey; their contribution to pollinating everything from apples to beans is extremely important. How does Defra intend to co-ordinate the funding between itself, BBSRC and the academic institutions that are undertaking research? Does the Minister agree that the threats to bees from Varroa, foul brood and perhaps the small hive beetle from the Continent are unprecedented and might result in the sort of colony collapse that happened in America, where the bee population was halved? Is he confident that the funding for inspections and research is adequate in the face of those threats?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that there are threats. The funding has remained the same in the United Kingdom; it is about £1.7 million, excluding funding for research. The same applies for the devolved Administrations. The funding is always under review. We are working, as I have said, on the strategy. An enormous amount of research is going on in the country, not just at the Central Science Laboratory where the National Bee Unit is based but in other academic institutions, as she said. It is true that serious efforts are being put into contingency planning for the Tropilaelaps—I have been practising that word but I still cannot say it—small hive beetle and the European foul brood, which is another disease. We are working on this with the industry because it is important. However, there is no connection between this and what has been happening in the United States. Even the United States does not know why so many colonies have collapsed, although obviously it is looking at this. Our scientists are in very close contact with United States scientists.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is considerable ignorance about the benefits that bees bring, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said? Does he accept that there is an increasing need for people to understand and perhaps to get involved in beekeeping? A number of people now recognise that keeping bees privately is beneficial not only as a hobby but as a public service. What are the Government doing to promote education about beekeeping and to encourage people to get involved in it?
My Lords, we know that there are 44,000 beekeepers, who are looking after some 274,000 colonies. Of those beekeepers, only 300 are commercial; they look after 40,000 colonies. The number is vast. If anyone wants an excellent example, they should look at the Guardian today, although it has nothing to do with this Question, and see what 14 year-old Philip Schilds is doing in Hackney. He regularly climbs up on to the roof to generate 500 pounds of honey for Hackney Rooftop Honey. With his eight hives, he is looking after a considerable number of bees. His food production is a tribute to youngsters. Honey from urban areas tastes better because the bees get a better variety of flowers than they do from the monotone in the countryside. My noble friend is right. Defra inspections are free, as are the training programmes. They might not always be free but they are currently. This is a public good because of the importance of bees to food production.
My Lords, one of the organisms that have been mentioned is the small hive beetle, Aethina, which can be carried into this country. It is not yet a risk, but it has invaded Canada, the United States and Australia, and it destroys large colonies of bees. Will the Minister say whether bees such as queens are still imported into this country, and does Defra regard that as a threat?
My Lords, we do not allow any bees to be imported from the United States. I do not know about the queens, but I know that some bumble bees are imported from Europe for commercial use. So far, we have not experienced a massive downturn in the hives. In fact, there were reports in the spring that there had been one of the most successful winters ever for the bee population. Counting the bee population is not easy, but the estimates for the United Kingdom are that there are 5 billion bees in the winter and 16 billion in the summer.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the first case of resistance to pyrethroid was acknowledged in 2001 in Devon? This has spread extensively across the country. What alternative has been forthcoming and are any approved substances that are not on the recommended list used abroad?
My Lords, I do not have a list, but resistance to pyrethroid is a common problem. It is important that where resistance is found beekeepers switch to using non-pyrethroid treatments and adapt the principles of integrated pest management. Field test kits for identifying the resistance have been developed by the National Bee Unit for use by bee inspectors and beekeepers. This public good is done by the unit as part of the Central Science Laboratory of Defra.
My Lords, would the Minister’s department consider funding the very exciting research being done at Rothamsted into the development of biological pesticides to control Varroa? That might cost around £660,000 over three years, but it is a drop in the ocean if such control can help to sustain crop pollination in the EU to the tune of about £4 billion a year.
My Lords, the closure of Rothamsted’s bee unit was a matter for Rothamsted; it was not an issue of Defra funding, although obviously we use the centre for research. Although there is no longer a team working on bee pathology at Rothamsted, apparently a group of researchers still studies bee behaviour, pollination and conservation. In addition, at a recent meeting of the British Beekeepers Association, it became clear to our officials that a vibrant group of researchers in England and Wales is studying different aspects of bees. To the best of my knowledge, we are not short of bee research.
My Lords, it is a key aim of the Government to reduce unintended pregnancy rates, measured by the number of abortions, as featured in both the sexual health and teenage pregnancy strategies. Provision of good quality contraceptive advice and services are essential to achieve this. We will be issuing best practice guidance on reproductive healthcare later this year that is aimed at commissioners and providers and which emphasises the need to develop strong links between abortion and contraceptive services. In addition, primary care trusts will be assessed on access to contraception as part of the Healthcare Commission’s annual healthcheck for 2006-07.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, and I am sorry for the joke. Is she aware that the contraceptive audit done by the Department of Health showed that family planning clinics in the community were closing all over the country and that women are no longer able to access the full range of contraceptive services that they need, even from their GPs? On the basis that an abortion is an unprevented pregnancy, would the Minister please agree with me that it is no coincidence that the closure of clinics has coincided with a rise in the abortion rate?
My Lords, I am sure that there is some coincidence between the lack of access to contraceptive services and the rate of abortions. We are doing our utmost to ensure that that rate goes down and that access to clinics goes up. We are working on ensuring that there is better commissioning at a local level so that more people have access to these vital contraceptive services.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that abortion can lead to trauma and tragedy for many women, perhaps even years later? Is she, like me, saddened and concerned by the fact that we have now destroyed some 7 million babies? What priority is she putting on her efforts to stop the flow of abortions?
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that abortion can cause great trauma and tragedy for women who have them. It is a necessary evil. However, it is not a method of contraception. People turn to it as a last resort. We are doing our utmost to reduce the number of abortions and to increase access to contraceptive services so that fewer people have abortions.
My Lords, there are 600 abortions every day, which is roughly one every three and a half minutes. With so few babies available to be adopted in the United Kingdom, would it not be more positive for the Minister and the Government to promote a more effective policy on adoption?
My Lords, adoption is one area of policy; abortion and contraceptive health are another. We are concerned here with women’s rights over their reproductive health. We are talking about sexual health and reproduction; we should not look at unintended pregnancies as a source of babies for adoption.
My Lords, are the Government investigating why one-third of British doctors are now reported to be refusing to refer women for abortions and whether this indicates a change of mood and mind among some younger members of the medical profession about the current legislation on abortion?
My Lords, it is a matter of great concern to the Government that fewer doctors are working in this area and we are looking into the problem. One of the reasons is that it is not seen as a “sexy” area; many other specialities are of greater interest to doctors. We must work to ensure that there are enough doctors available to perform these services.
My Lords, for many women there is a need for easy and early access to abortion. One of the problems they face is the long distances they have to travel in order to get an abortion. I appreciate that the legislation rightly lays down that clinics have to be registered, but is there any way in which we can increase the number of venues where abortions can be performed in order to ensure that women get early access to abortion?
My Lords, my noble friend is right: early access to abortion is vital for women’s health and for choice. For that reason, we are piloting medical abortions in more community-based settings. These are now being evaluated, clearly taking into consideration safety, accessibility and working, of course, within the law.
My Lords, the Minister will be well aware of the gradual reduction in the number of under-18 pregnancies in England but the data for 1998-2005 indicate that the percentage of such pregnancies leading to abortion has increased somewhat; however, the variation is enormous. What guidance is given to the NHS about encouraging those young girls to seek abortion? What is the department doing to address the variation, say, between London’s 59.7 per cent and the north-east’s 38.9 per cent?
My Lords, I regret that I cannot give chapter and verse in respect of guidance but I will certainly inform noble Lords in writing and place a copy in the Library. It is of great concern to the Government that delivery on the ground is unequal; it is patchy throughout the United Kingdom. We are working on the problem in terms of best practice and the provision of guidance. We want to ensure that access is equal in all areas of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, in my days as a health Minister I was made aware of the deep concerns about the psychological and physical effects of abortion, to which my noble friend Lady Knight referred. What consideration is being given to recent research that points to a linkage between abortion and short-term births and breast cancer?
My Lords, I regret that I do not have that answer. Again, I will make it available to noble Lords and place a copy in the Library. However, I entirely agree that abortions can lead to psychological problems. It is for that reason that they are the last resort for women.
Mariners: Alcohol and Drugs Limits
My Lords, the proposed exemption is designed to except from the application of prescribed alcohol limits those non-professional mariners on vessels which, because of their smaller size of under seven metres and lower maximum possible speed of seven knots or less, pose less risk in the water. The parameters for the exemption are designed to achieve this while being a recognised figure based on existing international shipping law.
I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, but is she aware that one of the biggest causes of marine accidents in the leisure industry is people coming home in their boat from the pub after a good drinking session? A lot of people die that way in their dinghies. Does she agree that there is very little difference between being in charge of a boat, even if it is only doing seven knots, and being in charge of a car? You can still kill people. Does she not agree that it is illogical to exempt people who are at leisure just because it seems to be all right? They can still cause as many deaths as a professional boatman.
My Lords, I do not agree with my noble friend on the possibility of small dinghies, canoes, rowing boats and punts, which are the category of vessel we are talking about, posing as much of a safety risk as larger motor-powered vessels over the limit of seven metres and seven knots that we are proposing. While ensuring the safety of the public on all vessels in our waters is a top priority, we are, through consultation, learning the lessons from, for instance, the terrible tragedy of the “Marchioness” and the two most recent accidents in Scotland and the south-west, where people were killed because of alcohol limits being exceeded. To create a balance, the Government have chosen this category to be the exception.
My Lords, of course they will pose a risk to each other. We still maintain that that risk is a lot less than the limit of seven knots and seven metres. However, there is an offence, which will be put into force once the regulations have commenced, of being impaired in the ability to navigate because of drink or drugs. That offence will be there for both professional and non-professional mariners. It is not as if leisure mariners are completely free of legislation. That impairment offence through drink or drugs will be there.
My Lords, I wonder if the Minister is aware that the South West Ports Association has written to the Government asking them to include the smaller boats to which she referred within the new law. With regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, it is when ships get close to shore and people use dinghies and rowing boats—which the Minister rather dismissed—that the accidents occur. Might the Government not be devoting sufficient resources to the enforcement of several laws relating to boats in connection with people-trafficking, drugs and accidents to people?
My Lords, I sincerely do not believe that this is a question of resources. The majority of the responses from the assiduous consultation that has gone on with both the leisure boat industry and the safety agencies have led us to believe that we have struck a balance. There is a need for that balance between regulation and overburdening people in their leisure time and ensuring that we have safety on our waters.
Armed Forces: Inquests
My Lords, all casualties suffered by the UK Armed Forces are a source of profound regret. We are committed to assisting families of service personnel who have died on operations overseas when their loved ones are repatriated. Central government exceptionally provided a resource to help clear inquest backlog in the Oxfordshire coroner’s jurisdiction. I understand that the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner has only been receiving fatalities via RAF Lyneham since 1 April 2007.
My Lords, these delays are a disgrace. Last week’s announcement on the blue-on-blue incident took place four years after the event. The Government have a duty of care to the bereaved families. How long will it take to complete all outstanding inquests? Will the Government now make their support for coroners and families much more responsive and open?
My Lords, I understand the seriousness of delays which I agree have caused a great deal of distress to the families concerned. It has to be understood that the coronial service is local and independent. The Government have given exceptional resources, enabling the Oxfordshire coroner to employ three assistant deputy coroners. That is having a positive impact on the number of inquests that have been dealt with. Other inquests have been transferred to coroners who are closer to the next of kin.
It is not possible for me to forecast when an inquest process will be completed; that is in the hands of individual coroners. However, I accept that we must do everything we can to encourage coroners, who are independent, to make sure that these matters are dealt with as speedily as possible.
My Lords, the Government have promised that they will give the Armed Forces everything they need for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does the noble Lord not accept that that covers the closure that the families of those who lose their husbands, fathers or brothers in those wars need? Should not the Government provide yet further resources for the coroners not only in Oxfordshire but in Wiltshire and other areas to which the deceased come back, to make sure that the necessary closure can be achieved?
My Lords, I certainly accept that we have a responsibility to the families concerned and I take the noble Lord’s point about closure. My honourable friends in another place have announced the support that we give families generally. The provision of resources falls to local authorities. We have given exceptional grants to Oxfordshire. The Wiltshire and Swindon coroner has written to Ministers about resources, and I understand that a meeting is to take place between them in the next week or so.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that his right honourable friend Ms Harriet Harman announced at the end of last year that families were charged hundreds of pounds to gain access to documents for the purposes of an inquest. Indeed, one father was charged £600 for access to official papers. Has this practice now stopped and do the resources to which the Minister referred include the reasonable cost of proper legal representation for families at inquests?
My Lords, on the general support given to families, my understanding is that we have increased from five to seven the number of family members eligible to receive travel, accommodation and subsistence at public expense to attend repatriation ceremonies. We are also providing travel, accommodation and subsistence payments for two members of the family to attend the inquest at public expense. We have extended this entitlement to enable two family members to attend any pre-inquest hearings.
My Lords, in answer to a question yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, said that our forces in Basra were increasingly becoming the target for the militias. In the unfortunate event that there are even more casualties, what arrangements have the Government made to ensure that there is no extra delay?
My Lords, the matter is frequently discussed with the Ministry of Defence. The Government have acknowledged that we must do everything we can to reduce unacceptable delays. That is why we are working with the coroners. I stress that those coroners are independent, but we have encouraged them to consider the transfer of inquests where that appears to be appropriate. In Oxfordshire, where the big backlog of cases has been the major problem, we have given extra resources. That has enabled the coroner there to increase the number of deputy assistant coroners. We will continue to do everything we can to make sure that there are not unacceptable delays.
My Lords, the coronial service is a local service. The coroners are independent and make their own independent judgments. A review of the coronial service has been carried out by Mr Luce. As a result of that and of widespread discussions, the draft Queen’s Speech published a few days ago contains a coronial Bill, which noble Lords will no doubt wish to consider. It will enhance the national nature of the coronial service, including the appointment of a chief coroner. It will ensure that there are national standards and that much more attention is given to the needs of bereaved families. For the future, we can see a major reform of the coronial service, but it will still have the essential independence of a local service as well, with coroners remaining independent.
My Lords, can we have an assurance that, if additional funds are required, they will be forthcoming and timely, so that we avoid the ghastly situation which has already arisen? I declare a non-financial interest as president of the War Widows Association. I have seen what happens at very close hand.
My Lords, I of course understand the question of resources. We have dealt with the situation in Oxfordshire. A number of other inquests have been transferred to other coroners. In Wiltshire and Swindon, we have received representations from the coroner. We are following them up, and Ministers will meet the coroner very shortly.
My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord with the full details of the current position. I certainly hope that everything is being done to enable those families to attend inquests. I have given some details of the support that is already being provided, but I will certainly check that and write to him.
Statistics and Registration Service Bill
My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons amendments be now considered.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
[The page and line references are to Bill 53 as first printed for the Lords.]
12: Page 5, line 13, at end insert—
“(1A) The Code shall include rules and principles relating to the access to official statistics in their final form prior to publication (“pre-release access”), including—
(a) the circumstances in which, or descriptions of statistics in relation to which, pre-release access may or may not be granted;
(b) the persons, or descriptions of persons, to whom pre-release access may be granted;
(c) the period, or maximum period, during which pre-release access may be granted; and
(d) the conditions subject to which pre-release access may be granted.
(1B) The Code may make different provision for different cases.”
15: Leave out Clause 11
The Commons insist on their disagreement with the Lords in their Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 15, 20, 67, 68, 69, 70 and 72, do not insist on their Amendments Nos. 15B and 15C, but propose Amendments 15D, 15E and 15F to the words restored to the Bill by disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment No. 15.
15D: Page 5, line 22, leave out “National”
15E: Page 6, line 4, leave out “Treasury” and insert “Minister for the Cabinet Office”
15F: Page 6, line 13, at end insert “and the Board”
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 15, 20, 67 to 70 and 72 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 15D, 15E and 15F to the words restored to the Bill by their disagreement with Lords Amendment No. 15.
There was much discussion of these matters when the Bill was last before this House, and I understand that the other place had a full and robust debate on this issue only yesterday. As we discussed when we last considered this issue, the Prime Minister has announced the Government’s commitment further to reduce the length of time for which pre-release access is available to 24 hours for all UK-wide and reserved statistics, which is down from the previously agreed reduction to 40.5 hours. By committing to reduce pre-release access from up to five days, as is enjoyed at present, to a maximum of 24 hours, the Government are demonstrating that they have listened to the strong views on this issue expressed both here and in the other place.
Under the Government’s proposals, as noble Lords know, it is for Ministers to set out in secondary legislation, and for Parliament to agree the precise content of the new pre-release arrangements under the new system. These arrangements will be set out in secondary legislation. This statutory instrument will set out rules and principles to restrict the number of people who receive pre-release access and the statistical series to which pre-release might apply. It will also restrict the length of time for which pre-release access is available to a maximum of 24 hours for reserved statistics.
We are not yet in a position to prepare a draft of this statutory instrument. The reason for that is, of course, straightforward. As I indicated when we last considered this issue, the Government intend to consult the shadow board when it has been established on the content of that order before laying it before the House. This provides a powerful role for the board in determining the new arrangements, and this role will—under the amendment made by the Commons that we are considering today—be confirmed on the face of the legislation. In this, as with so many of the other changes the Government have made through the Bill’s passage, we are accepting some of the arguments presented in this House. It has never been the Government’s intention to hand Ministers a free rein in this matter—indeed, quite the contrary. The legislation, together with this new legislative duty to consult the board in determining the content of the pre-release regime, will ensure a strong and meaningful role for the board, both in influencing the content of the pre-release regime itself and in enforcing the new arrangements.
We have a substantial degree of consensus on the importance and value of this Bill, which will govern the statistical system in this country. We have reached consensus on most of the key structures and processes that the Bill will establish. Wherever possible, the Government have moved to meet the views of all sides and have made real changes to the Bill.
We have amended Clause 25, on the board’s duty to produce and publish reports, to clarify that all reports must be laid before the devolved legislatures and the Scottish Parliament. We have changed the board’s objective in Clause 7 to underscore its role in promoting and safeguarding statistics that serve the public good. We have changed the name of the code of practice in Clause 10 to emphasise its applicability to all statistics. We have granted the board a duty to comment on those statistics that it felt should be subject to the assessment process, and clarified that when the statistics are produced by a Minister of the Crown, the Minister must respond publicly, stating when the board’s request will be complied with—and if not, why not. We have imposed a duty to comply with the code of practice. Amendments have been passed to clarify the separation of functions between assessment and the production of statistics and to clarify the role, responsibilities and functions of the National Statistician and the executive office. We have passed the residual responsibilities for the board from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. On the face of the Bill we have made a commitment to consult the board on the content of the pre-release secondary legislation before it is laid before the House, and we have committed to consult publicly. At the highest level, there was the announcement that pre-release access will be tightened even further to 24 hours, as I have already mentioned. We have made a commitment in principle to create a central publication hub, through which all national statistics will be released in the new system, separating statistical releases from policy commentary; and we have committed to review the pre-release arrangements after 12 months, and to assess whether they hinder the broader objective of increasing trust in statistics.
The House will recognise that the Government have been responsive to arguments that have been presented here and in another place. Today we have suggested further clarification of the board’s important role in relation to pre-release. That is the last remaining area of contention. The Government propose real and significant reforms to the current pre-release regime, with a meaningful and strong role for the board in determining the new arrangements. The sooner the Bill receives Royal Assent, the sooner we can begin the important business of making a reality of the new system.
We have had very intensive and constructive debates on these issues and I thank all Members of the House who participated in them. I hope the House will recognise that the Government have listened to the strength of feeling on these issues. However, the Bill is too important to be put in jeopardy at this late stage. I hope it will be recognised that the best way to enhance confidence in our national statistical system is to ensure that the Bill gets a ready passage. Although I understand noble Lords will not be totally satisfied by this last response from the Government to the amendments that were tabled in this House on a previous occasion, I hope the House will consider that the Government have been sufficiently responsive and that the Bill is sufficiently significant for noble Lords not to press their Motion. I beg to move.
Moved, That this House do not insist on its Amendments 12, 13, 15, 20, 67 to 70 and 72, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 15D, 15E and 15F to the words restored to the Bill by their disagreement with Lords Amendment No. 15.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Motion. The other place continues to assert that the rules for pre-release are more appropriately made by Ministers. It has been the consistent position of your Lordships’ House that the independent Statistics Board, created by this Bill, should set the rules.
When we last debated the issue, the Minister said that the board would be consulted on the draft statutory instrument containing the rules, but he resisted the notion that consultation should be placed on the face of the Bill. We did not understand that then and we are not surprised that the Government climbed down on that in another place. Amendment No. 15F places consultation with the board in the Bill. It is not even as much as half a loaf, but we accept it none the less.
The Minister has also made much of the Prime Minister’s announcement that pre-release would be reduced to 24 hours. The Government have resisted here and in another place putting that maximum in the Bill. The Minister explained that very succinctly on 9 July when he said:
“We do not want to put the length of time for pre-release access in primary legislation as we want flexibility”.—[Official Report, 9/7/07; col. 1237.]
That can mean only one thing: that the Prime Minister’s announcement of the 24-hour limit is not a maximum; it is a minimum to be varied upwards without statutory constraint. The Prime Minister’s 24-hour commitment, therefore, lacks substance. However, neither of these commitments, to consultation and to 24 hours, really addresses the core issue—that the Government should not be setting the limits at all; it should be done by the independent Statistics Board.
We have thought carefully about whether we should ask the other House to think about this again. We thought especially carefully about it in the light of the views expressed by Sir Michael Scholar, the Government’s nominated chairman of the Statistics Board, when he appeared before the Treasury Select Committee in another place yesterday afternoon. Sir Michael's very clear view was that it would be preferable for the Statistics Board to set the rules. He also expressed the view that less than 24 hours would be desirable. I should say at this point that we welcome Sir Michael Scholar as chairman. He is known to many of us in your Lordships' House as a man of exceptional integrity and ability. If the Government think that they have selected someone who will be a pushover, they had better think again.
The Minister in another place tried to argue that, because the Government had conceded a number of points in amendments to the Bill, that was a reason not to give in on pre-release. The Minister set out those changes again today though he did not go as far as claiming that that meant he did not have to change anything more. When the Bill was first presented it was not a good Bill, and it is now a much better Bill; but the fact that the Government accept that they got it wrong on several issues does not entitle them to remain in the wrong on the issue of pre-release. All of that led me to believe that we should fight on for the principle of pre-release not being in the hands of the Government. But we recognise that the other place has clearly expressed the opposite view. We have therefore reluctantly come to the view that your Lordships' House should accept the judgment of the elected House on the issue of pre-release.
The Government continue to toy with ideas of elections to this House, and we shall perhaps hear more of that later today. They should be very clear that if this House were wholly or mainly elected it is very likely that we would not give way on issues of principle such as this. So we cede this point today to the elected House. In so doing we express the strong hope and desire that the Statistics Board will act independently and forthrightly in relation to all its functions but in particular to pre-release. We want the board to speak out openly and fearlessly against the Government when necessary. The consultation on the draft statutory instrument creating the pre-release rules will give the new board an early opportunity to show us what it is made of. We shall be watching the board’s words and deeds with great interest.
That leads me to my last point: who will be watching the Statistics Board once it is up and running? The case was made during our deliberations most forcefully by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding—who is not able to be in his place today—that there should be a Standing Committee of both Houses set up to oversee the work of the Statistics Board. That reflected our view that the board's work is so important that it transcends departmental boundaries and should involve the expertise of both Houses. I hope that the Minister can today give the House an indication of the Government's views on this. We accept that it is a matter for the authorities of both Houses, but we all know that the reality is that the views of the Government of the day are influential. I hope that the Minister will be able to conclude our proceedings on the Bill by giving some positive news on that front.
My Lords, a good number of humorous remarks were made yesterday in another place about those who were new boys and new girls to the Bill, but, like my honourable friend Vincent Cable in the other place, I am not a new boy on the Bill, although I am not the head boy either. I have to give the apologies of my noble friend Lord Newby, who has a long-standing business appointment in Yorkshire, but I am happy to deputise for him.
We on these Benches concur, as we have throughout the Bill’s passage, with the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. She set out the current position very fairly. I must say in fairness to the Minister that we believe that the Bill has been substantially improved by scrutiny in this place. It has had rigorous scrutiny, fully backed by the threat and reality of substantial amending votes. It has been a very worthwhile process. The substantial and distinguished Cross-Bench input, led by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, has greatly improved this Bill. I pay tribute to him and to noble Lords on the other Benches.
I, too, welcome the proposed appointment of Sir Michael Scholar. I should declare an interest in that St John’s College, Oxford is one of my longest-standing investment clients, so clearly I must not say anything even nicer about him than we have heard already. However, I know him well and believe that he will do an excellent job.
We are concerned, as we so often are when dealing with measures of this type, that so much is left to secondary legislation. As my honourable friend Vince Cable pointed out, that is unamendable. If it is defective, we cannot discuss it and amend it. That raises a serious point of principle, which is why we fought to get as much as possible included in the Bill.
All that said, it would be churlish not to accept that this is a greatly improved Bill. We have not 99 per cent but probably 90 per cent of what we wanted. I pay tribute to the Government for accepting that they have to take this House seriously.
My Lords, my views are very similar to those of the previous speakers. The amendment proposed by the other House is not quite what we had in mind throughout our debates. As far as I understand it, it does not cover the place of pre-release in the code and it still leaves far more control to Ministers than we think is desirable. However, like the noble Lord, I do not want to be churlish. The amendment brings the board explicitly into the pre-release business, which accepts the spirit of what we have argued for throughout. That is coupled with the Prime Minister’s decision to reduce the pre-release maximum to 24 hours. Great progress has indeed been made. I, too, appreciate that and take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the flexibility that the Government have shown throughout the Bill’s passage in this House. I agree with the previous speaker that it is very much to the credit of this House that the Bill has been so substantially improved. I know that I speak for substantial parts of the statistics profession when I say that this work of the House of Lords is very much appreciated.
As we approach the end of the Bill’s passage, we recognise that much will now depend on the new board and its work together with that of the National Statistician and her forces. Their task will certainly be helped by the final form of the Bill, achieved after its long journey through this House. If I were allowed one final wish for the work of the board, it would be to emphasise for probably the 10th time that it must be concerned with the statistical system as a whole and not just with its centrepiece, the ONS. I was much cheered by the words of the Minister in the other place yesterday, who said:
“All sides agree that this is a desirable Bill, which enshrines in statute for the first time the independence of the Office for National Statistics and the UK statistical system”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/7/07; col. 321.]
It is crucial that, in ending our discussions, we remind ourselves that what has been achieved is the independence not just of Treasury Ministers but, I hope, of Ministers as a whole.
I very much welcome the proposed appointment of Sir Michael Scholar as chair of the new board. That is not only because he is a very good pianist—we do a lot of music together—but because he has a remarkable record in public life, both in the public sector and in the academic world. To my mind, he has exactly the right combination of personal and professional qualities, together with the vast experience that the job needs. It is a splendid appointment, which augurs well for the future of the board.
Finally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, there is still one gap in the organisational framework to be dealt with, which is the role of Parliament. It has been crucial from the very first thoughts on the Bill that the board reports to Parliament. That is the top layer in the new system on which the reforms must rest. There must be more than just the occasional formal report or questions. That is totally critical to the new reforms. It seems self-evident that the committees in the present structure, with the Treasury Sub-Committee in the other place and the Economic Affairs Committee here, though excellent in what they do, are not adequate to perform the task that is now before Parliament. Rightly, they are focused on economic affairs, whereas the whole point of the new reforms must be that they cut right across Whitehall and the whole government system. That has to be achieved and both Houses have to be involved in a new system. With that still to be done, this is a very happy moment for the Bill and, if I may say so, for the statistical world.
My Lords, the proposal underlying the Bill was excellent, but the original Bill was seriously flawed. It displayed a lack of conviction, with Ministers showing great reluctance to let go and trust the board. Happily, this House has done what it is here to do. Even if we have not achieved everything that some people wanted, we have secured some major improvements. Within a unified board, there is greater clarity between the role of the board and the role of the National Statistician and executive. Her status as National Statistician and head of profession has been enhanced. Ministers no longer decide unilaterally which statistics are national statistics and which are not. The code now applies to all statistics, not just national statistics. The principle of pre-release has been accepted, the board is to be consulted and, if it is not satisfied with the way in which the regime is working, it can say so. I, too, accept that this was not my first preference, but I am prepared to accept the position that we are now in. The Cabinet Office is now the residual department and, as the noble Lord, Lord Moser, said, it is clear that the regime applies to the totality of official statistics.
By happy coincidence, the Government have belatedly accepted what this House has been arguing all along, that improving trust in statistics is an essential component of the wider initiative to improve trust in government life. As a result, they have volunteered the 24-hour maximum on pre-release. I am more sanguine than some that this will never be pushed higher than that figure. It has come forward late on, with the creation of the hub separating release from comment, which is possibly the single most influential change in the whole system.
I, too, endorse the proposal to appoint Sir Michael Scholar as chair. His excellent qualities have been referred to, but he was also for a while Permanent Secretary at the Welsh Office and so has a vested interest in making a success of the move of the headquarters of the board to Newport. I hope that the other place—although, of course, it should be not the other place but Parliament as a whole—will endorse this appointment.
I agree, too, that there is an unfinished piece of business and that we need a Joint Committee with the change to the Cabinet Office as the residual department. The responsibility will now move to the Public Administration Committee. I hold the chairman of that committee in very high regard but I do not think that that committee is really equipped to take on the role, so I strongly support this proposal.
The process of the Bill has been arduous. We have probably had one more round of ping-pong than we needed but I think that we can take satisfaction from the work that has been done. However, it is ironic that we started work on the Bill shortly after the other place voted that the Cross-Benchers should be thrown out of this House, in which case the contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Moser, and others on the Cross Benches would not have been made.
My Lords, perhaps a non-Cross-Bencher may intervene briefly. I welcome the improvements to the Bill, as I do the effort that is being made, as a result of those improvements, to create a thoroughly independent and trusted system of statistics in this country. However, statistics must have another important quality relating to the service that they perform. I speak as a former Minister who, in the past, has been a consumer of these statistics. That quality is to provide Ministers in as timely a way as possible with the statistics that they need to make the right decisions.
I should be grateful if, when he responds to the debate, the Minister could give an assurance that, without in any way prejudicing independence—this has nothing to do with that—under the new regime Ministers will be better able to get the statistics that they need to do their job properly and to get them in time and that, if that requires extra resources to be given to the Government Statistical Service, the Government will provide those resources.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to what I hope will be the last stages of the debate on the Bill. I note the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, who, I understand, is not able to be in his place today, and that made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who assuredly would have played a part in our deliberations at this late point had he been able to.
Throughout the Bill’s passage, the Government have sought to be responsive but, at the same time, they have strongly resisted moves to put in the Bill things which are intended and which will happen in any case. Nothing could be clearer than that with regard to the 24-hour maximum period for pre-release. The Prime Minister included that in his important announcement and it was an iron-clad statement. I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said when she reiterated that she would have preferred that to be stated in the Bill, but she should acknowledge that the Government could not have been more categorical or authoritative on this issue, nor could they have committed themselves more fully than the Prime Minister did a short while ago.
I emphasise that there is always a problem with putting figures in a Bill. The maximum period is 24 hours but we want flexibility potentially to move that downwards and not only to have, as the noble Baroness suggested, flexibility in one direction. The problem with putting figures into the Bill is that they form part of the definitive law of the land and to change them requires primary legislation. We want this Bill to last for a very substantial time. It will certainly do well if it matches the previous legislation on statistics, which lasted for more than 60 years. The Government have a legitimate anxiety in such circumstances about putting such a figure in the Bill.
My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that we bring a powerful new structure into place and a very powerful new actor in the board and its responsibility for statistics. Yet, with her proposal, should the board reach any different judgment on pre-release at any time in the future for any reason, it would be faced with a fixed position in primary legislation. We all acknowledge the significant role of the board. I do not see why the noble Baroness cannot accept that the Government are resistant to the rigidity that her proposal would impose.
I add a further point, to which the noble Baroness has scarcely referred at any stage during the passage of the Bill. The Government had to negotiate aspects of the Bill with the devolved Administrations; the Bill of course refers to national statistics and reserved statistics. We did, and do, discuss with the devolved Administrations their roles and legitimate interests in such structures. If we changed this position, as suggested by the noble Baroness, we would have difficulties with the agreements that we have struck with the devolved Administrations. This would cause considerable difficulty and delay.
My Lords, it is within the framework of the Bill. The problem with regard to the legislative position, as the noble Lord will recognise, is that we have proceeded with the blessing and good will of the devolved Administrations and we did not say that we would put this issue into the Bill. I am sure that he will recognise our difficulties in that area.
I very much appreciate the approval that noble Lords who are very knowledgeable about this issue have given to the putative appointment of Sir Michael Scholar as chair of the Statistics Board. I enter a caveat of reservation at this stage, because the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that this appointment should be subject to parliamentary consideration. The Treasury Select Committee interviewed Sir Michael yesterday and is due to produce a report before the vote in the House of Commons on his appointment. I have no doubt that the other place will take firmly into account the widespread approval expressed in this House today by noble Lords with great expertise in these areas that this is an excellent appointment. Certainly, the proceedings in the Select Committee went well yesterday. The appointment is subject to parliamentary approval. I am quite sure that no one in this House will not applaud the Government’s intent with this and, of course, with the role that Parliament plays in a number of critical appointments.
The noble Lord, Lord Moser, has played a very constructive role in our deliberations and I thank him for his contributions. On not every occasion have I been able to accept his suggestions wholeheartedly, but I greatly appreciate the amount of work that he has done on the Bill. The only thing that I want to emphasise in response to his short contribution today is that the Bill provides that the board must treat the content of the secondary legislation as though it was part of the code of practice. I can give an assurance that it locks it into the board’s operations in those terms.
We have been asked again how Parliament will organise parliamentary scrutiny. Even at this late stage, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has expressed a further anxiety. Let me make it absolutely clear that it is for Parliament to decide. How we best approach the issue of parliamentary scrutiny of the statistical system, including the board, must take into account the change of responsibilities to the Cabinet Office. Proposals will be put forward, but it should be recognised that it is not for me to attempt to be definitive about arrangements that are for Parliament to make. Suffice it to say that the crucial role of Parliament in this area marks a considerable step forward in terms of our scrutiny of national statistics and the role that the board will play. I hope that this will be looked on in this constructive way.
I believe that we are concluding as we have proceeded throughout our deliberations. The contributions made at all the stages of this Bill have been thoughtful and constructive. The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, has come to the debate rather late and has raised a somewhat extraneous point on the question of legislation, because he is in fact talking about government resources. I shall make the obvious point that the board is going to be a very powerful lobby for the effectiveness of the national statistical system and its credibility. I have no doubt at all that, in doing so, from time to time it will have occasion to express its view that certain resources need to be increased to improve that effectiveness, and Ministers will need to respond to such pressures. The whole point of this legislation is to enhance public awareness and the accountability of the statistical system. To that end, all these issues relate to the question of available resources. That, in the end, is why the Government need to have the last word, because it is the democratically elected Government who take decisions on such resources.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Brabazon of Tara) in the Chair.]
235A: Before Clause 184, insert the following new Clause—
“Persons covered by code
In section 49(6) of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (principles governing conduct of members of relevant authorities), before paragraph (a), insert—
“(za) regional assemblies,”.”
The noble Baroness said: This amendment relates to regional assemblies and therefore to a certain extent has been overtaken by events, given the announcement about the abolition of regional assemblies. However, I have decided not to withdraw it because it raises what I believe is an important point of principle on which it would be useful to understand the Government’s thinking.
About two years ago, I was slightly alarmed to discover that the so-called stakeholder members of regional assemblies are not covered by the code of conduct for standards of behaviour in the same way as councillors who sit on regional assemblies. The point had arisen in a regional assembly during which there was a debate on house building. A member of the construction industry who was present as a stakeholder member refused to declare an interest. In the ensuing brouhaha, it transpired that someone who wanted to threaten him with the Standards Board was unable to because he was not covered.
I have raised this point several times in your Lordships' House because it seems quite extraordinary that a member of the smallest parish council is subject to the rulings of the Standards Board and the procedures relating to the code of conduct, while someone who is on a regional assembly, putting together regional housing and planning strategies involving tens of thousands of houses, is not subject to that. In parenthesis, I add that I discovered at the same time that regional assemblies are not included in the bodies subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I have not tabled any amendments in that regard, but that goes to show that there appears to be one set of standards that apply to local authorities and their members and quite another for quangos. Given that quangos are now spending more public money than local authorities, I should be interested to know why the Government do not think that codes of conduct and the Standards Board ought to cover quangos, especially regional assemblies. I beg to move.
235ZAA: Before Clause 184, line 4, after “authorities),” insert “—
The noble Lord said: The purpose of my two amendments, which are linked, is to widen the discussion slightly from the specific question of regional assemblies, which may not be with us for much longer, to the general question of partnerships and partnership bodies at all levels. The whole question of declarations of interest in relation to those bodies has got into rather a muddle. The amendments would add to those bodies that are subject to the provision of having to declare an interest,
“a Local Strategic Partnership which has been set up by a local authority and works in partnership with that local authority”,
“any other partnership in which a local authority is a partner and which works in partnership with that local authority to carry out substantial investment or deliver significant services on behalf of that local authority”.
The purpose is obviously to raise the general principle. There are two sides to it and the situation in any locality can get incredibly complicated. Rightly or wrongly, the Government are encouraging what they call partnership working, which means that local authorities are working with other bodies to invest in and deliver services which, in the old days, would have been the responsibility of the local authority itself. In those circumstances, the local authority doing something is no problem. Councillors are councillors and get on with their jobs.
Where partnerships are set up on which the local authority is represented, you have two classes of members on the board: there are the councillors, who are, in the main, appointed by local authorities, although there may be some who sit there for other reasons; and then there is everyone else. They are in two quite different sets of circumstances. That kind of double hatting, as it is known, in some cases leads to two problems.
First, I refer specifically to LSPs, because they are so important. The Minister will tell me again that they are not statutory bodies, have no legal status and exist in some kind of void or limbo. That is not how it seems locally. The LSPs are very important bodies indeed, and the Government and all kinds of government-related quangos divert huge amounts of investment through them. All the single regeneration budget schemes, which still exist in many places, the neighbourhood renewal fund and many more are funded by government money that is channelled through LSPs. So the idea that they are some sort of local advisory body and do nothing very important is absolutely untrue.
Councillors and non-councillors, who represent a whole range of bodies such as voluntary organisations, local colleges and local businesses, sit on LSPs. LSPs—I give this caveat to almost everything—work very differently in different places. In some places, they work hand in glove with the council; in others, including in some quite large cities, they are almost freestanding, independent bodies on which the council is simply represented, perhaps by only one person. It varies a lot. When councillors sit on LSPs, they obviously sit as councillors, and must declare any personal interests that they might have. Yet the other members do not. If someone represents an FE college and matters relating to it arise, it is perfectly reasonable for that interest to be declared but not to be prejudicial because that is why they are there. It should be declared, but it does not have to be at the moment. If, however, the person representing that college has an interest in something else that arises at the LSP—they might be a shareholder in a local firm that is benefiting from an investment project or a member of a community group that is being funded by the LSP—they do not have to declare it. This is illogical. It does not lead to the transparency of decision-making which the whole question of declarations of interest is supposed to create, and it could in some circumstances lead to corrupt practices.
On the other hand, the councillors on the LSP must declare an interest of one sort of another, depending on what it is, when they return to their local authority. Under the new code of conduct, if they are local authority representatives on the LSP, the interest would be non-prejudicial, as I understand it. If they are on the LSP in some other capacity, however, it would not be. Councillors, who are the elected representatives of the community, are therefore being treated differently from and more restrictively than others who are there in other capacities. My amendments therefore seek to probe what some of us think is an anomaly and to ask what might be done about it. I have great interest in what the Minister has to say about this. It is not right at the moment, and the matter really does have to be probed further. I beg to move.
These are two very interesting Opposition amendments. The first would add regional assemblies, and the second would add local strategic partnerships and other partnership bodies to the list of relevant authorities for the purposes of the ethical regime for local government, which would mean that members of these bodies would be subject to the provisions of the code of conduct that members of relevant authorities are required to follow.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for resisting the temptation to take us on an excursion to the future regional assemblies. I will observe the same discipline. There is no doubt in my mind that it is important that members of regional assemblies should follow high standards of conduct and good practice so that they act transparently and accountably. My difficulty is with a blanket extension of the national code of conduct to members of these bodies, as the amendment suggests. That is unnecessary for the following reasons. Regional assemblies are not currently subject to a statutory code of conduct, but two-thirds of members of the assemblies are already covered by a code of conduct as they are members of local authorities. That code applies to them when they act as representatives of their authority on other bodies such as the assemblies. In addition, I understand that the conduct of the remaining third of members who are not representatives of their local authorities are also subject to a code, as the assemblies have adopted their own voluntary codes of conduct that broadly reflect the terms of the model code for local authorities, although not on a statutory basis. I therefore hope that that overlapping system takes care of the noble Baroness’s anxieties.
The noble Lord’s amendments explore a very interesting situation in relation to the LSPs, but it is interesting because of the nature of local authority partnerships as a whole and the interrelationship between the people who sit on those bodies and their respective responsibilities, because they sometimes wear two, three or even four hats. I have to give him the answer that he expected, which in essence is that LSPs are not legal bodies and so cannot be covered by the code in the same way. We cannot place a duty on an LSP for that reason. I dispute the assertion that there is a void. I spoke at some length a couple of days ago about how important the LSPs were, not least as bodies that formulate and articulate the local area agreements. They are incredibly important, but they are very variable. We cannot put such institutions under the code in the same way. Moreover, each public statutory partner to an LSP has its own structure and rules, and carries that code with it. As the noble Lord said, local authority members certainly would. Each organisation must therefore take measures to ensure that its LSP representatives act appropriately.
The list of partner authorities in Clause 106 includes a number of bodies that are already covered by the code of conduct. It also includes persons and members of bodies, such as the chief of police and members of the local probation board, to whom it would be inappropriate to extend the local government code of conduct. However, I do find the noble Lord’s argument about the LSPs very interesting, and, although I cannot promise to do anything, I can promise to think about it and to discuss it and other issues to which it gives rise with the department.
I am very grateful for that response, which is as good as I thought it would be. These amendments were tabled precisely to try to get people and the Government to think about it. On the point about the LSPs, it has come home to me only in the past fortnight while we have discussed this matter in Committee just how much of a legal limbo—I know that the Minister does not like that phrase—LSPs seem to find themselves in. It is absolutely true that they exercise their powers on behalf of their members, particularly the local authorities, but they are, as the Minister said, incredibly important bodies in regeneration and the whole partnership structure in an area that has now grown up. I am coming to the view that people should be thinking very seriously about their status and whether they should be put on a statutory footing. These bodies take decisions involving millions and millions of pounds—more in some areas—of investment. Should they really have this non-legal status? It is quite extraordinary how this has happened. However, that is a different matter and my amendments do not relate to it. I am very grateful that the Minister will think about this during her summer holidays, although I cannot promise her that I will. On that basis, I am quite happy. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 235ZAA, as an amendment to Amendment No. 235A, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 235ZAB, as an amendment to Amendment No. 235A, not moved.]
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her slight encouragement to my noble friend Lord Greaves. My noble friend and I were dealing with the same issue, although one of us at a very local sense and the other regional. In essence, as local authorities work in partnership with a wide variety of bodies, it is becoming increasingly obvious that having one set of processes governing the conduct of the elected members and another set governing the conduct of those who are not is becoming problematic. It seems to me that this can be approached in two ways. One either has a stringent code of conduct which applies to everyone or something approaching the situation described by the Minister for regional assemblies; that is, a voluntary code of conduct which everyone knows and understands. Certainly, from these Benches, that would be our preferred option. Local arrangements arrived at voluntarily by all the partners, and applicable to all the partners, would be a much better way forward. The real issue and the reason that we have tabled these amendments is to bring to the attention of the Government the fact that one set of rules applies to councillors, which contains fairly heavy sanctions, while those same rules do not apply to others. However, we will read carefully what the noble Baroness has said and will wait to hear the Government’s thinking on this. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
235AA: Before Clause 184, insert the following new Clause—
“Members subject to code
In section 49(1) of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (principles governing conduct of members of relevant authorities) after the word “members” insert the words “(including appointed members)”.”
The noble Baroness said: Previously in Committee, we had lengthy discussions about the new category of parish councillors who are to be appointed rather than elected or co-opted. This amendment simply is to ask the noble Baroness to confirm, so that we have it on record, that councillors who are appointed to parishes will be subject to the code of conduct, as are other categories of councillors. I beg to move.
Amendments Nos. 235AC and 237ZA are to probe the meaning of the model code of conduct and the advice given to councillors in relation to it. When the model code of conduct was first adopted—I think that it was originally in regulations in 2001—it was intended that local authorities could amend or add to it in their own circumstances. It appears that it has now become very much a code of conduct which you have to have and you modify or add to it at your peril.
I have an interesting document, which everyone who has the privilege to be an elected councillor will have received recently, called The Code of Conduct—Guide for Members, issued in May 2007 by the Standards Board for England. The pamphlet explains the new model code for councillors. Page 4 of the introduction, “Adopting the Model Code of Conduct”, says:
“It is also important that the Code of Conduct is adopted in its model form, without amendment. This will give certainty to members and the public as to what standards are expected. It will ensure consistency throughout local authorities, avoiding confusion for members on more than one authority and for the public. It will also minimise the legal risk of your authority adopting additional provisions which are unenforceable”.
We appear to have a situation now where it is not a model code of conduct; it is virtually a statutory code of conduct or an instruction on what councils have to do. If they go beyond this, they do so at their own peril. I believe that this leads to confusion. My amendment probes how far the Standards Board for England is saying, “You adopt this, full stop”, on behalf of the Government and how much it has decided for itself.
It is wonderful that so many noble Lords have joined us for this important discussion on the model code of conduct. I hope that I shall be swift in dealing with this. I can confirm that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, is correct on the first amendment. As she suggested, this applies in the same way to appointed members.
On the second group of amendments, I am afraid that the noble Lord has wrong-footed me because I did not expect him to come from that direction. One can never predict which direction he will come from. However, I shall say briefly what I intended to say. His amendment removes the remit of the code to include all behaviour in members’ private and official capacity, which is the substance of Clause 104 dealing with the remit of the principles and provisions of the model code. It follows from the judgment in 2006 in the appeal of the Mayor of London, which cast doubt on the ability of the code to cover the conduct of members in their private capacity. I am sure that we will come on to discuss those issues at a later stage. There are some interesting things that I want to say about that.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raised the rigidity, or inflexibility, of the code. It is a statutory instrument which councils are required to observe. It is not easily extended. That can be done only by negative instrument. I suggest reading Hansard. I will come back to him on this point when we can have a discussion on the issues implied in his questions.
Finally, Amendment No. 238ZAA also was in this group. Authorities which do not adopt a code of conduct, and whose members are subject to the model code of conduct issued by the Secretary of State, are required to include a copy of the model code as part of their constitution. Amendment No. 238ZAA would delete this provision, which would be unfortunate because it would reduce transparency and accountability. That is why we would have difficulty in accepting that amendment.
House of Lords: Reform
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the way forward on reform of the House of Lords. On 7 March 2007, after the free votes in both Houses, I said I would make arrangements to reconvene the cross-party working group, and after discussions with that group I would return to this House to make a Statement outlining the Government’s plans.
“The free votes marked the fulfilment of the specific terms of one of our manifesto commitments on House of Lords reform. While this was an important milestone in the history of Lords reform over the past 100 years, we must not now lose the opportunity to make further and more fundamental reform happen.
“In March, this House voted overwhelmingly, by a majority of 113, for a wholly elected House of Lords. It backed by a margin of 38 a substantially elected House based on 80 per cent elected and 20 per cent appointed. It also voted by a majority of 280 to remove the remaining hereditary Peers. As part of a comprehensive package of reforms, the Government are committed to removing this anomaly of the remaining hereditary Peers, in line with the will of this House. As this House will be aware, at the same time the other place voted for a wholly appointed House by a majority of 240.
“My right honourable friend the Prime Minister in his Statement of 3 July set out the Government's view that we should proceed in line with the wishes of this House, which all accept is the primary Chamber. This approach was underlined in the Green Paper on constitutional reform, The Governance of Britain, published on the same day. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are also committed by their 2005 manifestos to a substantially elected House of Lords.
“Tomorrow in the other place, the Private Member's Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on Lords reform will have its Second Reading. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will expand on our response when he comes to speak in this debate, but suffice it now to say that this Bill does not contain the comprehensive reform which is the clear will of this House.
“The cross-party talks before the free votes were successful in building up a significant degree of consensus on a wide range of issues, as reflected in the White Paper, House of Lords Reform, published in February. I believe this is the best way of proceeding. I shall continue to lead the cross-party talks, and since the free votes we have held two further meetings.
“As all three main parties are committed by their manifestos to further reform of the House of Lords, it is right that the group should consist of Front-Bench representatives of those parties, as well as representatives of the Cross Benches and Lords spiritual. But of course we want the widest possible consensus and I intend to make arrangements so that we can take proper account of the views of all parliamentarians, including non-party independent members, as well as interest groups and the public.
“The White Paper I published in February this year was adumbrated on the view that consensus lay on a ‘hybrid’ House for a 50 per cent elected and 50 per cent appointed House of Lords. Since this option was rejected in both Houses, we have to proceed with remodelling our work based on an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House of Lords. While there is agreement on some of the areas outlined in the White Paper, there is still some way to go on others. So the group will be discussing the outstanding elements of the reform package, including powers, electoral systems, financial packages, balance and size of the House, including diversity and gender issues. We will also need to discuss the transition towards a reformed House in detail, including the position of existing life Peers and the need for action to avoid gratuitously cutting Conservative Party representation in the Lords when and if the remaining hereditary Peers are removed.
“Let me now turn to the powers of a reformed House. The Government have always said that the balance of powers between the two Houses described by the excellent and recent Cunningham report should apply to a reformed House. These powers are currently underpinned by some statutory provisions, standing orders and conventions. We undertook to look further at whether the current conventions were adequate to ensure the desired relationship with a reformed House after the free votes. Over the coming months, we will be looking at how best to deliver a substantially or wholly elected House, based on the principle that this House is the primary Chamber and that an elected House of Lords should complement the Commons and not be a rival to it. As part of that programme of work it is vital that the relative powers of a reformed House are made clear. We will therefore be looking at ways to enshrine in a constitutional settlement the current balance of powers and the different roles of the two Houses.
“The Government are determined to proceed with this programme of reform with a view to its completion. In dealing with such a central element of the constitution, it is right that there is as much all-party agreement as possible. I accept that there may well not be total agreement, but the constitution does not belong to any one party and it should not be used as a partisan tool. The immediate next steps are that I hope to be able to publish a further White Paper around the turn of the year setting out where we have got to by then in the cross-party talks, possibly accompanied with draft clauses.
“Our intention through the work of the cross-party group is to formulate a comprehensive reform package which we would put to the electorate as a manifesto commitment at the next general election, and which we hope the other main parties will include in their manifestos. There may of course be areas upon which each party takes a different view, but I believe that there is the potential to reach a degree of cross-party consensus which could lead to the completion of Lords reform. The free votes in the Commons in March gave us a clear direction of travel on an issue which has dogged the country for decades. We now have a chance finally to finish the job”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for repeating the Statement and for his courtesy, and that of Jack Straw, in allowing us advance sight of it and for warning us that it would take place this morning. I also welcome the noble Lord to his new responsibilities, where I have no doubt he will shine as brightly as he did in his former role.
In many ways, it is a pity that the Statement comes the very day before so many of your Lordships will express a view in the debate on the Bill championed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, but the House will no doubt have noted that the Government do not see that Bill as a viable reform. We will hear more on that from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, tomorrow.
As a more general response, I welcome the measured way in which the Lord Chancellor in another place is approaching what is clearly a very difficult task. How very different his approach is from the rushed charge which led to the loss of the Lord Chancellor to another place, and with the future purge, at enormous cost, of the Law Lords from our Chamber.
The Statement says, commendably, that the main aim of the Government now is to seek consensus—I wonder what they have been doing for the past 10 years—and we welcome this new approach. Do I therefore understand the Statement as saying that there will therefore be no Bill to alter your Lordships’ House before the next general election?
I can confirm that the cross-party group has met twice in the past four months and I endorse the Statement’s words about the constructive and open approach of the Lord Chancellor, Mr Straw. But perhaps I may ask the noble Lord to explain more fully, if not today then tomorrow, the arrangements he is making to take the views of Back-Benchers in your Lordships’ House, who were referred to in the Statement. How this is done is clearly matter for the Government, but I, too, have had strong representations that it should be done; I am glad that now it will be.
Can the noble Lord identify the other interest groups that he says will be involved? Who will decide on these new groups? Perhaps it will be the new constitutional adviser, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. How will the public be involved? Are there going to be focus groups, road shows, perhaps even citizens’ juries? If there is public consultation on changing your Lordships’ House, it surely must be on a fully informed basis about its character and the work that the House currently does so well. Perhaps the noble Lord should consider discussing with the Lord Speaker investment in a public educational programme to enable that consultation to take place. Where does public involvement end? If this is part of the process for a major new constitutional settlement, will there be consideration of a referendum before such changes are made to our Parliament?
The Statement attacks the “anomaly” of hereditary Peers. An anomaly is not the worst thing I have been called, but if we are going to trade anomalies, what about the continuing scandal of the Government’s refusal to engage in any discussion whatever about the serious anomaly of Scottish MPs voting on purely English issues? The so-called anomaly of the remaining 92 hereditary Peers is the result of massive votes in both Houses and the formal parliamentary undertaking given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, that it will go only when stage two has taken place. That undertaking remains, as the noble and learned Lord defined it, binding in honour. Hereditary Peers are ready to leave, we always have been, but on the completion of a general settlement promised in 1999. I know that the current Lord Chancellor is an honourable man. Can I take it that he and the Minister remain bound by that government undertaking to Parliament?
The Statement accepts the total rejection of Mr Straw’s 50:50 plan by both Houses, but does the Lord Chancellor now intend only to pursue an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House? The Statement sets out a major programme of technical work. Will the Minister say if any work is being done by officials on modelling a fully appointed House, which has been asked for by this House? Much of the work programme that the Minister has laid out is necessary, but there is a massive difference between a 100 per cent elected House and an 80:20 solution. There are differences in the nature of any mandate, the place of Cross-Bench Peers and indeed the place of the right reverend Prelates. Separate strands of work are probably needed on the two options. For example, does the model of a 100 per cent elected House, on which the Government are working, exclude the right reverend Prelates entirely?
The Minister is right to point out that all this needs a further White Paper, but on one thing we do not need any White Paper: the proposal that the powers of this House should be restrained. The purpose of Parliament—indeed, its duty—is to control the Executive. Two strong, independent Houses working in harness will do that better than one House, dominated as it is by the Executive, dictating the powers of the other. The Statement points to a massive recodification of the Parliament Acts and of the powers and the role of this House. It calls it “vital” to restrain your Lordships’ House. I profoundly disagree. The Lord Chancellor is cautious in much of what he proposes, but while accepting the existing conventions—including the primacy of the other place, which is entrenched in the Parliament Acts and in financial privilege—I urge him to be far braver than he is about the role and powers of any reformed House of Lords.
Yes, this House has been more assertive since 1999, and government has been none the worse for it. Some of us might say it has been a lot better. If a reformed House kept and used its existing powers with even more confidence, things might get even better still. We welcome the open manner in which the Lord Chancellor is proceeding, and we will join in his search for consensus, but as to statutorily containing your Lordships’ procedures or reducing your Lordships’ powers, I can promise the Minister nothing.
My Lords, I thank the Minister on behalf of my noble friends, and we welcome him to his post. The Prime Minister, in his Statement on 3 July, said that he intended to press ahead with reform. It is fair to say that if this is pressing ahead, it is a snail-like process. Hearing the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, apparently wanting to slow down that process after 95 years reminds me that the Duke of York at least marched his troops up to the top of the hill; the noble Lord seems to be more energy-efficient in that respect, and is not even bothering to march them up to the top.
In Cornwall, we have the word “dreckly”. It is much used by plumbers and others in the sense that the Spanish use the word “mañana”, but with less urgency. After 95 years, it is fair to say that today’s Statement does not take us one step further. It fulfils the promise made by the Prime Minister that there would be a Statement, but scarcely takes us further than that.
The Statement accepts the facts of political life, however. The House of Commons has voted decisively. The leaderships of all three parties are committed to reform—even, I think, the Front Benches in this House. The new Prime Minister and Government have reiterated the former commitments. I hope the Statement gives the so-called “refuseniks” in both Houses the opportunity to recognise that from now on our job as parliamentarians is to try constructively to contribute to the process, rather than to slow it down or filibuster to make it impossible to make reasonable progress.
I seek some assurances on behalf of my noble friends. If there is to be no Bill as such in the coming Session, why would it not be possible now to give us a promise of a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny? The Statement refers to draft clauses, but surely it would be better still to have a full draft Bill in front of a Joint Committee of both Houses so that we could have a comprehensive view of this and not exclusively seek solutions at one end of the building that may exclude those from the other end.
I accept that the Minister has a personal interest, but can he give us an assurance that the so-called Hunt report is dead and buried and will not be exhumed? There has been unanimous rejection of various attempts to clip the wings of the present House of Lords, which was killed off effectively by the Cunningham committee and by the unanimous decision of both Houses that the existing powers and responsibilities of your Lordships’ House should stand as now. The Statement is ambiguous on that point. On one hand, it says that the Cunningham committee recommendations are effectively the baseline for our discussions, but then it talks about reopening the whole question of powers. Will the Minister give us an explicit assurance that that will not be the case until reform takes place?
We also seek an assurance—and this is relevant to the debate in your Lordships’ House tomorrow—that the decision on the hereditary Peers’ by-elections, whatever that may be, will not be allowed to slow up progress on the comprehensive reform that the Government are clearly determined upon.
Will the Minister assure us that the Government will steadfastly stand by the primacy of the Commons, referred to in the Statement, even if that means that in the last resort, and possible after manifesto commitments have been made, the Parliament Acts can be employed to secure reform?
Your Lordships will have noticed that Liberal Democrats in both Houses have voted for reform by substantial majorities, and indeed in line with their party policy—unlike the other parties. My party will review its commitment to democratic reform of this House at its autumn conference, but I am confident that we will reiterate our commitment. I am sure that if we do not get legislation before the general election, we will fulfil the hopes of the Lord Chancellor that we will recommit ourselves in our manifesto. I hope that in the mean time the other parties will do the same.
My Lords, I am grateful for what I thought was some welcome in those two speeches for the approach that the Government have taken. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the Statement is taking place before tomorrow’s interesting debate on the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we had not published the Statement before the debate on the Bill but had done so next week, noble Lords would have felt that we were not being completely straight with the House. We do not want to undermine or inhibit the discussion tomorrow; we thought that it would be helpful if the Statement was made before we came to debate the noble Lord’s interesting Bill.
I welcome the measured way in which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, responded. We want to build a consensus. With regard to a Bill before the next election, the Statement makes it clear that our aim is to publish a White Paper by the end of the year. That would then lead to further discussion and then to this party’s manifesto for the next election. That means that we are not rushing forward with legislation, but, given that this House and others have spent nearly 100 years debating the matter, if we have the prospect of consensus it is worth waiting a little longer and paying attention to the many matters that still have to be discussed.
The question that the noble Lord raises about taking the view of Back-Benchers is a matter for the House authorities, but I know that my noble friend the Leader of the House will wish to take a view on how Members of your Lordships’ House can make an active contribution to the necessary discussions. I do not have a list of interest groups for the noble Lord today, but we can discuss that matter in the cross-party group. I confirm that we wish to have a wide engagement with groups with an interest and with the public in general. That is entirely consistent with the approach that we will take in parallel with the Green Paper on governance, which very much reflected a wish to engage extensively with the public.
I endorse the noble Lord’s remarks about the character, work and value of this House. Our proposals will seek to build on that essential foundation. The noble Lord could not resist raising the question of a referendum. We have set out a process that will put these proposals to the public in the context of a manifesto. That is very important in terms of securing public support for the changes that are eventually proposed.
I note what the noble Lord said about hereditary Peers and the Irvine commitment. The Statement makes it clear that we see the hereditary peerage being dealt with as part of a fundamental reform of your Lordships’ House. I think that that is within the spirit of the pledge given by my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine.
The cross-party group will work on the models for which the majority of the House of Commons voted—that is, a House made up of Peers who are 100 per cent elected and 80 per cent elected. As to whether the model of 100 per cent elected Peers would exclude the Lords spiritual, I think that it would have to. However, an 80 per cent elected model would allow for the inclusion of the Lords spiritual and retired justices of the Supreme Court, which is another matter that has been raised before.
On powers, I have no doubt that the committee of my noble friend Lord Cunningham did an invaluable job on the conventions; it was very helpful in providing a baseline for understanding them. The Government believe that the relationship between the two Houses should remain however the second Chamber is constituted. All parties are committed to the primacy of the House of Commons—it is essential that we see that continue. Of course we will discuss that within the cross-party group and see what measures, if any, are needed to safeguard that relationship.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, feels that our pace towards reform is not rapid. In the context of Lords reform over nearly 100 years, we have made considerable progress. Many noble Lords would acknowledge that this House has performed very well since the major changes made in 1999. We need to build on that and on the incredibly valuable role of this House as a revising and scrutinising Chamber.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked about pre-legislative scrutiny. I can go no further than my right honourable friend did in the Statement in posing the possibility of draft clauses being published alongside the White Paper. I have no doubt that in the time available both Houses of this Parliament will have ample opportunity to debate the details of what is proposed.
Is the Hunt report dead and buried? Life has moved on. The Cunningham committee did excellent work on the conventions and has provided a baseline. I am sure that our discussions in the cross-party group will focus on the foundations that the Cunningham report has laid down.
On the Parliament Act, I think that the noble Lord is a little premature. Let us do everything we can to reach consensus. I am sure that that is the best way to proceed.
My Lords, the Statement follows on from the Prime Minister’s announcement when he introduced the Government’s proposed constitutional reform that there would be a further Statement before the Recess. I welcome the fact that the Statement is of an interim nature and does not prejudge any of the further discussions that will continue in the group chaired by the Lord Chancellor, any further discussions that will take place in this House on, inter alia, the House of Lords Bill to be debated tomorrow, and any consultation of the British public through the manifestos that will be presented to them at the next election.
The Minister will not be surprised if I stress the large number of inquiries and opinions, notably the royal commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, which stressed the value of the independent, non-party element in this House and in any reformed House. I did not wish to comment on the Bishops, because the noble Lord can refer to Hansard, where he will find that it is not generally considered that the Bishops are non-party, independent Members. They are something different. I note with satisfaction that the Statement says that the Government will take proper account of the views of all parliamentarians, including specifically the independent, non-party Members. We welcome that.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, the report of the Joint Committee was a definitive contribution to the question of relations between the two Houses. The Government agreed it unreservedly and in the Statement describe it as excellent. The Government also state that they will look at ways in which they can enshrine in a constitutional settlement the current—I repeat, current—balance of powers. Can the noble Lord confirm that, as I conclude, we should plan on the assumption that the report of the Cunningham committee is one of the few fixed elements in this whole affair?
Secondly, does the noble Lord agree that because the House as at present constituted is working very well and is generally well regarded by the public, it is extremely important to look seriously, if there are to be changes, at the transitional arrangements? They are not secondary to the rest of the package, if there is to be a package, because on those arrangements depends the effectiveness of the House, probably over very many years. Will the noble Lord comment on those points and note that the Bishops do not have to come up again to the top of the pile, as they were dealt with previously in this House when the Lord Chancellor covered that point?
My Lords, I welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, and his valuable membership of the cross-party group. I well understand the important role of Cross-Benchers in your Lordships’ House—having been handbagged by them on many occasions over the years, I am well aware of the rigour and expertise that they bring to the House. We will take to heart the noble Lord’s request that in taking forward further discussions we listen to his views and those of the Cross Benches generally. The future of Cross-Benchers comes back to the question of whether the eventual decision is to have a House that is 100 per cent elected or 80 per cent elected.
I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of the Cunningham report and what it said about the balance of powers and the conventions. The best way that I can put it is to say that it provides the baseline for our understanding of the conventions. The cross-party group will need to look at these matters, ensuring that in future arrangements, particularly with a mostly elected or all-elected House, the primacy of the Commons is maintained. But I am fully confident that the outcome will be a House substantially or all elected, which is confident and assertive but none the less respects the primacy of the Commons. I am sure that that is where we all want to be.
I refer the noble Lord to the White Paper published in February this year, which made it clear that a lengthy transition had much to commend it. It is one way in which the current understandings and strengths of your Lordships’ House can evolve into the new House that we wish to see.
My Lords, from these Benches I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for repeating the Statement. Your Lordships may be glad to know that all bishops are elected by the dean and chapter of their cathedral church in order to be enthroned. It is an exceptionally satisfactory form of election, which I commend to your Lordships’ House, because there is only one candidate. That always seems to me to produce the right result.
At home, I have a very useful book for a bishop who is constantly speaking at anniversaries of schools, churches and other organisations—noble Lords might purchase it. Called The Chronicle of the 20th Century, it contains news stories for every month of the past century. Just recently, I was preaching for the centenary of the Scout Association, commemorating Baden-Powell’s very first boy scout camp at Brownsea Island. I looked up what else was happening in July 1907. One news story was predictable: “The Government publish plans for the reform of the House of Lords”. I could therefore tell the scouts that they had made rather faster progress.
However, we seem to be inching towards some resolution. I greatly welcome, as do all on these Benches, the consensus approach. I know that my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford is glad to be part of the cross-party talks, and we pledge to continue that. I also well understand that the Prime Minister is bound to honour the recent votes in another place, but the desire for a wholly or overwhelmingly elected second Chamber proposes a radical change in our constitutional arrangements. If this Chamber is to be primarily a revising chamber, it needs a particular range of expertise and experience that elections alone do not necessarily produce. Your Lordships’ House seems to be widely admired beyond Westminster, and it is that experience and expertise which I hope can be retained in the new arrangements. Can the Minister see that balance and experience being contained within a wholly elected system? I pledge that we will continue to strive from these Benches to be part of the solution to that.
My Lords, I fully acknowledge the expertise and quality of Members of your Lordships’ House, but that does not come just from the Bishops’ Benches or the Cross Benches. Some extremely experienced people have come here through the nominations of the political parties. It is not beyond the wit of the political parties represented here to make sure that, if this House is largely or wholly elected, very good-quality candidates come through. However, I take note of the comment of the right reverend Prelate. It is clearly one of the issues that will need to be reflected on when we look at the two models of an 80 per cent elected House and a 100 per cent elected House.
My Lords, will the Minister accept from me that the voices of the choir leaders on the Front Benches to my right are by no means supported by a chorus of welcome of the kind that he was so grateful for? As far as I can see, only three words in the Statement that he repeated deserve some welcome. Referring to the future of the hereditary Peers, he said “when and if” they are to go. The retention of the words “and if” suggest that there is a degree of sanity in the approach to the problem.
Does the Minister appreciate that, although the response of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde in that context may be admirable for its courage, it is the response of a suicide bomber? He is prepared with all his hereditary colleagues to proclaim their destruction provided that all the rest of the plans go through. I hope that both the Minister and my noble friend will take account of the fact that, if the hereditaries are doubtful about following my noble friend into suicide, the great majority of the rest of us have even less enthusiasm for that cause.
Does the Minister understand that, in the Green Paper and his Statement today, to describe the Conservative Party as being committed to a substantially elected House of Lords is wholly unfounded? The actual words of the manifesto are:
“We will seek cross-party consensus for a substantially elected House of Lords”.
Does he appreciate that the difficulty of that task for the Conservative Party, if it understands its own Back Benches as my noble friend wishes to do, is expressed in the fact that an overwhelming majority of the party in this House and a majority of the party in the other House do not wish to see a substantially elected House of Lords? Does he not appreciate that that deserves to be regarded as a substantial obstacle? Is the obstacle not worth respecting?
Everyone who has spoken so far has paid tribute to the immense quality of the work done in this place. The suicide bombers, therefore, are suicidal not merely in reflecting themselves; the suicide bombers, as so often, are going to destroy the building in which they are found, without any rational argument at all having been advanced for that action being taken. Suicide bombers generally are insane as well.
My Lords, I am not quite sure how I should answer that. Obviously, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is well able to answer for his own Front Bench in these matters. I suspect that he does not entirely have all his colleagues with him on this.
I make it very clear that the Government wish to remove the hereditary peerage, but that they wish to see that done as part of a comprehensive reform of your Lordships’ House. I go back to the Irvine agreement, because that view is entirely consistent with what was said at the time.
I am sure that the general contribution of your Lordships’ House, very clearly stated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, will be acknowledged not just by Members of this House but also by many people in society. Equally, the Commons, the primary Chamber of this Parliament, have after many efforts finally come to a considered view that the second Chamber should be mostly or wholly elected. We have to pay some notice to that, but we also want to ensure that the best traditions of this House are carried forward into the new proposals.
My Lords, the Minister will appreciate that this is a complex and delicate matter marked “Handle with Care”, but that does not necessarily mean that it is the bomb referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. Do the Government accept that just about everyone in every part of this House wants it to remain a dynamic and effective part of the parliamentary system, but that continuing uncertainty does no one any favours whatever? It is therefore a great burden of responsibility on all the leaders of the political parties in this House and its Members to make sure that we come to a degree of agreement that can then be put forward at an election or, as the party opposite wants, at a referendum—although my guess is that the nearer one gets to an election, the further away one will get from wanting a referendum, but that is a matter of judgment. However, I emphasise that it is important that we try to resolve the uncertainty, because it does not do this House any good in the long term.
My Lords, I certainly accept that uncertainty is unhelpful to the House in discharging its major responsibilities. That is why we will press on with work in the cross-party group. I hope that we will produce a White Paper by the end of the year. The more consensus achieved in that White Paper, the more certainty there will be.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it was quite sensible to make this Statement before the debate on my Bill tomorrow. I apologise because I listened to Mr Straw deliver it in the other place, so I did not hear the Minister deliver it here. One thing that was said in the Statement was that my Bill,
“does not contain the comprehensive reform which is the clear will of this House”—
that is, the other place. Does the Minister not understand that that is precisely its point? It does not attempt to deal with comprehensive reform. Does he agree that to get the comprehensive reform there must be agreement among the election manifestos of the parties; new conventions between the Houses, as the Cunningham committee recommended; agreements on an election system, because the party list system did not find favour in either House; difficult legislation on the Floor of both Houses, including dealing with matters such as finance and accommodation for the new Chamber; and the holding of elections? Does he agree that it is unlikely that all that will be accomplished—going at a snail’s pace, as my noble friend indicated—by about 2014? Therefore, is there not a good case for tidying up the existing House as it is now and dealing with the controversy of cash for peerages and the by-election for hereditary Peers, thereby enabling Members to retire so that we can bring down both the numbers in this place and the average age?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments. No disrespect was intended to him in making the Statement today before tomorrow’s debate. It would be wrong to go into great detail of the Government’s response to the noble Lord’s Bill tomorrow, because we will need to hear what takes place in the debate. I understand what the noble Lord is saying. I suspect that 2014 is cited because that is the date of the European election and the February White Paper clearly proposed that the European election should be used as the date by which a future second Chamber should be elected. I understand where he is coming from on the date. He is also right to say that I fully understand that he did not intend to bring forward a comprehensive Bill and intends it as a helpful interim step towards full reform. All I would say is that the Government’s approach is to focus attention and work on achieving a comprehensive reform.
My Lords, the Statement rightly stresses the importance of consensus. On the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, there seems to be a very wide basis of consensus on that Bill. The crucial point is that the Bill can go ahead regardless of what decision is eventually made about composition or powers. The other important point is that there is almost a total lack of consensus between the leadership of the Conservative Party and its members in both Houses and the leadership of the Labour Party and its members in both Houses. Therefore, it is tremendously important that the membership of the cross-party group should include representatives of those who take a different view from that of the party leaderships. That point was raised on the debate on the conventions, but the Government have gone ahead without taking it into account. It would be absurd to take any notice of the cross-party group’s report unless it is representative.
My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, says about tomorrow’s debate. We shall listen very carefully to what is said in your Lordships' House, but the preference of the Government is to press ahead with comprehensive reform. As for the question of representation, I must make it clear that the group consists of the leadership of the three political parties together with representation from the Lords spiritual and the Cross Benches. We think that that is the appropriate method of taking forward these discussions. However, as my right honourable friend said in his Statement, alongside that we will want to talk and engage with parliamentarians in both Houses. My noble friend the Leader of the House has already signalled her intention to ensure that this House has ample opportunity to do that.
My Lords, is it not the case that, in order for this process not to be associated with the idea of democratic centralism, the simple demand to get consensus should involve not only consultation with outside groups—as if we were an outside group—but the representation on the work of the group of the majority of this House, which we are by four or three to one?
My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says, but I cannot agree with him. This is a cross-party group representing the leadership of the three main political parties alongside representation from the Lords spiritual and the Cross Benches. That is the appropriate mechanism by which to achieve consensus between the political parties and the substantial groupings in your Lordships’ House. I well understand what my noble friend says about the general view on the form of a second Chamber among my colleagues on these Benches and those on the Benches behind the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. They will have every opportunity to make their views known, but it is appropriate that the cross-party group consists of the membership that it does. It is within that group that we must strive to achieve consensus.
House of Lords: Members’ Interests
rose to ask the Chairman of Committees whether the Committee for Privileges has rejected a recommendation from the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests that members in receipt of pensions from the European Union should as a matter of course declare such pensions as a financial interest when taking part in debates, statements and questions on European Union matters.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am afraid that the unfortunate answer to the Question before us is yes. My purpose in holding this debate is to persuade the Committee for Privileges to change its mind and agree with its Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests. After all, that sub-committee is chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice.
I am encouraged in this endeavour by our code of conduct, which was adopted by a resolution of the whole House in 2001. That resolution requires that Members of this House must comply with the code,
“to provide the openness and accountability necessary to reinforce public confidence in the way in which Members of the House of Lords perform their parliamentary … duties”.
Paragraph 6 of the code states:
“In the conduct of their parliamentary duties, Members of the House shall resolve any conflict between their personal interest and the public interest in favour of the public interest”.
Paragraph 8 requires that Members must,
“declare when speaking in the House… any interest which is a relevant interest in the context of… the matter under discussion. This is necessary in order that their audience may form a balanced judgment of their arguments”.
Paragraphs 9 to 11 helpfully define a relevant interest thus:
“The test of relevant interest is whether the interest might reasonably be thought by the public to affect the way in which a Member of the House… discharges his… parliamentary duties… The test of relevant interest is therefore not whether a Member's actions in Parliament will be influenced by the interest, but whether the public might reasonably think that this might be the case… Relevant interests include both financial and non-financial interests”.
It is this last point which, I understand, requires me to declare in debates touching on learning disabilities that I am the father of a child with severe lifelong intellectual impairment. It helps the listeners and those who read Hansard to appreciate where one is coming from. By the same token, I should have thought that it was also incumbent on former EU Commissioners and employees at least to mention their former incarnation in debates about the EU.
The code is more prescriptive on financial interests—and here I come to the heart of my argument. EU pensions are unusual and perhaps unique in that holders can lose them if, in the sole opinion of the Luxembourg court, they indulge in any action incompatible with their former duties. The rules governing former Commissioners are set out in Article 213 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community, which states that members of the Commission,
“shall refrain from any action incompatible with their duties. When entering upon those duties they shall give a solemn undertaking that, both during and after their term of office, they will respect the obligations arising therefrom … In the event of any breach of those obligations, the Court of Justice may rule that the Member concerned be deprived of his right to a pension”.
The solemn undertaking includes the promise to,
“perform my duties in the general interests of the Communities”,
“to refrain from any action incompatible with my duties”.
The undertaking goes on:
“I further undertake to respect, both during and after my term of office, the obligations arising therefrom”.
The rules covering former staff are covered in Section 3 of the staff regulations entitled, “Disciplinary Measures”. Article 9 of those states:
“Where the official is in receipt of a retirement pension … the appointing authority may decide to withhold an amount from the pension”.
So it seems clear that both former Commissioners and EU staff can lose all or part of their pension if, in the judgment of the Luxembourg court, they behave sufficiently badly. I shall return to what that behaviour might be at the end.
That was accepted by the Government in a Written Answer of 6 October 2003, which stated:
“Former members of the European Commission and their officials are bound to respect certain obligations arising from the office that they held. In the event of any breach of these obligations, the EU institutions are able to rule, according to the circumstances, that that person should be liable to a reduction or withdrawal of pension rights”.—[Official Report, 6/10/03; col. WA 31.]
However, that correct interpretation of EU law was, at first, not accepted by your Lordships’ Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests which reports to the Committee for Privileges. When the sub-committee was chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, it could not reach agreement on the matter. So the noble and learned Lord then went through a most unusual legal manoeuvre. He wrote an opinion to himself as chairman of the sub-committee. That contained a number of misunderstandings, and I do not have time to deal with them all now. An important error was to find that an EU pension can be removed only if the pensioner accepts unsuitable employment after leaving office. That possibility is indeed emphasised in the treaty, but its scope is much wider, as I have quoted. Indeed, it is open-ended and entirely at the discretion of the court. More generally, the noble and learned Lord appears to have misunderstood the most obvious need to declare an interest when he said,
“in general it is not necessary to declare an interest on a matter of parliamentary business affecting an employer … just because a Member of the House of Lords is in receipt of emoluments … from that employer”.
What interest could be more declarable than the fact that one is speaking about one’s employer?
Not surprisingly, a number of us were not satisfied with the noble and learned Lord's opinion, which was accepted by his sub-committee and by the Committee for Privileges, so we asked the sub-committee to think again. It duly did so, this time chaired, as I have said, by no less a personage than the former Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. Its report is available from the Printed Paper Office as Priv. 2006-07/1. It comes down unambiguously in favour of declaration and recommends that Members of the House in receipt of pensions from the European Union should as a matter of course declare such pensions as a financial interest when taking part in debates, Statements and Questions on European Union matters. However, when the full Committee for Privileges met on 5 June, I regret to say that it did not accept its sub-committee's view. I believe a copy of the minutes can be obtained from the Clerk to the committee, but no reasoned report has been published. The minutes are far from clear or satisfactory.
I know that I am regarded by the Europhile majority in your Lordships’ House as the naughtiest boy behind the bicycle sheds, but it is quite wrong to say that the matter was reopened only because of pressure from me, which is what the minutes say. The noble Lords, Lord Tebbit and Lord Vinson, both wrote to the noble and learned Lords, Lord Browne-Wilkinson and Lord Woolf, and the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, went together to see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in person. Many other noble Lords have expressed concern, as one would expect. I do not believe I need to trouble your Lordships with their names; of course, they are the other usual culprits. I am most grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is to speak later.
The minutes also suggest that the crime we have in mind is merely criticising the Commission in debate. We agree that there is nothing to stop the court deciding that that is indeed sufficient pretext to remove or to reduce a pension. But there are other more serious things that pensioners could say in debate which would almost certainly result in financial penalty. They could reveal some hitherto unpublished scandal, which would bring the EU into even further disrepute; they could support a referendum on the next EU treaty and they could speak against that treaty in debate; and they could even have a Damascene conversion, in common with a large and growing majority of the British people, who have come to believe that this country would be much better off outside the political construct of the EU, while keeping our friendship and free trade with the other member states.
Of course, I agree that all that is unlikely, but it is not impossible. One thing is certain: that the prospect of jeopardising one’s pension prevents any such views, scandals or criticism being uttered in debate in your Lordships' House. Therefore, it is a declarable financial interest. We are not talking small beer. I am advised that one former Commissioner in your Lordships' House is looking forward to a pension of some £73,000 per annum, at present exchange rates.
My noble friends and I maintain that this failure to declare former EU employment and pensions prevents public understanding of our debates on EU matters. For example, on 14 June, we had an important debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to extol the advantages of our EU membership. Of the 22 speakers before the gap, 10 were former EU employees of one kind or another, yet only one declared that as an interest. The public could not possibly know from where the other nine noble Lords were coming.
I have only one question for the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees. Was the decision on 5 June reached by a vote, or did he judge the mood of the meeting, which may have been distorted by exaggerated claims of my personal involvement? If so, could he try again?
The quality of your Lordships' House debates is a highly prized national asset, something of which we are all proud. I trust that this debate may help to maintain that.
My Lords, as this short debate concerns specifically European Union pensions, it is certainly appropriate to declare that I have a pension from the European Commission and I do so now. I wish to make a few brief points which run in the opposite direction to those put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. Over the past seven years, I have spent much time trying not to quarrel with him and I shall continue on that path.
First, the matter was looked at very carefully in 2004 by the Committee for Privileges on the basis of a report from the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests and a very full legal opinion by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, to which the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, referred. The report of the Committee for Privileges was published by the authority of the House—HL Paper 69 of 5 April 2004. I do not see what has changed in relation to EU pensions—I am well aware that some Members have queried the situation—since the declaration of interest was examined only three years ago by the Committee for Privileges. As is well known, the sub-committee recommended that:
“Members of the House in receipt of pensions from the European Union do not normally need to declare such pensions as a financial interest when taking part in debates on European matters”.
The Committee for Privileges endorsed that recommendation, and that is set out in paragraphs 4 and 5 of HL Paper 69.
Secondly, it is very important to distinguish between former European Commissioners and former staff of the Commission. The duties of Commissioners are covered by a specific treaty article—Article 213, which has been quoted already and will probably be quoted later—which is in the consolidated treaty, and they are not covered by the staff regulations. Article 213 is primarily directed to ensuring the independence of the Commission. Members of the Commission have to be totally independent in the performance of their duties and they shall neither seek nor take instructions from any Government or any other body and shall refrain from any action incompatible with their duties. During their term of office, they may not engage in any other occupation. Evidently, those provisions about the independence of Commissioners from governments and other bodies apply to them when in office in the Commission.
It is true that, when taking up their duties, Commissioners give an undertaking that,
“during and after their term of office, they will respect the obligations arising therefrom and in particular their duty to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance, after they have ceased to hold office, of certain appointments or benefits”.
A breach could lead to compulsory retirement on the one hand, or to a loss of pension by a decision of the Court of Justice on the other. It seems to me evident that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, was right to conclude that the only possible breach occurring after the end of a Commissioner’s period of office is a failure,
“to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance, after they have ceased to hold office, of certain appointments or benefits”.
Taking part in parliamentary duties at the present time cannot amount to a breach of that provision.
When speaking in the gap in the debate on 14 June, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, stated that holders of EU pensions,
“can lose them if, in the opinion of the Commission and the Luxembourg court they”—
and I note that this appears in Hansard within inverted commas—
“‘fail to uphold the interests of the European Communities’”.—[Official Report, 14/6/07; col. 1837.]
He said that few people know that. I am not at all surprised since I cannot find these words anywhere either in Article 213, although they are quoted within inverted commas, or in the staff regulations. The sense may be there but the words are not.
So, that is the position of the ex-Commissioners. Those who have worked on the staff of the European Commission are not covered by Article 213. They are, during their term of office, covered by the staff regulations. I do not know whether I am the only person in this House who has carried with him through life a copy of the staff regulations, but I actually do have the regulations and I have read them rather a lot of times. The staff regulations are those that apply to officials while they are engaged in employment in the Commission. In this debate, the obligations and duties of officials when they were employed by the Commission do not seem to me to be relevant—that is the past and that’s that. The question is which obligations, if any, apply to them after they have left the service of the Commission.
Articles 11 and 12 of the staff regulations, oft quoted in these various discussions, apply to the rights and obligations of officials with no reference whatever to former officials. Staff regulations clearly distinguish which articles apply to which type of person, and they do not apply to former officials. The obligations on former officials in title II of the staff regulations relate to them possibly accepting appointments and benefits after leaving office and the improper disclosure of information obtained in the course of official work; there is nothing which says that a former official cannot express his opinions freely on EU matters, and if he does so there is no effect whatever on his pension. In no other way, apart from those specific points, does an ex-employee owe continuing duties to the European Union.
I believe that I am the only former official of the Commission to whom this debate applies who is in the Chamber. Indeed, I am rather honoured to have a personal debate of this kind applied to me by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch—I never expected to have that. I should also say that I am personally quite indifferent to whether I declare my pension or not, because I am going to say what I wish to say in this House in any event. But my pension is in the register of interests, though for me its declaration is a matter of indifference.
I do not believe, however, that anyone has shown that the position taken by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, in his statement, the position taken by the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests and the Committee for Privileges in 2004, or the unanimous decision of the current Committee for Privileges to reject the recent sub-committee report and to maintain the view of 2004, is not correct. I think that the decisions taken in 2004 correspond to the text of the treaty and to the text of the staff regulations. I therefore think that they should be maintained, as did the Committee for Privileges. Again, it is not a matter of any substance for me at all, but I believe that that is the correct position.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. If you take a debate like this entirely in isolation, it seems perfectly reasonable to make one’s declaration of interest. As he said, it does not matter to me. Perhaps the House will excuse me if I pull the camera back a little so that we can get the broader context in which these kinds of demands are made. I fully accept that my view of the EU is different from that of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. I believe that the European Union stands as one of the great triumphs of human endeavour which has proved that old enemies can put away that enmity and work together to build something on the basis of democracy and human rights. It stands as a tribute to the world. I will stand and defend it politically whenever I can, and I am willing to debate with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson.
What I object to, and it is part of a wider context, is that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and his friends—I say that because he says that he is not alone—consistently approach the EU debate using tactics that, as someone who has worked in public relations and has some political experience, I recognise. If you want to go back in history, the Trotskyist handbook shows how you destroy the credibility of an organisation: you do not attack only the policy, you attack the record; and if attacking the record does not work, then you attack the credibility of the staff. You may not believe that that is a textbook way of attacking an organisation but I can tell you that any Labour Party member with experience of the militant tendency would recognise it immediately. You keep organisations going hour after hour with tedious points of order. You put forward, with supposed authority, “facts” about what the organisation has done—on which you need the aid of someone with equal concern for reading the small print, as the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, has done today, to prove that they are not true.
I notice that we are not alone. The BBC Trust, for example, is to investigate allegations that the Radio 4 “Today” programme is biased in favour of the European Union. Who has found out this terrible fact? Why, it is the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, who says that Radio 4,
“refuses to cover perhaps the most important aspect of our current EU relationship, which is that Brussels is putting the failed constitution in place piecemeal, surreptitiously and illegally”.
You see the point, and you recognise it again—it is a tactic that has been employed by Karl Rove in the United States and Mr Alastair Campbell here. You keep up the constant bombardment of complaints. By creating that atmosphere, you create among reasonable people the feeling that, “There is no smoke without fire”, or that, “This is not a problem that is going to go away, so we had better do something to solve it”, without addressing the fact that we are facing not a problem but a political tactic carried on with some precision and some consistency. I fully appreciate and somewhat applaud that precision and consistency in the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, but I can only assure him that I will match his consistency, because I recognise what he is trying to do. That is why we on these Benches so frequently employ our expertise to correct the hobgoblins and various other horrors that he perpetrates from the Back Benches while knowing full well that most other Members have not gone to paragraph 187(3) of some European document that he quotes, usually erroneously but with spurious authority.
That is one approach to the matter. My other approach is this. Yes, I am committed to the EU, but I am also committed to this House. It is 41 years since I first came through the doors of this House and I never come in without feeling a sense of awe and privilege. In sitting on the Privileges Committee I feel a sense of responsibility, and certainly a determination not to allow my own political views or prejudices to affect my decisions. I stand by the decision of the Privileges Committee, not because of the issue at hand but because of a determination to defend the integrity of the House.
I remember that, when I first came into this House, noble Lords were discussing introducing various regulations as the cash-for-questions affair rumbled through from the other place. A noble Lord stood up and said that he received a pension from the gas board and asked whether he had to declare that interest in energy debates. The whole House said, “Of course not. We do not want a House in which noble Lords make those kind of declarations all the time”. We need to understand that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is after a declaration from our former European Commissioners and our single former employee that they are in the employ of some foreign power. That is the background to this and I do not think that the House should tolerate it.
Quite frankly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf—
No, my Lords, I have reached my final minute. I am sorry but the noble Lord could have put his name down.
I make only one further point. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, may have argued before the committee that the problem will not go away. I accept that because I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, will not go away. However, that is not a reason for giving in on this. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, should have been recognised for what he is, a vexatious litigant, and should have been asked to give one example in 35 years which would have justified this House changing its rules. But, of course, he could not do so. For that reason I stand by our decision and I hope that the House will do so too.
My Lords, I am always willing to listen charitably to what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has to say but the criticisms that he made of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, can be described only as completely bizarre. They do not bear the slightest relationship to the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has conducted himself over the years and the way that he has, with great assiduity, drawn the attention of the House to various events within the European Community. If I was not a very placid and good-natured chap, I would take the noble Lord to task for not having addressed one word to the matter before the House—the true meaning and effect of Article 213.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said that Article 213 of the treaty establishing the European Communities gives the impression that an obligation is imposed on pension holders to continue to uphold the interests of the EU, and that failure to do so can lead to a pension being reduced or withdrawn. That is what we are talking about—was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, right or wrong?
The committee rejected the recommendation of the sub-committee, and in doing so it is quite plain from the minutes that it was swayed by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton. Nobody, of course, would be crackers enough to impugn his honesty and integrity, and I am not doing so now. But I have to say that his interpretation of Article 213 is almost as bizarre as the contribution from the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches. We should look at what is said, and is not said, by Article 213. From reading the minutes, it seems that the committee was swayed by the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, that Article 213 only stopped ex-commissioners accepting certain appointments or benefits. I repeat what I said earlier—that is simply not correct.
Certainly, the article places a particular duty on commissioners to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance, after they have ceased to hold office, of certain appointments and benefits, but it is quite clear from the wording of the article as a whole that that is just one of their duties. It is certainly not their only duty. It is one example of their duty, both during and after their term of office, to respect the obligations arising from the office they held. I entirely fail to see how it can be argued for one moment that, after leaving office, former commissioners do not continue to be bound by the obligation to refrain from any action which would have been incompatible with their duties while they were in office, because that is precisely what Article 213 says. I am not making it up; it is just a question of reading the article. It is as simple as that.
The obligation placed on commissioners by the article is not, as was suggested by the committee, narrowly defined. It could scarcely be wider. I shall illustrate the point. Is it seriously suggested that commissioners do not owe a duty of loyalty to the EU when in office? If it is accepted that they do, Article 213 says quite specifically and makes it as plain as a pikestaff that the same duty continues after retirement.
Having got all that off my chest—it really should not have been necessary to say it at all because any fool can see that that is the meaning of Article 213—I have to confess that I shall not lose any sleep if commissioners do not have to declare an interest. However, other matters disclosed by the minutes cause me great concern, which is why I am here today. The minutes wrongly suggest that the whole question of whether ex-commissioners had an interest to declare came before the committee only because of pressure from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. In fact, as one has already heard, the matter was raised by the All-Party Lords EU Study Group chaired by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. The sub-committee of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, commenced its deliberations following representations from my noble friends Lady O'Cathain, Lord Vinson and Lord Tebbit. However, the impression given by the minute was that the committee was being troubled with the matter only because of the persistence of one Peer, and he a bit of a crackpot. I know that I am right in saying that because that is exactly the impression that is now being given, quite disgracefully, by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. The case has been proved by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and is the reason I have missed my lunch today. I have come along to defend my noble friend, although I am not supposed to call him that because he has been silly enough to leave our party, but everybody knows what I mean.
It is certainly true that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has often been out of step with many in this House when he has spoken on matters European, but those quick to criticise him would be well advised to do a bit of research, and they will discover that he has far more often been right in his predictions about developments in the European Union than his detractors.
I have one vivid memory which makes me pause before accepting readily assurances from those in this place who are largely uncritical of the EU. After returning from foreign parts in 1997, I was invited to a very smart dinner party, my fellow guests being Foreign Office mandarins, various other very prominent members of the great and the good and self-appointed experts on European affairs. They all looked at me pityingly when I expressed worries about developments in the European Community and to a man declared that the high water-mark of European integration had been reached. That was in the middle of 1997. Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that the very next day the papers were full of the fact that the juggernaut was once again on the move, and of course it has never stopped since. Those are the sort of people who get restless and who sometimes express their scorn when my noble friend speaks. That is really why I am missing my lunch today; to speak up for my noble friend Lord Pearson in the hope that in the future he gets a very much fairer hearing that he has had on this occasion.
My Lords, I, too, would defend to the uttermost limit the right of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, to raise any objections that he wants to membership of the European Union. I agree very much with the comments of my noble friend Lord McNally that the motives can be examined in different ways by different people. We have a different interpretation of why the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and his colleagues, do this kind of thing. There was also the even more virulent speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who has had an intense dislike of the European Union and all its works for a very long time. That is what the agenda is all about. Therefore, I look forward to the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, when he will deal with the technical, detailed points in the various reports.
I disagree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, on his interpretation of Article 213, but he is a very distinguished and eminent former Home Secretary, QC and lawyer and one hesitates as a non-lawyer to take on people of that distinction. I get very angry, as do others who have a natural support for our 34 year-long membership of the European Union, when our motives are traduced by all this rubbish about plots and conspiracies and the profound dislike of our working with foreigners and bringing peace in the European Union, after strife on a colossal scale and two nightmare world wars.
Still, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is right on one thing; that the high water-mark of integration probably was reached many years ago. There has been no further increase in integration. We have to repeat endlessly that these are sovereign member states. Britain is a sovereign country in its own right, with its own intrinsic sovereignty, which is enhanced and augmented by our membership of the European Union. These are all sovereign countries. The 10 new countries have no fear of losing their sovereignty by joining the European Union. All of us working together in agreed, integrated institutions—using majority voting from time to time, but very rarely—reach most decisions by consensus, which is the highest form of civilised behaviour in a club where—surprisingly enough, what a ridiculous idea—we, the members, join the club because we like the other members.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has declared one respectable interest on the Register, that he is a stalking member of the Countryside Alliance. This is Trotskyite behaviour; stalking the foreigners and seeing what they are up to. They are all plotting against Britain; we are unique. In recent debates and Questions, he said that he heard the “jackboots” approaching our shores. Some of the other nutters on those Benches—Peter Hain used that word in the House of Commons, so perhaps it is okay there, but not here, and I withdraw it, symbolically at least. Some of the eccentrics on those Benches, and some other Peers who have been mentioned, said, “Yes” or, “Hear, hear, that is quite right”. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, more recently said that the French were “psychotic” because they lost the war and were occupied. He got a robust answer from the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, the then Foreign Office Minister, for saying such an appalling thing about one of our strongest allies and friends, which right now is supporting us strongly in a particular European matter.
If the House of Lords was a police station, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, would be had up for wasting police time, because he does this again and again. I do not mind him doing it, as long as the House does not mind its time being wasted. Having studied the reports as carefully as I hope he has, I do not agree with him in any way whatever. I do not think—although not being an expert lawyer gives one a certain amount of hesitation—that the subsequent judgment by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in any way reverses the original report and the opinion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, which still stands. I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, has said. I find it difficult when Members say things like, “I cannot say who it is, but a certain ex-Commissioner is going to get a pension of £73,000”. Why not mention the name, if the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, knows this information?
My Lords, the noble Lord did not mention the name in his previous remarks. The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, may or may not confirm that, but pensions in the European Commission are commensurate with the work involved. Such people have worked extremely hard in the service of this country and of the European Commission, having signed the solemn declaration when they became Commissioners that they would not take their own national interests at heart but would promote the interests of the European Union as a whole.
When the Committee for Privileges met early in June, it did not change its mind. It reiterated the basis for the former judgment in its report, which I entirely accept. There is so much that one could quote from it, but I will not do so because of the time. I emphasise paragraph 7 on page 5:
“These make it clear that Members are not required to register certain types of interest. Members of the House should not suppose themselves to be under any pressure to register interests that are not required to be registered”.
However, there is a different interpretation from that of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, both for Commissioners and employees of the Commission. On page 6, the report says:
“This alternative interpretation starts by noting that in the absence of an express provision the staff regulations impose no duties on an employee of the Communities to do anything or to refrain from doing anything after they have ceased to work for the Communities”.
That is clear beyond all doubt. It continues:
“Because there are no obligations, there can be no breach of obligations; and so there can be no threat to pensions”.
In the summary of recommendations, it is repeated by the Committee for Privileges that,
“a detailed review of the code of practice is not appropriate ... no amendments should be made … Members of the House in receipt of pensions from the European Union do not normally need to declare such pensions as a financial interest when taking part in debates on European Union matters”.
In this context, could we not ask the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and his colleagues who are UKIP members—I do not know whether permanently or temporarily—to take more interest in the way in which their UKIP MEPs behave in the European Parliament? There have been many examples of officials investigating their claims on expenses and the misuse of expenses drawn directly as Members of the European Parliament for use outside, which UKIP members have freely confessed to. Those are the things that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, should be asking questions about, rather than wasting the time of this House in an endless debate on these matters, repeating points endlessly and not listening to the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, and others, who put the record straight.
My Lords, I am a member of the Committee for Privileges, but I do not anticipate that I shall be for more than another week or so. I am one of those who took this decision, and I agree with it. I should say at once that I do not go along with all the remarks made either by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, or by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. With regard to the minutes, I at least am perfectly clear, and was at time of the meeting, that this question arose from others as well as from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. I never was in any doubt about that. I endeavour to approach the matter in as objective a manner as possible.
No one asserted that there had been any change in the position since 2004, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, examined the position, as has been said, and he set out the legal position as he saw it in considerably greater detail than the sub-committee did when it looked at this again recently. We had the advantage on the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, who has today given us a small flavour of what he said on that occasion, when he spoke in considerably greater detail, both about the position of Commissioners and the position on former employees of the EU. He did so after his very long experience of living and working under exactly the rules that we are discussing. As a very senior official of the Commission, he had to make judgments on exactly those rules. That is why he knows them so well. He also worked intimately with all the Commissioners who were there during his time on their obligations under the articles. I do not think that I can add anything to his interpretation.
What weighed most strongly with me was that no one produced then, just as no one has produced today, any evidence at all of the abuse that we are warned about having happened or being threatened. There appears to be no case of anyone having their pension curtailed or receiving a threat of their pension being curtailed for any reason of the kind suggested, and certainly not in connection with the work of your Lordships’ House. I do not think that there is any such instance. Therefore, we are worrying about something that, over many years, has never occurred and has never been threatened.
The other important point is that, if ever the EU officially, or any official of the EU, or anyone purporting to speak for the EU, should threaten, privately or publicly, that the pension due to one of your Lordships might be curtailed if he or she expressed a view that was not liked, that would be an obvious and disgraceful breach of the privilege of Parliament. Any official who did that or even contemplated doing it should be extremely careful because the row that would ensue would be immense and exceptionally damaging to the EU. Therefore, I do not think that it will occur and, as I said, no one has produced any evidence that I am aware of, or has suggested, that any threat of this kind has been made. That is why I support the decision of the Privileges Committee.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down and as, according to the Clock, we have a few minutes left, perhaps I may put something to him. Like the royal prerogative, parliamentary privilege is subservient to European law. I do not have time now but I can show him lots of examples where the Commission has threatened to remove people’s pensions. There was a headline in the Telegraph on 12 July last year, for example, concerning Madame Cresson, and so on. Could it be that if this power has not been much used, it is precisely because people do not break the rules when they know that they can end up without a pension?
My Lords, if the noble Lord has examples of any Peer or, for that matter, anyone else who has had their pension curtailed as a result of disobliging things that they have said about the EU, then he should have produced them. Of course, I accept that someone may be threatened with having their pension curtailed if they take on an unsuitable job. Similarly, there are controls over what jobs can be taken by civil servants and Ministers after they leave office, and I can imagine other examples where pensions have been threatened. However, in this case, I have not heard anything. If the noble Lord has examples of people having had their pension curtailed as a result of what they said or were thinking of saying, he should have produced them, either to the committee or today. If we have evidence of abuse, we should deal with that abuse.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in the debate today, and I am glad to have this opportunity to explain to the House the background to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. We have had a very lively debate and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that it has been worth giving up one’s lunch break for. I apologise in advance that in my remarks I shall probably duplicate some things that have already been said.
The short answer to the noble Lord’s Question is yes. The Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests recently presented to the Committee for Privileges a recommendation on the lines described in the noble Lord’s Question, and the committee decided not to make that recommendation to the House.
Because the committee’s decision involved no change of practice, it decided not to make a report to the House on this matter. That is quite normal. Committees usually make a report only when they make a recommendation to the House but, as no change was involved here, there was no need for a report to be made. However, the sub-committee’s report and the minutes of the committee’s meeting on 5 June, when the report was discussed, have been made available on the intranet and in the Library and the Printed Paper Office. I do not think that anyone who is in the least bit interested in this matter will have had any difficulty in finding them.
The Committee for Privileges first considered the position of noble Lords in receipt of pensions from the European Union in 2004 as a result of a request from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. In its first report of Session 2003–04, the committee endorsed a recommendation by the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests that:
“Members of the House in receipt of pensions from the European Union do not normally need to declare such pensions as a financial interest when taking part in debates on European Union matters”.
That recommendation was based on the opinion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, who was its chairman at the time.
Recently the sub-committee, with three new members and now chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has revisited the issue in response to,
“a request from a number of members of the House to re-examine the matter”.
This time the sub-committee reached the opposite conclusion; namely,
“that members of the House in receipt of pensions from the European Union should as a matter of course declare such pensions as a financial interest when taking part in debates, statements and questions on European Union matters”.
This new recommendation was considered by the Committee for Privileges on 5 June, when there was general agreement that the committee should not reverse the decision that it made in 2004. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, asked me whether there had been a vote in the committee. There was no need for one. I do not like taking votes in committees unless it is clearly necessary to do so, but I can tell the noble Lord that at least half a dozen members of the committee all spoke in the same way and they all agreed that they did not wish to reverse the decision made in 2004. At that stage, I began to get a sense of the feeling of the committee. I asked whether anyone dissented from that view and answer came there none. Therefore, it was not necessary to take a vote.
Obviously, different members may have had different reasons for reaching that conclusion, so I cannot give definitive reasons on behalf of the committee, but it may be helpful if I briefly mention the two main arguments brought forward during the discussion.
The first argument concerns the scope of the obligations on those receiving EU pensions. The sub-committee’s report says:
“Pensions are not usually conditional on the good behaviour of the pension holder. EU pensions therefore are unusual in the conditions that are attached to them. Moreover, the impression is given that these conditions impose an obligation on pension holders to continue to uphold the interests of the EU”.
For the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, the main committee was not persuaded that there is such an obligation.
The rules for former Commissioners are slightly different from those for former members of the staff of EU institutions. The duties of Commissioners and former Commissioners are governed by Article 213 of the Treaty of Rome and those of staff and former staff by the European Union’s staff regulations. However, in both cases, the obligations are mainly on serving Commissioners and staff, and the restrictions on those no longer holding office are confined to the acceptance of certain appointments or benefits. That point was clearly made—
My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord, because he has come to the essence of the matter here. Article 213 states:
“When entering upon their duties they shall give a solemn undertaking that, both during and after their term of office, they will respect the obligations arising therefrom and in particular their duty to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance, after they have ceased to hold office, of certain appointments or benefits”.
Therefore, how can it be suggested that their duty to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance of certain appointments or benefits is their only obligation, when that is cited as just one of their obligations? There is this obligation in particular, but nothing whatever in that section could lead anyone to believe that they do not have other obligations.
My Lords, perhaps I may also intervene. This fundamental point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, on the previous occasion so I refer to it only once: the obligations apply to the commissioners while they are in office and are undertaking certain duties. The obligations do not apply in general after they cease to undertake those duties, and in particular they do not apply under any circumstances on any reasonable man’s interpretation of this article to obligations about speaking in this House.
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for intervening, but we had the benefit of two noble and learned Lords, Lord Browne-Wilkinson and Lord Woolf. One of the reasons the law is such a good thing to be in is because lawyers do not always agree. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, will know that if they always agreed about everything, it would be a pretty thin business to be in. I shall not pursue the matter but rest my case on the words of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, and on the report in the first place of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson.
Let me move on because we have limited time. The second argument which found favour in the committee was that the committee found it absurd to suggest that any of the distinguished noble Lords who receive EU pensions needed to declare their interest in debate in order that others might form a balanced judgment of their arguments. There is no doubt of the integrity of the Members of the House concerned, and the committee felt that it would be distasteful to call on them to declare their pension interest whenever they spoke in the House. It said that mainly because the committee last month reaffirmed the view which it took in 2004.
Criticism has been made of the minutes of the committee and the reference in them to the fact that the matter was reconsidered only because of pressure by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. I ask noble Lords to read the first part of the sentence in the minute, which says that in discussion it was suggested that nothing had happened since the committee’s 2004 report to justify reopening the matter, and that it had been reconsidered only because of pressure by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. One must take the whole of that sentence. That is what was said in discussion. Whether one agrees with it is a matter of opinion. If there is some doubt about those minutes, I must apologise. The report itself on the other hand makes it extremely clear when it says that the matter was reconsidered on a request made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and other Members of the House. That is what this should rest on. I hope the House has found it helpful to have that explanation on the record.
Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill
House again in Committee.
235AB: Before Clause 184, insert the following new Clause—
“Conduct of local government members and employees
Part III of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (conduct of local government members and employees) is repealed.”
The noble Lord said: The amendment, which is put forward in the hope that it might lead to one or two interesting bits of debate, is intended to abolish the entire Standards Board for England, all its doings and the entire standards regime. On that basis I do not have a huge amount of optimism that the Government will accept the amendment this afternoon, but I believe that various points need to be made.
It is seven years since the new regime was agreed in the Local Government Act 2000, and five or six years since it came into operation. Has it made any real difference to the way councillors behave and to how local government acts? Has it increased the level of ethical standards within local government, or has it not really made much difference at all? In the very few serious cases which have arisen in that time, would it have been allowed to carry on without it? There is a general view within local government—if you get people talking honestly and, perhaps in some cases, off the record—that the answer to all these questions is that the regime is not worth the large amount of resource that goes into it.
Various problems have arisen in the standards regime, which the Government are responding to. They are particularly changing the emphasis from pretty well everything going through the Standards Board for England towards local resolution of complaints in the majority of cases. I will come on to that at the end of my remarks.
What is wrong with the system? First, the whole complaints system is in many ways operated at a trivial level. Cases which are taken to the Standards Board and often referred back to the local monitoring officer or, indeed, to the local standards committee, should really be sorted out there and then, without any great to-do and certainly without the great bureaucratic procedure that takes place. The system is very expensive to operate and the outcome does not seem to be worth the candle that is put into it.
I was fascinated when listening to the previous debate on whether people with a pension from the European Union should declare it as an interest. The word used by the Chairman of Committees was that in many cases people would find this “distasteful”. The difference in culture between what is declared in this Chamber and the restrictions on people taking part in debates here, and the very restrictive, sometimes penal, regime which takes place within local government, was fascinating.
Secondly, in many places the complaints procedure has been used as a means of political campaigning. It has been used as a weapon in “partisan dialogue”—I think was the phrase used by my honourable friend Andrew Stunell when this issue was discussed in the House of Commons. I regret to say that there have been places and times where and when it has been used as a weapon, not just politically but by some officers, against what I might call the persistently awkward squad among councillors, or perhaps just people who were saying things they did not want to hear.
It is an open question as to how far you can go in having a robust discussion with a council officer without being accused of bullying. There have certainly been instances when council officers have made complaints of bullying when all that has been happening is that a councillor has been persistent in trying to put forward his or her view of what should happen, perhaps in their ward or the authority. There is a feeling that the rules laid down mean that robust debate is more difficult to have in some councils than it ought to be.
Accusations can come from anyone and do not have to be backed up with anything. An accusation can appear in the local newspapers before it has been investigated and be used as a weapon in that way. When someone is put through the mill, it really is a traumatic experience, and sometimes good councillors go through hell when, in their view, they are doing no more than representing the people who elected them. I am aware of many instances of this, particularly of someone who was made quite ill by the whole process. In the end that person was found guilty on a technicality, but was clearly exonerated by the local standards committee.
We discussed yesterday why people stand for the council. Very often they have to be persuaded. People who would make good councillors have to have their arms twisted to stand. Most do not say, “I am just waiting for the local party to come round and ask me to stand”. They do not think like that. Instead, they find themselves on the council and then they may find themselves being put through a very vigorous complaints system if someone makes an accusation against them. That leads one to ask why on earth anyone does it any more.
The proposal being put forward by the Government is for everything to be dealt with locally, and there is a lot of sense in that, but there are some problems as well. One of the more serious problems is that in some areas the political culture is based on the presence of the long-term majority party. It permeates the culture not just of the local authority, but also that of local organisations, partnerships and so forth. Anyone who challenges that can be seen as a dissident, and there can be a real fear that they are not going to get a fair deal from the local standards committee. There is also the problem of the role of the monitoring officer on the council. The monitoring officer is there to advise councillors, but councillors have the right not to take that advice. Once they have checked the code of conduct and read the advice of the standards board, they may think that the monitoring officer is wrong. But if a complaint is then filed and goes to the local standards committee, it is the monitoring officer who advises it. Even if a different solicitor within the authority is technically present to do it, the monitoring officer is looming in the background all the time, so this is a difficult situation.
I have not talked about some of the serious cases such as Islington because that would take a long time. Those cases alone may be responsible for the changes the Government are now making. But there is a serious difficulty in some places about representing your local ward. In some councils, the fact of representing a particular ward is in itself perceived to be an interest. I have referred previously to Birmingham where I am told that if you are a ward councillor, you cannot deal with a planning application anywhere within your ward. That is total nonsense, and yet this kind of thing is going on. On the one hand, candidates stand for election on the basis that they live in the ward—“Vote for me, I am local”—but nowadays if a town is divided into several wards, I ask that people are put into different ones otherwise they will be considered to be too local. There is a serious problem here and at the heart of the standards regime.
Those are just a few of the problems. I hope that the Government’s changes will bring improvements, but I believe that we will be back here debating the problems with the new regime before very long. Indeed, there is a body of opinion in local government that would say, “Let’s scrap the whole thing”. At the last general election the Conservatives went to the polls saying, “Let’s close down the Standards Board for England”. I hope that that is still their policy. If it is, then on that at least I shall join forces with them. I beg to move.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has raised an interesting and important aspect of local government. The question to ask is whether, having scrapped these provisions, we have anything to put in their place. If matters are not dealt with locally, they have to be considered in some other way. All the examples that the noble Lord has given resonate with me, not because I was involved in or had knowledge of such things, but because I understand how these things can happen. The person who is clueless about the possibility that they might be maligned, misunderstood or stood up before they get on to the council is really naive. We all know what human nature is and we all know about politics: it is about power. If the manner in which one achieves power attracts people who indulge in what you and I would call distasteful practices, that is the way it is. You are not going to change human nature. However, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is right to ensure that we hear from the Minister about experiences that may guide us on the relevance of all this.
I have declared almost redundant interests in local government over the years, although I am still in touch. I have been to events at which things are said, alleged or pursued that I can honestly say from my point of view ought not to have been, because one has to be robust in local government. I am not talking about matters in the Chamber. One might get very heated and use illustrations, but one should have the grace to withdraw if one is challenged and if, on reflection, what one has said proves to be untrue. But here we are talking about very sensitive matters over which some people can become much more distressed than perhaps I or the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, might. The question therefore is: is it right that they should be so protected that those who wish to pursue a matter, maybe a vendetta, are warned off for being unchivalrous or ungenerous? Quite frankly, I do not think that that protection needs to be provided.
My final point on this issue is that when you stand for election at any level, you should expect some nastiness in one form or another to come your way. That is not to say that you deserve it but, human nature being what it is, it will happen. One therefore needs to have a method of resolving this kind of problem. To that end, we are constantly looking for solutions to problems before they get to court or progress to a higher level in the form of libel, stories in the newspapers and so on. In my view, the papers are far harsher today, so I will be interested in what the Minister says about practice.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has regaled us with evidence, and I can understand how such things could happen. It is regrettable that they do. But we still need a means of resolution. The noble Lord talked about allegations made against chief officers or senior officers of bullying members and people feeling that they are being hectored. But of course that can also happen the other way around. Some officers have a reputation for trying to run a committee, and that is either resented or people just bow down to the pressure. We are talking about character traits and a certain manner of doing things. But in the end it is the councillors who call the shots, and the councillors whom I know both in London and elsewhere are robust enough to know their rights. As far as I am concerned, if this amendment is passed and the provision is repealed, I wonder how we are to provide a forum in which these matters can be resolved.
I find it difficult to support this amendment. I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, means, but I have always interpreted this part as being the end of a long road. Most people will put up with quite a lot, but eventually somebody breaks and says, “I can’t go on”. There must be a system whereby they can appeal to somebody else. The fact that the Standards Board is now being repatriated and brought back into a more local focus on the council means that these questions can be dealt with by the local standards board—the council and the independent member of that standards board—in an immediate and far less public way. It has always seemed to me that going to the Standards Board for England is a step too far. It is far too important and far too over the top. However, local standards boards or committees can handle something like this. Where there is evidence, or even just a feeling, that somebody is being treated badly and that there is a history of that, a mechanism such as this is necessary, so I do not support the amendment.
My noble friend did not say that this is party policy. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked how we would deal with things if we did not have a Standards Board for England, but it is only seven years old. The world kept on turning, although there were problems of conduct that led the Government to believe, possibly in response to difficulties in Labour-run authorities as well as in others, that some sort of standards regime, such as the one they put in place, was required.
There are three powerful influences on how a councillor conducts himself. There are the influence of his colleagues and the issue of reputation, which are much better dealt with within the authority by his colleagues, and there are elections. The Standards Board for England has developed a culture that will be hard to change. It is pity that as we move towards local determination, which I strongly support, it still has some involvement. It will be hard to change that culture. As the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, the board deals with sensitive matters, but it has not always dealt with them sensitively. With sanctions up to and including disqualification from office—being barred from standing for office—this is serious stuff.
One of my colleagues on the London Assembly said, “Hasn’t everybody been referred to the Standards Board at some point?”, which shows how it is regarded. I have not been referred, but I have frequently thought, “There but for the grace of God go I”, because that has been overdone. My noble friend asked whether it has made a difference and went on to say that he would not talk about the London Borough of Islington case because we could be here all day. I declare an interest because I was a witness in that case. It made a difference in the toll that it took on those who were involved—the councillors who were referred and an individual who was a third party—and it took a huge toll financially, which was eventually largely paid by the council tax payer. The Mayor of London case is the other big case, although a number of small cases have gone into folklore. The Mayor of London case was separate. The adjudication panel that took the final decision was largely responsible for moving the whole thing on because it was so absurd. It was seen to be absurd by the London Assembly, which had unanimously called on the Mayor to apologise over the comments in question, but felt that to suspend him was an absurd reaction and completely over the top. That was not the adjudication panel or the Standards Board, but it was part and parcel of the same cultural approach.
As we have heard, we have monitoring officers, some of whom are overzealous about ward issues. They may possibly be overanxious and their zealotry may come from anxiety about what they should be doing. My noble friend mentioned planning. The standards code will reduce that problem a little, but it does not deal with balancing conflicts of interests with proper ward representation. An awful lot is wrong with the system, and a lot of it stems from the way in which the Standards Board set itself up and went about this. It would be better if it went, which is not to say that councillors should misbehave; that is not what we are saying at all.
My understanding is that situations such as this, where there may be a complaint against a councillor by an officer or the other way round, would never go near the Standards Board for England. It would go to the local standards council. It is on that basis that I do not support the amendment. There has been a lot wrong with the Standards Board for England and if it vanished without trace nobody would miss it, but I want to be clear that this would be a locally determined matter that would be taken against the background of doing precisely what the noble Baroness suggested, which is local councillors looking over their colleagues.
This was an interesting debate that was full of real common sense. In moving his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke about the situation as it is has pertained to date, not about the new regime, which is exactly as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, described it. Everything will start off at the local level and there will not be a circular process of things being referred up, coming back down and so on. The monitoring officer and the local standards committee will deal with the first challenge and only in very specific circumstances will a case be referred to the Standards Board. That is the context.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was right when she said that the most effectual methods of disciplining behaviour and raising standards are the culture of the council, constituency pressure and elections. However, there has to be a discipline for instances where those all fail and things go wrong. My noble friend Lord Graham and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, were right that there are instances where people behave badly, and there have to be arrangements for that. The reason why we have those arrangements was set out in the Graham report, which looked at the operation of the national standards board and came to other conclusions. It made the point that this was better done at a local level. We have followed those recommendations.
This amendment would sweep away any ethical regime. The noble Lord said that he does not expect us to accept it and, once again, he is right. However, he has raised interesting questions about the sociopathology of local politics and what one can do to achieve integrity and good behaviour while at the same time having a discipline regime that takes care of vulnerable people and people who misbehave.
The noble Lord asked whether this has made a difference. One could argue that there is evidence that, if it had not made a difference, there would have been more reference to the Standards Board itself. Recent research indicates that 93 per cent of councillors support the code of conduct—what it is there to do and how it does it. Eighty per cent said that maintaining high standards is one of the most important issues in which they are involved. One can see why when one considers the fact that many people feel that the conduct of members is one of the most important issues for authorities. Trust is low, and we return again and again in our discussions on the Bill and in the House to how to restore and nourish trust in politics as a whole, and to the connection between the elector and the councillor or politician. Indeed, the health of our democratic institutions depends on trust, and poor behaviour by a small number of people can have a disproportionate and damaging effect. It is also interesting that 44 per cent of councillors also said that they thought that standards had increased in recent years. That is a significant percentage. It seems that more people would prefer to have this than not to have it.
That is absolutely right. I take that point. The amendment does not envisage substituting the ethical regime that we have now with any other arrangements. In that case, it would remove local government from many other parts of the public sector that have ethical codes that we expect people to abide by. There is no reason why local government should be exempt, but that is the nature of the amendment. We take the point that the current regime has been attacked for being overly bureaucratic and centralised and lacking in local ownership. Our proposals are designed to tackle that. On the trivial nature of complaints, to which noble Lords have drawn attention, the Standards Board rejects straightaway 75 per cent of the complaints that it receives and there is no investigation, so there is clearly a mechanism for filtering out trivial challenges. Again, we take the point that one cannot control human nature and that there are always unpredictable situations, but our proposals are very much based on the conviction that high standards of conduct are more likely to be maintained if local authorities take most of the decisions about conduct.
Noble Lords also talked about the culture at the Standards Board. I believe that such a culture is much more likely in a local situation in which people know the people involved and where it may be possible to take a more proportionate, more sensitive and more commonsensical approach. This will be helped a lot by the fact that we have introduced independent chairmen on standards committees for local areas. That is an important development. Moreover, if people feel that they are not going to get a fair deal from the standards committees, they can always refer their complaint to the Standards Board, which, under the new regulatory rule, will look carefully at any complaints that are made about the behaviour of standards committees. Indeed, part of the Standards Board’s function will be to offer guidance and support to generate better and more consistent practice in the operation of standards committees. That is one reason why we want the Standards Board to remain.
The system will be less bureaucratic and will promote greater ownership. It will make the role of the Standards Board at local level more transparent and more likely to promote and maintain a culture of high standards of behaviour. For that reason, I cannot accept the amendment. We believe in the need to maintain consistent standards across the country, retaining the Standards Board very much as a light-touch regulator to oversee the consistent operation of the new committees.
The noble Lord asked a couple of other questions. We are aware of the issue of conflicts of interest when a councillor represents his electors. He will know that the code of conduct was recently revised to make it clearer and more proportionate, which has certainly been welcomed. The regime is more relaxed about personal and prejudicial interests, to allow councillors to speak up. That was overdue. I ask him to bear in mind the principles that we are trying to follow in this revised regime—namely, local ownership, local control, being more sensitive, learning the lessons of the Standards Board and being careful about trivial complaints and litigious elements—while maintaining the Standards Board but as a lighter-touch body, as I said. I think that the balance is right. It has certainly been welcomed and I hope that the noble Lord will be able to live with this as it develops.
I thought that the Minister was going to invite me to withdraw the amendment, but she invites me to live with this. I have absolutely no choice but to live with it as a local authority councillor. This will be very interesting, because it will develop differently in different places. I repeat my usual mantra that all councils are different and all have different cultures, and that the culture of standards committees will evolve within the framework that has been laid down. I am a passionate advocate of local councils and local government, but there are still some pretty awful local councils, so there will be some pretty awful standards committees. It is up to everyone who is active in those areas to be very vigilant about those and to replace them.
I have three very quick points to make. There is a stage before reference on which current guidance seems to be lacking, and if the new system is to work well it really must stress it strongly. That stage is mediation. There may be a big row between a councillor and a council official at whatever level. A senior councillor might quite wrongly be trying to bully a low-level member of staff, a senior member of staff might be trying to bully a new councillor, or it might simply be a good old-fashioned row. Good old-fashioned rows often involve what might be called behaving badly. That never happens in your Lordships’ House, of course, but it happens everywhere else in the world. It certainly happens down the Corridor. There is nothing wrong intrinsically with good old-fashioned rows, so long as they do not take over and become the dominant factor in a situation. It is part of human life. One only has to read Alastair Campbell’s diaries to discover that people in high places are behaving badly all the time. It is life; it is politics.
If a council officer or a councillor is complaining about the behaviour of another councillor or council officer, there need to be probably informal processes locally for mediation. Sometimes, that is done within political groups. Group leaders will get together and say, “Look, there has been a bit of a problem here. Can we sort it out and just calm things down please?” Sometimes it will be done by senior staff of the council. It happens all the time. The problem is that the number of cases that could be referred in this kind of situation is a huge proportion of the tiny fraction of cases that do get referred, because most are dealt with sensibly.
If a senior councillor is trying to persuade a junior officer to do something that has not been agreed and is against council policy or whatever, the obvious thing for that junior officer to do is to go to his or her senior and, if necessary, go right to the top. You sort the problem out that way. You do not invoke legalistic processes that bring the whole thing into the local press and bring the authority into disrepute when it can be sorted out locally. That is my main point.
I am not sure that the new system has adequate rights of appeal against decisions of local standards committees. Obviously, we do not want everyone appealing, but there has to be a safeguard in the system for when local standards committees are not doing it right. As I understand it, the only right of appeal is to go to the courts and about 99 per cent of people would not have the ability, wish or finance to do that.
Like everyone else, we wish the new system a fair wind. We hope that it will be much better, but we will be watching it very carefully. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 184 [Conduct that may be covered by code]:
[Amendment No. 235AC not moved.]
235B: Clause 184, page 124, line 22, leave out “include” and insert “are”
The noble Baroness said: The previous amendment and the next group of amendments relate to big issues of high principle. This very small amendment concerns drafting. The Bill refers to,
“principles which may be specified … include principles which are to apply at all times to a person who is a member”.
What does that mean? The word “include” suggests that there might be other principles as well, but we do not know that or what they might be. Does it mean that there will be other principles which are applied only sometimes or to some people? Where is this term used and what does it mean? I beg to move.
Clause 184, which these amendments seek to amend, provides for the principles which govern the conduct of local councillors and the terms of the code of conduct which they should follow to include principles and provisions which apply at all times. Amendments Nos. 235B, 236A and 237A in this group are obviously related. They amend Clause 184 by providing that the principles governing the conduct of members and the provisions of the model code are limited to principles and provisions that apply at all times.
The intention behind the amendments is probing, as the noble Baroness said; that is, what is meant by the word “include” rather than for a specific limiting requirement to be imposed to indicate that specifically only these arrangements apply. We would be worried that the amendment imposes a barrier to what could be added or would reduce flexibility. The word “include” is deliberately used because we may want to have flexibility in future.
I am prepared to say to the noble Baroness—I will be saying it on the next amendment—that I will take away the issues that she raises because I can see what she is getting at. I think that they relate to the next group, which was originally grouped with these amendments because of the interface between public and private life. I shall be happy to consider the implications of what she is saying on this.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. These important provisions carry a heavy sanction and operate within a quasi-legal framework. It is important to have a watertight and widely understood Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
236: Clause 184, page 124, line 22, leave out from “include” to end and insert “the principle that the conduct of a member or co-opted member in their private capacity is not covered by this Part of this Act except where it has resulted in a criminal conviction which is directly relevant to the performance of the official functions of the”
The noble Baroness said: This more substantive amendment is designed to give the Minister a chance to clarify the situation regarding the private behaviour of elected members in terms of the code of conduct. As we have already heard from my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the most high profile case of private behaviour being used as grounds for bringing the council into disrepute concerns Ken Livingstone, but there have been a number of others.
As we know, Mr Livingstone’s case resulted in no action being taken, but there have been cases where councillors have been suspended from office. I wish to place on record that it should be understood what a significant step this is. First, the individual concerned may have their reputation tarnished by such a finding, which will inevitably be used against them when they stand for election in the future; and, secondly, they may suffer a significant financial penalty through the loss of their allowances.
But, for me, the most important aspect is that when a councillor is suspended from office, the local area loses its democratically elected representative. In a single-member ward, this may mean that an area has no elected councillor. If we are going to have a system which results in this kind of interference in the democratic process, the principles and the processes which underlie it have to be absolutely watertight.
There are significant problems with the Government’s desire to see the private behaviour of a councillor used as grounds for suspension from office, and there is a significant question mark about whether it would infringe the provisions of the Human Rights Act in relation to the right to a private life. The Explanatory Notes to the Bill refer to the fact that there is a potential conflict with Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on this aspect.
In professions which have sanctions, it is usual that the sanction applies only to its members’ professional conduct—for example, doctors being struck off and so on—and it is difficult to understand why councillors are treated as a separate category in which it would appear that what they do for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is seen as being part of their job as a councillor.
My second area of concern is that a charge of bringing a council into disrepute comes with a certain amount of subjectivity. I do not believe that the processes of the Standards Board in enforcing the code of conduct have been conducive to getting to the bottom of whether something does bring a council into disrepute. To a certain extent, disrepute is in the eye of the beholder, and we have heard from my noble friend Lord Greaves how what is for one person a fairly robust discussion might be seen as something much worse than that by another. If—heaven forbid—we were ever to have a council run by the BNP and my noble friend Lord Greaves took a fairly robust stand against it, he could technically be said to be bringing that council into disrepute. So we have to be careful about this question.
The process is quasi-judicial, the penalties are significant and people may have to resort to expensive legal advice to help them through it. Our amendments therefore seek to remove the private behaviour of an individual from the scope of the code of conduct unless the activity in question—this is an important caveat—is a criminal one.
For me, there is a combination of doubt about whether or not private conduct should be included in the process because of the potential infringement of the Human Rights Act. There is a question about whether the disrepute can be judged sufficiently objectively and about the procedures being carried out in a kind of legal framework, but without many of its safeguards, combined with the severity of the penalty. I beg to move.
I have three amendments in the next group which are very similar to those spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. Perhaps it would be convenient to have the debate on the two groups of amendments at the same time, rather than going through the whole procedure again. If the Minister is happy, I can speak to my amendments and we can conduct the debate around the same thing.
I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 236ZA, 237ZZA and to the amendment which, because of a misprint, appears on the Marshalled List as Amendment No. 238ZAA but which is actually Amendment No. 238ZZA.
As I understand it, the provisions in new Section 57A(1), (2) and (3) reverse the decision made in court in the Livingstone case, where the court decided that a private action was not a matter for the code of conduct. The ink is barely dry on the code of conduct that has just been signed off and put through my council—and, I dare say, through every council—and which took out the fact that private life could be taken into account. That code of conduct went in a month ago; we have just accepted it—the council meeting took it through last time—and, hey ho, here we are with the Bill reversing those provisions.
I have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, has said. If you have criminal convictions, that is one aspect. However, where something is happening that is absolutely unassociated with your council life, to be subject to a standards board or committee or to the code of conduct is otiose and over the top. It is extraordinary, too, that the Government want to change so quickly the decision that was made by the court. The Minister may want to give us an explanation for that so that we can understand why the Government want to put it back in.
If you are accused and found guilty of dishonesty or of something that would have a real impact on the work you are doing, that is clearly a matter that needs to be taken into account. If you have already been punished by the court and the time is expended, that may not be a matter for anyone. The provisions need to be changed so that private life is not a matter for the code.
This is a serious matter, which we are all taking seriously. Having been a member of a political group on a council, I know we are sensitive to the feelings of our fellow councillors. The central issue of whether private—that is, non-council-related—events should figure in the characterisation of a member is important. I share the view that we need to examine closely whether that ought to figure at all in the standing and reputation of the councillor. Then there are the consequences and penalties that might flow.
One needs to take human nature into account, however. If the extent of the private action, which we are saying ought not to figure, is publicly known, that in itself will bring consequences. Even though there are no consequences legally or statutorily, the mere fact that a person has been charged is enough, although I am talking not about someone who has been exonerated. Your Lordships know the phrases: “Mud sticks”, and “There’s no smoke without fire”. I have been in situations where people have been uncomfortable, not wishing to act precipitously, and yet inevitably their career has been blighted or besmirched simply because they have been involved in accusations of that kind.
We all have experience in both Houses of Parliament, where Members of this and the other House have committed something that has led them to face the wrath of a court. As a consequence they become subject to scrutiny from other Members who consider whether they should have sanctions applied to them. Most people are reluctant to cast the first stone. I am not talking about, “There but for the grace of God go I”; I am talking about human nature. Unless the crime is heinous, something that just cannot be tolerated, one simply says, “That might have been me”—or indeed, “That was me, but I wasn’t found out, and I won’t do it again”. We try to be generous in our attitude to various people of that kind.
The noble Baroness has raised the bar. It is right that if a court arbitrates in a matter and the person is found guilty, that ought to be sufficient for action to be taken about his worthiness to serve on the council. She also raised the delicate question of interpretation. Some people are very generous and open-minded—I almost said “liberal”—in such situations and prefer to leave these matters be. What with the public, the local press, the local group and the local ward committee, there are sufficient ways to punish the person, and I do not think that his or her private life ought to figure in that way. I hope that my noble friend can say something helpful; the amendments are certainly along the right lines.
I am troubled by this clause. I support the amendment and what my noble friend Lady Hanham said about a person’s private life not being included.
I am not entirely clear what this clause is trying to achieve. What do we think is the problem? As I have gone around the country in the past three years visiting local authorities, I have been immensely impressed by their standards of integrity and probity. I was a little concerned by what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about the differences across the country and some diversity between councils. I do not know whether there was an inference there, but I hope that the point was about the diversity of quality in authorities. I do not see a great diversity in issues of integrity and probity because I think the standards are universally high across the country.
I agree. I was not suggesting that there is a huge diversity in standards of probity but that there is great diversity in the culture of councils and the way in which they do things. Despite the attempts over the years to impose uniformity from above, that still exists. I have never been to Kent County Council, but I have no doubt that if I went there, I would find a unique organisation which does quite a lot in rather different ways from county councils that I know better in the north of England.
I was not talking about Kent County Council either; I was talking about my experience across the country. While I agree that there are differences in some cases in the quality of councillors and the effectiveness of service provision, the standards of integrity are universally high across England. I have been enormously impressed.
What are we trying to achieve here? Has the national Standards Board added to those important issues of probity and integrity and the conduct of councillors? Overall, I am not certain that it has. I think that in many cases it has actually done more damage through blighting people. As very often happens, the case of an individual councillor can be taken to the national Standards Board which can consider whether there is a case to be heard for up to a year without that councillor even knowing that a complaint has been lodged against him or her. The board has not added anything overall. We need to think hard about it.
On the other hand, the local standards committees add a great deal. They have the knowledge and the experience; they have attended council meetings and know what is going on. Those problems are much better dealt with at the local level.
Therefore, I entirely agree that this point on private life should not be included in the Bill, but I have major reservations about whether the national Standards Board has added anything to the issue.
That is an important contextual point for the amendments that we are discussing. We had the beginnings of a debate on it when were discussing an earlier group. I am sure that the noble Lord is right pay tribute to the integrity of local councillors. The fact that the national Standards Board dealt with only three serious cases, defined by exclusions of five years or more, reflects that. It is difficult to say whether those three cases would have been dealt with differently if it had not existed in that form. A very small number of cases were sufficiently serious to lead to exclusion, which reflects much of what the noble Lord said.
If I describe Clause 184, it might clarify a few issues. It is important for councillors to set an example of leadership to their communities and uphold high standards. Members should be expected to act within the law even when they are not acting in their role as members. The clause provides that the principles which govern the conduct of members of authorities, and the provisions of the code which they are required to follow, may include principles and provisions which apply at all times. Therefore, the intention underlying the clause is that a member’s behaviour at all times, including in their private and official capacity, should be included within the remit of the general principles and the model of conduct. As noble Lords have said, the clause is a response to the interpretation of the code’s remit by the High Court in 2006 in the case of the appeal of the Mayor of London, which cast doubt on the ability of the code to prescribe the conduct of members in their private capacity.
However, our current policy is that the code of conduct in respect of English local authorities should prescribe a member’s behaviour in their private capacity where that behaviour has resulted in a criminal conviction. That is its common-sense and proper application. That view was supported by those who responded to our recent consultation on the code, including the LGA.
I have real sympathy with the intention of the amendment, which is to ensure that the remit and principles of the code should extend to conduct in a private capacity only where that conduct has attracted a criminal conviction. I would like to consider an amendment which would reflect that intention in the Bill, so that nobody is in any doubt that that is how we mean to proceed. It would be helpful.
The goal is to provide in the Bill for the remit to include all behaviour and for secondary legislation to provide for the code to prescribe behaviour in a private capacity. The recently revised code already includes that provision.
We consider that the proposals are consistent with the ECHR since the rules relating to members’ behaviour in their private capacity do not interfere in any person’s human rights to any extent which is greater than that for which the criminal law already provides. The proposals are therefore lined up with the ECHR.
I think that what I have said takes care also of the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, which would have provided that the principles and provisions of the model code of conduct that govern the member’s behaviour apply in respect only of a member’s official capacity and not their private capacity. I have explained why we cannot do that and why the code does not reflect that, but with the caveat that we will make an amendment to the Bill so that nobody is in any doubt about the seriousness and special nature of the matter. I hope that she will accept that and not press her amendment.
I am grateful for the indication that an amendment will be introduced, because it is clear that the clause does not reflect the legal position that pertains and it would change the legal position again.
I support the position on criminal convictions. If the Minister is kind enough to introduce an amendment, we just need to look at the level of criminal convictions, because those convictions can be trivial as well as serious. Citing criminal conviction in a widespread way may leave us in nearly the same difficulties as we are in at the moment. Perhaps the law officers who are considering this could look and see whether it needs to be refined a bit. Then we would probably all be on the same lines.
I am grateful to the Minister for thinking so carefully about the points that we have raised in this amendment and to those on the Conservative Benches for their support. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, is entirely right in saying that upholding the highest standards of integrity and behaviour is not only in the interests of everyone in local government but that people in local government genuinely subscribe to it. Questions about the standards regime in no way lessen that, but it is absolutely key that principles of natural justice apply in this field as they would anywhere else. There is at least sufficient evidence to cast doubt on whether previous practices have resulted in that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to trivial criminal convictions. The answer here is to allow criminal justice processes to take their course, so that a decision is made whether someone is guilty or not of a criminal offence. After that, the standards process makes a decision whether that criminal offence is one that impacts on someone’s role as a councillor. In other words, a minor speeding matter may very well be seen by a local standards board as one that would not cause a problem or interfere in someone’s ability to be a councillor. It may be that that person is the executive member for road safety—in which case the local board may take a different view. But if in that two-stage process the criminal issues are separated out from issues of standards of the council, we may be on safer ground. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 236A to 238ZA not moved.]
Clause 184 agreed to.
Clause 185 [Certain references to code of conduct to include default code]:
238ZAA: Clause 185, page 125, line 33, leave out subsection (1)
The noble Lord said: This is the one that the Minister and I thought was in the first group, but my noble friend said that it was in a group that came later. I think that we passed it, but it was not a terribly substantive point anyway, and I am afraid that it is lost in the miasma for ever.
[Amendment No. 238ZAA not moved.]
Clause 185 agreed to.
Clause 186 [Assessment of allegations]:
238ZB: Clause 186, page 129, leave out lines 11 to 14
The noble Baroness said: My noble friend was referring to the kind of situation, which I call a “God and Robert Browning” moment, that occurred on a previous group of amendments a few days ago. There may be one or two more today on my part. Amendment No. 238ZB takes us to Clause 186 and new Section 57A, which will go into the 2000 Act. Like my noble friend, I question the clause.
My amendment would take out the provision which would allow the Standards Board for England to issue guidance in connection with the new section on suspending a standards committee’s functions or guidance on any regulations or any direction under this section. It was probably a knee-jerk reaction to seeing the words “Standards Board for England” that had me alighting on that. It allows me to question the extent to which the Standards Board for England should have the power to suspend a standards committee’s functions. New Section 57D starts with the words:
“In such circumstances as may be prescribed”.
Presumably that is the Secretary of State prescribing circumstances, and then the Standards Board for England can direct that the standards committee is disqualified.
It would be very helpful if the Minister could give us some clues as to the circumstances in which that would function. I use “function” when we are talking about functions. Shall I go on waffling for a moment? I could read the clause out. This brings a number of new provisions into the 2000 Act. I can see, in some senses, how it is trying to localise arrangements. I repeat my concern about the Standards Board for England having any role. It occurs to me that I could move the amendment because my noble friend has an interest in this group and he can go on talking. I beg to move.
My concern with this group of amendments is concentrated on the same issues as those raised by my noble friend. I do not want to say any more than she has said, other than to refer to new Section 57D(7), which is the power to suspend the standards committee’s functions. It states:
“The Standards Board for England may issue guidance in connection with—
(a) this section or any regulations under this section, or
(b) any direction under this section”.
To whom is the board to give guidance? This concerns actions by the Standards Board for England and it says that it may issue guidance in connection with those actions. It seems rather odd. If rules are to be laid down on how that is to work, I think it should be done through regulations because they would then apply to the Standards Board for England and to everyone else involved. The guidance seems to be made by the Standards Board for England for itself, unless I have read it wrongly.
I do not think the noble Lord has read it wrongly. I shall set out the main purpose of the clause and then we may be able to make sense of the amendment.
The clause provides the central provisions through which we want to deliver our policy of a more locally based conduct regime. Our intention is that the initial assessment of all misconduct allegations is now to be taken by a standards committee rather than by the Standards Board. If the standards committee decides that action needs to be taken on an allegation, it will refer the allegation either to the monitoring officer or to the Standards Board. Although we expect that most investigations of allegations will be undertaken by local authority monitoring officers rather than the Standards Board’s ethical standards officer—that is implicit in how we have organised it—we still have a reserve power to refer the more serious cases to the Standards Board for investigation. Because we recognise the importance of maintaining public confidence in this locally focused system of assessment, where the standards committee decides that no action should be taken on an allegation, the person who made the allegation may request a review of that decision. Following such a request, the provisions requiring a standards committee to make a decision on how to deal with the allegation will again apply. The committee has to make a decision within three months of receiving the request for a review. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked about appeals, and that is a sort of low-level appeal mechanism.
The clause is extremely concerning. This is a double jeopardy situation where someone makes an allegation, a hearing is held, and the person making the allegation does not like the outcome and has a right to take it to a higher authority. That is very dodgy indeed. I cannot think of any situation in the law or in tribunals where an allegation can be made and the person making the allegation decides that they do not like the adjudication and can whip it off up to someone else. We do not have a right of appeal for someone who is accused of something and found against. It is the wrong way round here. We are beginning to run into the problem of people being guilty until proved innocent. Once the allegation is adjudicated on, that should be it.
This is a related point; perhaps the noble Baroness can write to us on this as well. If there is to be a system where big, important or problematic cases can be called in to a national level, surely that process should occur before the local process has been gone through and not afterwards. Should it not be like a planning application, for example, where the Secretary of State may say, “We’ll deal with this, so pass it over to us”? I am not saying that that is a good system.
I do not think that is logical. The point about having local committees is that they will do the sifting. They can decide the nature of the complaint on the basis of the evidence they have received and whether something is sufficiently serious at that stage to go to the Standards Board. If it were the other way round, we would be in the current position where everything is referred first to the Standards Board and there is no local input at all.
That may be the process by which it happens, but that sifting process will determine whether it is a major issue, after which it would be sent to a national level and the local committee would not hear or deal with it, so it would be sent after the sifting process but before it has been dealt with locally. Is that not the case?
The local committee, not the complainant, decides whether to refer the case upwards. The process of sifting through the local committee will determine the seriousness of the complaint and therefore whether it should be referred.
I have rather lost track of where I was on the original amendment. We were talking about the role of the Standards Board to issue guidance, particularly on the standards committees’ powers to make initial assessments in, for example, cases where appropriate levels of performance have not been achieved. In such cases any allegations or review requests will instead be dealt with by either the Standards Board or another local authority. The noble Baroness asked essentially—because her amendment seeks to delete that power—under what circumstances that guidance might be issued and what it might cover. This all comes within the general scope of trying to make the Standards Board a vehicle whereby we can promote good and systematic practice across the committees’ work. That will range from the way initial assessments are done, the nature of the evidence, the way it is reviewed and so on.
I do not have detailed notes on the work on suspending standards committees’ functions. It will obviously relate to a range of potential poor performance. It may concern the way that they are dealing with initial assessments or complaints or making judgments. The guidance is not yet written but it will have to be clear about the scope and the nature of that matter. I shall have to write to Members of the Committee about that because we do not have that detail in front of us at the moment. This clearly raises a lot of questions about how serious faults have to be, at what point people will see that a standards committee is not performing to the standards set down in guidance, and what must be done to bring it up to a higher level of performance. I am afraid that I cannot take the Committee any further on this as I simply do not have sufficient detailed information about that part of the operation. This is work in progress. However, I am happy to add that to the list of questions that I shall take away.
I think that the Minister questioned what I said about the allegation then being reheard. I draw her attention to page 127 and new Section 57B, which is headed, “Right to request review of decision not to act”. New Section 57B(2) states:
“The person who made the allegation may make a request to the standards committee … concerned for that decision to be reviewed”.
That means that it will be a second hearing.
We all understand the complexity of some of this, or at least we understand that it is complex; that may be as far as our understanding goes. I am very grateful to the Minister for agreeing to write. This throws into sharp relief the concerns that we have about how far this legislation has been thought through before it reaches us.
When I was gathering together my papers this morning for today’s proceedings, I thought that this was, to borrow the noble Baroness’s word, a rather dodgy amendment, but I am extremely glad that I decided to move it, even though I was not entirely convinced by it myself, because it has thrown up some very important issues. Quite apart from the, as it were, philosophical points raised, some of the practical issues of how these things may work lead me to suggest that whoever makes the relevant regulations—I got a bit lost in that—might like to include a flow chart to assist standards committees.
I end with a point of principle on new Section 57D, headed, “Power to suspend standards committee’s functions”, which is that it seems to have left the council out of this entirely. It is just the standards committee, which I know has a very specific status and a different status from that of a transport committee, for example, but I do not think that there is a way, as it is written here, that the matter is ever brought to the attention of the council, which is part parent of this.
I am very grateful to other noble Lords for the points that they have made, because they will help our debate in the long run. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 186 agreed to.
Clause 187 [Information to be provided to Standards Board by relevant authority]:
238ZC: Clause 187, page 130, line 20, leave out “different relevant authorities”
The noble Baroness said: The amendments in this group ought to be easier. Amendment No. 238ZC relates to what would be the new section about information to be provided to the Standards Board, which says:
“Different directions … may be given in relation to different relevant authorities or different descriptions of relevant authority”.
I can understand,
“different descriptions of relevant authority”,
which I take to be a shire, district, or London borough, but “different relevant authorities” seems to be potentially discriminatory against individual authorities. I do not understand why that is necessary and I hope that the Minister can set my mind at rest.
Amendment No. 238ZD would add to the part of the new section that says that a,
“direction … may be varied or revoked by a subsequent direction of the Standards Board”,
a suggestion that the Standards Board ought to comply with directions given by the Secretary of State. This is all part and parcel of my personal confusion, which I do not lay on anyone else, about the respective roles of the Secretary of State and of the Standards Board. We have talked about the track record of the Standards Board, and I have confessed that I have been prompted to table certain amendments by seeing its name. I hope that the noble Baroness may be able to help me. I beg to move.
I hope that this is easier, too. It is only when you get into the cut and thrust of Committee stage sometimes that you realise that there are complexities in articulating what you thought you understood in the first place.
The group of amendments relates to the arrangements by which information is to be provided by authorities to the Standards Board. Clause 187 enables the board to direct an authority to provide it with information in relation to the misconduct allegations that it has received and the requests received to review its decisions. That sort of information would be used to monitor the performance of standards committees and monitoring officers in carrying out their roles. This is necessary so that the board is able to make decisions on what further support and guidance committees need to improve their performance and on whether to remove a standards committee’s powers to make initial assessments of misconduct allegations.
Amendment No. 238ZC provides that, in giving directions to authorities on the information required, the board would not be able to give different directions to different authorities; it would be able to do so only to different types of authority. The noble Baroness asked about the relevant authority. The problem is that what she suggests would impede the effectiveness of the board’s monitoring role. We have specified relevant authorities so that different types of information can be given flexibly enough to meet different types of situation. The amendment would make it difficult to be able to request precisely the information required. Part of the problem is that that would be discriminatory to an extent; it would not allow for sufficient sensitivity to ask for the sort of information needed. That would be the effect of the amendment. The problem is that different authorities are likely to provide different sorts of challenges to the Standards Board in the management and monitoring of their performance. They will need to be able to provide different sorts of information to the board, depending on the different situations that they face. Therefore, I am simply saying that there needs to be as much flexibility as possible in the board’s capacity to request information.
The term “direction” is slightly blunt. It will mean any sort of exchange that the Standards Board has with the standards committee. It might take the form of a request by e-mail or letter to provide information, so “direction” is a slightly heavy-handed description. Most requests for information will be in the form of exchanges of letters with individual authorities, because there will have to be a tailor-made approach to each situation in order to get the right information on the right subject. Some requests will come from the other direction, with the standards committee seeking the advice of the board. Again, one wants to be able to build in as much flexibility as possible for those exchanges. There is no intention that any such directions will be imposed in a heavy-handed way, but we want to ensure that requests for information allow matters that are particular to each authority to be looked at more effectively and that they allow areas of concern to be identified.
Amendment No. 238ZD provides that any direction issued by the board about the information to be provided should comply with any direction given by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has no role in relation to the Standards Board and we do not want there to be such a role. We think that it would be very inappropriate for the Secretary of State to intervene in the board’s day-to-day operation of the regulatory regime and therefore we do not sympathise with the thrust of the amendment. The board is an independent regulator. It has to make its own decisions using its expertise and experience, and that is why we do not want to accept the amendment.
I think that all this will bear careful reading, but possibly not for a week or so. I hear what the noble Baroness says about the Secretary of State not having a role. That is an important point, but one needs to go back through some of our deliberations and be satisfied that that is the case. As to Amendment No. 238ZC, I think that I understood what the Minister was saying—that it is the different information rather than the different authorities that is relevant, although I should not use the word “relevant” here. She also talked about the Government’s intention that there will not be a heavy hand in this. Our role is to ensure that the words reflect the intention, and therefore I may want to return to that at a later stage. However, we will need to read the whole of these exchanges in order to flesh out the proposals in our own minds. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 238ZD not moved.]
Clause 187 agreed to.
Clauses 188 to 191 agreed to.
Clause 192 [Ethical standards officers: investigations and findings]:
238ZE: Clause 192, page 133, line 25, leave out paragraph (b)
The noble Baroness said: Amendments Nos. 238ZE and 238ZF are “Day 6 in Committee” amendments, in the sense that they reflect the fact that at this stage in Committee, and combining my brain with that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, we are unable to make any sense of two provisions in the Bill. Therefore, I have tabled the amendments in the hope that the Minister can enlighten us.
Amendment No. 238ZE concerns the removal of a provision from the Local Government Act that allows members or co-opted members, or former members or co-opted members, to have access to documents. We do not entirely understand why that provision is to be removed. Amendment No. 238ZF refers to a provision in the Bill that we simply do not understand. Once we know what it means, we may have a bit more to say about it. In the mean time, I beg to move.
These confessions are coming thick and fast at this stage of the Bill. Amendments Nos. 238ZE and 238ZF relate to access to information arising from investigations by the ethical standards officer of the Standards Board. I will explain what Clause 192 does and how the amendments would bite on it. It extends the current access that an ethical standards officer has to documents, so that his access will not be limited, as now, to documents relating to a relevant authority or to an individual member. This is simply to allow an officer to be able to conduct an effective investigation by getting access to documents which may not necessarily relate directly to the local authority or the person, but which may relate to another interest that is relevant to the investigation, such as papers relating to the interests of family members, friends or associates.
Amendment No. 238ZE would allow access only to documents directly relating to the member and not to other relevant documents that might be relevant to a member’s personal interests. After experience of the way in which the Standards Board has been working, we feel that this would unnecessarily restrict the remit of the investigation and lead to relevant evidence in some cases not being made available. The advice that we have obtained from the Standards Board, based on the board’s experience of the operation of the current arrangements over the past five years, is that the current restriction in the rules allowing only access to documents relating to an individual member has resulted in a number of cases where it was not possible for the investigator effectively to gather all the relevant evidence pertaining to the case.
The sort of information in question would include, for example, a contract with the council entered into by a member of the councillor’s family, which could provide evidence of a conflict of interest but which would not be accessible under current rules since the contract would not relate directly to the member personally. It is that sort of situation. There is no intention to allow the ethical standards officer access to any or every piece of information at his whim. The access rule is limited to information that is strictly necessary to the officer’s investigation. So the safeguards are there.
Clause 192 also extends the number of persons and bodies to whom information obtained by an ethical standards officer during an investigation may be disclosed for the purpose of their functions. Amendment No. 238ZF would provide that the Secretary of State would not be able to add by order further people to the list of people and bodies to which disclosure of information can be made. We feel that this is unnecessarily restrictive because it would lessen the flexibility available to the Secretary of State to allow the sharing of information with other public sector bodies so as to facilitate the effective operation of the local government conduct regime.
I stress that this is very much intended as a reserve power. We would want to extend the list of bodies only in rare cases. The bodies added would have to be public bodies, such as the Standards Commission for Scotland or the parliamentary and health ombudsmen, which have overlapping responsibilities with the Standards Board. So in exceptional cases there would be a reserve power, but it is necessary.
Having received the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, we will now provide for any addition to this list to be made by affirmative resolution, which will involve an appropriate level of scrutiny. So we have added a further parliamentary safeguard to the process.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. It goes to show that, when we tabled these amendments, our brains were functioning. Having heard her response, I can now remember why we thought that these issues were significant. Certainly, extending access to documents should not be taken lightly. I can understand that in some cases it may be useful or even essential to have access to certain documents, but we should not underestimate how significant it is for the family of an elected member to know that their affairs can be looked at.
This is something to which we need to give further thought over the Recess. These issues go to the heart of the argument; we are talking not about criminal allegations, but about a set of circumstances that apply only to local councillors and for which there is no proper legal process. However, yet again we can see how the process is quasi-legal and therefore drags in other people, including family members and so on.
I can now remember why I made the query in relation to Amendment No. 238ZF. I did so because the issue was raised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I am pleased that the noble Baroness has said that the affirmative resolution procedure will be used. Again, adding to this list by order is significant and ought as a matter of course to be brought to the attention of the House to enable any concerns to be raised. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 238ZF not moved.]
Clause 192 agreed to.
Clause 193 [Ethical standards officers: reports etc]:
238ZFA: Clause 193, page 134, line 15, at end insert “and shall do so if a reference under subsection (3)(b) is withdrawn”
The noble Baroness said: Clause 193 concerns reports made by ethical standards officers. The ethical standards officer can refer a matter to the adjudication panel and it appears that the Secretary of State can and therefore no doubt will make regulations for the withdrawal of the reference. This amendment probes the circumstances in which the ethical standards officer will be over ruled, because that is what this amounts to.
My notes say that Amendment No. 238ZFB relates to an interim ethical standards officer report. I cannot now make sense of the amendment because grammatically it does not seem to fit. I realise that the people who make sure that our amendments normally make sense when we put them down—the Clerks to the House—must have been as tired and rushed as I was. I apologise to the Committee for what may be a nonsensical amendment—I wish that my noble friend would stop giggling—but my point about the relationship between the ethical standards officer and all the other dramatis personae in all this still stands. I beg to move.
The first amendment refers to the power in Clause 193 about the withdrawal of a reference. Clause 193 provides a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations concerning the withdrawal of a reference by an ethical standards officer to the adjudication panel. The circumstances in which it would be right for a case to be withdrawn might include one where, for example, after the ethical standards officer had decided that the case should be referred to the adjudication panel for determination, further evidence emerged that indicated that there was no case to answer, or where the pursuit of the case would not be in the public interest, such as where somebody involved suddenly contracted a terminal illness. The clause allows for personal circumstances of that sort. We need to keep that flexibility.
Amendment No. 238ZFA would require the Secretary of State to make regulations allowing the withdrawal of a reference to the panel in cases where such a referral was likely to lead to the disqualification of a member. It is unnecessary because it is already our intention that the regulations should include the possibility of the withdrawal of a case where the member would otherwise be likely to be disqualified.
Clause 193 also provides for copies of reports by an ethical standards officer following his investigation to be put to the standards committee in order to assist it in carrying out its functions. That would apply where the ethical standards officer considered that making members aware of the circumstances and outcome of a case would help them to develop their knowledge and understanding of the operation of their regime. Amendment No. 238ZFB would require the ethical standards officer to pass a copy of the report on a case to the standards committee where a referral to the panel was withdrawn. That is unnecessary because there is no particular reason why there should be a requirement to copy a report to the committee in those circumstances, as we are already proposing that a report should be given to the committee on every occasion when the officer considers that the committee would benefit from it. That would be the effect of the noble Baroness’s amendment, but it is already covered by the wider provisions.
I am grateful for the Minister’s explanation. It reinforces comments made earlier about the importance of seeing draft regulations before we come to discuss this at the next stage. Some of the provisions are difficult to read because they amend earlier legislation in just a few small words and it is hard to follow quite what the cumulative effect is, but that is something that one has to grapple with. There are different ways of presenting legislation. So much of this depends on regulations that are in the mind of the Government and, however much we are mind readers, we cannot read everything. When the regulations are potentially very important and what the Government have in mind casts a completely different light on what is proposed in the legislation, that leads us to question the legislation itself. I do not mean to lecture the Minister, and I hope that she does not take it that way. I am expressing a degree of frustration, largely with myself for having such difficulty with this, and considerable concern about having to deal with legislation where we cannot understand its totality. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 238ZFB not moved.]
Clause 193 agreed to.
Clause 194 [Disclosure by monitoring officers of ethical standards officers’ reports]:
238ZFC: Clause 194, page 134, line 39, at end insert—
“( ) the standards committee of the relevant authority;”
The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 238ZFC probes why new Section 65A is required. Is sending a report to the standards committee provided for somewhere else? If not, is it required, or is it covered by the reference to the monitoring officer in Section 66(2)?
Amendment No. 238ZFD deals with Section 66(6) of the current Act, which allows ethical standards officers referring matters to monitoring officers to give directions on the way in which those matters are to be dealt with. I realise what a significant power that might be. I had always understood that the role of the ethical standards officer was primarily investigative rather than about applying sanctions. Certainly under the new regime, if this means that the ESO can tell the monitoring officer how to deal with something, it does not reflect the reference to local determination and all that surrounds that. I beg to move.
Amendments Nos. 238ZFC and 238ZFD relate to the treatment of matters referred to the monitoring officer. Clause 194 provides that a monitoring officer may copy an ethical standards officer’s report to any member or officer of the authority. Amendment No. 238ZFC would provide that the standards committee should be added to the list of relevant persons to whom a monitoring officer may send a copy of the report. This is unnecessary because proposed new Clause 65A(4) already provides for the report to be sent to members of the standards committee—that is what “relevant” means in that proposed new subsection—as well as to other members and officers who would benefit from the information that the report may contain. We believe that the existing drafting is sufficient to ensure that those with an interest in the report, or those whose knowledge and experience of the system would be improved by seeing it, will be included in the circulation.
Clause 195 provides for the ethical standards officer or the standards committee to give directions on how a case should be dealt with when they refer it to the monitoring officer for action. Amendment No. 238ZFD would delete this power. That would seriously hamper the effective operation of the conduct regime by preventing the appropriate officers giving instructions on how particular matters should be handled; for example, in cases in which the ethical standards officer or the standards committee decide whether a particular case should be investigated, or whether other action, such as requiring the monitoring officer to circulate information referred to him for training purposes, would be appropriate.
The power already available to ethical standards officers to give directions to monitoring officers is being used proactively to seek mediation between parties to improve the content and availability of training and to ensure that members get access to better information. This is a very positive power with no heavy handed implication that they will be told what to do in all cases. It is there, in essence, to provide guidance on the availability of other options, and removing it would mean that matters could be dealt with only through formal investigation, which is not always the best way forward. It provides for those situations in which a middle way or a lower order of intervention would be appropriate.
This is something else that we will need to think about more. The Minister used the terms “instructions” and “guidance”, which are different. The legislation is about directions, so again one needs to understand the interrelationship and the hierarchy of all this. I am grateful for her answer, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 194 agreed to.
Clause 195 [Matters referred to monitoring officers]:
[Amendment No. 238ZFD not moved.]
Clause 195 agreed to.
Clause 196 [References to Adjudication Panel for action in respect of misconduct]:
238ZG: Clause 196, page 136, line 17, leave out “include” and insert “are”
The noble Baroness said: Clause 196 adds new Section 66A to the 2000 Act. It refers to the,
“kinds of action that may be authorised”,
by the new provision which enables panels of the standards committee,
“to decide what action, of a kind authorised by regulations”—
one would expect that—“should be taken”. Those “kinds of action” include ones authorised by further regulations. The amendment concerns the word “include” again. I apologise to the Minister if her explanation that “include” means “are” or something different was given to my noble friend during debate on a previous clause. I realise that I had stepped out of the Chamber when that was being debated. If “kinds of action” includes certain kinds of action, what else might they include? I beg to move.
This amendment relates to the sanctions available to the Adjudication Panel for England. Clause 196 provides that the Secretary of State may make regulations in respect of the referral of a case by a standards committee to the adjudication panel where the committee considers that the sanction available to it of a maximum three months’ suspension from office would be insufficient. In such circumstances, the committee will be able to refer the case to the adjudication panel, which can determine a sanction of up to five years’ disqualification from office.
Amendment No. 238ZG provides that the sanctions to be made available to adjudication panel members when a case is referred to it by the standards committee may include only the limited sanctions under Section 78A(4) to (6) of the Local Government Act 2000. That would unnecessarily reduce the range of sanctions to apply for cases referred by standards committees. The sort of things that would be excluded, for example, would be the option to take no action or the option to take action other than suspension or disqualification from office; or a requirement to undertake training or to seek mediation or to apologise. A whole range of things come into this area before one moves into the much heavier arena of disqualification. That would be the effect of the amendment. I hope that provides clarification.