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Privileges Committee: Third Report

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 18 December 2008

Motion to Agree

Moved By

My Lords, I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House that as well as speaking to this Motion on the committee’s 3rd report of the last Session, I shall also speak to my second Motion and the 4th report, which is the more substantial of the two reports on the Order Paper.

First, I shall briefly comment on the 3rd report. It arose out of two complaints made against the noble Lord, Lord Warner, relating to the declaration of relevant interests in debate. The conclusions of the Committee for Privileges are, I hope, self-explanatory. We dismissed the complaints and agreed unanimously that the noble Lord, Lord Warner, had not acted improperly in breach of the House’s Code of Conduct. However, we also felt that the complaints had highlighted two significant gaps in the guidance currently available to noble Lords: first, whether they are required to declare future interests in debate; and, secondly, whether, and if so how often, declarations of relevant interests should be repeated in the course of proceedings on Bills. Our conclusions are as follows.

First, we believe that Members should, where there is a clear prospect of a future interest, declare that interest in debate. This is essential so that both participants in and readers of the debate can gauge the interests that might be thought to affect the actions of the Member concerned. In making this recommendation, we are simply reinstating guidance previously agreed by the House in 1990 and 1995, which applied until superseded by the present Code of Conduct in 2001. I should emphasise that we are talking only about declarations of interest in debate; we do not believe that any requirement to register future interests would be workable or appropriate.

Secondly, we believe that it would assist Members and the general public if the principles governing the need to repeat declarations were clarified. We suggest that constant repetition of declarations of interests would be time-consuming and futile. A balance has to be struck. We therefore recommend that, as a minimum, a declaration of any interests relevant to a particular Bill should be made on the occasion of the first intervention at each stage of the Bill’s progress. If these recommendations are agreed, the committee suggests that future editions of the Companion be amended to incorporate the new guidance.

I now turn to the 4th report on the procedure for considering complaints against Members. This is a more substantial report and it may be helpful if I take a little time to set out the background.

Members will be aware that the Code of Conduct, agreed in 2001, is couched in very broad terms. Although paragraph 19 of the code sets out some key principles concerning the examination of complaints against Members for alleged breaches, it provides no detail on how investigations should be conducted. Consequently, neither complainants nor noble Lords against whom complaints have been made have up until now been able to refer to any guidance as to how the process works or what their rights and expectations are. Nor has the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests, on which responsibility for examining complaints falls, been able to draw on agreed procedural guidelines to assist it in its work.

Until recently, none of this really mattered—to put it bluntly, there were no complaints against noble Lords, so there was no need for a detailed description of the procedures for dealing with them. However, as we are all aware, times have changed. We live in a world of media scrutiny, transparency, freedom of information, and a “complaints culture” that affects all walks of life. The House of Lords is not immune from these influences.

Hitherto we have, in practice, relied on successive chairmen of the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests to take a heavy personal responsibility for dealing with complaints as they saw fit. Here, I pay tribute to all those chairmen and, in particular, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who has chaired the sub-committee since 2006 and has presided over a period in which the number and complexity of complaints have increased substantially. I have always thought that one of the great strengths of this House is that we manage without having an overly complex set of rules and procedures. That we have done so has been down in no small measure to the work of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and his predecessors.

However, as I have already said, times change, and in the past year or two it has become increasingly obvious that the general principles in the code need to be supplemented by more detailed guidance, giving Members of the House, potential complainants and the general public a clear and accessible source of information on how we deal with complaints, on the rights of those concerned in complaints, and on the range of possible outcomes.

The Committee for Privileges therefore set up a working group in July, composed of myself, the Leaders of the three main parties and the Convenor, to bring forward proposals for new guidelines. The group, which was assisted by the Clerk of the Parliaments, reported back to the main committee in November, and the conclusions of both the working group and the committee are embodied in the 4th report now before the House.

I shall not take up the time of the House by going through the report in detail. The content is self-explanatory and I hope that all noble Lords will take the time to read it. In summary, we propose a procedure that is clear and transparent, with a number of key stages clearly set out. At the same time, we need to ensure that noble Lords who may, through inadvertence, have committed a minor breach of the code, which they are entirely willing to acknowledge, are given every opportunity to put the record straight without having to go through a long, drawn-out investigation. We therefore propose that arrangements to facilitate what we call remedial action be built into the process at each stage.

In conclusion, we need a process for considering complaints that is clear and workable, but reasonable and proportionate, and which respects the House’s tradition of self-regulation. We believe that these proposals fit the bill. They are consistent with the terms of the existing code of conduct, which sets out the fundamental principles governing conduct of Members. There is no attempt here to change any of these principles. We are concerned with how to clarify the way in which they are implemented in practice. We have to ensure that noble Lords against whom complaints are made are aware of their rights, and able to exercise them, while at the same time the legitimate expectations of the general public are respected.

I therefore commend both reports to the House, and beg to move that the 3rd report be agreed to.

My Lords, I am concerned about aspects of the 3rd report. My concerns do not centre on the report’s recommendations in the case of my noble friend Lord Warner, but on the proposal in the report to incorporate in future editions of the Companion new wording set out in paragraph 2 on page 6 of the report. It reads:

“On certain occasions, such as Oral Questions and the stages of a Bill following Second Reading, it may be for the convenience of the House that Members should not take up time by making repeated declarations of interest. In particular, during a Committee or Report stage, constant repetition of declarations of interest is unnecessary. But a full declaration of any interests relevant to a Bill should be made at least on the occasion of the first intervention at each stage of the Bill’s progress”—

in other words, at the start of Committee stage, the start of Report stage or the start of Third Reading. In essence, that wording is taken from a resolution of the House in November 1995, which states:

“On certain occasions such as Starred Questions and the various stages of a bill following Second Reading, it may be for the convenience of the House that Lords should not take up time by repeating declarations of interest but Lords should make a declaration whenever they are in doubt. The nature of the interest should be made clear notwithstanding that it may be well known to most other Lords present in the Chamber.

Similar principles apply to proceedings in committees off the floor of the House”.

In 2000, a recommendation was made by the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life that the House should adopt seven principles on conduct in public life, along with a code of conduct for Members. In 2001, before my time, the then Leader of the House—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Jay—established a Leader’s group which, in April 2001, recommended that many of the Neill committee’s recommendations be incorporated in the Companion. The code was incorporated in the Companion in 2001 and it stated that:

“Members of the House must … declare when speaking in the House … any interest which is a relevant interest in the context of the debate or the matter under discussion”.

It is significant that the code of conduct, approved in 2001, did not include the words in the 1995 resolution, which I read out earlier, that:

“it may be for the convenience of the House that Lords should not take up time by repeating declarations of interest”.

The committee wisely resisted incorporating those words in the code of conduct. Yet seven years later, the Privileges Committee is recommending that the words be incorporated on the basis that they are tightening up and removing ambiguity.

I believe that the effect will be the reverse. The inclusion of those words is an open invitation to some Members to make use of the new wording, on occasions, to avoid making subsequent declarations when a declaration has been made earlier—to a lesser extent at Question Time—and far more importantly, it would enable some Members to avoid making declarations on specific amendments in Committee or on Report or at Third Reading where a pecuniary interest is particularly pertinent to an amendment. The idea that at the commencement of Committee, Report or Third Reading such a declaration is sufficient, when the Long Title is vague or remote, is ludicrous. The Long Title of a Bill may in the perception of the public fail to indicate any connection with the nature of the amendment. I shall give an elementary example. Let us take a local government (miscellaneous provisions) Bill and an amendment that deals with late-night café opening where a pecuniary interest might be involved. There is clearly no identifiable connection between the two. I recognise that most Members of the House are scrupulous in the declarations that they make, but some are not. I believe that a specific amendment where there is a pecuniary interest must carry with it a declaration. The House cannot tolerate a failure to make a clear declaration on amendments where there is a pecuniary interest as defined under the code.

I remind the House of the words under the heading “Purpose of the Code”. They are,

“The purpose of this Code of Conduct is …. 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 and public duties”.

Why is it so important? It is because under the new wording, Members who are the subject of a non-declaration complaint would, in certain circumstances, be able to use in their defence the new wording as a justification for their failure to declare. In my view, the committee is unintentionally loosening the rules and softening the regime. The committee’s intention was to tighten up, but that will not be the effect of the proposed amendment to the Companion. I ask the committee to reconsider this recommendation and, if necessary, to return to the House with a further amendment. It might wish to consider the fact that we are a self-regulating House and, as such, we need to be extra diligent in the defence of our institution.

My Lords, as a former chairman of the sub-committee involved in these matters, I can confirm that there were real difficulties in deciding how to conduct an investigation into a complaint under the old provisions, which it is proposed to replace. There is great difficulty in finding a suitable way of combining the traditions of this House with the conventional and contemporary approach to dealing with complaints of this sort. In the circumstances, the working party has done a good job in trying to deal with the need to find a compromise and avoiding possible conflicts between the traditions of the House and having an open and transparent system for investigating complaints. I acknowledge the work that the Officers of the House have put in to this task and express my gratitude to them for consulting me about any suggestions I could make and trying, in so far as it was appropriate, to accommodate my views.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, for his kind words and his endorsement of our new approach. I join him in thanking the Officers of the House for all the hard work that they put into this to help me and my colleagues on the working group.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, makes some very important points. Nothing in here is intended to, or should, soften the rules by which we conduct ourselves. Noble Lords must still declare any interest, either at Question Time or the first time they intervene at each stage of a Bill. That is not weakened. The noble Lord gave an example of a particular case. If he and others are interested in the rule regarding paid advocacy, which could apply, nothing in the report affects the prohibition of paid advocacy under Section 4(d) of the Code of Conduct. It states that Members of the House,

“must not vote on any bill or motion, or ask any question in the House or a committee, or promote any matter, in return for payment or any other material benefit”.

That remains exactly the same; it is mandatory and is entirely separate from the issue of declarations of interest.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked whether the committee could review the rules as they come into force and as time goes by. In paragraph 6 of the fourth report, which refers mainly to the new procedures, we recommend that the new procedures should be kept under review by the new Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests and, in particular, that the sub-committee should conduct a formal review not more than two years after coming into force and report its conclusions and any proposals for change to the Committee for Privileges. I shall make certain that the sub-committee is aware of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and takes them into account when it undertakes its review.

My Lords, can the Minister just confirm that we are still required to declare an interest which might be thought by a reasonable member of the public to constitute a conflict?

Motion agreed.