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House of Lords: Conduct of Members

Volume 707: debated on Monday 26 January 2009

Private Notice Question

Tabled By

To ask the Leader of the House what action she will take to uphold the reputation and the standards of the House in response to the allegations against Members of the House contained in the Sunday Times on 25 January 2009.

My Lords, a number of allegations were published yesterday in relation to Members of this House. I am deeply concerned about these allegations, and this concern is shared across the House and beyond. Since then, I have referred these allegations to the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests. The chair of the committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, has agreed to expedite the investigation into these allegations. Indeed, the committee has already met, and investigations are under way.

I have separately asked the chairman of the Committee for Privileges, the Chairman of Committees the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, to consider any issues relating to the rules of the House that arise, especially in connection with consultancy arrangements, and in connection with sanctions in the event that a complaint against a Member is upheld.

I am also seeing personally each of the Members concerned.

My Lords, this is a deeply shocking and depressing moment. This House has been mired in a grim torrent of criticism about a culture of sleaze. Does the Leader of the House agree that, if these allegations are true, those involved have shamed this House and must comply with whatever action the House asks of them, including taking a period of absence?

There are no grey areas in the paid advocacy rule. The code says:

“Members of the House … must never accept any financial inducement … for exercising parliamentary influence”,

and goes on to say that Members,

“must not … promote any matter, in return for payment”.

It could not be clearer.

The inquiry that the noble Baroness has announced must be rigorous and swift, so we can find out what happened as soon as possible. Will she confirm that any noble Lord involved in these allegations need not wait for the results of the inquiry to come to the House to make a Personal Statement and accept responsibility for any misjudgment or wrongdoing? If the stories are true, would they not be well advised to do so?

My Lords, I was a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life at the time of our report in 2000 on the standards of conduct in the House of Lords. The committee accepted the views of a number of prominent Members of your Lordships’ House, including the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the leaders in this House of my party and of the Labour Party, that naming and shaming by a report of the Committee for Privileges was an adequate sanction. Does the Leader of the House agree that the committee got it wrong and that we should have recommended tougher sanctions? Does she also agree that to restore the standing of your Lordships’ House we need to adopt and apply further sanctions for future breaches of rules of conduct, including suspension and possibly, in extreme cases, even expulsion from your Lordships' House?

My Lords, the allegations are indeed deeply shocking, but they are, at this moment in time, allegations. This is damaging not only to this House but also to Parliament and to politics itself. We in this House have a responsibility to adhere to high standards, and we have to ensure that we adhere to those high standards in order to ensure that there is trust in the whole of our parliamentary process. I am pleased, as I said, to know that a rigorous and swift inquiry is already under way, and I am sure that the committee will deliberate on these issues as soon as it can. As for Personal Statements, that is a matter for the individuals concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, mentioned sanctions. I wholeheartedly agree that tougher sanctions are necessary. That is precisely why I have written to the chairman of the Committee for Privileges asking him to review these matters. I am confident that that will be taken forward swiftly also.

My Lords, this Chamber has undoubtedly become more professional and more effective in the past decade or so, and that necessarily calls for greater accountability in governance and in regulation. Does the Leader of the House agree that a full programme of measures, with specific attention to sanctions, should now be drawn up and implemented very shortly?

Yes, my Lords, I believe that all the rules pertaining to the complaints procedure, and indeed the issue of sanctions, need to be looked at. I am confident that that is what the chairman of the Committee for Privileges will do.

My Lords, as one of those involved in this incident, may I first apologise to your Lordships for bringing this House—if I have done so—into disrepute? However, these are allegations in a Sunday newspaper. I appeal to noble Lords in all parts of the House to allow me the opportunity to refute those allegations before your Lordships’ House and elsewhere.

My Lords, as one of those named in this article which alleges that I have committed an error, I most humbly apologise if I have done anything that has brought this House into disrepute. However, as my noble friend said, a committee of inquiry will take place. I would love to give evidence before that committee. I feel within my own conscience that I have followed the rules and the directions given in this House over the 31 years that I have been a Member.

My Lords, I note the comments made by my noble friend. I know that the committee will undertake its procedure swiftly and justly.

My Lords, will the committee as set up have power to subpoena witnesses if necessary? If we are to have a really thorough inquiry, we need to make sure that we can establish the underlying issues at stake.

My Lords, I do not know whether the committee can subpoena witnesses but it can invite witnesses to appear before it.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that although I was not named in yesterday’s articles in the Sunday Times, I was approached by the undercover journalists in question? I hope she is aware that this morning I therefore wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, to say that I feel it would be appropriate to give evidence to any inquiry which the sub-committee might conduct. I am confident that I did not breach any of the House’s rules, nor did I offer to do so, but I nevertheless think that it is important—as I was the subject of the journalists’ deception and attempted entrapment—that I be given the opportunity to be questioned by the sub-committee.

My Lords, I was aware of the letter from my noble friend. I am sure that the whole House will welcome the action that he has taken.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has rightly said that the rules about paid advocacy could not be clearer. I wonder whether the Leader of the House can confirm—I am speaking not about this case but in general—that it is as bad for a Peer, for reward, to get another Peer to exercise influence over legislation as it is for the Peer him or herself to do so?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely correct. It would be absolutely against the rules of this House, and against any standards that we uphold, for a Peer to ask one of his or her fellow Peers to act in a way which is against the rules of this House.

My Lords, has the committee been asked to review the code of conduct in its entirety? It is very important that our rules are absolutely crystal clear. I also commend my noble friend for acting so swiftly, and agree with those who have said that it is important that we await the outcome of any review.

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments from my noble friend. I have not asked the chairman of the Committee for Privileges to review the code of conduct in its entirety, but I will take up the issue. The views expressed in the House today have shown that that is what the House as a whole would wish to happen.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while it may be necessary to revisit and review the code of conduct, especially as it relates to paid advocacy, and possibly to tighten and clarify the rules, it is not possible to draw any conclusions from possible breaches of the code of conduct about the route by which Members may come into this House? These are separate issues and ought to be kept distinct.

My Lords, does not this whole affair—with so much bad publicity over the weekend being transmitted all over the world regardless of whether the allegations are proven or unproven—indicate that some aspects of self-regulation simply do not work, with the result that the House is being brought into disrepute? Should we not now be considering adopting the Nolan approach, which arose after a major scandal in the House of Commons, and appoint a commissioner for standards and privileges, as in the Commons? Is not the price we are paying for self-regulation the fact that our procedures prevent the Speaker of this House from intervening from the chair to demand higher standards and action to protect the integrity of this House? We need a rethink on the powers of both the Speaker and the Committee for Privileges.

My Lords, my noble friend is correct; the allegations and stories in the Sunday Times have in essence brought this House into disrepute in the whole of the world. We therefore have to take whatever actions are necessary to restore trust and confidence in this House. This is a good House. We have high standards and we have to ensure that they are properly adhered to. My noble friend has raised many other issues—wider issues which we have to take into consideration—but I do not believe that it would be proper for me to comment on them at this moment at the Dispatch Box.

My Lords, is it not important that we should take this whole affair in stages? And is it not perfectly clear that first we have to establish the facts? Is it not also perfectly clear that what my noble friend has already announced are significant steps in the direction of establishing those facts? Therefore, does my noble friend agree that perhaps it is time to stop commenting on the basis of, “If these allegations are true, then so and so will happen”, and that we should let these investigations proceed? I hope they will proceed quickly and I hope they will be thorough.

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree. The investigations are now in place. We have to let them run their course. I am confident that they will be rigorous and swift and then we will take whatever action is necessary.