Motion to Agree
To move that the 2nd Report from the Select Committee on Recovery of money wrongly claimed by Members (HL Paper 238) be agreed to.
My Lords, this is a simple report that we hope will constitute the final element of the House’s response to the expenses scandal. As noble Lords will be aware, the House has already dealt robustly with those Members found to have abused the system of financial support. However, the House Committee felt it important to ensure that any Members who have not repaid the wrongly claimed money are prevented from returning to the House until they have done so. I hope that noble Lords will agree that it would be inappropriate to restore to such Members the privilege of taking part in the important work of this House and the right to claim financial support until they have settled their debts to the public purse in full.
Accordingly, this report proposes that any Member who is found by the House to have wrongly claimed money under the system of financial support but has not repaid all of that money by one month before the end of their suspension from the House should receive a further suspension until the money has been paid in full or until the end of the Parliament, whichever comes first. If the debt were still outstanding at the beginning of the following Parliament, then the House would be invited to approve a further suspension and so on. The suspension of an individual under these provisions would be imposed by the House agreeing a Motion in the name of the Chairman of Committees.
I should just mention the role of the Committee for Privileges and Conduct, which I chair. In its sixth report of this Session, the committee stated that the recovery of debt was not a disciplinary matter and therefore did not come within its remit. The committee went on to say that securing repayment was a matter for the Clerk of the Parliaments, consulting the House Committee which oversees the system of financial support for Members. The Clerk duly consulted the House Committee, which noted that the Committee for Privileges and Conduct had concluded in its 2009 report on the powers of the House as follows:
“The House possesses … an inherent power to discipline its Members; the means by which it chooses to exercise this power falls within the regulation by the House of its own procedures”.
In line with this conclusion, the House Committee is now inviting the House to use its existing powers in a new way. I believe that our proposals are appropriate and I commend them to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have to tell the House that I am troubled by the Motion that is presented to the House. I am troubled on two bases.
First, I am unclear as to whether the House intends the Motion to have retrospective effect and thereby to reopen decisions made by this House during 2010. Noble Lords will know that a number of cases were dealt with by the Committee for Privileges and Conduct, whose members at that time included the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Lord Howe of Aberavon—who sits in his place and whom I, too, wish happy birthday—Lord Scott of Foscote and Lord Irvine of Lairg. The decisions arose out of the complaints made by and against a number of Members of this House during 2009. All those complaints were dealt with under the code of conduct made in the fourth report of Session 2007-08, to which I shall now refer as the report on procedure.
The House knows that there was a broad spectrum of complaints about the way in which expenses were claimed by some Members of this House. Each complaint was dealt with on an individual basis and differently. Some Members were asked to apologise in writing; some were asked to apologise to the House; some were dealt with by the Clerk of the Parliaments; some came before the Committee for Privileges and Conduct sub-committee; some came before the full committee; some were dealt with by the police; and some Members were tried and sent to prison. All those cases were dealt with under the old procedure. The variations in treatment are difficult to explain shortly, but it is unnecessary for me to go through that history because this House decided, I believe properly, to institute a new, clear and transparent system by which Members would be entitled to receive expenses.
Transgression of the new rules should be clearly and robustly dealt with. Therefore, if the House Committee’s recommendation is meant to refer to any future transgression under the new system, I can see the merit of making the position crystal clear to Members as we go forward so that Members will know, if sums are improperly claimed, a Member’s return to the House during that Session of Parliament will not be considered until full repayment has been rendered. There will then be no scope for misunderstanding of the rules. However, if the recommendation is intended to have retrospective effect, I have to confess to your Lordships that I have a problem.
The House will recall that in the hearing before the Committee for Privileges and Conduct, the issue of whether there should be a separate sanction for non-payment of moneys improperly received by a Member under the old system contained in the report on procedure was dealt with. The committee said this at paragraph 56 on page 20—and with the leave of your Lordships I intend to quote it in full:
“As a point of principle, and regardless of the circumstances of the present case, we have decided that the length of suspension should not be determined by reference to the time of repayment. Repayment is not a sanction: it is an act of restitution, the returning of money wrongly claimed and paid. The over-riding priority must be that this money should be returned to the House, and thus to the public purse. Lady Uddin’s appeal makes the point that she does not have the means to pay so large a sum. We are not in a position to comment on her financial circumstances, but it is clear that the sanction recommended by the Sub-Committee risks having the effect of preventing her indefinitely from returning to the House. Not only is there a danger that an ‘indefinite suspension’ could exceed the powers of the House, which are limited to suspension ‘for a defined period not longer than the remainder of the current Parliament’, but there is also a possibility that an indefinite suspension would result in the money never being recovered”.
I believe that the Privileges and Conduct Committee’s analysis was right in law and in principle. The House endorsed its conclusion, which was proper. The decision of the House was then communicated to the parties. It is contained in full in the sixth report of Session 2010-11, published on 21 October last year. Therefore, the House was specifically asked to determine the issue of principle as it related to the old system and came to a definitive view. I would be troubled indeed if, by this Motion, the House purported to resile from this principle on a retrospective basis. In my view, that would be improper.
The issue of whether a further suspension could be imposed in respect of the non-payment of moneys due came before the newly constituted Privileges and Conduct Committee, of which I am now a member. On 31 October this year, the committee was invited by the House Committee to think again and to review the recommendations made by the previous Privileges and Conduct Committee, of which I was not a member. The noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Scott of Foscote, and I all sat on that committee. We found no basis on which we could properly disagree with the previous committee's legal analysis or with the principles enunciated in the report. The Privileges and Conduct Committee specifically includes Members of this House with a legal and judicial background in order to assist the House by making recommendations that are consistent with the rule of law and with fairness.
The second issue that troubles me is whether the House, by using the stratagem of a Motion, intends to circumvent the prohibition that exists in law on suspending a Member of this House permanently. As Members will know, chapter 12.12 of the Companion states:
“The House of Lords does not have the power to suspend a member permanently. A writ of summons, which entitles members of the House to a ‘seat, place and voice’ in Parliament cannot be withheld”.
I respectfully suggest that we should not set ourselves up in opposition to Her Majesty's writ—not least because there is no appeal against our determination. Any suspension imposed by the House can only be temporary and can last only for the duration of one Parliament. I can find no lawful authority that entitles us to act to the contrary. Nor am I aware of any other provision that would enable us so to do.
I am well aware that a sizeable number of Members of your Lordships' House would like the position changed. There is merit in saying that, where a Member has so transgressed as to make it intolerable for them to continue to be a Member of the House, legal provision should be made for their expulsion. But that can be done only by legislation, which we do not currently have.
Therefore, I invite the House to decline to accept the House Committee’s recommendation in its current form. If the House wishes to send a clear signal in the future, and I think that it should, there is force in us so doing. However, this Motion should not have retrospective effect and neither should it apply for more than one Parliament unless and until legislation is passed to enable us lawfully to implement a permanent suspension. Your Lordships know that there is no appeal from this House—none at all, not to the EU, not to our courts. We determine our own procedure, we determine what is right, and therefore a heavy burden is put on us. If we wish to be unfair, unjust or immoderate, we are entitled to be so. I know this House too well to believe that that would ever be our intent, so I invite the House not to make a decision in relation to this Motion and to give the House an opportunity to think again.
My Lords, I declare an interest. I was a member of the Privileges Committee, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, has informed the House. The danger of the proposal currently before the House is that it risks confusing two separate matters. On the one hand, the House needs power to impose appropriate sanctions if Members of the House become convicted of dishonourable behaviour of various sorts. The sanction in those circumstances takes the form of suspension from the House and it is in the nature of a punishment for the conduct that has been found to be proved against the Member of the House in question. However, there is an additional factor, which is the repayment to the House of money that the Member of the House owes and has wrongfully obtained. Of course, those two different purposes may overlap. It may be that the wrongful conduct was the reason why the debt arose in the first place—there is plainly an overlap—but none the less I think it important that the two should be kept separate.
That was not always the case in the law of this country. Many Members of this House will have read, and many who have not will know of, the Dickens novel Little Dorrit, which is based upon the experiences of a family in the Marshalsea prison, the father being there for a debt that he could not repay. That imprisonment could go on, as I recall, indefinitely. Those sad days are now long behind us. People do not get punished for not paying money that they have not got, and this House ought not to reverse that trend by introducing a sanction that can be imposed for failure to repay money that is owing that the individual has not got and cannot repay.
An individual who is found guilty of dishonourable conduct can expect an appropriate sanction to be imposed by the House proportionate to the gravity of the dishonourable conduct. The individual, he or she, who owes money to the House, which may or may not have been associated with the dishonourable conduct, can be expected to be called upon to repay it. If he or she thinks that he or she has not got the financial resources to manage repayment, then the individual can expect to have to make a disclosure of assets to the appropriate accounting officials of the House to demonstrate that that is so and, maybe, to have to submit to questioning so that the official can satisfy himself or herself that that really is so. The individual, the Member of the House, can then expect to have some recommendation perhaps made by the official as to what should be repaid, what instalments perhaps might be appropriate and so on. But if the end result of a full and frank disclosure, and answers to whatever questions may have been put, is that the individual has not got the assets to repay, or to repay more than a moderate amount fixed by the official, I respectfully suggest that that should be an end of any sanction. A person should not be subjected to an additional sanction that is not available to be imposed on those with the money to discharge their debts if he or she simply cannot afford to pay and does not have the money to discharge.
I believe that the proposal before the House confuses those two separate matters. I, too, would oppose it.
My Lords, I support the two speeches that have just been made. I have no worry about those who could pay but have not done so and I support the proposals in the report so far as they go in that regard. But I am concerned about those who are or may become insolvent. It has always been a principle of insolvency law that a person should in due course be able to get his discharge. Thereafter, he is entitled to retain his personal earnings because he must be allowed to support himself and his family. That principle was established in 1872 by Mr Justice Vaughan Williams in the case of Hawkins. I am concerned that the indefinite suspension, which may well be the result of what is before the House, would be against that basic principle of insolvency law.
My Lords, I take a certain amount of issue with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. We are not here in a court of law. We are a self-regulating House and we have the reputation of this House to worry about. There seems to be great concern about whether the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, has the means to repay the amount of money which she seems to have fraudulently claimed. But have we looked into the circumstances of the noble Baroness? I gather that she owns her own house in London. Could she not mortgage that house and repay in that way, or could she not even sell it and buy a smaller one? It strikes me that we are rather taking her at her own word that she is unable to repay this amount of money.
We have the reputation of this House to consider very deeply. If we were to invite her back while enormous sums of taxpayers’ money were still owing, I do not think that the British public would understand that in any way whatever.
My Lords, from listening very carefully, my understanding is that the issue that my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland raised was not specifically to do with the individual case. It was to do with the process of retrospection and those rules that applied at the time that a decision was taken with regard to a particular case. I have not been in your Lordships’ House as long as many noble Lords but, from listening carefully, particularly to noble and learned Lords over the years, I know that the issue of retrospective legislation of any sort is anathema to most people in your Lordships’ House. I hope that we will not debate this issue with reference to an individual or to whether an individual can or cannot repay. I hope that we will stick entirely to the issue of retrospection.
My Lords, I cannot share the view that there is some retrospective element here. It is not retrospective to apply the proposed suspension to noble Lords who were found to have claimed expenses without good cause, and in some cases such as that of the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, in bad faith, and who were ordered to repay the relevant sums but who have failed to do so. That failure surely entitles the House now to decide what action it is appropriate to take against them. Paragraph 56 of the Privileges Committee report, which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, read out, does not address, as I read it, what should happen if the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, fails to pay up.
On the noble and learned Baroness’s second point, I do not understand this to be a permanent exclusion from the House. The suspension will apply on its terms only for the duration of this Parliament. It will be a matter for the next Parliament to decide whether it is appropriate then to suspend the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, or any other noble Lord in default if they still have not repaid the relevant sums.
The answer to the point made by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Scott and Lord Lloyd, is surely this: it must be implicit in this report that the relevant committee will have a discretion not to take action if it is persuaded that the noble Lord in question does not have the means available to pay the sum. In my view, there is no unfairness whatever in what has been proposed by the committee.
My Lords, I am grateful to be speaking after the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, because I was about to rise with some temerity to take on three distinguished lawyers in this House. However, having been a member of the House Committee for a number of years, particularly during the period of having to deal with this very shameful episode in our history—let us remember that some Members were claiming money fraudulently—I have to say to the noble and learned Baroness that this was all without precedent both for the Privileges Committee and for the House Committee. We were literally living from day to day without knowing what was going to happen as a result of investigative journalism.
The attitude of the House Committee was incredibly scrupulous during the investigations. We did not take into account the personal circumstances of any of the Members involved, or of their religious and political beliefs. We were indifferent in the old-fashioned use of the word in that we were not careless but we were impartial. As a result, it was very clear that the system had to be changed. We brought in the new system, which I hope will avoid these problems in the future. It was also difficult for us, in investigating these cases, soon to discover that we were not the only people conducting investigations. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service were also involved, so it was a complex procedure. As all noble Lords know, certain evidence was produced and conclusions reached, and certain cases became well known in the press. The Privileges Committee, being the committee that deals with matters of discipline, dealt with these, but again if I may say on a very ad hoc basis. There was little precedent for the decisions that the committee had to make and the amount of suspension that it was prepared to grant.
It fell to us, as the committee responsible for the allowances system in the House, to consider one particular case. It was indeed a difficult matter for us and it was debated at considerable length. The position we reached was that we should establish a principle. I believe that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, was saying that she rather agrees with our conclusion but that it should be applied only in the future and not to the past. That is the nub of her argument, which I think has been effectively answered by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The principle is simply this: that someone in this House who has fraudulently claimed money on an extensive scale should not be allowed to re-enter this House until that money has been repaid. It is not a question of insolvency, and since there is no insolvency in this matter, insolvency law does not come into it at all. Further, we have to be aware not only of our own reputation in this House and in our debates here but of the wider public interest in this matter.
Let us think about what would happen in the private sector in a similar case. If a senior executive in a large company was discovered to have been fraudulently claiming massive expenses on a regular and practical basis, thus taking money out of the company, he would almost certainly be subject to instant dismissal. If he were not, he would be suspended and the board would examine the case. I am sure that it would then say that the executive could come back to the company but only if he repaid the money first. That is the principle that we are trying to establish, and I must say that it is entirely fair. We have tried to establish this principle irrespective of how it affects individual people. That is a very important point about a principle. A principle must be just that. I think it is a principle that is widely understood by the country, and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I have heard the arguments and I think that I have understood them. As a lay person, it seems to me that if you have no means to pay back money that you have taken fraudulently, it does not excuse you. It does not excuse you in normal life and it should not excuse you in your Lordships’ House. A large amount of money, £125,000, has been taken. It takes a long time to take that much money out of expenses in your Lordships' House. We cannot just overlook that and say, “It’s all right”, because the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, cannot repay. Well, she can borrow; she can get a loan; she can see where she has money—she has money in Bangladesh; and she should pay back the money to Parliament and then discharge whatever borrowing she has made. You cannot be excused because you are too poor. I am sorry, but I cannot agree with that idea.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, has in a sense put her finger on it. We have no procedure in this House for assessing whether someone in these circumstances is capable of repaying. If the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, cannot in all conscience repay this money because she does not have it, I would not be in favour of penalising her in the way that she is being penalised. If on the other hand she can repay it and is deliberately not doing so, it seems to me that the decision that the House is being asked to make is perfectly proper. There is a gap. We have no procedure for determining what her circumstances are, and it would have to be done in a quasi-judicial way. I wonder whether the way out today, because this is a very troubling matter, is for the Chairman to take the matter back to the committee and see whether we cannot institute some form of sensible procedure for determining the basic question of fact upon which, in the end, this matter depends.
As a member of the committee, I toiled with other members of the committee over this very difficult question, on which it is not easy to become entirely clear. Noble Lords who were on the Privileges Committee have to some extent confused the role that they very properly exercised at that time—exercising discipline in respect of an offence that had happened—with the quite different responsibility of the House Committee to address not a matter from the past but a current problem of continued and ongoing indebtedness to your Lordships' House. Therefore, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that it is not a retrospective matter but a current matter, and that the indebtedness continues. It is not clear whether the person’s failure to repay is intentional or because there were no other possibilities, although I know in my part of the world that it has not been entirely unusual for people to have their fines paid for them, never mind their debts. That is not an area in which we can necessarily get involved.
However, there is a further matter. Comparisons have been made with Dickens and debtors’ prisons and things of the kind. This is not a private club; it is not a company; it is part of the legislature of this country. It is not a right for us to be here; it is a responsibility for us to be here and to fulfil that responsibility on behalf of the country.
I have no doubt in my mind how the country would regard a Member of your Lordships' House who continued not to repay debts that should never have been incurred in the first place. I know what the country would say about speeches, votes, questions and interventions by a noble Lord—indeed, I do not think that people would regard such a person as a noble Lord at all. We have the reputation of your Lordships' House to consider in this matter.
Noble Lords will, I am sure, have read the report and will understand that when the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, talked about there being no right to permanently suspend a Member, she was of course right. However, the report makes it clear that this can last only until the debt is repaid and until the end of the Parliament. If it is still unpaid in the next Parliament, the next Parliament must then make its decision. This is not permanent; it is dependent on the repayment of a current debt, not the punishment of a past misdeed. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the House Committee could properly return with anything other than the recommendation that it has thoughtfully made to your Lordships' House today.
My Lords, this should be a day of great joy for me because it is exactly a year ago today that I entered this House, but because of this desperately sad issue there is no joy. I listened closely to what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, said. Of course, this is a heavy burden that we undertake, but I cannot agree with her that this is retrospective. When a fine is imposed, it is meant to be repaid. There is an explicit understanding in that. Repaying a fine is not a voluntary gesture.
I hope that the noble and learned Baroness will forgive my impertinence, because she has far greater legal experience than me, when I say that she has made a fundamental error. For all the legal learning, she has construed an argument that would never be accepted by a jury of ordinary men and women. A Peer who had misappropriated public funds and not repaid them is not a victim. He or she cannot expect simply to walk back in as if nothing had happened; £125,000 is not a drop in the ocean, it is a huge figure. How many decades does a state pensioner have to wait until they get anywhere close to that sort of total?
The Chairman of Committees is entirely right. What he proposes is sensible, measured and just. I also happen to believe that it is in the best interests of the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. I wrote an entirely personal letter to her some time ago, but I thought it appropriate that I should not say anything in public that I would not have said to her directly. I urged her to take into account that if she were to rush back here without having repaid her outstanding dues, she would find herself subject to huge public and press hostility. It would do her and this House only further harm. I have not had a reply and perhaps I should not expect one, but if she would only let it be known to the House that she will not rush back and has no intention of claiming more money, perhaps there would be no need to take the action that we are proposing to take today. However, she has not, so I fear that we must. I hope that she will bear in mind—
I do hope that your Lordships will stop personalising this case. We are addressing a matter of principle not a particular case.
Indeed, my Lords, but the matter of principle involves individuals. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, herself admitted that when she was the first to raise the issue of the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
Can I make it absolutely clear that the submissions that I made for the House to consider were matters made in relation to law and principle and did not refer to any individual? Indeed, I recited verbatim the paragraph in the Committee for Privileges and Conduct report, which said that the committee was deciding a point of principle and not in relation to any particular Member.
Yes indeed, my Lords, but, if she will forgive me, it was the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, who first raised the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, in this debate. It is all very well talking about principle, but we have to be aware of the practical implications of these matters.
I hope that we will all bear in mind that most people beyond Westminster will not be asking themselves why suspended Peers should not be allowed back until they have repaid their debts, but will be asking, simply and bluntly, why they should be allowed back here at all.
I agree with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, that, at some point in the near future, we may have to go further in looking at the self-regulatory powers in this House, but we have to deal with the situation as it is today. I know how much care the members of the Committee took, and how much sadness it gave them to come to their conclusion. I can do nothing but commend them for the difficult job that they have done extremely well.
My Lords, I will make two brief points. First, I support the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, of the impact of the report of the House Committee in this case. Secondly, this House is funded by the public purse and our ongoing membership of this House costs the public purse. That is relevant to this debate and the situation in which we find ourselves. It is a matter of the integrity and credibility of the House. We need to consider all factors. It is not a matter of personality; it is a matter of fairness.
My Lords, I wish to follow up a number of points. First, this is a question of principle. We know about the individual concerned, but it is a question of principle, and if we allow this to go through as we are suggesting today it will apply in other situations. That is problematic. I agree that the image outside is appalling, but, occasionally, you have to look at other, wider issues besides simply responding to what the public image is. Indeed, politics involves people in doing that from time to time.
Secondly, it is important to understand what I think my noble friend Lord Richard has put his finger on. I say this as a non-lawyer. This House is not a court of law. If it was a court of law, this would be a bit easier. I suspect, however, that a court of law would not be able to do what is being recommended today, as it would not have the lawful authority to do so. In effect, this is a retrospective form if not of punishment, at least of an order. I want, therefore, to suggest where that leads us. If we are not a court of law, but we in some way regulate ourselves, as is being suggested—and I understand that and the reasons why—then there is an important fact that we have to bear in mind. If this was a company or organisation outside, when such events happened and a person was disciplined and punished in the way that we are doing, he or she could then go to court if they felt it was unfair for whatever reason. The court would then decide whether that organisation had acted properly. We cannot do that, because nobody can go to court as a result of an unfair punishment from here. They cannot even go to the European court over it, so there is no appeal mechanism.
What would happen if we were a court of law? I assume—and again, I am speaking as non-lawyer—that a decision would be made, and the person concerned, if they felt it was unfair, might at that stage argue their case and so on. If they did not pay, the court would bring them back as it would with a fine that had been imposed, for example, and would either order goods to be possessed or, alternatively and more normally, conduct a means inquiry. As I understand it, although I am not a lawyer, that is where the Charles Dickens case comes from: there was a feeling that you had to inquire into a person’s means to find out whether the non-payment was deliberate or because they could not pay. We do not have a mechanism for doing that. We are trying to behave at one level as though we are a court of law, but then not giving ourselves the powers to do what a court of law would do. We are also saying that we are going to impose this punishment or condition—whatever you wish to call it—on a Member, but that that Member will have no recourse to the law.
I felt very uncomfortable when I began to look at it yesterday, or the day before. We are doing something, as a point of principle, that is deeply undesirable. We have to clarify, in our own minds, that if we are not going to be a court of law—and we cannot be—we need to have a system that follows through; when we impose a punishment or condition, or whatever we call it, we have to have a mechanism for deciding how that is done. We should not do that retrospectively, because a court of law could not do that. I will feel uncomfortable if this House gives itself powers that we do not think a court of law should have; yet does not give itself the power to inquire into means when they are relevant, as in this case. I personally would not support this Motion approving this report as it is today, and I ask the House to consider taking it away and thinking again about this important issue of how, if we are not a court of law, we impose our sanctions; and how we then ensure that the sanction we impose can realistically be delivered, and delivered fairly. That is the issue we have to face. That is the principle—and it even overrides the great public feeling there will be on cases like this.
My Lords, I am struggling to understand, let alone have sympathy for, some of the sophistry that is being argued against the House Committee’s report. It seems, I think, to most of us in this House that a wrong has been committed, restitution ought to be possible and the person ought to make restitution. We should not welcome somebody back to this legislature until that has been fulfilled. The House Committee could hardly have brought in any other recommendation than the one it has, and we should support it without further debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees for introducing the report from the House Committee this afternoon. It is with regret that we have to revisit an issue that has done great damage to the reputation of your Lordships’ House in relation to money wrongly claimed under the system of financial support for Members.
The public interest and reputation of Parliament require that these matters are dealt with in as rigorous a way as possible. A number of Members of your Lordships’ House have found themselves subject to investigations—in some cases by the authorities and in some cases by the relevant mechanisms of your Lordships’ House. In a small number of cases Members of this House have been suspended. In two cases, investigation by the authorities has led to prosecution and custodial sentences. The House has had, through a very, very difficult period, to consider the adequacy of its mechanisms. Changes have subsequently been made, both to the system of financial support for Members and to the code of conduct governing membership of your Lordships’ House. I pay tribute to the work of those involved in dealing with these matters. I believe the rules produced and decisions reached were sensible. They are worthwhile provisions and have been of benefit to the House during a very difficult period for Parliament as a whole, including this House.
My noble and learned friend Lady Scotland, with her customary eloquence, has put forward a number of very serious points this afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, made the point that suspension of a Member of Parliament from this House under any such Motion would be for the lifetime of the Parliament, and a further Motion would have to be brought at the beginning of the next Parliament. I understand the point my noble friend has made in relation to retrospective provision. Noble Lords will always be very wary of retrospective legislation and rightfully so, but there is, in effect, a different interpretation in the report before us today from the House Committee. That has identified a gap that needs to be filled. The sixth report from the Committee for Privileges and Conduct in October 2010 stated that the recovery of money wrongly claimed was not a disciplinary matter and not a matter for the committee. However, as the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees stated in his opening statement in that report:
“We therefore recommend that it is for the Clerk of the Parliaments, as Accounting Officer, consulting the House Committee as necessary, to consider what arrangements with Lady Uddin may be necessary to secure repayment of this sum to the House”.
In essence, the House Committee has now brought forward its advice in the form of an invitation to this House to agree a clear principle that a Member should not return to the House while still owing money. In the end, that principle is in the public interest. I cannot disagree with it and I will be supporting the recommendation of the House Committee.
My Lords, I will not detain the House for more than a few minutes because I support the Motion that is before it. The House will know that I have been a member of the relevant committees for only a relatively short time, but I bring to them many years, sadly, of experience of dealing with disciplinary matters in the public services. Sad to say, that experience has taught me that these matters often involve conflict and sometimes considerable distress, which is made more serious when the people involved may be known to us personally.
However, I have an overriding impression of the way in which the House Committee has dealt with this matter and I support entirely the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, in saying that the committee has approached this matter from the point of view of principle, not from that of personality. It has gone out of its way to try and be fair, but every Member of this House will know that being fair in these circumstances is not a simple matter. Of course, one wants to be fair to the individuals involved but there is also an issue of being fair to your Lordships’ House and, more than that, of being fair to the taxpayer. The money does not belong to your Lordships’ House; it belongs to the taxpayer and it should be returned to the taxpayer.
Over the years, sad to say, I have dealt with many instances when taxpayers’ money has been wrongly claimed. The first responsibility of any organisation dealing with matters of this kind, particularly a public organisation, is to seek to recover the money—and to seek to do that recognising that it has to make a decision in the circumstances in which it now finds itself. I believe that the House Committee has both been reasonable in these matters and adopted a stance which tries to be fair and to reflect the seriousness with which the public would view this situation if we did not endeavour to recover the money. This does not imply permanent suspension from the House. I commend the Motion to the House because I believe that it is a reasonable, fair and sensible course of action to take.
My Lords, perhaps the House feels that we should come to a conclusion on this matter now. I feel a little daunted in facing the first three noble and learned Lords who spoke in the debate, particularly the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, but I am glad to say that some of the points that were made have already been answered by other noble Lords.
On the question of retrospectivity, which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, answered very well, this is not retrospective because the sanctions agreed by the House last year related to the original breach of the expenses scheme. The House is today being asked to approve the principle that any Peers who subsequently fail to repay the money which they have been found to owe should be suspended for that reason and that reason alone. I should say to the House that this is a report in generality, not a report about any particular Peers, so I rather regret that a number of names have been mentioned at this stage. That may or may not come up later; as the report says, a further Motion will have to be moved in the new year.
The second point related to the Privileges and Conduct Committee. It is true that that the committee did not believe that the length of suspension which it recommended should be determined by reference to repayment and that it rejected the idea of an indefinite suspension. However, the House Committee’s proposals to suspend Members until they have repaid is not a second punishment for abusing the system. It is related to the failure to repay, which falls within the remit of the House. Neither is it an indefinite or permanent suspension; what we propose is a carefully defined suspension that can be ended as soon as the Member in question pays up.
Moreover, we are not thwarting the writ of summons because, as the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Alderdice, said, at no point would we be suspending a Member for a period longer than the remainder of the Parliament. A further suspension early in the following Parliament would be a separate suspension, not a continuation of the earlier one. As a number of noble Lords have said, it may be that we should legislate in future for longer than that but that would need new primary legislation.
On that point—
I will give way once.
The report says:
“If money remains outstanding at the start of the following Parliament, the Chairman of Committees should move a further motion to initiate a further suspension”.
I want to be clear: is the committee taking the view that in future Parliaments we should do this all the time? Is that the recommendation?
If the money had not been repaid, the issue would be up for a new Motion by the Chairman of Committees at the beginning of the new Parliament. The Peer in question would already have received their writ of summons and would be able to come to the opening and so on, but then the Motion might go ahead.
Another point made by noble Lords, particularly the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, was that the system is discriminatory against people who do not have the money. I accept that less wealthy Members may struggle to pay off their debts to the House, but of course they should not have made their wrongful claims in the first place. Moreover, I do not think it would be right to means-test errant Members and then make special concessions to those who could not afford to pay. The House Committee believes as a matter of principle that Members who have cheated the taxpayer of money should not be allowed to take part in proceedings of the House or claim any further money until they have repaid their debt in full. How they might raise that money is a matter for them.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Richard, suggested that we should take this back and have another look at it. I will resist that temptation. As my noble friend Lord Baker said, the House Committee spent a great deal of time looking at this in detail. This is the conclusion that we came to and which I recommend to the House. I beg to move that the report be agreed.