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Volume 739: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2012

My Lords, I rise to intervene on two separate points rather than make two separate interventions. The first is on the conduct of Members of your Lordships’ House and the second is on the Local Government Finance Bill, which the House is about to consider this afternoon.

On the first issue, allegations have been made in the media about a number of former senior service personnel and their readiness to lobby current Ministers and officials in the Ministry of Defence about defence procurement—in other words, paid advocacy. Two of those named are Members of your Lordships’ House. When similar allegations were made in January 2009 by the same newspaper, the Sunday Times, about a number of other Peers, the House took action against those individuals and toughened up our Code of Conduct in relation to paid advocacy. I wrote to the Leader of the House on this matter yesterday, asking him to make a statement.

These are serious matters. They were when we suspended Members of this House previously and they are now. The reputation of this House and Members of this House, and the conduct of Members of this House, is again being called into question. Experience of these matters shows that the best way to consider and resolve these issues is through the improved mechanism that we now have available, including the Lords Commissioner for Standards. I believe that Members of your Lordships’ House should be kept informed about issues such as these, and that is why I am raising this matter now.

The second issue is the Local Government Finance Bill. Based on a briefing given to Peers yesterday by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, we understand that the Government propose to make an announcement in this House this afternoon on transitional funding in connection with council tax support schemes. We do not yet know the detail, but it is clear that the changes to the Bill, at this late stage, will be material. I understand that there was a Written Statement yesterday, but today represents the first opportunity for Members of this House to debate these issues. Accordingly, yesterday we wrote to the Leader of the House asking for assurances that at Third Reading, which is due next week, all Members of your Lordships’ House, including the Opposition, will be able to table and, if necessary, vote on amendments—new and substantive amendments —driven by the Government’s announcement today. We received a reply from the Leader of the House rejecting such an easement of usual procedure, with the result that Members of this House will not be able to table such amendments following today’s announcement by the Government. We do not believe that this is correct. We do not believe that such an insistence is to the benefit either of Members of this House or of this House carrying out its role of properly scrutinising this Bill. Accordingly, we ask the Leader of the House to reconsider his response and provide Members of this House with the opportunity to carry out their constitutional role.

I apologise for having to intervene in this way, and on two separate points, but I believe that both are important matters which are of concern to this House.

My Lords, I am surprised by the intervention of the Leader of the Opposition, particularly on the first question. These are enormously serious allegations that have been made against Members of this House. I happen to know that the noble Baroness asked the Lord Speaker for a PNQ on this matter and the request was turned down. I think that it is discourteous of the noble Baroness to have raised this issue because our rules do not provide for the second-guessing of a ruling on a PNQ by the Lord Speaker.

Since the noble Baroness was Leader of the House, this House has created a new code of practice and a new independent Commissioner for Standards. We should allow the new independent Commissioner for Standards to do his job, given his responsibilities, and to carry out any inquiries that he sees fit.

Secondly, on the Bill that we are dealing with today, it is completely standard practice for Governments to react to suggestions that have been made, to amendments that have been put down and debated in this House, in an attempt to be helpful to the House. That was the reply that I gave the noble Baroness. It is much better for the Report stage of this Bill to continue and for my noble friend the Minister to make whatever case she wishes to make as to why the Government have made this statement, and for the amendments to be taken in the order in which they were put down.

My Lords, I am disappointed that the noble Baroness raised the first point, because she knows that the matter has been referred to the independent Commissioner for Standards. It is absolutely right, and in fairness to my colleagues involved in this, that the matter is handled in accordance with the procedures agreed by this House and away from the Floor of the House. I hope that all Members of the House will respect that.

My Lords, perhaps I might comment on the second part of the noble Lord’s reply to my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, on the Local Government Finance Bill.

Yesterday afternoon we learnt from the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that the Government were making available £100 million. It was courteous of her to give us a briefing session; we were very pleased that she did so and we are grateful for that. However, a number of the amendments today were based on the assumption that no such transitional moneys would be forthcoming. Because they are, it raises serious issues; for example, about whether local authorities that have already gone out to consultation on their schemes, which the Bill says they must do, would now be required to go out or possibly face judicial review.

Secondly, with the benefit of that grant, we are now talking about collecting extremely small sums of money from reluctant and sometimes recalcitrant payers, of £1.50 or £1.75 a week, and in many cases the cost of collection will exceed the money collected. I for one wish to get guidance and steer from legal and finance officers of local authorities so that we can have a proper, informed, sensible and cool debate, while being respectful of and grateful for the additional moneys coming to local authorities. But we cannot do that overnight. As a result, I shall be withdrawing at least one if not two amendments in my name because I cannot argue them until I have got the information we now need in light of these changed circumstances.

In previous times, when many of us have been Ministers, we have made arrangements perhaps to go from Report back to Committee or from Third Reading back to Report, because this is a self-regulating House. All that my noble friend is asking—and we were given assurances by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, yesterday that this would happen—is that we have the flexibility at Third Reading to table amendments that may introduce new material, because new material was introduced by the Government yesterday.

My Lords, I think that what the noble Baroness is saying is that if the Government had not made a statement yesterday or this morning we would not have had this little debate at all, because we would have carried on with the amendments as they were. The Government are trying to be helpful. Surely the right time for this debate to continue is when we move into the Report stage. My noble friend can then make her position utterly clear and the House can take a view.

My Lords, I rise to speak on both issues again. On the first point, these are of course deeply serious allegations, which is why I believe that the House should be informed. The process that we have now is absolutely correct; I am delighted that the procedure was changed; and I have the utmost confidence in the Commissioner for Standards. I just think that it is important that the House knows what is happening. I am glad that the noble Lord the Convenor of the Cross Benches was able to tell us what he has done; I am sure that the House is glad to know what has happened. We need to be open and transparent on these issues for the sake of the reputation of this House and its Members.

On the second point, I was merely being courteous in alerting the noble Lord to the fact that we would wish to table amendments at Third Reading and vote on them. I think that that is what the majority in the House would wish to do, which is why I wrote the letter yesterday.