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House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Bill [HL]

Volume 757: debated on Friday 21 November 2014


Relevant document: 9th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Clause 1: Expulsion and suspension of members of the House of Lords

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—

“( ) Standing Orders under subsection (1) may only make provision in respect of conduct by a member which takes place after the coming into force of this Act.”

My Lords, I hope that I will not have to detain the Committee at great length on this amendment or on the subsequent amendment, because, at Second Reading, I was enormously encouraged by the widespread support for the aims of this Bill that came from all sections of the House. I was encouraged, too, by the words of the Minister in his offer to discuss issues arising from the Bill. In Pollyanna mode, I decided that not having a settled view was a good thing and that we could perhaps move forward to a point where the Government had a settled view that this was a small but important measure that they would be able to support.

As I have said, this is a simple Bill; it is an enabling Bill; and no major concerns were raised at Second Reading. I think that Members of the House recognised that this was not a Bill about composition or reform of your Lordships’ House, although many people would have wished that it were so, but that it was dealing with a limited but very important issue, which was to ensure that the House had available to it, if the circumstances arose in which they were needed, sanctions and disciplinary measures that the public would expect us to have in those circumstances and which I think there is general agreement that we do not have at the moment.

My conversations have been mainly about the technical issues that arose from the Bill—that is Amendment 2, which we will come to in a moment—but also about whether there was a way in which we could do two things. The first was to clarify in the Bill that this is a Bill about conduct, not about composition. The other was to address the point raised in the debate: to ensure that no injustice should be done in respect of any Member of your Lordships’ House.

As I have said before, this is an enabling Bill, and it will be for the House to draw up Standing Orders to ensure that the powers that it has been given by the statute are appropriately, fairly and properly implemented and that the processes and procedures available in such circumstances should be of the highest standard. In proposing the amendment, I am happy to include one thing in the Bill: the issue of retrospectivity. The amendment makes it crystal clear that sanctions that came to pass because of Standing Orders made under the Bill may be made only in respect of,

“conduct by a member which takes place after the coming into force of this Act”.

Given what I have said about the amendment clarifying in the Bill that it is not intended in any way to be a retrospective measure but is about putting our House in order in future, it is profoundly to be hoped, as many noble Lords said at Second Reading, that these serious disciplinary measures will not be needed because conduct will not occur that calls them into action. However, forewarned is forearmed and, as I said at Second Reading, I believe that we have a dangerous lacuna in our disciplinary proceedings and the Bill sets out to fill it and protect the House in those circumstances. I beg to move.

I very much support the amendment, and apologise that I was unable to be in the House for Second Reading, but I also support the Bill. As some of your Lordships may recall, I was chairman of the Privileges Committee during the saga of the first suspensions to take place in the modern era. They were not as simple as all that, because a number of people thought that we should not have been able to suspend noble Lords from the service of the House. We found that we were, but we also found that we were unable to suspend noble Lords beyond the length of a Parliament. In other words, if someone was suspended today, they could be suspended for only five or six months or so, whereas if someone was suspended on 1 June, they could be suspended for five years. The press and the public were rightly unable to understand why we did not have the power to suspend for longer or, indeed, to expel. The Bill appears to deal with that matter extremely well, and I very much support it and the amendment.

I want briefly to add my support. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is a leading member of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which includes Members from all parts of the House and of another place. We see the Bill as the logical extension of the Bill taken through the House of Commons last year by Mr Dan Byles and through this place by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood, who has done so much in this field. During Second Reading, the word housekeeping was slightly disparaged. The Bill is extremely important, dealing with a vital subject, but it is quite literally about keeping the House in the best possible sense.

We are all grateful to the noble Baroness for, at this late stage in the Parliament, seeking to introduce a very short, precise and particular measure, which can certainly pass in the little time left available in this Parliament, given the good will and support of the Government. I was heartened, as was the noble Baroness, by what the Minister said at the end of Second Reading and by what I have heard since, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able not only to accept the spirit of the amendment but indicate that the Bill can have a fair wind. It is in the best interests of your Lordships’ House that this House should be kept in the best possible way, and the Bill enables us to move in that direction.

My Lords, I am totally in favour of this power being given to us. When we had the latest expulsions, the amount of flak this House received from the public was amazing. Everywhere I went, people were saying to me, “You are no different to the Commons. You are a cheat. Everybody cheats in the House of Lords”. It is very important that we can show that we will not allow people who cheat on their expenses to remain in this House. Anybody who has been found to be cheating should have to leave the House, because unless we do that, we will never recoup our reputation and position in the public’s mind. In any other place where anyone else works, they would never get away with the behaviour of some noble Lords. They would never be able to keep their jobs and stay on, so why should we not do the same?

I utterly support the Bill. We need these powers to protect all of us who do not cheat or behave badly, because one or two people can make all of us look bad. I hope that we can get on with this and that the Bill passes.

My Lords, the last thing I would want to do is delay the Bill in any way. I was shocked recently to discover that this proposal has been debated since the 19th century without being passed. Of course the principle is absolutely right, but I just question whether Amendment 1 is really a very good idea. We talked just now about expenses. Obviously, if we pass the amendment, that conduct, which would have taken place before the Bill came into force, may only be exposed after it came into force. The amendment would make it impossible to deal with that conduct. In other words, the amendment makes it difficult to deal with some of the worst conduct. To use an entirely hypothetical example, if someone committed perjury in a libel case and it took four years for that perjury to be revealed, in the course of which the Bill was passed, the conduct would no longer fall under the Bill. I wonder whether the amendment is quite what we want.

My Lords, the Opposition fully support the noble Baroness in her endeavours. The noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, raised an interesting point to which the noble Baroness will no doubt respond. There is time between now and Report if clarification is required. I take his point.

The Bill can be fairly assured of passage through your Lordships’ House. The question is, when it gets to the Commons, what help will the Government give it? Without government help, I suspect that it will be very difficult for the Bill to pass, so it is right for me to press the Minister on what the Government’s attitude will be. At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, helpfully said, as the noble Baroness reminded the House, that the Government have no settled view on the Bill at present. He kindly said that he would take back the speeches and consider with colleagues what response the Government could make. I hope that today he will be able to tell us that the Government are prepared to give this a fair wind in the other place. The other place does not have much work to do; the Government have sent MPs home. They now do Mondays to Wednesdays, so there is plenty of time for the Commons to consider this if the Government so wish.

There is an appetite in this House for sensible change. Discussions are taking place about the noble Baroness’s Bill and other noble Lords are discussing the issue of retirements, which we are going to have to face up to. Yet more noble Lords are discussing improving the governance of the House. I hope that the Government will allow for these discussions to take place and that we can have some more general debates about the issue of retirement. I think that we could reach a consensus on retirements in your Lordships’ House. The Minister is looking at me but there is an overwhelming appetite among noble Lords all around the House to sort this out. We have had the remarkable example of the Lord Speaker making a statement some months ago, giving notice of her intent to leave the House at a certain time. That was a marvellous example. Why are the Government not allowing the House to come to a sensible view on these matters?

The Minister may say that it is because substantive reform is just around the corner, and he may quote me as having said that in the past. It is difficult to assume who is going to win the next election, but let us assume that we have a Government after the next election, after some time and of some sort. Let us assume that they set up some kind of review—a convention or whatever—to come forward with proposals on substantive reform. I would say that the first opportunity of that coming into practice would not be before 2020, if we are realistic.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, whom I am tempted to call my noble friend on this occasion, as on others, for giving way. Does he not agree that it would be entirely feasible for the Government to set up a Select Committee of this House, with a strict timetable to report back by the end of January or in early February on the issues to which he was referring? I am quite confident, from my experience in the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, that consensus could be reached, and reached amicably.

I very much agree with that. That is a very sensible approach and I am sure that consensus could be reached. The point I was making is on the argument that we should not do this because substantive reform is just around the corner. As I said, even if we agreed and a Bill went through and was approved by both Houses, it would be very unlikely to be implemented before 2020. So for at least five years ahead, we will be working under the current arrangements. The argument for sensible change—

I am slightly confused. I thought that this Bill was about dealing with people who transgressed the behaviour expected in this House. I appreciate that my noble friend is anxious to pursue his agenda but he knows perfectly well that consensus on reform of this House can proceed only on the basis of its powers compared to the House of Commons. Until that is satisfied, all the discussion in the world will get nowhere and he should not waste his time on it.

With the greatest of respect—and I have great respect for my noble friend—I think that he has missed the point. I agree that substantive reform of the Lords will not take place until the relationship between this House and the other place is fully resolved. I believe that conventions will need to be codified in an Act of Parliament to have any chance whatever of there being a relationship between two elected Houses, if we are to have two elected Houses. Other noble Lords will disagree but I say to my noble friend that the argument that the Government have deployed on a number of occasions is that we cannot agree to sensible, incremental measures because we are committed to a fully elected second Chamber. That seems to be the argument that essentially comes out, certainly from the Minister and his party. My point is that even if we were to reach consensus and a reform Bill went through both Houses, it would be some years before it could actually be put into practice.

In the mean time, we still want a second Chamber to be as effective as possible. The way we are going, the issue about numbers is becoming so serious that we are running into a real problem of credibility. That is why I hope that the Minister will be very positive on this Bill but that he will also reflect on what his noble friend has said about allowing the House to discuss these other matters and come to a view very quickly, which I believe could be done.

My Lords, I hesitate to open up a wider debate about long-term Lords reform. We all know that we are already into substantial discussions about constitutional reform of this multinational state. I suspect that after the next election and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, just said, with whatever shape of government should emerge from it, the future of this House will be caught up in those discussions. Two of the three parties are already committed to a constitutional convention, so there are a range of things—

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am sure he is right but does he also accept that it will be some years before any change can take place? Therefore, the argument that the House should be given a fair wind by the Government to make some incremental, sensible change is overwhelming.

The noble Lord and I will discuss, off the Floor, the question of how easy it will be to get consensus on the principle of retirement. I will tell him about some of the conversations I have had with Members of his own Benches about this over the past two years, some of which have been extremely vigorous.

Meanwhile, we are dealing with the Committee stage of today’s Bill, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, rightly pointed out, is concerned with the conduct of the House. It has a limited and specific purpose and is concerned with the reputation of Parliament as a whole. We welcome that. The Bill is also concerned with rebuilding public trust in our political institutions and, as she made clear, is intended to give the House precautionary powers—powers which are intended to be available but to be rarely, and, one hopes, never, used. We recognise that and the Government also recognise the sentiment around the House on the Bill. We are very happy to work with the noble Baroness to ensure that the amendments are tweaked into a form that would suit.

We understand the spirit of the amendments but there are some issues about the exact definition, which we need to clarify. The noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, raised one example: what do we do if we become aware of past conduct which was egregious but was not previously known? What do we do about past conduct, the effects of which are continuing? The issues of retrospectivity are complicated in this regard and the House will also need to be concerned that we currently have an inherent power of suspension, which may or may not be used with retrospective regard to past conduct. If we were to pass this, we would be limiting the power of suspension that the House currently has. What I can do on behalf of the Government is to say that we would be very happy for Cabinet Office officials and lawyers to discuss between this stage of the Bill and the next, with the noble Baroness and others, how we might reshape these amendments to put them into a reasonable form.

The Government are giving the Bill a fair wind in this House. How far we will be able to assist it in the other place is a matter which the Government do not yet need to address and have not yet fully addressed. All Members of this Chamber will know of the complicated internal procedures that the Government need to go through. It will be tight to get the Bill through the other House, given the queue of Private Members’ Bills before the next election—although I take the comment from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that some of them are not entirely overworked at the moment—but we need not address that issue definitively at present.

For the moment, I am very happy to say that the Government will work with the noble Baroness to revise the amendment into a form that would suit the purposes that are intended, and that we have thought through some of the complications about the principle of retrospection, which is a very delicate and important one in the issue of conduct.

My Lords, I am very grateful to everyone who has spoken for their support for the general principle of the Bill and for their recognition that, although we quickly get on to wider issues when any of us in your Lordships’ House talks about the House itself, this is not a House of Lords reform Bill but a House of Lords disciplinary Bill.

I was particularly heartened by the Minister’s words because, as the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, will not be surprised to hear, some of the issues that he raised have also occurred to me. The issue of retrospectivity is one on which the House has very strong views. We have lost most of the lawyers who were taking part in the preceding business, but if they were here they would remind us of some recent examples of the fact that you cannot bring in sanctions that would be current today for offences that occurred in the past. We are talking basically about a sanctions regime. Equally, I do not think that anyone in the House would think it appropriate for there to be double jeopardy and, where someone had had disciplinary proceedings against them, been suspended and then had come back, for that to be reviewed. However, I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, and the Minister that there are some issues where conduct takes place before disciplinary proceedings, and that the interaction of that with the Bill is an important area.

I hope that the conversations we have will be fruitful and that the fair wind that the Government have given to the Bill in this House will enable us not only to pass these amendments today but to return to them on Report so that they can be improved appropriately. I should record now that I have been immensely grateful to the Leader of the House, the Minister and officials within the House for their support and help thus far in the Bill. They will understand when I pocket that help and support and ask for more, because I believe that we can get the Bill into perfect shape quite quickly in this House and that a fair wind transferred down the corridor could enable us to get it on to the statute book. That would be good not just for this House but for Parliament as a whole. I beg to move.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed.

Clause 2: Effect of ceasing to be a member

Amendment 2

Moved by

2: Clause 2, page 1, line 16, after “4” insert “(2) to (8)”

I suspect that we will not have the same level of debate on this technical amendment. It was pointed out to me that it would be helpful, in spelling out the consequences of expulsion under the Bill that are to mirror those under the “Byles Bill”—the House of Lords Reform Act 2014—if I referred not simply to Section 4 of that Act but also to subsections of that Act. I beg to move.

My Lords, here again the Government are sympathetic to the principle, but there are some technical issues about how the Bill refers to the 2014 Act and how one relates to the other. Again, the Government would be very glad to talk to the noble Baroness between Committee and Report to sort them out and perhaps come back with a different amendment on Report.

I read the latest Code of Conduct again this morning, thinking that we need to be sure what we are on about. One of the issues that perhaps we need to discuss informally off the Floor is how far this measure is intended to refer only to conduct that is mentioned in the Code of Conduct or to egregious conduct of other sorts conducted by Members of this House. However, that is a question that we need not have in the Bill itself, but it is certainly a question that the Committee for Privileges and Conduct and others will need to consider at a later stage. With the reassurance that we will be very happy to discuss how we remodel this amendment between now and Report, I hope that the noble Baroness is happy with the Government’s response.

My Lords, one thing I would never claim as one of my core skills is parliamentary draftsmanship. Therefore, I am not just happy but very grateful to have the discussions that the Minister suggests.

I agree with the Minister that the heavy lifting about getting this right has to be done within the House, with the Committee for Privileges and Conduct looking at the code of conduct and Standing Orders and making sure that we have the appropriate procedures. This is an enabling Bill to allow us to get on and do that meticulous and careful work under its auspices.

Amendment 2 agreed.

Clause 2, as amended, agreed.

Clause 3 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with amendments.