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Privileges and Conduct Committee

Volume 769: debated on Thursday 25 February 2016

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the 4th Report from the Select Committee (Investigations and members leaving the House or taking leave of absence; Guidance on participation in proceedings) (HL Paper 95) be agreed to.

My Lords, in moving the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, I will also speak to the second Motion. The first part of the report of the Committee for Privileges and Conduct clarifies the position on investigating alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct. The code does not apply to former Members; nevertheless, it has been unclear whether a former Member could be investigated for an alleged breach committed when he or she was a Member of this House.

The recommendation is to make it clear in the guide to the code that such an investigation may not take place because there would be little point to it. Even if such an investigation resulted in a finding of a breach of the code, however, there would be no suitable sanctions available to the House—the reasons being that the strongest sanctions of suspension and expulsion could not be imposed on someone who was no longer a Member of the House. But colleagues will understand that the status of Members on leave of absence is different from that of former Members, because those on leave of absence may return to the House. The committee therefore recommends amending the guide to make it clear that an investigation may take place on a Member on, or seeking, leave of absence if the alleged conduct occurred when the Member was not on leave of absence.

The second part of the report relates to guidance on when a Member may participate in proceedings in which that Member has a financial interest. The current text has resulted in some uncertainty. This has sometimes meant that Members with significant expertise on a subject have been unable to participate in business in which their expertise would benefit the House or a Select Committee. The Committee for Privileges and Conduct proposes replacing this guidance with a clear statement that Members may participate in business in which they have a financial interest, but in doing so they should of course ensure that their personal interests do not conflict with their public interests. A similar change is recommended in respect of participation in Select Committee work. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Chairman of Committees for introducing this. It is important that, whenever we get reports from committees, there is an introduction and an explanation of why the recommendations are being made and how the issue has been considered by the committee. So much of what happens in this place is considered by committees and put through here on the nod, so that, with respect, I must say that probably the vast majority of Members know nothing about it. They do not know why it is being recommended and do not know about the initiative, motivation or background behind it. That is why it is very important not only that such things should be introduced—as this has been—but that we can have a debate and ask questions.

I have specific questions. On whose initiative was the first matter put on the agenda of the Privileges and Conduct Committee? What was the motivation behind it? Were any matters—any instances or examples—brought to the attention of the committee that made this a matter that it should have to consider?

I have similar questions in relation to the second matter. Have any matters arisen? Have there been any complaints or suggestions of problems? Have any Members with particular interests said that they are unable to participate in a debate because of their interests? We need to know why this is before us. I am not saying I disagree with it, but we need to know on whose initiative and with what motivation these matters were considered by the committee and then recommended to us today.

I would just ask for a very small clarification from the Chairman of Committees. I may be wrong, but as I understood it, he said that if a Member on leave of absence was being investigated, it would have to be for something that he or she had done while they were not on leave of absence. But it seems to me that if a Member is on leave of absence, he or she remains a Member of your Lordships’ House. Therefore, if something that was done while that person was on leave of absence needs investigating, surely it should be open to investigation.

My Lords, I am deeply concerned by the recommendation in paragraph 7 and the explanation given for that recommendation. It seems to me that this would be a very strong incentive for Members to avoid investigation by simply retiring from your Lordships’ House. The committee should have considered instead—it will be interesting to see whether it has—either a procedure which would have introduced potential sanctions on former Members who were found to have been engaged in fraudulent or other activities, or suspension of any retirement or any right to retirement for those under investigation. I think that any member of the public reading this document would be astonished that we give people a “get out of jail free” card simply because it is more convenient for us to reduce the size of the House than to maintain the standards that we set.

My Lords, I am most grateful for the opportunity to respond to these questions and will do my best. The first question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, was about where this came from. It came from within the committee. The committee has been extremely exercised about a number of what are perceived to be gaps or misunderstandings in the current arrangements.

The noble Lord says it came from within the committee. Was it from a Member or Members on the committee—if so which Members—or from the officers?

My goodness me, my memory fails me. It came from Members; they have been looking at this whole area to see whether there are any misunderstandings or gaps. We have been much exercised—the committee has been together on this, addressing it in a serious and thorough way.

On whether there have been examples of Members who could contribute very well to the work of this House, I am advised that since the start of this Parliament, 30 Members have questioned whether their interests in the register bar them from contributing to the work of the House or one of the Select Committees. This report makes it plain that we all operate on our honour and have to ensure that, when we participate, our personal interests do not conflict with our public interests.

The Chairman of Committees refers to 30 cases. This reform slightly dilutes the current arrangements. Surely from now on it should be insufficient to say, “I wish to declare my interests as registered”. Perhaps in future when there is some ambiguity in their position, Members should be more specific and say precisely what their interests are.

My Lords, Members’ interests have to be declared other than at Question Time. It is not sufficient on other occasions simply to refer gaily to them. The noble Lord raises an interesting point, and it illustrates one of the committee’s concerns: if we try to specify what is on one side of the line and what is on the other, we get into difficulty because everyone’s circumstances are different and the subject matter is different. The report says that there is no guidance that will weaken our honour in these matters other than advising that we must ensure that our personal interests do not conflict with our public duties in this House. We have a duty to uphold that and, frankly, to be subject to scrutiny should there be questions about that in the future. Most noble Lords will recognise that in many ways this strengthens our position because it makes all of us have to fulfil our duties in this place.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, made a point about suspension, I think, and the difference when someone is on leave of absence.

My point was not so much about the difference in approach as about the specific approach recommended in paragraph 7. In the justification, it is explained that Members will not be investigated if they choose to retire from the House, allowing everybody in your Lordships’ House a “get out of jail free” card should they be subject to investigation.

That is absolutely right. I am very grateful for the question because further thought is being given to that precise point and I hope that it will be possible to produce a report on that matter in the very near future.

It may be unnecessary to say this, but the inference I drew from the comment of the Chairman of Committees was that, if somebody who was on leave of absence was suspected of an infringement, he or she could not be investigated if it happened while that person was on leave of absence, because a Member on leave of absence remains a Member of your Lordships’ House and can come back at any time. I should like clarification on that point.

This is an interesting area. The code relates only to parliamentary conduct, and that would have to be dealt with if a Member of the House wished to return.

I hope that the Chairman of Committees will forgive me for speaking at this stage, but I have been mulling over his comments about the difficult line between personal and financial interests, and when it is appropriate to be considered an expert. Mulling over my experience of local authority guidance on the matter—an experience I know that many Members share—in local authorities, if you have a financial interest, no matter how much expertise you have, you may not take part in proceedings. I wonder why there is such a big difference between the rules we apply to ourselves here and those imposed on local authorities.

Local authorities are dealing with immediate local planning matters, and things of that kind. Here, the House is dealing, generally speaking, particularly in its committees, with very broad, general topics that deal with national or international matters. If you interpret the register in a particular way, many Members would be excluded from a whole range of activities of the House. The committee has decided that a better way to proceed is to make it plain that we operate on our honour and that, when there are issues of the kind to which the noble Baroness referred, the individual has to decide whether those issues are of such a general nature as not to be an impediment or whether there is a personal advantage to be gained. It is the issue of a personal advantage that will be the touchstone on all these matters, if the House adopts the report. I commend the Motion.

Motion agreed.