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Privileges and Conduct Committee

Volume 778: debated on Thursday 9 February 2017

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the 5th Report from the Select Committee (Process for publishing Commissioner reports; Commissioner and police investigations; Minor amendments to the Code) (HL Paper 99) be agreed to.

My Lords, this report contains various recommendations for changes to the Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Lords and the Guide to the Code of Conduct. First, it recommends a more streamlined process for publishing reports from the Commissioner for Standards when she finds that a Member did not breach the Code of Conduct or where remedial action has been agreed. In those cases, it is recommended that her report and evidence should normally be published only on the parliamentary website and not sent to the Committee for Privileges and Conduct. This is similar to the process in the House of Commons. The commissioner would have discretion to submit a report to the committee if a case involved a particularly serious allegation or if it gave rise to matters of wider interest or relevance. In these instances, the Committee for Privileges and Conduct would report the case to the House.

The second proposal is that the commissioner should be able to continue an investigation into an alleged breach of the code alongside a police investigation. Under the current guidance, the commissioner has to suspend her investigation whenever the police are investigating a related complaint. The committee proposes that the commissioner should be able to continue an investigation in those circumstances but would not finalise a report until the criminal process had concluded. This would allow her to take into account any relevant issue arising from that process. Under the proposed new guidance, the commissioner would always suspend her investigation if the related proceedings become sub judice.

Finally, the report proposes several minor amendments to the code and the guide to reflect developments in practice and to clarify uncertainties. I beg to move.

My Lords, I sincerely apologise to the Lord Speaker, to the Senior Deputy Speaker and to the House for raising my point under the wrong heading. However, if the noble Lord had the powers that I think he ought to have as Lord Speaker, he could have corrected me immediately. I would have sat down and would not have spoken inappropriately. We are now on the appropriate Motion and I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for introducing it, which I appreciate very much indeed.

However, I go back to the point that where there are breaches of conduct, and Members do things that are clearly unacceptable to the House and bring it into disrepute, of course what the Senior Deputy Speaker says is absolutely right. But, as I say, the issue of minor breaches in relation to the booking and use of rooms has come to my attention, and I have had correspondence with the Clerk about it. For instance, if you book a room and hold a press conference in it when you were not supposed to hold one there, or if you book a room for an hour and you leave halfway through, that is a breach of the Code of Conduct and you can be reported to the Committee for Privileges and Conduct. That seems to me to be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It should be dealt with in some other way, not as a breach of the Code of Conduct. I do not know when it slipped through—these things go through on the nod, and sometimes you get confused about what is going through and when. Can the Senior Deputy Speaker take this particular point back to the committee to have another look at it?

I thank the noble Lord for his eloquent repetition of his previous point. Yes, I will look at that and take it back. I repeat my willingness to have a discussion with him outside this Chamber.

Perhaps I can follow up the statement that the Senior Deputy Speaker made. He stated that the inquiry that was carried out by the commissioner—as I understand it—could be carried out coterminously by the police. In other words, both inquiries could be taking place at the same time, subject to the criteria that the noble Lord referred to. Does that mean that there could be, during the course of an inquiry, discussions between the police and the commissioner about a matter that was the subject of an investigation? To what extent would that be then allowed to influence an investigation by the commissioner?

It would allow the police to continue their investigation, but there has been experience in the past where the commissioner has had to pause an investigation because of a concurrent police investigation. In one case—I am trying to remember off the top of my head—that was 16 months. The commissioner was not able to go back it for that time. So the proposal is that the commissioner looks at the issue and collects evidence and when the police report they have a fresh understanding of what has been happening can pursue it further. Previously the commissioner had to suspend their investigation, perhaps for 16 months, and then go back and find that the information was a bit dated and that people could not recall things as sharply. For that reason we discussed this with the commissioner and the new proposal was put forward.

I have just one further question, purely for clarification, following my noble friend’s question. If a room is booked for one hour and the meeting takes five minutes, does the Member have to stay there for 55 remaining minutes?

I would not think so. If anything, common sense prevails in this House—and I will make sure that that is undertaken.

If it is no longer accepted that police inquiries should always take precedence, could the Senior Deputy Speaker confirm whether the police are satisfied with this change?

As far as I know, yes, but I will investigate that further and I will write to the noble Lord on that point.

Motion agreed.