My Lords, allow me to fill in a little background. First, the Order Paper should not say,
“in place of Lord Balfe, resigned”.
Rather, it should say, “In place of Lord Balfe, sacked by the Whips’ Office despite his protests”.
Last year, I was asked by the Whips’ Office to serve on the International Relations Committee and was told that it was a three-year appointment. At that time I pointed out that, as a member of the Council of Europe, I could bring a different perspective to the committee but would have to miss a small number of meetings when the committee clashed with meetings of the Council of Europe. This was specifically accepted by the Whips.
On 14 May this year, I was asked to see the Whip and presented with some attendance figures which purported to show that my attendance was not very good. I challenged the figures and they were later proved woefully wrong by the committee secretariat. In fact, I was the joint second-best Conservative attender, and some way ahead of the lowest-attending Conservative. On 16 May, two days later, I saw the Deputy Chief Whip and asked him to review the decision in view of the new evidence. Not only did he refuse, but it was clear to me that the decision to sack me had been taken and the attendance figures were just an excuse.
It is true that I have voted against the Government on a handful of occasions and, rather like those removed from committees last year, it seems that I am now to be the subject of this sort of “punishment beating” for stepping out of line on just a few issues: namely, Leveson and a couple of times on the EU votes.
I put it to the House that this type of arbitrary behaviour by the Whips has to cease. As Members, we must have the right to exercise our judgment and not be under constant threat that if we stray a little out of line we will be victimised. This may play well with the Daily Mail and for the leader’s reputation in No. 10, but it is no way to get loyalty or run a happy ship.
Before this happened, I suggested to the Senior Deputy Speaker that the appointment of committees and their chairs should be settled by the House and not by the current method. The Whips’ behaviour is unacceptable and should not be allowed to continue. I was going to address the Leader of the House, but she is not here, so I invite the Deputy Leader to indicate that he would be happy for the Motion to be withdrawn while further consideration is given to the matter.
My Lords, I wonder whether I can add something as a fellow rebel. The Order Paper is inaccurate. It is wrong to say that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, resigned. We have just heard that he did not, so the Motion is not correct. I address the Senior Deputy Speaker because he is moving the Motion. As the House heard last week, I have the greatest respect for him, sitting with him as I do on the Liaison Committee, which he chairs impeccably. I have known him for years in both this place and the other place. In all seriousness, I ask him to take this back. It would be a travesty and look very bad if this House passed something that, from what we have heard, is manifestly inaccurate. The Senior Deputy Speaker would do this House a service if he took the matter back to the committee.
My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for putting us in the picture. Whatever our views on the subject may be, it is very important that we should at least know what is going on. It would be very bad for this country’s confidence in its institutions if those who sit in the House of Lords did not know about several practices that were afoot which affected the way we work.
The present situation is clearly unsatisfactory. I do not blame the Chief Whip in any way. I think that the way he has been playing the system is the way that the system has been played by Chief Whips for generations. However, it is time for us to review the position. As we all know, the House of Commons in very similar circumstances recently took a decision that committee membership should no longer be a matter of patronage from the Whips’ Office but of democratic election. That has been a very happy experiment at the other end of this building and we might all want to reflect on whether it would be appropriate for us to follow that example.
My Lords, I have known the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for many years. We do not always agree but I believe that he is one of the most distinguished Members of this House in the contributions he brings to deliberations on foreign affairs—and he is certainly one of the most respected members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The proposed amendment is clearly inaccurate and should be withdrawn.
My Lords, I must support my noble friend Lord Balfe. Together with my noble friend the Duke of Wellington and others, I was one of a number of Members removed from our committees last year for voting twice on amendments to the Article 50 Bill. A Select Committee of either House must be able to operate without fear or favour. It must have no regard to the narrow, temporary issues of party politics but look at subjects in the round. We all know that committees carry much more influence—I speak from experience—when their reports are unanimous. This sort of behaviour is inimical to vigorous parliamentary democracy, and I join other noble Lords in saying that I hope we will not be asked to vote on this issue today.
My Lords, I should like to fill noble Lords in on my part in this and on the reason for the Motion. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, mentioned figures. The figures that were circulated came from the committee secretariat. The appointment Motions before the House today are all casual vacancies. In the majority of cases they follow agreement by the Committee of Selection that, in light of the longer Session length, attendance statistics for all the House’s committees, including domestic, should be circulated to the usual channels midway through the Session, and that this should inform their consideration of any changes they might want to propose to committee membership at that point. Such statistics are routinely circulated to the usual channels at the end of a Session, but, in light of the longer length of the Session, the committee considered that this would be a sensible course of action part way through the current Session. It also agreed that, where possible, the changes should be co-ordinated in order not to inconvenience the House.
I do not think it would be helpful or appropriate for me to comment on the consideration by the Whips of their committees’ membership, except to underline that, in proposing these changes, they are acting in accordance with the approach agreed by the Committee of Selection. It is of course open to all noble Lords to discuss these matters with their Whip, which I believe has been done in this case, and ultimately, if they so wish, to test the opinion of the House. The noble Lord will also know that committee membership, including the process by which members are appointed and removed from committees, is something that has come up in the review of committees that the Liaison Committee which I chair is currently undertaking.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, both for his letter of 4 May this year and for the meeting we had last week to discuss this issue, as well as wider issues regarding the review of committees. As I mentioned to the noble Lord at that meeting, I am prepared to take that away and include it in the review of committee consultations. When we met again last week at one of the weekly drop-in sessions I hold between 12.30 pm and 1.30 pm every Tuesday, I said I would take the issue further. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in his appearance before the committee last week with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, made this very point, and the committee is very aware of it. With that information, I am quite happy to take this to the committee if Members feel that that is appropriate. I see someone getting up with alacrity.
I am not clear, although I normally understand exactly what the noble Lord, Lord McFall, says. Is he saying he is going to take this Motion back and reconsider this appointment to the International Relations Committee? Is that going back to the committee?
No, I hope I have been very clear. I am taking the issue that Members have brought up into the review of committees, not this particular Motion. This has resulted from the usual channels putting this forward to me, and in those circumstances I beg to move.