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Conduct Committee

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2020

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Select Committee Amendments to the rules of conduct (3rd Report, HL Paper 91) be agreed to.

My Lords, as chair of the Conduct Committee I beg to move the committee’s third report. I start by drawing noble Lords’ attention to three particular areas where the report concerns foreign Governments: paragraphs 14 to 15, paragraph 10 and paragraph 11. I will come back to these.

As a matter of major caution and not because I myself feel that my own contacts with foreign Governments involve or raise any of the problems that the guide or the committee’s recommendations address, I put on record here that, as also appears in the register, I have direct contact with two foreign states in two capacities: first, as an appellate judge at the Singapore International Commercial Court, and, secondly, as chief justice, in succession to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, of Barnes, of the Astana International Financial Center court. The foreign states in question of course pay me and cover my travel.

This third report builds on the clarifications and improvements to the codes of conduct and guide made in the committee’s first report of the 2017 to 2019 Session. The further proposals contained in the report are based on advice from the Registrar of Lords’ Interests, to whom we are indebted, which the committee considered and developed carefully over the course of two meetings.

I will not detain your Lordships by setting out every change, but I will touch on some key provisions. First, we propose to alter the scope of the code in two ways. We believe that the provisions of the code should apply only to Members who have taken the oath of allegiance in that particular Parliament, since those who have not done so are unable to take part in the work of the House. However, such Members will still be subject to the rules on bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, as well as the rules on the use of facilities and services—see paragraphs 17 and 104 of the guide.

We have considered the interaction between the important principle of freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings and the rules on bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. We propose to add text to the code to clarify that the rules on bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct apply to parliamentary proceedings, such as debates in the Chamber and Select Committee hearings, but also to underline the basic importance of Members being able to express their views fully and frankly, so the commissioner will take that into account if there is any complaint.

Turning to a different area, we also propose to make it a breach of the code for Members and their staff to fail to respond within six weeks to the annual audit of entries in the register of interests. Most Members reply very quickly but some do not, and some require the registrar to chase them over many months. Some fail to reply at all. We hope that this change will underline the importance of the exercise, which is one of transparency. A related change will enable the registrar to refer to the Commissioner for Standards any Member who persistently fails to register their interests.

Next, I turn to personal clients. We previously tightened the rules so that Members must now declare any known clients of companies that they work for when they take part in proceedings on related matters. At the same time, we remove the requirement to register personal clients, as this was proving impractical.

We now wish to modify these changes in two ways. First, we propose that Members who set up a personal service company as an administrative vehicle for their own services to be provided to clients should be required to register the clients as well as declare them. Secondly, we propose that Members who undertake work for foreign government clients of a company should be required to register that fact. That is in paragraphs 14 and 15 of the report. It is right that such work should be subject to a higher level of disclosure than work for a company or other organisation.

In paragraph 10, we have also proposed some cautionary words for Members about dealing with representatives of corrupt or oppressive regimes. Then in paragraph 11 we have proposed new restrictions on initiating parliamentary work related to Governments or NGOs that have provided the Member with travel and hospitality within the preceding six months. Finally, there are a number of minor changes to the registration and declaration procedures in the guide and the codes that we propose, as well as changes to the procedures governing the investigation of alleged breaches of the codes.

I hope that noble Lords will agree that these changes are sensible. If the House approves them today, we shall publish an updated version of the codes and guide shortly. I beg to move.

My Lords, I strongly support the vast majority of the measures proposed in the report from the Conduct Committee. It is long overdue for us to tighten up the rules in a number of these areas, and I hope that, if certain Members of your Lordships’ House do not co-operate with these changes, some examples will be made of them in the coming months in order to improve the reputation of this House.

However, I have a concern that the recommendation in paragraph 5 is moving in the opposite direction. By tightening the rules, the report moves in exactly the right direction in every other respect, but I am concerned about the justification in paragraph 4 for the amendment proposed in paragraph 5. Anything that allowed Members of your Lordships’ House, by not taking the oath and not signing the declaration, to avoid the declarations required in the register of interests would be unfortunate. If the code is the way in which we enforce that register of interests, adapting the rules so that the code no longer applies to those Members who have not signed the undertaking would be too loose.

I understand that there may be Members who are in a physical state or perhaps have another condition which means that they might have a problem, for example, updating their entry in the register of interests. That is the example given in paragraph 4. They could therefore be in breach of the code through no fault of their own. But surely that exception could be allowed for in any investigation or any action taken by the administration, rather than made the norm by applying this new change. So I would be very grateful if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, would explain a little bit more about the thinking behind paragraphs 4 and 5. I am not opposed to this report at all, but I do think that this paragraph moves in the opposite direction to all of the other recommendations.

I am much obliged to the noble Lord for his comments. In addition to the example given in the report, of the Member who was too ill to update their entry, the basic philosophy of the code at present is that it applies to Members in the course of the performance of their parliamentary duties and—we added, not so long ago—activities. A Member who has not sworn the oath does not take part in either respect, and so the underlying rationale is that their involvement with Parliament—which can continue physically in the sense that they can make ancillary, or minor, use of facilities and be present here—is what needs to be regulated. We have regulated this, and it will continue to be regulated, because under paragraph 17 of the code they are required to treat those with whom they come into contact in the course of their parliamentary duties and activities with “respect and courtesy”. That includes avoiding bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct.

Just as importantly, on a practical level, they cannot abuse the facilities of the House. They must use them in accordance with the rules agreed by the House in respect of financial support for Members; that is provided for in paragraph 104 of the guide. It would be a disciplinary offence if either of those provisions were infringed. The thinking is that, since those Members will, in that respect, be subject to the code, it is unnecessary to require them to go the lengths of registering information about their outside involvements if they are not actually undertaking any parliamentary duties or activities.

One matter on our agenda in the longer term is to consider whether the ambit of the code should apply more widely. One problem with this is that one could potentially end up looking into behaviour which has nothing to do with Parliament and could take place anywhere in the world. I think that noble Lords might hesitate before taking that step, but it is certainly one which our mandate requires us to consider in due course. We have had quite a lot on our desk up until now, and we have not taken a view on that.

At the moment, we are concerned to get the code and the guide in order, in a logical way within the present scope of its application to the performance of parliamentary duties and activities. I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied by that explanation and with the assurance that, in the longer term, we will consider the matter more generally and be prepared to consider any particular points which he draws to our attention.

Motion agreed.