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House of Lords Commission

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the House of Lords Commission Rules relating to Parliamentary passes for Members’ Staff: follow-up report be agreed to. (1st Report, HL Paper 160)

My Lords, the House may recall that this is the second report from the commission on the subject of passes for Members’ staff. The first report was published in May 2019 and was prompted by the former Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct, which advised us to take steps to ensure that all Members’ staff passes, of which there are more than 500, are being used for the purpose for which they are intended: namely, to assist Members directly with their parliamentary work.

A number of Members had concerns about our initial proposals, and we have listened. The feedback from two well-attended consultation meetings and various written submissions was invaluable. Unfortunately, the disrupted sitting patterns last autumn and the pandemic mean that it has taken until now to bring revised proposals before the House. We now recognise that rather than restricting passes to staff who “regularly and frequently” provide the Member with parliamentary support, we should employ a more qualitative approach.

Accordingly, we propose the following new rules:

“Members may only sponsor a pass for an individual if the absence of such a pass would make it impossible for the individual to support the member effectively.”

We have also underscored the existing rule that Member’s staff may not use their pass,

“to further the interests of an outside person or body from whom they have received or expect to receive payment or other incentive or reward.”

If the House agrees the report today, the administration will write to all Members who sponsor staff passes to set out the amended rules and ask them to confirm their compliance. In recognition of the fact that some Members may need time to adjust their existing arrangements, there will be a one-off grace period lasting until 31 March 2021. While the revised rules will have immediate effect, the commissioner will have regard to that grace period in considering any relevant complaints against Members of the House.

Much of the feedback we received during the consultation related to something that was not the focus of our first report: the issue of passes for staff of all-party parliamentary groups. We understand how much Members value the work of APPGs, and we strongly encourage noble Lords and others to make submissions to the House of Commons Standards Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into APPGs, including the issue of passes. As my recent global email pointed out to Members, the deadline for written submissions is 20 November, so noble Lords have nine days to put in such submissions.

The evidence received by the committee will help to inform the final scope and terms of reference of its inquiry, which will continue into next year. In the meantime, the rules remain as they have been in both Houses since 2013. People whose primary or only role in Parliament is to support an APPG are not entitled to have a parliamentary pass. This report simply restates the existing situation while allowing Members’ staff to help APPGs in addition to the core role of assisting their sponsoring Member. If Members have any questions about the interpretation of these rules, the Registrar of Lords’ Interests will be happy to advise, and I am happy to receive any further comments from Members.

I am not criticising the report, but I am a bit puzzled by a couple of things. The first concerns the word “primary”. Presumably, that means that someone is here just to look after an all-party group. However, a lot of people seem to be around Parliament working for MPs and also staffing all-party parliamentary groups. I frequently go to APPGs and find that the assistant, generally of an MP—the MP for somewhere or other— is also acting as secretary to this group. This appears to be okay, but I would like confirmation of that, because I am a bit unclear what “primary” means.

The second point is that there are people here who, I will not say represent outside groups, but are paid by outside groups, such as a trade union. I declare an interest in that I had an assistant for a time who was advising me but was actually paid by a TUC-affiliated trade union. I am not quite clear where these people fit in. It applies not only to them; there are a number of hybrid organisations. For instance, the Catholic Union has a person who works within Parliament, for a Member of Parliament, for two days a week, who obviously has a pass which enables them to come and see people within Parliament. So, it seems there is a sort of hybrid group in the middle of people who are not part of all-party groups but are, none the less, and I would say, quite legitimately, within Parliament, because they do an extremely good job in keeping us informed of things that matter. I am just wondering where such people fit in to this kaleidoscope of different jobs of people who work here.

I think it would be a great mistake if we tightened the rules to a point where, say, a legitimate trade union representative could not also brief other Members about issues. They might work for one Member but nonetheless send out briefings on a quite wide basis. I think, for instance, of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group, which is serviced by someone who works within Parliament for a Member but works part-time to service that all-party group. Will the Senior Deputy Speaker clarify, if he can, where these rules begin and end, and assure us that legitimate interests from outside Parliament will still be able to make representations to us?

My Lords, I ask the Senior Deputy Speaker a very simple question: who will interpret the word “impossible”? It is certainly true that without my own assistant it would be impossible for me to continue in this House and do my duties—there is no question about that—but there will be grey areas in relation to Members. Is it going to be decided by officials of this House, by the House of Lords Commission or by the Procedure Committee?

My Lords, first, I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker. I raised concerns about the earlier draft, and he has listened to those and come back with what I think is a very workable and proper report. I wonder sometimes whether the term “staff passes” is quite as accurate for Peers as it is for Members of the House of Commons. I assume that “staff passes” is used for continuity and clarity about access because, for most Peers who have a staff pass, it will be not for a member of staff but for an assistant, and quite often a volunteer. However, I think the proposal we have here is the right way forward.

On what my noble friend Lord Blunkett said about what is “impossible”, I think it will be for the Peer to make a judgment on that but, if there were any question about it and if it were refused, there would be a right of appeal. I think most Peers will know what is meant by “impossible” and why they need someone to support them.

I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is making rather heavy weather of this. My understanding, based on our ongoing discussions, is that if somebody has a pass as a member of an outside organisation, whether a trade union, a campaigning organisation or whatever, and advises a range of Members as part of their work, that would not entitle them to a pass. If, of course, they are primarily supporting a Member of the House of Lords, that work would entitle them to a pass. But the primary reason they have a pass must not be because they want access for the other organisation they work for. I think that should be clear, and I suspect it is what the Senior Deputy Speaker will address. He gave examples of both. If somebody has a pass because they are working for a Peer, whether in a voluntary or a paid capacity, that does not preclude them from doing other work, but the primary purpose cannot be for their role in a campaigning organisation. I hope that is helpful to the House.

I am grateful to the Senior Deputy Speaker. There has been some concern and we have to be mindful of security. There have been a lot of passes. I think all Members are very grateful for the support and advice we get from outside organisations that assist us in doing our work. In most cases, they do not have a pass to do that, but we are quite happy to meet them and have a cup of tea—or, occasionally, something stronger—when circumstances allow. There is a bit of an irony in discussing passes now, when those who hold staff passes are not permitted on to the estate, other than in exceptional circumstances, because of the pandemic. We look forward to when that changes and we are able to have those advisers, with or without passes, back on the estate so that we can discuss issues with them.

I thank noble Lords for their very legitimate points. If I may reinforce the issue, the primary, core work is for the Member. If, for example, a Member is part of an APPG, their assistant can help with that, but they should be mindful that he or she is there to ensure that the Member of the House of Lords can do their work effectively. Hopefully that makes that plain.

The issue of passes and 500 has been a matter of concern to the House of Lords Commission, particularly in terms of media stories and whatever else. However, it has also been of concern to the House of Commons. On behalf of the House of Lords Commission, I was asked to engage with the Speaker of the House of Commons on this; we produced a way forward but were then informed that the Commons Standards Committee have undertaken this issue. The Speaker of the House of Commons and the chair of the Standards Committee are encouraging Members from the House of Lords to input their views. They will also ensure that, when this report is out, there is a place for the House of Lords to engage on this. The bicameral element here must be underlined.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked who makes the decision. I am delighted to say that the noble Lord engages with me quite regularly via email on particular issues; I encourage him to continue with that. To get an issue such as this sorted out, my first port of call would be the Register of Members’ Interests; this element is important. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, mentioned, it is for the Member to judge themselves on the work they do and whether that work has been carried out according to the rules.

In terms of us listening, the definition of “regular and frequent” came up. I had quite a number of discussions here, not least with a Labour Front-Bencher, on what that definition meant. As a result of interpreting that, we moved to a more qualitative approach, which satisfied Members. Most of the Members I have engaged with have been satisfied with that. If there are still outstanding issues, I would be delighted to receive any comments. I emphasise that as many Members as possible should write to the standards body in the House of Commons so that our views are well articulated there when it comes to take the final decision.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.