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House of Lords Commission

Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2021

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the House of Lords Commission Access and use of facilities by retired members be agreed to (2nd Report, HL Paper 233).

My Lords, this report addresses an anomaly in the treatment of Members who retire before they are suspended or expelled from the House. The issue is simple. When a Member retires from the House, the House has agreed that they should enjoy certain privileges. These include a parliamentary pass, access to the Chamber and the ability to use, and bring guests to, certain catering facilities. When a Member is suspended or expelled their pass is revoked and they cannot access the estate or the services of the House.

In recent times, some Members facing suspension or expulsion have retired before the House approved such a sanction. The default position is that Members in this position enjoy all the usual privileges of a retired Member. The House of Lords Commission has, on a case-by-case basis, agreed to remove these rights. However, this ad-hoc approach can lead to delay and uncertainty for the House and its staff about the rights available for such Members.

To address this, it is proposed that the removal of retired Members’ rights in these circumstances should be automatic upon the House agreeing the Conduct Committee’s report. In the case of a recommendation to suspend, the removal of rights would last for the duration of the proposed suspension but the commission may agree a longer period in exceptional circumstances. If the recommendation was to expel the Member, the removal of rights would be permanent. This would ensure a consistent approach and provide certainty to Members, staff and others on the estate. I beg to move.

I will put one or two questions to the Senior Deputy Speaker. I realise that it would be foolish to try to divide the House because it is a unanimous report by everyone who counts in the place. However, paragraph 5, on Members who are “suspended or expelled”, begins:

“Members who lose their membership as a result of non-attendance”.

Non-attendance is being neither suspended nor expelled. What attempts, if any, are made to discover why people are not attending? In particular, I have in mind a situation where someone is ill and it falls off the horizon. For instance, if someone had a stroke and was in hospital, does anyone try to check why non-attendance happens, and is the Member given any warning that his or her non- attendance is about to lead to the suspension of rights?

Even if they are, if you lose your seat as result of non-attendance, surely it is a little different from “a sentence of imprisonment” or being “expelled or suspended”, as paragraph 5 continues. I see no reason, other than an exceptional one, why people who lose their seat because of non-attendance should be effectively banished from the estate.

Secondly, on the “practical consequences” of expulsion or suspension, paragraph 6(b) says that

“the Member may not enter the House of Lords Estate as the guest of another Member or otherwise”.

This is surely a bit over the top. We recently suspended the membership of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis. He and I agree on virtually nothing, in our social views of the world, but I respect his work in Northern Cyprus, particularly in standing up for the many soldiers in British uniform killed during the troubles in Cyprus. As such, I regard him as a friend whom I totally disagree with on a lot of things, but I am really quite shocked that I cannot even bring him into the place for a cup of tea; this seems over the top and an infringement on individual Members’ rights.

However, it is not only that. Has it been legally checked that we can stop a member of the public—that is what they are—coming to the Gallery to watch a debate? Do we have the right to single out citizens of the United Kingdom to be barred from Parliament? I would like an assurance that legal efforts will be put into dealing with that.

I repeat my concern that the way in which this disciplinary procedure is working is unsatisfactory. There is no opportunity for any sort of public input: things are just put to the vote, and, of course, the vote is carried. I would like a review of the whole process to see whether natural justice is fulfilled. I suspect that, if anyone ever went to judicial review, they would probably win, due to the way in which this is structured. I look again at the case of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis: the parliamentary commissioner suggested a sanction that the committee, without giving any reasons, promptly doubled. This is not transparent and not the way to run the place, in my view.

As such, I ask the Senior Deputy Speaker to look at these things. I will not press this to a vote because, apart from anything else, I would lose—but it needs looking at. We need to consider very carefully how we deal with these issues. In particular, mixing up non-attendance with a term of imprisonment shows that whoever wrote the report is not filled with kindness, whatever else they may have.

I have a question. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord McFall, will be able to deal with the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, but I wonder whether the latter was slightly confused in his comments. What is before us today, as I understand it—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McFall, could confirm this—is not the issues raised around Members who have been suspended or expelled in the past but whether it is appropriate that those Members who seek to retire early should be treated in the same way as other Members who have been expelled or suspended from your Lordships’ House.

As such, it is not that the points he raised were wrong, but they are not relevant to the decision before us today, which looks only at whether Members who retire because they are facing investigation or sanction from the Conduct Committee should not be treated differently but should be subject to the same sanctions.

I will raise one point about those Members who lose their membership as a result of non-attendance. Obviously, this has been a difficult Session for some Members, but my understanding is that the Clerk of the Parliaments and all the individual groups have contacted several times any Members who may have been affected by that—and that they have co-operated with them in terms of their membership of the House. No one wants to see someone leave, or be automatically suspended from, the House just because of the current Covid situation. My understanding, which the Senior Deputy Speaker can confirm, is that this has been addressed by both the Clerk of the Parliaments and individual group leaders and Whips.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for their questions. On the issue of the commission removing rights from Members, we had two cases when I chaired the Procedure and Privileges Committee: first, that of Lord Lester of Herne Hill and, secondly, that of Lord Ahmed in December 2020. The cases were recorded in the public minutes of the commission, but there was a sanction pending and the Members retired, and it was with that in mind that we addressed that particular position. As such, the noble Baroness is correct on that point.

On the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, about the House authorities notifying Members who may be at risk of losing their membership through non-attendance, yes, the House authorities work with the usual channels to do this. Information is given at that time, so he need not worry that an arbitrary decision may be made with no one knowing about it. Indeed, this would come to my office at some stage, and I engage regularly—at least every month—with all the usual channels, be it the Leader’s Office or the Chief Whips. This issue would come up if that was pending.

The answer to his second point—whether Members covered by the provisions in the report can still attend the Palace as guests of another Member—is no: the House Committee decided that Members who are suspended or expelled should not attend the House as the guest of another Member. I am sure that the legality of that has been checked but, just to reassure the noble Lord, I will take that back and write to him on that point.

Lastly, on the point about whether the provisions in the report capture those Members whose membership is ended by virtue of non-attendance over the full course of a Session, my answer is no: this applies only to Members sanctioned by the Conduct Committee. However, the noble Lord will be aware that Members who cease to be so because they do not attend the House during the Session do not have the privileges of a retired Member.

I hope that answers the questions, but if any issues have been left hanging, I will certainly respond in writing to the noble Lords.

Motion agreed.