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Conduct Committee: 11th Report

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 29 April 2021

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Select Committee Lords office-holders’ interests (11th Report, HL Paper 274) be agreed to.

My Lords, this report proposes a change to the rules governing the interests of the three officeholders of the House of Lords—that is, the Lord Speaker, the Senior Deputy Speaker and the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees. The rules at present state that officeholders must give up most financial interests. The rationale is of course to ensure that they have the time to do the job properly as well as to avoid the perception of conflicts of interest.

The committee stands by that rationale absolutely, but it also believes that there should be the power to permit a derogation from the rules in exceptional circumstances where the rationale can be respected and, where this proves necessary, to avoid an unnecessary and disproportionate burden being visited upon an officeholder or potential officeholder. Any such derogation would be explained and published by the committee.

The reason why the report has been drafted, published and put to the House now in such short order is that, in the brief period since the election of the new Lord Speaker, a candidate to replace the noble Lord, Lord McFall, as Senior Deputy Speaker has been identified, and it has become clear that the interest rules as currently framed would cause him a serious problem in one respect. As noble Lords know, the candidate in question is the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, and his situation will perhaps illustrate why the Conduct Committee has concluded that this system of derogations is appropriate and should be introduced.

The noble Lord owns a significant part of family farming properties, an interest that he has correctly registered in the category for land and property under the code and guide, category 5. Interests in category 5 do not have to be set aside by officeholders. However, since he is also a partner in a farming business carried on at the farming properties—in his case, through a partnership—his interest in that respect must also be registered in the category for remunerated work, category 2, which covers employment, trade and so on, a wide variety of activities. Under the current rules, that is a category in which officeholders may not hold an interest.

It is right to say that the requirement for double registration may not always be appreciated or acted on, but the noble Lord has both appreciated it and acted accordingly. However, his double registration means that, if he is to serve as Senior Deputy Speaker, the noble Lord faces the unenviable choice of leaving the running of the farming properties to his 80 year-old cousin and another partner who lives in New Zealand—an impractical exercise, he assures us. The alternative would of course be disposing of his share in the partnership altogether.

The noble Lord has retained that partnership share and his farming interests in his current role as a Defra Minister for years. He has assured us that it has had no adverse impact on his performance of the ministerial role, and we have heard no suggestion to the contrary. The committee is satisfied that there would be no such impact on how he carried out the function of Senior Deputy Speaker effectively and impartially.

The committee has therefore concluded that, should today’s report be agreed upon, which I invite, the committee will then exercise its newfound power to allow the noble Lord to retain his farming interests during his term of office. I add that, quite apart from the fact that officeholders do not change every day, the committee anticipates that the use of the derogation power would itself be rare. I beg to move.

I do not oppose this reasonable, generous and timely report, but I am very concerned about another recent, and much less generous, report from the Conduct Committee, one that is in danger of making your Lordships’ House a laughing stock. I refer to the decision sprung upon us at short notice, which I opposed on the day the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, introduced it, to make attendance at behaviour classes compulsory. I was obedient, but I found the course a complete waste of time—condescending, patronising, superficial and not drawn up by anyone who appeared to be familiar with the workings of your Lordships’ House.

That is not the main point that I wish to make today. A highly critical leader in the Times yesterday pointed out that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, holder of the Order of Merit and one of our most distinguished Members, is being investigated along with some 60 other Peers for not complying and taking the online bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment workshop. She missed the deadline not because she had refused but, in common with several others, because she had medical health problems. I have heard even this morning of another very disturbing example of a noble Lord who, for similar and other reasons, was not able to take the course before, I think, either 4 or 8 April. He took it, but he is still being censured because he did not meet the 1 April deadline.

To add insult to injury, we are told that the Commissioner for Standards has forbidden those to whom she has written from commenting. If they do, she alleges that they will be in contempt of Parliament. I am astounded that she should make such bullying comments.

I ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, in his capacity as chairman of the Conduct Committee, to summon an early meeting with his colleagues to reconsider their approach. As the Times said yesterday, elderly and respected parliamentarians, of whom the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, is a most notable example, should not be made to suffer because certain other Peers have behaved badly. I made it plain when I opposed the introduction of the compulsory element that I have no sympathy for such Peers; they should be treated severely and meet their just deserts.

If, unlike the appropriate equivalent committee in another place, your Lordships’ Conduct Committee decides to continue recommending compulsory training, I am sure it would find much better value by arranging for it to be done in-house rather than by spending £750,000 on a consultancy that clearly has little knowledge of Parliament.

I appeal to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, to act expeditiously on this matter in the way that he and his committee have rightly acted expeditiously on the matter of my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble. This is a sad subject to have to raise on the last day of this Session, but to have the reputations of some of our most notable and honoured Members traduced in this way is completely unacceptable.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Cormack because he was not asleep at the switch, as I was when this order was put in front of the House. Of course, we were not given an awful lot of notice; I gather the order was published on a Wednesday and placed before the House the following day.

When I attended this course, I was asked whether I would like to be referred to by my Christian name, which I was happy to agree to. I then said that I would be very interested to know how much the course was costing, because we should all bear in mind value for the taxpayer. The lady conducting the course claimed that she did not know how much it was costing and referred me to somebody else in the organisation. Since then, the Times has told us—as my noble friend has asserted—that it is three-quarters of a million pounds. That is serious money in anybody’s estimation. Are we getting value for money with this course?

The course I went on had a hypothetical situation of a new young girl working in the Library. She had to be working in the Library—I gather the Clerk of the Parliaments at the time said that it should not be said that she was working in the Library because somehow that would embarrass the staff of the House; I cannot think why—but, as she was being asked to research things, she had to be in the Library. A Peer called Lord Adams was approaching her in a lecherous manner. This hypothesis is almost too ridiculous to even contemplate because, if somebody wanted to approach some young woman in the House, they would not do it in public in front of everybody. But the great advantage of having a hypothetical situation where it is done in public in front of everybody is that we are all complicit in allowing it to happen. That was what this was all about; we should have stopped him behaving like this.

If there is a problem, it is probably that Lord Adams employs this girl with his own money and has her tucked away in some office in the Palace so far away in the rabbit warren that you can barely find it on a good day. He says to her, “Would you like to work late?” and she has to comply because he is paying her. He then says, “Why don’t we share a drink together?” and, half a bottle of whisky later, you can imagine what happens. That is the problem—if there is a problem. The hypothesis we were dealing was very unlikely to ever occur and was a complete waste of time.

I did learn something on this course. There are not such things as “girls” unless they are under the age of 14, so it is inappropriate to call a woman who is over the age of 14 a “girl”.

Indeed, people on this course called people “girls”. We cannot say to a woman, “Gosh, that’s a nice new hairdo you’ve got”, or, “I really like the dress you are wearing”, because that is inappropriate as well.

This course is a complete expensive farce and we should never have embarked on it in the first place. I hope the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, will abandon this course and get back to a more sensible use of taxpayers’ money.

Does any other noble Lord in the Chamber wish to speak? If not, I will ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, to reply.

My Lords, I am grateful for the support this report has received. The comments on Valuing Everyone training will be taken back to the Conduct Committee at our next meeting. Not all of them were made for the first time. We have had some concerns expressed about the nature of the training and have relayed them, and there have been alterations.

As the Conduct Committee we are not responsible for the course and we are not competent to establish such a course, but noble Lords are right in saying that we recommended it be made compulsory. We were not the first. In Naomi Ellenbogen QC’s report in 2019, she made precisely that recommendation. She also recommended the establishment of the Steering Group for Change, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, which also made the same recommendation. We accepted it and put it to the House last October, I think, and it was accepted by the House. However, Members are right to express any concerns so that they can be considered.

The code is under constant review and the number of reports we have issued in the past two years indicates that. I will not comment on particular cases. The House has appointed an outside commissioner who deals with the investigation of particular cases. It is not the commissioner or any decision of hers which says that investigations are confidential; they are confidential under the code the House approved. That is in the interests of complainants as well as of Members complained against. Again, that is a matter under consideration to the extent that it might be appropriate in certain circumstances of consent to allow, for example, a Member to rebut a complaint publicly if it were dismissed. That is a rather ancillary point. The general principle is one of confidentiality, for obvious reasons, of the best interests of those directly involved.

As regards the pursuit of investigations in circumstances which might cause reason for special treatment, in our report—which the House approved—we provided for precisely that. The commissioner, who is no doubt conscientiously considering these matters, as she does, has the power to stop an investigation in exceptional circumstances, which include reasons of health. I have no doubt that, if they apply, that exception will be applied.

On the point made about timeliness, we have taken on board—the present is an exception, for reasons which I see are understood—the need to allow more time between the publication of a report and its presentation to the House to enable the implications to become more widespread and for it to be digested. That is in train.

I will not comment on the article in the Times save to say this: yesterday, the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, and I composed a letter in response to the Times which I understand is not in the paper today—it may be tomorrow. We addressed a number of the points I have already covered. We pointed out that, as regards the popularity or otherwise of Valuing Everyone training, 93% of Members have now undertaken the course in person or online—

I hesitate to intervene on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, but I think we need to agree his perfectly sensible Motion to approve the 11th report from the Select Committee. He has made it clear that he has noted the views of the Members opposite.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.