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Volume 813: debated on Tuesday 6 July 2021

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the report from the Select Committee Further amendments to the Code of Conduct be agreed to (1st Report, HL Paper 20).

My Lords, this report seeks the agreement of the House to a variety of what I hope will be understood as relatively minor improvements to the Code of the Conduct and the guide to the code, which have been agreed by the Conduct Committee over a number of months. The rationale for each change is set out in the report, and the necessary changes to the text of the code and guide are set out in the appendix.

I shall not detain your Lordships by setting out the detail of each and every suggested change, but shall highlight a few key packages of proposals. There are six. The first clarifies how and when the parties to a complaint can be anonymised. For complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct, anonymisation can include both complainants—although of course the respondent will always know the complainant’s identity—and respondents, if the commissioner for standards has dismissed a complaint. That is to protect the identity of both parties in that situation. In addition, witnesses in all types of cases may need to be anonymised.

The second package fleshes out the provisions on sanctioning Members found in breach of the code. We propose some wording to explain the purpose of the sanctions regime, to clarify the list of available sanctions and to set out the factors that may be taken into consideration when a commissioner for standards and the committee are choosing which standard to apply or to recommend to this House.

The third package seeks to close two lacunae in the relationship between the code and leave of absence. The first change will ensure that a Member who receives a custodial sentence of one year or less while on leave of absence can still be caught by the imprisonment provisions of the code, which allow discretionary sanctions. Members who are on leave of absence who receive a sentence of more than one year are already caught by the provisions of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. The second change in this regard will ensure that a Member cannot use leave of absence to avoid complying with a sanction imposed or recommended by the Conduct Committee, for example, by taking leave of absence and being absent when the sanction is imposed.

The fourth package would give the commissioner for standards the ability, where information is already in the public domain but some misconception may arise, to confirm or correct reports in the public domain about a complaint or a preliminary assessment as to whether there should be an investigation, after having consulted the parties to the case.

The fifth package would oblige Members to inform the Clerk of the Parliaments if they are subject to certain criminal or professional proceedings. Again, there are two aspects. First, they would have to report if they were arrested in connection with, charged with, or convicted of a criminal offence. Secondly, they would have to inform the clerk if they were being investigated for a breach of the rules, or had been found in breach of the rules, governing the occupation they practise. In the case of Ministers, that means the Ministerial Code, which are the relevant rules. Members would also have to report such information to the commissioner for standards if they were also being investigated for a breach of the code. Finally, Members would be obliged to tell the chair of the Conduct Committee if they were sentenced to imprisonment, whether suspended or not.

The final and sixth package concerns amendments to the definitions of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. Those changes, which are proposed on the basis of experience and the recommendations in Alison Stanley’s independent review, are being applied consistently across the whole parliamentary community. I beg to move.

The question is that this Motion be agreed to. I will call the following to speak: noble Lords, Lord Cormack, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale and Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. I first call the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.

My Lords, this debate is technically open-ended, but I have no intention of trespassing on your Lordships’ House. It says on the Order Paper that it is expected to be brief, and I do not wish to delay it unduly.

Many of the things within this report effectively stem from the Bill, now an Act of Parliament, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, some few years ago. It was a Bill promoted by the campaign for an effective second Chamber, of which I have the honour to be chairman, but I am disappointed that this opportunity to amend the code of conduct did not extend to the compulsory classes on behaviour. We have debated these things a number of times recently, not least the very unhappy outcome when the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, and others were, I believe, very unfairly castigated. That statement met with widespread approval throughout your Lordships’ House. It is a pity that they remain compulsory. They are not compulsory in the other place. Will the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, say whether he has undertaken this course and whether his experience was as disappointing as mine and many others?

If the courses are continuing, will he say why they cannot be conducted by members of our own excellent staff? Why do we have to go to outside consultants? Do we invite people to tender for this in order to cut down the cost? The essential point is that there is unhappiness, and it is widespread, about the outcome of the last exercise. It was a great pity that people as distinguished as a former Speaker of the other place and a former Deputy Prime Minister, were very unfairly hauled over the coals.

However, that is over, and we must look to the future. I would like to know—not at length—whether there has been a complete overhaul of the course, if it is to be compulsory, and, if there has been a complete overhaul, whether those of us who had such a disappointing experience last time can assess whether there have indeed been improvements. I rest my case at that point. I do not wish to detain the House longer, but I would be grateful for an answer to the questions raised. I would also mention to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, who wrote and invite me a meeting, that I responded to his letter and said I would be glad to have a meeting with him, but several weeks have passed and nothing has happened.

My Lords, perhaps I should say first that the view espoused by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, may be widespread in Your Lordships’ House, but it is not unanimous.

We should be very careful about amending these provisions without proper discussion involving all of us. This is an excellent report. It covers a lot of items in a very comprehensive and straightforward manner. The Conduct Committee and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, are to be congratulated on bringing it forward before the Summer Recess.

I wish to raise just one relatively small issue, where the recommendations are a little bit inconsistent. Paragraph 7 refers to late registration of interests and rightly highlights the anomaly where someone who registers an interest late—I have been guilty of this, as I am sure almost everybody has—in the past could have their interest removed from the register without having to have it publicly registered for the normal time of 12 months. The recommendation then refers to the necessary changes at paragraphs 46, 79 and 85 in the guide to the code. Paragraphs 79 and 85 make clear that where that mistake in registering refers to an overseas visit, the registration should continue for 12 months from the date of registration, not from the date when the registration should have taken place, and the same is true in paragraph 85 for the registration of gifts. However, on the registration of general interests, the committee is recommending that it should be the case only if the late registration has happened after the date of cessation of the interest itself. So, for example, somebody could still register late if they felt that was an advantage to themselves and not have their registration on the register for 12 months unless the interest had already ceased. I wondered whether the committee did in fact consider making this more consistent and having a compulsory minimum of 12 months’ registration for those interests as well as the others relating to gifts and travel.

My Lords, I am afraid I disagree completely with my noble friend Lord McConnell. He and I have the advantage, as have the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and a few others, of being here and being able to comment on this, but hundreds of our colleagues will be profoundly and significantly affected by what we are about—or I hope not about—to approve today. It is disgraceful.

This has happened before. Things have been put through and Members suddenly realise that they will be severely affected, without having had an opportunity to consider and discuss them. That is absolutely disgraceful. Some Members are unable to come down, for one reason or another, to participate in the debate. A few of us are going to push this through. It is totally outrageous. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, some people have been caught out on this before. Even when they have been present, things have been rushed through—but when they are not able to be present it is even worse. I suggest to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, that he should hold this over and withdraw it until the House comes back and is fully operational, so that everyone can vote and participate in the discussion.

The noble and learned Lord said that these were minor provisions. That is a disgraceful misrepresentation of what this report suggests. Page 13 deals with sanctions that will affect all of us, including those who are not able to be here today. It suggests that we delete from the sanctions “no action”—that will not be possible any more—and “no further action” if there is a resolution through mediation. Those are being deleted. That is very significant. What will happen? The Conduct Committee will be able to say that, for a period of time, Members should not be able to participate. The Conduct Committee could recommend that Members

“be removed from membership of select committees”—

the Conduct Committee will remove Members from Select Committees—or deny

“access to the system of financial support for members. This sanction can be applied for any period of time and may be applied in addition to a sanction of suspension.”

I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, that these are not minor provisions; these are major provisions that we are about to push through on the nod without Members who are not here having had a chance to look at, discuss and consider them. I hope the noble and learned Lord will reconsider this and take it away. Nothing significant will happen between now and September in relation to this. I hope he will bring it back for us to discuss and consider, when Members who are not here have had an opportunity to look through it and consider it carefully, and to speak and vote on it.

My Lords, I am grateful for those comments. The observations from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, were not directly related to the matter before the House. He focused, as he has done before, on Valuing Everyone training. I have of course done it myself; I was one of the first. I think that we can learn about our own behaviour and how to react and observe when others are not being properly treated—and there have been cases, sadly, in this House. I say that not just on the basis of those cases; I have for many years, until the end of last year, been the chair of a counselling service, and I believe that we are not always conscious of the way in which our interactions affect others and the way that perhaps mildly understandable anger can be extremely harmful. This training is designed to that end.

I am told that the training has received very substantial approval—over 90% is the figure I have been given. There are certainly dissidents and it certainly did need changes. We pointed this out in the light of representations made to us. I will leave it there, I think, bearing in mind that we are always open and ready to reconsider matters on the Conduct Committee and put them back before the House if we think it appropriate. The observations of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, will be among those.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell. On the point about late registration, the answer is that registration always extends for six to 12 months after cessation anyway, so if there is a late registration during the operation of an interest, or in respect of a gift, it extends for 12 months from the registration or the cessation.

The observations of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, were obviously very powerfully put, and if the House feels that this should come back after further opportunity, we will accept that—but I will press the Motion.

On the point about sanctions, I am sorry that my conduct was described as “disgraceful”, but the sanctions regime is essentially clarified, not changed. There is no question of us removing the possibility of no action. If I too may use a pejorative phrase, that would be a ridiculous situation at which to arrive and we certainly have not arrived at it. The sanctions regime is simply designed, as rephrased, to explain matters that are already there in the regime. That applies to denial of access to services, for example. We are not suggesting the suspension of activities in the Chamber—the House could not do so under present legislation, short of suspension or removal from the House. But we do think that there are or may be exceptional and, I hope, very rare situations in which specific facilities or services are being abused and it would be appropriate to apply an appropriately limited period, at least in the first instance, during which they will not be available—and the same applies to membership of committees.

So I resist the suggestion that this is a radical set of proposals. We have very much borne in mind the comments made previously about putting matters before the House in good time. Again, if the House feels that it has not had sufficient time, we will of course withdraw this—but as I understand it, and although I do not have the precise time, it has been not less than a week.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord and I am sorry that some noble Lords, including some of my colleagues, are trying to inhibit a proper debate on this. I make it absolutely clear that I am in favour of dealing properly and significantly with people who transgress in terms of harassment, sexual harassment and misconduct—but what would be lost by delaying this until September? What would be gained would be the opportunity for colleagues to consider this carefully, discuss it and vote on it when everyone is able to. That is real democracy: giving people who are not able to get here today, for one reason or another, the opportunity to participate.

Well, my Lords, if your Lordships feel that, you will vote against the Motion and we will bring it back on the next occasion. But I think I must press it, in the sense that it is a carefully considered set of proposals that I do not accept are fundamental changes and which, on the matters that the noble Lord mentioned, reflect the existing position—so I beg to move.