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Conduct Committee

Volume 822: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2022

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Select Committee Amendments to the Code of Conduct (7th Report, Session 2021–22, HL Paper 188) be agreed to.

My Lords, I last stood at this Dispatch Box in my capacity as chair of your Lordships’ Conduct Committee eight working days ago. That was my first time. I hope to do so as infrequently as possible.

Before I rejoined the committee, it stated that, in proposing changes to both the Code of Conduct and the guide, it should bundle those up and do them in lumps so that we do not get them dribbled at us throughout the year. This is the first such bundle, comprising some quite modest changes, including some which respond to concern expressed by noble Lords and others.

The first set of changes implements the two proposals that the House has already seen in our sixth report of the last Session, which we made following the short debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in January. In that debate, concerns were expressed from all corners of the House that the right of Peers to express their views frankly and openly could be jeopardised. Our report received a positive response from many noble Lords, and I hope that the House will now agree to our recommendations, which will re-emphasise and strengthen the protection of freedom of speech in this House.

The second set of changes updates the wording of the code and the guide on Valuing Everyone. These changes will require new Members of the House and returning Members who have not attended such a course to attend a new seminar—the content of which is expected to be improved—within three months of their arrival. There will be no requirement for existing Members of the House who have completed that course to repeat it.

The third set of changes relates to the Addison rules. I hope noble Lords will not interrogate me on the Addison rules, because I have to say that my grasp of them is not very strong. This relates to offering guidance to noble Lords employed by public bodies on their participation in the work of the House. The changes are to bring the wording more in line with the wording in the Companion, as well as updating the terminology.

The fourth set of changes would introduce a clearer definition of personal service companies, by adopting the excellent wording coined by your Lordships in the Select Committee on Personal Service Companies in 2014. Our committee is quite happy to plagiarise.

The fifth and final change would rectify an anom—anom. Sorry, I should not try to do this too often, but noble Lords know what I am trying to say. It would rectify an anomaly in the guide by ensuring that all organisations listed in the Register of Lords’ Interests have a brief description of their activities where that is not self-evident from the name. I suggest that there will be very few in this category.

I beg to remove—

My Lords, I will briefly take part in this debate. First, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, for the sensitivity and speed with which she, having assumed the chair of this committee, considered those points made on the Floor of your Lordships’ House on 19 January. As she rightly said, Members in all parts of the House, in all political parties and from the Cross Benches made trenchant observations. I briefly remind your Lordships that this came about as a result of four of us who had taken part in a debate being complained about to the commissioner for words uttered on the Floor of your Lordships’ House.

We believed that there was a certain ambiguity in the wording of the then rules. The noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, and her committee have taken this on board. I am grateful, as I am sure are your Lordships in all parts of the House, but I hope that the noble Baroness and her committee will remain vigilant on this. Burke talked about the price of liberty being eternal vigilance, and the price of free speech— an indispensable part of liberty—is also dependent on eternal vigilance. There will be those who seek to get round these rules and complain about what is said on the Floor of your Lordships’ House. As we said on 19 January, this is not a case of agreeing with each other. I frequently quote Voltaire: I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. That has to be our watchword here, and I very much hope that the noble Baroness and her committee will keep this in mind.

I will make just a couple of comments about Valuing Everyone. Most of us who went through this course derived very little benefit from it. I am very glad indeed that it is not to be made compulsory for Members who have already gone through it, but I say to the noble Baroness that I hope the new course will be very different. I will put a suggestion to her, because she said in the report that new Members should automatically be obliged to take this course. I would much rather that new Members of your Lordships’ House met with her, the Lord Speaker, and a representative of each of the major parties and of the Cross Benches to have a proper talk about what being a Member of this House entails, and not be put through a course that, if it is anything like the last one, will be largely irrelevant. I want to put that on the record.

There is a final question I would like to ask the noble Baroness. There is a reference in the report to a “steering group”. I do not know about your Lordships, but I have never heard of a steering group. We seem to have a lot of rather mysterious bodies in this House. I would like to know exactly who appoints the steering group, who is on it and who is in the driving seat. We ought to make the way this House is run transparent, easy to understand for everybody and responsive to the needs of Members in all parts of the House.

I am very glad that the Lord Speaker has arranged for another forum on 8 June—I give it a free plug—and I hope that it is much better attended than the last one, because we need to know what is being planned for this House in the way of both physical alterations and the rules that are meant to govern our conduct.

I welcome the report, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, very much for what she has done, and I hope we can move forward.

My Lords, I shall be very brief. First, I thank the chairman of the committee for having listened to the House and for having made these amendments—but I do have one query. Paragraph 4 states:

“Where the only evidence cited in support of a complaint is the member’s expression of views or opinions, the complaint will be dismissed”—

that is great, but it then goes on—

“following preliminary assessment on this basis.”

I do not know what that means. Does it mean that if someone complains about something that I have said, a statement will be issued saying that it is being investigated? Why do we need

“following preliminary assessment on this basis”?

Does that mean that, once it is seen that the complaint is about an expression in the Chamber, it will be dismissed?

My second question relates to Valuing Everyone. The report states:

“A failure to arrange to attend a seminar within the specified period is a breach of this Code.”

The specified period is three months. We had a very bad experience with the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, who was not able to take part because of illness, and there is no get-out here. So I suggest it should say, “unless there is a reasonable excuse”.

I wish to follow up my noble friend Lord Cormack’s remarks about Valuing Everyone. The last course we had was, to be quite honest, absolutely farcical and a total waste of taxpayers’ money. I notice that the noble Baroness is introducing a new course. Can I have an undertaking from her that she will attend the first course, so that she can approve what is being put out to other Members of this House?

My Lords, I endorse the report before the House, but not everybody takes the view that the Valuing Everyone training was not worthwhile. Many Members of this House thought it was very useful. I think we need to make that clear to the House.

Thank you, my Lords. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that I shall remain vigilant, and so shall my committee. I shall just make a correction on Valuing Everybody. The proposal is not that there should be a new course but that there should be more tailor-made seminars, and of course the committee is flexible if people are ill. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, the majority of Peers in this House gave positive feedback on the course. While we all aspire to high standards, particularly in the way we treat the staff and other people who work in this building, some Peers do not believe those standards of behaviour apply to them, and therefore alerting them to the way their behaviour comes across is important.

It is not just a steering group; it is the Steering Group for Change. It is appointed by the commission, so it is not directly the responsibility—or indeed, any responsibility—of the Conduct Committee, although we look at the recommendations coming out of it. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, the preliminary assessment is just looking at what the complaint is. It is as simple as that. I think I have covered most noble Lords’ questions, but, as I have noticed Ministers say, if there are any I have not covered, please feel free to write to me.

Motion agreed.