Motion to Take Note
My Lords, first, I thank the Cross-Bench Peers who voted for this Motion. I am very much indebted to them for doing so.
I begin by looking back to the early phase of the pandemic. A lot of people were getting sick and dying. Health professionals were not well protected and a lot of them were getting sick also; they showed great courage in sticking to providing care for those who were suffering. Do noble Lords remember that we were applauding the NHS on our doorsteps every Thursday night? Out there, I was making use of a saucepan to amplify my praise. The country showed that it could come together, help protect the NHS and accept—and largely comply with—tough and long-enduring restrictions. People were losing loved ones, to whom they were not able to say goodbye, while still obeying the rules and remaining a cohesive community.
This is why, when we heard that 126 fixed penalty police notices had been issued to 83 individuals, including the Prime Minister, for holding parties in Downing Street it feels, notwithstanding the successes of the vaccine programme, more than a simple misdemeanour. It feels like a breach of trust. This is reflected in the very low current approval and trust ratings for the Government and the Prime Minister.
Levels of trust in politicians have been at a low level for more than a decade, roughly since the time when the Iraq war inquiry report was published. They represent a serious threat to our democracy. During the pandemic, trust in politicians started low and fell sharply lower as it continued. However, the pandemic was a public health crisis and much of the communication and detail came from scientists and doctors. Both groups came into the pandemic highly trusted and largely maintained that trust, while trust in politicians fell. That may be explained by contrasting styles of communication: the evidence-led scientists admitted to uncertainties, shared risks and assumed that the public were capable of drawing sensible conclusions from evidence; the politicians had a communication style reflecting the legacy of being on message, using news management designed for the political battlefield rather than for informing and involving the listener.
We are likely to face future national emergencies where we need to come together and they may well not be of the public health kind, but rather the threat of war or economic crisis, which both look possible at the moment. So we cannot rely on Professor Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance or even Professor Van-Tam to inject, if your Lordships will pardon me, credibility into the Government’s leadership. We need that credibility to be rebuilt, if we are to face a future crisis with the strength of national unity and not slide towards the deeply divided state we observe in the US, which relies on post-truth and very deep divisions of opinion.
Since distrust has a long half-life, we need a programme that is pursued over the long term but to start by setting very high standards of behaviour and delivering them. A good start would be a truly independent regulation of conduct at the top of government, a sweeping change in communications strategy and a firm rejection of the smug attitude that says, “Do what I say, not what I do”, without expecting to be challenged for it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for introducing this debate about standards of behaviour and honesty in political life. It is a pleasure to follow someone who has worked so hard to maintain those standards in public life. However, I note that, in the terms of the Motion, we are talking about political life and not public life. That seems to me correct. We do not, and cannot reasonably, expect from our politicians the standards of behaviour we would expect from, for example, our faith leaders. I am not a faith leader, nor do I really consider myself a politician. I am a lawyer, and it is from that vantage point that I approach this important topic.
One of the fundamental principles that underpins standards of behaviour and honesty in political life is that of the rule of law. Noble Lords may be aware of a letter I sent to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister earlier this year on this topic, which gained, let me say, some degree of publicity. In that letter, I noted that the rule of law means that everyone in the state, and the state itself, is subject to the rule of law. This is an ancient principle; it appears not only in the work of Dicey in the 19th century and Locke in the 17th century, but even as far back as the writings of Aristotle, who wrote:
“It is more proper that law should govern, than any one of the citizens”.
Although the rule of law is therefore a central feature of our constitution and plays an essential role in maintaining the highest standards of behaviour and honesty in political life, noble Lords may be surprised to learn that the judicial oath does not refer to the rule of law at all. Judges swear
“to do right by all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will”,
but there is no reference to the rule of law itself. In fact, that is not really surprising, because the rule of law is not a law but a constitutional principle. I suggest, given the terms of this debate, that it is a principle that underpins high standards of behaviour and honesty in political life.
While judges do not take an oath which refers to the rule of law, there is someone who does, and that is the Lord Chancellor. I should state clearly that what I am about to say is said from a position of principle, and is not directed at any individual Lord Chancellor, let alone the current officeholder. I worked closely with Sir Robert Buckland, the previous Lord Chancellor, and the Deputy Prime Minister, who now holds the office. Both are lawyers for whom I have a great deal of respect. My focus is on the position of Lord Chancellor and our current constitutional settlement.
The Lord Chancellor takes an oath with three distinct parts. The first references respect for the rule of law; the second underpins the independence of the judiciary; and the third deals with the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts. Those three parts are of course interlinked. The rule of law becomes fragile to the point of invisibility if the independence of the judiciary is not respected and, when necessary, defended—and that may mean defended in public and in unambiguous terms. The rule of law will become mere words without any content if the resources made available are inadequate to enable the courts to fulfil their function.
A lot changed with the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which declared in Section 1 that nothing in the Act adversely affected the existing constitutional principle of the rule of law. So far as constitutional theory is concerned, I am prepared to accept that. But I regret that the same Act, which denuded the position of Lord Chancellor of significant parts of its historic and political authority, did adversely affect the practical and day-to-day implementation of the principle of the rule of law. I do not want to tread on the toes of the Constitution Committee, which is looking at the position of the Lord Chancellor and the law officers. Suffice it to say, as the committee puts it on its own website, the 2005 Act “fundamentally altered” the role of the Lord Chancellor—and, I would suggest, not for the better.
Historically, the Lord Chancellor wore three hats: he was the head of the judiciary and presided over the appellate committee of this House, which was the Supreme Court until it crossed Parliament Square. He was a member of the Cabinet, and headed a department dealing with the courts, legal aid and constitutional affairs. He was also a Member of this House, and sat, if I may put this somewhat anachronistically, as the Speaker. I am prepared to accept that reform was needed. In this day and age, I do not think you can really have a member of the Cabinet as a sitting judge. But it is undeniable that the reforms in the 2005 Act led to a diminution in the role of Lord Chancellor. The creation of the role of Justice Secretary two years later, in 2007, while understandable, further undermined that office. This is compounded by the statutory requirements for the person who holds the position of Lord Chancellor, who need not be a lawyer at all, never mind a senior lawyer.
The undeniable consequence, it seems, is that the role of Lord Chancellor has changed from being an office which would conclude a career—a destination job, if I may put it that way, or a grand terminus—to being little more than an intermediate station stop, a resting point before the political journey continues on to greater things. I do not suggest that we can return to the status quo ante. That metaphorical train, unlike many real trains today, has left the station. But I do not think that we have gained from a system in which you can be Lord Chancellor on Monday, but then be promoted—and it will be seen by many as a promotion—to be Secretary of State at Defra or DCMS on Wednesday. I have nothing against Defra or DCMS, but the fact is that the Secretary of State at neither department takes an oath to respect the rule of law, and it is the rule of law which underpins standards of honesty and behaviour in public life.
I would like us to consider returning to a system in which the Lord Chancellor is again one of the great things in our constitutional settlement. The role could encompass responsibility for the rule of law, the judiciary, our constitutional settlement, devolution, human right and international law—all things, in other words, which are part of the rule of law in its broadest sense and underpin our constitution. An enhanced and reinvigorated role for the Lord Chancellor would for those reasons be a helpful and important step in maintaining what we all want: the very highest standards of behaviour and honesty in political life.
My Lords, I follow the noble Lord in his paean of praise for the rule of law and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morse, on his speech, which was more in sorrow than in anger. The debate is very timely, because of increasing concern in our country about standards in public life at a time when the second of the Prime Minister’s ethics advisers has resigned when asked to advise on a proposed breach of international law.
Such is the concern about moral standards that I felt the need for a text, as a rather lapsed lay preacher, and I have chosen a well-known passage from the fourth letter of St Paul to the Philippians:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
We have all, of course, heard that before, and fairly recently. That is the gold standard of honesty and, even if it is an impossible ideal, it is highly relevant at a time when there is an increasing disconnect between principle and practice and questions are asked about the quality of our democratic practice and leadership. We need a lively and informed Opposition, and the leadership should be examined critically and often. We have come a long way since Plato’s concept of leadership—the aristocracy, the best in the pure sense of the word. That is no longer possible in our populous societies, where the ordinary citizen has no real and direct means of assessing the quality of leadership. All is influenced by social media and the press as intermediaries.
Historically, heavens on Earth have not lasted very long—the Parliament of Saints barely merits a footnote. The worm of corruption, alas, intervenes in our democratic societies. We should be protected against corruption and totalitarian temptations, both by a free press and institutional checks and balances.
Enough about the principles, the values and the safeguards—what about the practice? We must recognise it in the real world. As Carlyle wrote, we cannot
“measure by a scale of perfection the meagre product of reality”,
but we can aspire, nevertheless, to the best.
On the whole, we in the UK have been most fortunate in the quality of our leadership. I have been in Parliament since 1960 and have been in government in that time. I have had contact with many Prime Ministers, all of whom I have admired as people of principle, even if I disagreed with their policies. Among the leaders over the past century, Lloyd George, though a great war leader, had big faults. On a personal level, though unfaithful to his wife, he was not a serial philanderer, and money given from the sale of honours through Maundy Gregory did not enrich him personally. I like the slogan of US President McKinley, who campaigned on
“The man without an angle or a tangle”,
which is not a bad slogan for any politician.
Alas, I cannot follow in that same praise for our current Prime Minister, who often shows himself to be a total stranger to the truth, from partygate and pledges on international law which have been broken to his cavalier attitude to a number of other matters. He has shown some of the same trends as Maundy Gregory—indeed, he could teach Maundy Gregory a lesson or two by his ennobling of friends and party donors. I still await with interest the contribution in the many debates on Ukraine in your Lordships’ Chamber of the Russian Member who was appointed—and who has been rather reticent about these matters.
The Philippians extract is, in my judgment, highly relevant. Noble Lords will recall that this was the passage read by the Prime Minister during the wonderful service at St Paul’s to mark Her Majesty the Queen’s jubilee. The cleric who chose that passage for the Prime Minister to read clearly has a very profound sense of humour. As was said of Lloyd George,
“Count not his broken promises as a crime. He meant them, oh he meant them at the time.”
If one looks at the Prime Minister’s record on Northern Ireland and other matters, one wonders whether he even meant what he said at the time—certainly, it has been ignored since. I asked a Conservative colleague in the House why, given that history and the untrustworthiness, the Prime Minister was still supported. The answer was, “We factored that in.” I remind your Lordships that almost 60% of the Conservative Members of the other place endorsed the Prime Minister recently, and I remind them of the tar-baby: if you touch the tar-baby you will be tainted in the same way.
The principles in this Motion are clear. They have a very contemporary relevance but, today, the practice is very different. To return to the Good Book,
“the good that I would I do not”.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for this debate because it gives us the opportunity to speak here about what the country is talking about: a general concern about behaviour and honesty in political life, and I trust, therefore, about the institution of Parliament and democracy. It raises the key question: are there standards and values that govern and guide our way of life and our dealing with one another? If so, what are they are where do they come from? Or is there a vacuum in which everyone decides what is right in their own eyes? I would argue that, without a moral framework, we are bound and dictated to by those who shout the loudest and make their voices heard. That is a dangerous path to go down.
This week, there was big, cross-party support for the amendment of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, to include in the Schools Bill a reference in the curriculum to teaching on the values of being a British citizen. Five were outlined: democracy; the rule of law; freedom; equal respect for every person; and respect for the environment. Children and the next generation need to learn to operate within this framework for the common good and for the future, but I would argue that so too do adults—and that applies now. If children and young people do not see these values modelled and lived out by those who are older and by those in public life, they will not see them at work or see the good difference that they make and the wisdom they impart, and they will not see a path which they themselves can follow. I believe that it is incumbent on all in positions of authority and influence, whether as royalty, celebrity, faith leader, parent or politician, to consider what impact they are having by their attitudes and behaviour on the next generation.
Our culture so promotes the rights of the individual that the consequences of our actions for others are often forgotten or ignored. In many minds, “my truth” has taken prior place over any sense of absolute or objective truth; I decide, rather than allow someone, some group or some institution to rule on what is true. Truth is a category that is being sidelined more and more in our generation—a casualty. Generation Z is said to trust what social influencers say more than what politicians say in terms of what is true. Lying and fake news are increasingly not challenged, and it is increasingly more difficult to do so. How can we trust when we are unsure about the reliability of the information that we are given? Trust is something that builds as confidence grows; it is something earned, and cannot be assumed because of a position or a role.
We face an opportunity in our nation to fill the vacuum caused by the growing absence of a moral compass. As a result, we find ourselves drifting according to the prevailing current of the day. One consequence is that our hard-won liberalism is becoming illiberal, where it is unacceptable to hold certain opinions, and cancel culture and no-platforming have taken over. The values of our liberal society arose out of Christian convictions, but now those underpinning attributes are no longer adhered to as they were in the past. As a recent article in the New Statesman declared, liberalism will decline as it has lost its foundation.
We are in a fascinating period of change, all of which argues the case for stronger adherence to a moral framework to steer us through the complexities of modern life. How easy it is to be tossed to and fro by the waves, and blown here and there by the wind. This diagnosis of our current plight needs to be challenged. While there will always be resistance to guidelines, directives and values, because they place the authority to decide what is true outside the individual, we must maintain that we are truly free when we know and live within certain boundaries and frameworks. To that end, I support any move to raise and uphold standards of behaviour and integrity in political life.
My Lords, this is the second successive Thursday on which the House has called on the noble Lord, Lord True, to demonstrate his skill at the Dispatch Box in batting on a sticky wicket. Without dissenting from anything that has been said in the debate, I may surprise him by offering the Government some support about the mechanics of upholding ministerial standards, albeit with a major qualification.
I do not think any of us would challenge the proposition in the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morse, that a
“reduction in the standards of … honesty in political life”
“impact on the democratic process”.
Various studies, including one reported by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, indicate the public view that Ministers and MPs have poor ethical standards in comparison with others who deliver public services, such as doctors, teachers, judges and local government officials. Such a loss of confidence between the Government and the governed is very serious.
However, here is my support for the Government. The Government’s response, published on 27 May, to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendations on the Ministerial Code, seems to me largely right, despite criticisms in the media. The Government have taken a measure to introduce gradations in the penalties for breaches of the Ministerial Code. I have long felt that the view that any breach of the code, however trivial, requires a Minister’s resignation, is wrong. The Government have now said that minor breaches can be dealt with by lesser sanctions such as loss of salary or even an apology. I welcome this. The Prime Minister mishandled Sir Alex Allan’s report into alleged bullying by Priti Patel. Instead of rejecting his conclusion that there was a degree of bullying for which there was ample evidence, the Prime Minister could have accepted that but not required such a severe sanction as her resignation. If he had, the complainants could have had a remedy and the Prime Minister could have retained the services of Sir Alex Allan.
The second recommendation in the committee’s recent report on ministerial interests, which the Government have partially accepted, is that the adviser on ministerial interests should be able to initiate investigations. The Government have accepted this, subject to the adviser consulting the Prime Minister. Many have criticised the requirement for the Prime Minister’s approval, but it seems realistic. The adviser’s investigations are unlikely to make progress in government if the Prime Minister has not authorised them.
The Government rejected the recommendation that the various regulators of ethics—the independent adviser on ministerial interests, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—should all be put on a statutory basis and their powers backed by legislation. The Government do not like that recommendation because they want these matters to be governed in the political sphere. Legislation would bring the courts and judges in on the act. Again, I have sympathy with the Government’s view, but this is where I have an important proviso. The public will accept that allegations of ministerial misconduct should be dealt with in the political sphere only if they have confidence they will be dealt with fairly and rigorously. I am afraid that the Prime Minister has lost the public’s confidence over this, through his handling of the cases of Priti Patel and Owen Paterson, and through his own behaviour.
Since the Government’s Statement of 27 May, we have had the resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, and the Prime Minister is reported to be considering whether and how the post needs to be replaced. I am sure that a replacement is needed because, if a Minister’s conduct has to be investigated, the Prime Minister cannot convincingly do it himself. There is a need for an independent person or body to carry out the investigation if its results are to carry confidence. I speak with some experience when I say that it should not be the Cabinet Secretary, or any other civil servant, who carries out that investigation. Sue Gray was put in a very difficult position when she was asked to investigate whether the Covid rules had been broken by the Prime Minister or her own Civil Service boss. It has become apparent from the Geidt episode that if the Prime Minister’s own conduct is under scrutiny, judgment on it cannot be made by his own adviser. The outcome is bound to be unhappy: either the Prime Minister goes, or the adviser does. The Prime Minister’s conduct has to be dealt with by his own party, by the Cabinet or, ultimately, by the electorate.
In terms of the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morse, I have no doubt that recent events had an impact on our democratic life, and it is a damaging impact. I also believe that no system of regulation will be adequate unless our leaders themselves demonstrate high standards. There is an old saying that a fish rots from the head; that is why we need to be concerned about the matters we are discussing today.
My Lords, I applaud my noble friend Lord Morse for enabling this House to have a debate on this important issue, which affects our democratic process. These standards affect the reputation of this country across the world, which is why this debate is so important.
I will focus on two aspects of the Government’s behaviour, and I declare my interest as a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. My first issue is to do with its work. It is the relentless growth in the ways by which Ministers avoid parliamentary scrutiny of their policies, and an increasing use of these parliamentary “avoidance mechanisms”, as I would call them. Of course I am talking about secondary legislation.
The House has just considered the Schools Bill, and I must apologise to those directly involved in it because they will be familiar with what I am going to say initially. The Bill is the most extreme power grab by Ministers in recent memory. As a member of the Delegated Powers Committee, I ought to say that the Bill is an outlier, but an increasing number of Bills use these mechanisms and indeed other new mechanisms created by Ministers—and maybe their civil servants—to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. One basic mechanism is the skeletal nature of Part 1 of the Bill, bolstered or compounded by Clause 3 with its incredible list of Henry VIII clauses, which gives Ministers carte blanche to change Acts of Parliament on pretty well any aspect of the school system. Part 1 is the core part of the Bill, albeit that there are other important issues in later parts.
Due to a drop in government Ministers’ recognition of the importance of the supremacy of Parliament, our very democracy is at stake and under threat. As noble Lords know, the House of Commons pays no attention to regulations, and this House is not permitted to amend them so these regulations are outside our powers. We do have the power to reject a regulation, as I know to my cost when I put forward an amendment to the £4.4 billion cut in tax credits, which this House wonderfully passed. But it led to threats to close down this House; I was lined up and threatened that the House would lose all its powers if I were to pursue that amendment—so we do not really have the power to reject a regulation.
If we cannot reject regulations and cannot amend them, Ministers are left with inordinate power. As we know, power corrupts—and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, in my view, this is a very worrying situation. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee recently undertook a 30-year review of delegated legislation, the report of which was published last November. I have touched on just two issues in that report; there are many more, and it does not make for happy reading.
For me, even more concerning than the drop in public standards domestically has been the willingness of our Foreign Secretary to consider breaching international treaties. Her readiness to breach international law by taking unilateral action, for example, on the Northern Ireland protocol not only undermines Parliament but brings the entire country into disrepute internationally and, in my view, is going to cause untold problems with the European Union. It was clear when we signed the protocol that it involved a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, but the difficulties were deferred. They should have been much more clearly sorted out at the time of negotiations. The Irish Taoiseach made it clear that the protocol is in fact working pretty well for many industries, and that for those where there are problems, these could be sorted out by negotiation. Sinn Féin argues that the protocol is working fine. I find that a little difficult to believe, but the middle way certainly sounds sensible. The Foreign Secretary’s rush to make it clear that she would be taking unilateral action is just another example of the contempt for the maintenance of standards in public life.
We have had a drop in standards at both the domestic and international level, and the people responsible for standards are acutely conscious of it. This is where I part company a little with my noble friend Lord Butler, with whom I normally agree. We have had at least four significant reports from independent bodies and individuals on the need for public standards reform, three of them in 2021. In particular, I want to mention the landmark report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, published in November 2021. As my noble friend Lord Butler said, the Government did indeed respond on 27 May, but I have a slightly different view about their response.
In my view, the Government avoided any reform of key issues. I have just a couple of examples. The report recommends that the Government should pass primary legislation to place the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments on a statutory basis, as my noble friend Lord Butler said. Sadly, the Government have rejected this recommendation, which could have resulted in real improvements in standards. In my view, that is why the Government rejected it: they do not want to be challenged. As my noble friend Lord Butler said, the Government agreed to another important recommendation: that the independent adviser should be able to initiate investigations into breaches of the Ministerial Code, but only if the Prime Minister is basically in agreement—which, of course, immediately undermines the power of that provision.
We have a major issue, both domestically and internationally. If it is not dealt with, we parliamentarians will continue to lose respect, and this country will continue to lose the respect of countries across the world.
My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. We are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for giving us this opportunity.
I begin by referring to a character mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, because it helps to put this all into context. The problems we are facing at the moment—I shall come on to these in more detail—are very real, but to have rogue politicians is not new. Most of your Lordships will know the famous story of Maundy Gregory. Sentenced to a prison term, he was sewing his mail bags when he was visited by one of his former colleagues, who asked, “Sewing, Gregory?” “No—reaping”, he replied.
Of course, there have been rogue politicians through the ages, but we are in a different context now, because until relatively recently, we all accepted the basic ground rules. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn also referred to this. Whether believers or not, we had a fundamental Christian structure to our society, where almost everybody accepted that certain things were right and certain things were wrong—certain things were done, and certain things should not be done—although there were those who transgressed. We think perhaps of John Profumo, but what an extraordinary comeback he had by devoting his life to Toynbee Hall and being properly recognised—I think here of the Christian doctrine of redemption—by being given a CBE.
But we are in a different context today. Again, the right reverend Prelate referred to this when he talked about my truth and your truth, rather than the truth which we all held to and accepted. Almost every politician now seems to think that as long he thinks what he is doing is all right, it does not really matter— whether it is telling a fib on the Floor of the House of Commons or watching questionable material on an iPhone. But it does matter, and it is important that we recognise that. We must have a machinery, a structure, for supervising and, to a degree, policing that. I was taken by the very thoughtful speech and suggestion of my noble friend Lord Wolfson, whose dignified letter of resignation is, I hope, framed on the walls of 10 Downing Street.
I live in hope. My noble friend talked about the Lord Chancellor, and about having a Lord Chancellor who is in a destination office. He used the analogy of the station. We are shortly going to be saying goodbye to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, one of the most distinguished and distinctive Lord Chancellors we have had. He was always in residence in King’s Cross or St Pancras, but his successors have all got off at Adlestrop. It is very important to recognise that a Lord Chancellor, in a high and exalted position, having taken the oaths to which my noble friend Lord Wolfson referred, can be in a position, to a degree, of moral guardian of the ethics of the Cabinet. Although he would never put it that way, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, fulfilled that role to a degree. It is very important that we try to restore public confidence in those who hold high office. If we do not, our very democratic structures are at risk.
There has been a great change in the other place since I entered it 52 years ago last Saturday. There were not enough women then, but there were a number of colleagues who had fought in the last war with great distinction and had MCs, and almost everybody in the House had had a successful career somewhere. Even I, entering at the age of 31, had done 10 years in the real world as a schoolmaster, a deputy head and so on. There are far too many these days who come in without having had any experience at all of the real world. They come in very often at the first time of asking—their first election—and many have done nothing outside the party-political arena. They have been spads or assistants to MPs, but they do not properly understand the real world. Because of that, what was a vocation to public service has become a job and a career in itself.
That is really what is behind much of what we are talking of today, but it is not only that. They have dispensed—as I hope we will not in your Lordships’ House—with the hours that enabled the House of Commons to have a collegiate structure. I was sitting in my office last night and at five-something the House was up and they were gone. That did not use to happen and because of that, we were together, collegiately, talking and mixing, as we do in your Lordships’ House at the Long Table. A fortnight in advance of a very important debate, I urge your Lordships to remember what happened in the House of Commons when it lost its collegiate structure and gave up the scrutiny of legislation because of timetabling. All these things are enmeshed, but above all, we have to have standards in public life which enable the electorate to respect those whom they elect.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, whom I congratulate on his 52 years last Saturday. He made many good points with which I agree. The basic ground rules to which he referred remind me that we miss in this debate the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield. I much regret that he is not here, because a debate such as this is one in which he would play a very constructive part.
It is also a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Anderson, who has served with such distinction here and in another place. It was also a pleasure to hear the first Back-Bench speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, because, in the short time I have been here, I have seen him only at the Dispatch Box. There is someone who, in my view, speaks with great authority, because he gave up office, rather than continuing to represent the Government in the capacity he had, on principle. It made me think that resignations are a sort of miner’s lamp, warning of the health of the democracy at any one time.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morse, on securing this debate and those Cross-Bench Peers who apparently voted for it. It is of course extremely timely. I shall make a brief contribution from these Benches. When the noble Lord, in reference to the Covid pandemic, referred to the distinction between political figures and other figures, such as the Chief Scientific Adviser, it reminded me of something that took place at the height of the Covid lockdown when a gas engineer had to come to my home. In the course of him undertaking the work, I happened to ask him what he thought of the government press conferences that were being held daily. He said, “I don’t believe a word of what they say. Not a word of it.” I pressed him further and he said, “The Prime Minister? I wouldn’t believe him.” I did not want to get into a discussion about that, but I said, “So what about Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser?” His view suddenly changed: “Oh, I believe him.” There is a problem here. This debate is about political life; the public support figures such as Sir Patrick Vallance, Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Jonathan Van-Tam—I am very glad to see that they do—but we have a problem in the political sphere.
We know what the standards should be because they are set out in the Nolan principles: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that things are falling short. The British Social Attitudes survey reported that, in the space of about 35 years, between 1986 and 2020, the proportion of people who trust the Government had fallen by half. Understandably, at the time of the expenses scandal in 2009, the greatest number of people ever was recorded as distrusting the Government. I cannot say I am surprised.
These circumstances and this lack of trust degrade a healthy parliamentary democracy and have the following effects. They corrode public trust in political processes and encourage public cynicism—the idea that they are all the same, which is in the interests of some powerful people. This plays into the hands of those—I include elements of the mainstream media, as well as key social media platforms—who want to sow confusion and are content to weaken public participation in the democratic process. The House discussed the Elections Bill. A lot of concern was expressed that the effect of the measures in that Bill might depress the public’s enthusiasm for voting. We will have to wait and see, but I hope the Minister will at least acknowledge that those concerns were deeply felt. It would be more than a shame if declining trust in the political process, plus the provisions of that Bill, lead to an even lower turnout. Of course, this also weakens the UK’s position in the world at large.
It is not my job to stand here and do the work of the Standards Committee in another place, but the House knows the seriousness of the issue with which it is dealing: whether or not the Prime Minister misled the House. I will not prejudge the outcome, but I notice that the vote of confidence carried out by the MPs in the Prime Minister’s own party and its outcome show a degree of great unease about the position of trust at the top. In relation to that, I found the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, including his reference to fish, of great interest. As I said earlier, it made me think about some of the resignations in political life. I shall take a couple.
As the House will know, Hugh Dalton resigned in 1947 because a throwaway remark made to a journalist in the Lobby before he went in to give his Chancellor’s speech was enough to have him instantly dismissed, with alacrity. It is unthinkable that that would happen today. I am sorry to say this, but the only person at risk of being sacked in a similar situation today would be the Chancellor’s spin doctor, who the Chancellor might feel had not sufficiently briefed the press in advance about what was in the Budget—the idea that nobody knows what is in the Budget until the Chancellor gets up at the Dispatch Box is a fiction. Hugh Dalton returned to public life; he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and served in one other capacity, but I choose him as an example because that really would not happen today, which is a pity in some ways.
Mention was made of the resignation of John Profumo. Whatever one may think about the personal circumstances, we must remember that he resigned because he misled Parliament. That was the key touchstone on which he was judged. Then you have other resignations on principle, such as that of Peter Carington. Again, I do not think that type of resignation happens any more. We all know the circumstances, but he took responsibility for things which some may say he knew nothing about at the time. Nevertheless, he took the decisions that he did.
Time prevents me going on to talk about a range of other resignations of Labour Members of Parliament and others, but I will mention just two more. One is the resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew. I was sitting here as a relatively new Member, listening to him answer a Question at the Dispatch Box, when it became clear to me and others that there was something in the way he was answering it that made it clear that he did not agree with the argument he was putting forward officially on behalf of the Government. Then, before you knew it, he expressed his own dissatisfaction with the Government and resigned on the spot. He took out an envelope and gave it to the Whip on his right, then proceeded to walk out of the Chamber. It was a very dramatic episode.
In a way, I find that a resignation like that rather helps restore trust that not everyone’s removal from office is as a result of a dragged-out process, which we have seen in many cases. Then there is the resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, which brings me, very quickly, to the final point I want to make.
The committee proposed that the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests should be on a statutory basis, as should COBRA, but I am afraid that we are a very long way away from that ever happening in the case of the present Government. I notice that the Government dismissed the idea that it should be legislated for because it would “undermine the constitutional settlement”. I hope that when the Minister comes to reply he might explain a bit more about what it is thought that means.
In conclusion, I feel that, looking back, many Members on all sides of the House, and maybe especially on the Benches opposite, will look back and later on express their unease about what they know has been happening recently. We must not wait too long, because the democratic process—to use the words of the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morse—is fragile, and in every generation democracy has to be fought for. It is our turn now.
My Lords, our thanks go to the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for his prescience in addressing this issue.
Democracy is the best protection we have for liberty, but as we know, democracy is not a given state but a process. In order for it to fulfil its task of upholding the rule of law and implementing mechanisms for collective self-government, it requires the institutions of democracy to be in good working order; these include a freely elected Parliament strong enough to hold the Executive to account, an independent judiciary, freedom of expression and of the media, trade unions and a host of other traditional means of tolerating dissent and maintaining order. In turn, democratic institutions also require trust—in the institutions themselves and in the people who run them.
It is also a truism that ultimately all democracies fail. John Adams wrote in 1814:
“There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”,
and that that failure comes from within. Although Adams was referring mainly to democracies of the ancient world, his view that people simply lost interest in democratic government in favour of authoritarian leaders who promised safety at home and triumphs abroad in return for their acceptance of autocracy is interesting in our present context.
The point I wish to emphasise is that, unless we are vigilant, democracy can fade away silently, by incremental evasions of uncomfortable freedoms and truths. Democracy is not exactly abolished but redefined to become a set of values rather than a method of government. This is where standards of behaviour come to the fore. A freely elected Government have responsibility for what is in the public interest and the public good, not simply for what is in the immediate interest of the relevant political party. Yet in the last few years we have countless examples of government actions and statements that confuse, contradict and often mislead the public in order to accrue power and reduce public and parliamentary accountability. For example, despite recent criticisms of the two cases brought by Gina Miller, far from being undemocratic, they succeeded in returning to Parliament the right to be consulted on major issues of the day.
A 2019 Hansard Society survey concluded that 54% of people in the UK believed there to be a need for a strong leader and less attention to parliamentary debate and votes. But this was in the context of “getting Brexit done”, and today might show a widespread concern about the undermining of our democratic processes while holding a kind of defeatist view that nothing can be done. There is a great deal that can be done and, in particular, that can be done by your Lordships’ House. We must turn our democratic values to confront those currently in power.
Recent actions that question the public trust in government are many. On the one hand, there is the seemingly blithe acceptance by the Government that they can freely override obligations under international treaties, and at the other end government spokesmen happily broadcasting entirely incorrect information, as did the Attorney-General this week in asserting that the so-called Northern Ireland protocol was causing Northern Ireland to lag behind—the truth being that, apart from London, Northern Ireland is the best-performing region in the UK. Or there was the Prime Minister announcing that a new and friendly relationship with Europe had been achieved at the same time as the EU began legal action against the UK. Of course, there were also the embarrassing 24-hour U-turns on categorical decisions made during the pandemic; the overriding of due process in awarding contracts to personal contacts; and the proclamations of excellence of the test and trace system, proved to be an abject failure by the evidence. Let us remember that once executive orders of these kinds are used, it is that much easier to repeat and extend them in the future.
More egregious still is the Executive’s increasing tendency to introduce Christmas tree Bills adding significant new policy clauses on Report in this House, as was the case during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, or the much-discussed use of secondary legislation, so eloquently condemned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in a previous debate. These actions do not foster trust, and nor do the actions of senior Ministers and their advisers in flouting emergency regulations.
Your Lordships’ House comes under severe scrutiny for its efforts to amend some of this legislation—more often than not, unsuccessfully. That said, the Lords succeeded in passing 129 amendments in the last parliamentary Session. This is impressive, and yet if trust in the Government to be acting in the best interests of people is waning, the chances are that people will simply opt out.
Research indicates that trust, once lost, is very difficult to regain. Trust is essential for a Government’s ability to govern effectively, and this vital component is undermined by the perception of a lack of competence, corruption—however minor—misleading information and reluctance to be fully accountable. The absence of wider deliberation and scrutiny and the concentration of decision-making in the hands of a small elite encourages loyalty at the expense of wisdom, flattery at the expense of objective advice, and self-interest at the expense of the public good.
So, in answer to the question implicit in this debate, a reduction in standards and honesty has a profound, lasting and utterly destructive impact on the democratic process and it is the duty of Parliament, including this House, to do everything in its power to reverse it.
My Lords, gratitude goes to the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for allowing us to have this debate. We all hope that in the end, the Minister will be truer to his instincts than to his brief. So, we wait.
A week ago, the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an interview to the Financial Times, where the banner headline read:
“We are standing on the precipice of losing our democracy.”
She went on to say that
“everything that everybody else cares about then goes out the window.”
We know what she is referring to: the hearings on Capitol Hill for the next few months will reveal the extent to which the events of 6 January 2021 were not the response to a wind-up speech from the former President wanting to get his supporters to go and upset the balance but were pre-planned. The evidence now revealed shows that those who are supporters of QAnon and the Proud Boys had planned their insurrection many months in advance. We are told on the latest evidence I looked at this morning that somewhere between 20 and 30 million Americans are still active supporters of QAnon and believe that its views about the Democrats are to be held as a truth worthy of re-electing the former President on. These are frightening realities, not just because they will affect America but because they affect us. The tone of all democracy is fragile.
I came across the assessment of the journalist, HL Mencken, rated as one of America’s leading political analysts, writing in the Baltimore Evening Sun 100 years ago, on 26 July 1920. He said:
“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people … On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.”
You have to wonder: how did he know? It lies in the phrase
“the inner soul of the people”.
What had been allowed 100 years ago to begin this erosion of understanding, this wiping away of principles, that would lead us to this moment?
We all wish that the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, was here in the Chamber so that he could explain what was especially “odious” about the dealings he was having in Downing Street. It leads one to one obvious conclusion. There is no point having an ethics adviser if the key person either seeking or receiving the advice has no proven core of ethical conduct. We do not need purity and perfection, but we need what is captured in the Nolan principles: honesty, truth-telling and integrity of purpose.
I noted that in a number of the briefings sent, at least to me, in preparation for this debate was the inevitable series of demands for more regulation, more accountability, more committees and more assessment bodies—all with good intent. The answer is not to add to the weight of those objectively assessing the behaviour of individuals: that just adds cost; it does not bring clarity. Simply to rely on regulations, structures and even laws is to miss the point.
I uncovered an article written by one of the great former Members of this House, who sadly passed some years ago, Lord Sacks, on 8 September 2011, 10 years on from the events in New York City. The article was headed:
“Bin Laden saw that the West was in decline”.
The subheading reads:
“The attacks are linked to a wider moral malaise, including the loss of authority, integrity and family unity”.
If our great friend Lord Sacks was here, I am sure that what he wrote then is what he would say today. To bring his words back to life, I shall quote them. We all had profound respect for him as an individual and for his wisdom. He wrote:
“all great civilisations eventually decline, and when they begin to do so they are vulnerable. That is what Osama bin Laden believed about the West and so did some of the West’s own greatest minds … If so, then 9/11 belongs to a wider series of phenomena affecting the West: the disintegration of the family, the demise of authority, the build-up of personal debt, the collapse of financial institutions, the downgrading of the American economy, the continuing failure of some European economies, the loss of a sense of honour, loyalty and integrity that has brought once esteemed groups into disrepute, the waning throughout the West of a sense of national identity … These are … signs of the arteriosclerosis of a culture, a civilisation grown old. Whenever Me takes precedence over We, and pleasure today over viability tomorrow, a society is in trouble … The West has expended much energy and courage fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad and defeating terror at home. It has spent far less, if any, in renewing its own morality and the institutions—families, communities, ethical codes, standards in public life—where it is created and sustained. But if I am right”,
says Lord Sacks,
“this is the West’s greatest weakness in the eyes of its enemies as well as its friends … Our burden is to renew the moral disciplines of freedom.”
That is why we have debates of this nature: we want those disciplines renewed—who would not? I must ask members of the governing party, when many said, as they did to me as friends, as I am sure they did too many of us, that they stood aside from what they knew to get Brexit done: are they still content that that win was worth it all?
My Lords, I join many others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for initiating this debate, which is certainly timely, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, for his enlightening quotes, which are very interesting.
We have to follow standards in public life which are out there and can be seen by other people and tested. I have always thought that the standards called on for politicians are, rightly, somewhat higher than you might find in the general public. We are nearer the right reverend Prelate, who has just left his place, in that we have to abide by a set of standards that people expect, which are higher than many follow in their day-to-day life.
During the Second World War, when Britain was under great strain and the House of Commons had been bombed, there was a survey that asked people, “Do you trust MPs?” Something like half the people surveyed said no. That was at the height of the war, when everyone was fighting for their life. The significant thing was that when the question was, “Do you trust Mr Jones, your MP?”, the results were quite different. Most people said, “Yes, well, he’s a bit different, you know.”
The conclusion to draw is: if you actually know the person and they are doing a good job in your locality, you are likely to think more highly of them than if they are abstract figure who appears from time to time in the papers. I have always argued that, to an extent, we have created our own problems—not so much in this House, but certainly down the Corridor, where MPs have failed to face up to the fact of being public representatives.
Whenever there is a pay increase, there is always an MP who will get up to say, “I’m not taking it. We shouldn’t be paid this much and we want to give it back.” But my MP is paid two-thirds of what my GP is paid. That does not seem quite right to me. Part of our problem, which translates to this debate, is that, instead of paying MPs, we let them go out on the dinner circuit and earn a lot of extra money. We should be paying them properly and stopping them earning anything other than a token amount on top of their pay. Then we would have accountable MPs.
We have heard a bit about resignations, including from the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, but there is a bit of difference. Now, we seem to have got to a position where you need a report to get a resignation. When I look back over my political life, which has been quite long—not as distinguished as that of my noble friend Lord Cormack, although it has been as long, in that I was first elected to the Greater London Council in 1973, a bit after him—I see the names of resignations as they came up. Dalton has been mentioned. Thomas Dugdale resigned over Crichel Down. John Profumo resigned over lying to the House of Commons. Lord Carrington resigned over the Falklands. Cecil Parkinson had a not very distinguished resignation, but it was one none the less. Then there was David Mellor, and the various resignations in the Blair Government and afterwards.
Most of them resigned because they felt that they should. They did not resign because they had waited for a report or an ethics adviser had come up with a report. They resigned because, in the light of the feelings of the day, they had gone too far and should surrender their seals of office. That is quite right. I have a lot of sympathy with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. There should be a gradation between resignation and holding on and refusing to say anything at all. A minor infraction of the rules should get a minor slap on the wrist, but it should not need a committee to do that. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, or someone else in his place is reappointed but I do not acknowledge that they have the job that should be done because people should have enough honour to police the system themselves.
I have said this privately; I say it now publicly. I am afraid that our present Prime Minister was well known before he got the job. No one ever pretended that our present Prime Minister knew much about truth, veracity or anything else. Let us not hide this. This is not something that we discovered last week. It has been present ever since he was working on the Times many years ago, when his first career came to a somewhat juddering halt.
I want to disabuse both my party and the Opposition of another thing: the Prime Minister won the election because, first, people were fed up to the back teeth with the Brexit debate and wanted to get Brexit done; and, secondly, the leader of the Opposition was widely perceived as not being wanted on voyage. It is as simple as that. You cannot heap all the honours on the Prime Minister without looking at who he beat and how he beat them. The truth of the matter is that the biggest asset the Conservative Party had was the market gardener from Islington, also known as the then leader of the Opposition.
The fact is that—having been a member of both parties, I know them reasonably well—Labour is perceived as having abandoned that essentially conservative, working-class base. That has been Labour’s difficulty for many years. Its base is essentially conservative. The people I grew up with in Methodist Sheffield, who went out and voted Labour because they thought that Hugh Gaitskell would be the best person to run Britain, were not revolutionaries. I would argue that they were not even socialists. They were good people who wanted change and thought that the Labour Party would bring it. When Labour has excited people—I have seen them excited twice, by Harold Wilson and Tony Blair—the people vote it in. People were not excited at the time of the last election. I am sorry but, if they were excited, it was probably in the wrong way.
I finish with this: I welcome this debate but we need to look at our own area first.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue. I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and grateful to him for reminding us about the characteristics of the current incumbent of No. 10.
I must begin by declaring an interest. I am proud to be a Member of this House, and proud of the vital work it does in our constitution. I am devastated by what this Government are doing to trash the reputation of this Parliament. I spent most of my career as a journalist. In the eyes of the general public, there are few who come lower than journalists but here I am, and it is even worse.
I begin by talking about the trickle-down effect—but not in relation to wealth, where the idea is that if the people at the top make lots more money, everybody will be better off; this does not work. When it comes to corruption, the trickle-down effect is dramatically successful. Take the example of Putin’s Russia. According to the Ukrainian Research Institute’s intelligence, 90% of the tanks that the Russians are currently trying to get out of mothballs are unusable because vital parts have been taken away and sold; the circuit boards are worth something on Alibaba. The generals have decided that, if it is right for Putin and Co. to make their millions, they too deserve a cut. That is one reason why things are going more slowly than the Russians would like in Ukraine.
The tone comes from the top. As others have said, the fish rots from the head. We know where the rot started with this Government. Franklin D Roosevelt said:
“The Presidency is not merely an administrative office … It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.”
In his private life, he may not have been a perfect moral character, but, in his leadership of the States, he was. Whatever personal failings there may be in our Prime Minister, sadly, they also translate into his leadership of the country. That reflects badly on all of us, damages the way this country operates and trashes its reputation abroad.
Others have referred to the Nolan principles. I cannot resist going through them again, slowly, and thinking about them in the context of the No. 10 we have today. They are: selflessness; integrity; objectivity; accountability; openness; honesty; and leadership. If it were not so sad, it would be laughable. All those characteristics are discernibly missing from what goes on at No. 10 at the moment.
The effect of that on our democracy—the subject of this debate—is already being felt. Our Civil Service has been badly damaged by the way it has been treated by Ministers who will not take responsibility but expect civil servants to carry the load for them—Ministers who bully their civil servants but do not resign, even when they are told that they should. Of course, nobody now wants to take on the senior Civil Service roles. Why would they? Who can blame them?
Equally, voters are looking at what is going on and being turned off democracy. Earlier this year, an IPPR report found that 53% of adults believe that donors, big business and lobbyists are more powerful in influencing government policy than voters. Only one in 20 people believed that voters had the most influence on government policy. The democratic process is undoubtedly being damaged badly by what is going on at the moment.
That disillusionment is particularly pronounced among young people. The Bennett Institute for Public Policy in Cambridge published research, 18 months ago, that led it to the conclusion that those in their 20s and 30s are the first generation in living memory to have a majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works. It is a global phenomenon but in the UK, it is far more pronounced.
Is it surprising, though, when only today in the Times, the Conservative former Solicitor-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, writes that the proposed Bill of Rights will further bolster the concerns of those who believe, with some justification, that this Government have a reckless disregard for domestic and international law? That is the verdict of a Conservative former Solicitor-General. No wonder people are disillusioned.
What is to be done about it? I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and his reluctance to legislate, but things have reached a stage where legislation is the only way. Perhaps I have become far too disillusioned. The noble Lord says that he would like to see the gradation of penalties being proposed, but surely this Government would see everything as just a minor infringement rather than one that deserved a significant penalty. Would we feel confident that this Government would do the decent thing? Of course, there may be those in the future who would, but we are dealing with a very difficult state of affairs.
We have the Boardman recommendations, which would certainly be distinct improvements. There are 19 recommendations and five suggestions, and the Government have yet to respond in full to them. Can the Minister tell us when we will hear a full response to the Boardman suggested regulations and when they might be implemented? That would at least be a start towards improving what is currently looking like a very sorry state of affairs.
My Lords, I join in the tributes to my noble friend Lord Morse.
Plainly, the standards of behaviour and honesty in political life bear on the democratic process and a reduction in those standards weakens democracy, because reduced standards lessen public trust and confidence in our rulers and our governing institutions. As a result, people are less willing to participate in the political process, less willing to turn out to vote and then less inclined to accept and comply with the laws Parliament enacts. We surely have a perfect recent illustration of that: as a result of partygate, if there was some future pandemic and Parliament was to enact further hugely restrictive laws, it may be doubted that the public would so readily obey them. All that is pretty obvious.
I want to focus on the position arrived at here and my essential point may not be popular. While I hold absolutely no brief for our Prime Minister, I contend that his flaws, his deficiencies, are a quantum leap away from those not only of murderous autocrats such as Putin but of purported democrats such as Trump.
It is pure nonsense and an illustration of the fallacy of false equivalence to suggest that any useful comparison can be made between Trump and Johnson. Johnson is not Trump-lite, as he is sometimes described. He is not in the same league. Trump is plain wicked. It is almost impossible to exaggerate his monstrous conduct, which in numerous respects is plainly criminal. Not so Johnson’s: his fixed penalty notice was not, of course, for criminal conduct any more than a speeding fine is. His misbehaviour, which I do not understate, is political, not criminal. Those political sins were indeed catalogued by Clare Foges in her characteristically admirable piece in Monday’s Times. She demonstrated truly that our Prime Minister has belied the “good chap theory” of government from the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy: our unwritten constitution’s historical reliance on our rulers recognising where the boundaries of acceptable political conduct properly lie and, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, pointed out, knowing when they ought to resign.
I agree with almost all the points that Clare Foges made, but I make one important exception: the Prime Minister’s unlawful Prorogation of Parliament in 2019. There are some who go so far as to suggest that that act puts the Prime Minister on a par with Trump as an unlawful attempt to remain in power by escaping parliamentary control. I, for my part, regard that as nonsensical. Although I accept the Supreme Court’s judgment as correct on the narrow facts of the case—this is no occasion to go into all that—it is surely absurd to treat it as comparable to Trump’s attempt to force his Vice-President to refuse to recognise the United States election result. Trump, one recalls, and one sees it now in the congressional report, was advised forcefully and repeatedly that Pence had no lawful option but to certify Biden’s election victory. By contrast, Boris Johnson was not merely advised, as clearly he was, by his law officers that Prorogation in the context that it was enacted was lawful; that too was a view fully shared by a strong and unanimous Divisional Court.
In short, therefore, while recognising as I do the Prime Minister’s character flaws and his intrinsic tendency towards dishonesty, he really cannot usefully be compared with Trump. True, his principles can be regarded as somewhat fluid, flexible, elastic and perhaps rather Marxian, in the sense of Groucho rather than Karl—“These are my principles, but if you don’t like them I have others”—but the threat he poses to democracy is in no way comparable to the actual damage now being so obviously inflicted by Trump on democracy and the democratic process in the United States. One has only to watch the nightly reports on, for example, the 6 January insurrection, the storming of Capitol Hill and, before that, Trump’s attempt to suborn the returning officers in the various individual states that he narrowly lost to find him the missing votes to recognise the catastrophic impact of his stolen election lie on America’s faith in democracy. The point has already been made as to the extraordinary numbers who subscribe to the Trump approach.
I end with this: I suggest it is a mistake to say, as a recent letter to the Times did, that the United Kingdom is no longer a functioning democracy. Of course I look forward to the day when, once again, our political leaders can be seen to occupy the moral high ground that is now all too often vacated, but in the meantime it is most unwise to run ourselves down to the point where our international reputation as a sound democracy could indeed be put at risk.
My Lords, I fear we live in an age of visceral prejudice. Many of us wake up every morning, tune into the radio or television and read the news websites in the hope of having those prejudices polished, and, when they are not, of being outraged. In our hyperpartisan age, any questioning of our own political position is seen as “having a go,” so we attack the messenger when these prejudices are not reinforced and are infuriated when they are questioned or criticised. In fact, I suggest that many politicians hope every day to be infuriated by several items that they come across on their trawl through the media.
In the digital era, we are all constantly reassured by likeminded digital friends or in the echo chambers of social media. In these places, our views are bolstered and those we oppose denigrated. The resulting fractures in our society are deeper than ever and make the democratic process more scratchy and less open to compromise. I fear that the arenas for a proper discussion of policy, in which people actually listen to others’ points of view and engage with their concerns to build a national conversation, are diminishing. This conversation cannot take place if not enough people are prepared to listen to each other. Part of the problem is that many of our party politicians are rarely prepared to engage in an open discussion of policy questions and generate a true conversation in which the nation can engage.
The solution needs to come from the top of our society. We need true engagement on policies which affect us all—our own version of the ancient Greek agora. In the past, our leaders were prepared to subject themselves to lengthy questioning and explanation of policy. The audiences would agree or disagree, but at least they were part of the conversation that must be the foundation for consent in a successful democracy. Mrs Thatcher was a divisive politician, but she was a politician of the highest quality. She was on top of the details of her brief and unafraid to answer questions. She saw it as her democratic duty to subject herself to long interviews on policy with the great interviewers of her day, such as Robin Day of the BBC and Brian Walden of ITV’s “Weekend World”.
I contrast her with the paucity of true policy discussion in the public arena by our leading decision-makers today. There are some honourable exceptions: Michael Gove gave helpful and engaged answers to Tom Newton Dunn on TalkTV the other day, and Jacob Rees-Mogg was prepared to go on the new Andrew Neil show on Channel 4. Andrew Neil is no enemy of the present Government, yet I notice that no other top-level Cabinet Ministers are being booked for the show. Surely, when there is so much at stake in our national life, it would benefit democracy if the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary were to open themselves to a considered discussion about where this Government are going. Instead, we get the “Minister of the day” put up by Downing Street and condemned to tour the media outlets in the morning. Much of the audience is infuriated that the Minister will come on to talk about one specific policy area in which they are expert, and then find themselves bombarded by a range of questions outside their purview. The required omniscience demeans both them and the show on which they are appearing. Of course, they cannot know everything. Instead, they are equipped with a brief of answers which they are told to repeat, whatever the question. This is partly the fault of the broadcasters in expecting too much and being so eclectic in their questioning, but it is also a result of a lack of a true engagement with the media by the political classes.
However, it is important to continue the national discussion, even if many politicians will not engage. One of the very few places where independent thought and discussion can take place is through our public service broadcasters—television, radio and online. These are arenas for the nation to hold a mirror up to itself. We in this country, through the foresight of political predecessors and the hard work of journalists, are fortunate enough to have institutions that are the envy of the world. In the words of my noble friend the great Lord Hennessy, they are “pearls beyond price”, yet a typical trait of our country is to want to nag away at these great British institutions, despite the global admiration they attract.
Across the political spectrum, there are warm words for public service broadcasters: we hear their war reporters lauded, their jubilee coverage described as unifying, and the local public service information outlets described as crucial conduits for information during Covid. Yet these words are not met by actions; the latest BBC licence fee settlement is frozen for two years, at a time when inflation is projected to reach double digits by the end of the year. This will lead to a financial loss of £250 million for the corporation, on top of the 30% cut over the last 10 years.
Just as important is the threat to alter and shrink the programme remit of PSBs. Their universality makes them a valuable forum for the nation in a world of digital cubbyholes in which we listen only to ourselves. For all its benefits for public service broadcasting, the media Bill is an attack on Channel 4’s ability to be a British voice to discuss British values. Its present remit is to make British content that is innovative and edgy and that reflects underrepresented audiences, and its news has to be transmitted for an hour at prime time. There is a danger that the new remit required for privatisation will dilute the British and regional content and allow the news and other areas of genuine discussion about our nation to be hived off to a little-watched digital channel. How can this be allowed to happen at a time when we need open discussion across the country more than ever before?
To compound this attack on the PSBs, a drum-beat of complaints about a lack of impartiality echoes though the corridors of this place and beyond. There has been an orthodoxy of liberal metropolitan bias in the past, but public service broadcasters are increasingly recruiting individuals from a wider background of the population, both geographically and socioeconomically. The diverse background of production staff will contribute to a change in culture.
Ofcom and the BBC have made extensive reports on the problem of a lack of impartiality. The former said that audiences had complained about the lack of impartiality that they saw in the corporation, but it admitted that its research
“illustrates the complexity of the issue”.
Ofcom found that
“different audiences reach diametrically opposing conclusions when judging the due impartiality of the same news content”.
The new Dilnot review will further assess impartiality and accuracy at the BBC, and it will ensure that a breadth of viewpoints is heard.
I fear that, in this hyper-partisan political environment, it will be impossible for any political organisation to satisfy demands for impartiality. Contrast the situation in our country with what is happening in America, where it seems that all media outlets are editorialised. There is nowhere for genuine national political discussion in the American media; in this partisan media ecosystem, there is only alternative truth and alternative facts. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, said, it is not surprising that a large proportion of the American population still believes that the election was stolen, despite repeated denials by Republican officials and even President Trump’s own daughter, Ivanka. It does not take much to realise that, in a post-truth world, the foundations of a democracy and civilization quake.
America must be a warning for all people who believe in the democratic process. Unless we have national fora for discussion and debate that can be trusted and believed, we will descend into a world of multiple truths and alternative facts that leave audiences unable to make the basic decisions that are needed for civic society. At this time of turmoil, both across the world and in this country, it has never been more important that we bolster the institutions that allow all citizens to engage in the great process of deciding in which direction to take our country and who should lead that mission.
My Lords, it is a great honour and pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. I learned a lot from his father when he was here, so I am grateful for the sober and informative statement that he has made—I shall come back to this later. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Morse, not just for choosing a brilliant subject but for perhaps the shortest speech that I have heard the mover of a Motion make. Like Morse code, he was very succinct and short.
I have sat here and felt like a complete foreigner after a very long period of time. I was born in India, and then I went to America before arriving here. The idea that politicians are honest is completely alien to me. There is some sort of miasma here that, once upon a time, politicians were good and honest. When my friend the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, talks about the “decent chap” theory, he is being slightly ironic, because remember that they were all chaps; they all wore bowler hats and suits, and they were all gentlemen. There was a time when, even if gentlemen told lies to each other, the Times never had to publish it. The press was very obedient and guarded secrets.
The idea that Prime Ministers or politicians do not tell lies is a very great surprise to me because, in the 56 years I have lived here, I have frequently seen politicians not tell the truth. Sir Edward Heath lied on television about the stocks of coal in this country, and drove the country into a three-day week. It was a totally false number, and was shown to be so by Tony Benn—who some people may remember. Within 24 hours, Tony Benn was able to show that the coal stocks numbers quoted by Edward Heath were totally wrong. Anthony Eden lied about Suez, and they all hid the stroke that Churchill had when Prime Minister so that he could continue as Prime Minister. Harold Wilson went on television and said that the pound in your pocket was safe, after having devalued it by several percentage points. Tony Blair lied about the 45-minute gap in which Saddam’s missiles could launch and land—they would have landed in Cyprus, but he implied that it would be an attack on the British homeland.
We have been here before. Having a drink in No. 10 Downing Street is not as great a crime as people seem to think, and we have no need to take the moral high ground. Politics has not been honest. If you do not believe that, talk to anybody who was part of the empire and they will tell you what British politicians did abroad. I will not go into that—it would take me eight days, not just eight minutes.
We must understand that the idea that we had a moral code that everybody obeyed was an in-class conspiracy of a certain class. Everybody knew each other; they were all chaps, as there were no women in those days; and they all agreed with each other. Now, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, implied, we no longer have that world. We now have open media, which has become more democratic; the world may or may not be democratic, but the media has become much more democratic. Given the way that news travels, anything that any politician does is no longer a secret.
It is very interesting that Maundy Gregory was mentioned, but he is not the only one. We have had the selling of honours in the House of Lords for I do not know how long. As we sit here, we know that political parties sell honours and that that is how they are financed. Sometimes you have to take the money away when people turn out to be oligarchs but, until they are found to be oligarchs, they are alright—they are good chaps.
What we need to be clear about is not whether or not Boris Johnson took a drink—he did. As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, who expected him to tell the truth? At least he is not a hypocrite. What I like about the Prime Minister is that he is not a hypocrite; he lies and lies openly, smiles and thinks he will get away with it. He has got away with it for a long time.
What I would focus much more on is not that he broke his own law but the other things that this Government have done. For example, they reneged on the triple lock and left pensioners suffering last year; they took away universal credit, which made a lot of people suffer; and in the middle of the most serious stagflation, they are still talking about tax cuts—and, let us face it, mean tax cuts for the rich and not for the poor. That they are about to break the Northern Ireland protocol and get out of the European Court of Human Rights are serious things to criticise—not having a drink after work in No. 10 Downing Street.
Let us get our perspective clear: let us criticise the Government for the things they do that actually harm the majority of people. A lot of those things are going on. Yes, there is a breach of standards, but getting out of the European Court of Human Rights—a court that we established to begin with—and to claim that it is to do with Europe and not us, is a serious thing. It is not like discussing whether various people had drinks in the afternoon in No. 10 Downing Street.
Democracy has changed—it is much more open and the world is much more democratic. After all, until 1928 we did not have universal franchise. Democracy is still young in this country; it did not start with the Magna Carta. Let us get it into perspective and criticise real policy damage and not trivial political misbehaviour.
I rise simply to ask who determines truth. I read the resolution and look at the House of Lords, and know that lots of voices out there will say that the House of Lords once voted to give them a referendum on the European Union, and then repeatedly voted to try to undermine the decision that was made when people were given that power. When we look at why people are increasingly cynical about politicians and use the language of truth, we see that there are many aspects of it, but surely part of our duty here is to look at and examine our role and ability to improve our democracy.
We have a mishmash of rules, regulations and laws that are available to us to use. Let me give an example: the Phil Woolas election court case in 2011. A sitting MP stands in an election and is taken to an election court over issuing a false statement. It is one line in a leaflet and an election court deems that it is a false statement and a breach of law—a law that is over 100 years old, created in a time when precisely that discussion was going on. He is debarred from Parliament—thrown out with no jury and no right of appeal. That is one level of law, and we could bring in identical laws for sitting politicians, be they Ministers or otherwise, if we chose. We have that power; we have the powers to do what we choose, and we have the power to pontificate generally. But the cynicism of the people is increasing.
One of my predecessors as the MP for Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire was a gentleman called Sir Fred Bellenger. He was the MP for 35 years. Sir Fred was a barrister, practising in London. He had a home—I believe a rather nice one—in Chichester. He visited the constituency of Bassetlaw once a year for his annual dinner at the Olde Bell Hotel. Sir Fred may have been a great MP; he may have been a scoundrel. On balance, it would appear that he was a good MP—not great, but reasonable—but the voters of that constituency had no idea. How could they make a judgment? Where was the information available to them? There was none. They knew he came once a year, but the Olde Bell is not big enough to accommodate that many people, and that was it. But at least he turned up for his elections; his predecessor, Malcolm MacDonald, son of Ramsay, sent his sister to fight one election.
The idea that there was some golden era of integrity, honesty and decency is mythology. What there is today is information: people can find out more. Our big weakness is not grasping that what we therefore need is not more information but transparency. They will find out what people do one way or another—not everyone or everything, but far more than ever before—so we should grasp transparency as an asset for us.
It is not just No. 10. There are MPs in jail or just getting out of jail; there are MPs on trial who might or might not go to jail, depending on the courts. That is current, and it is cross-party. MPs being barred from the Commons is cross-party. There are so many transgressions going on that people hardly even notice them. If we want this place to survive, and if we are, as we claim, this great authority of wisdom and should through our collective wisdom be able to influence the laws of the country on behalf of the people, we should ensure that we set the standards ourselves. We have the power to set standards on behaviour and standards on transparency. It is not just for each and every one of us. The honour-based system is precisely the system of MPs’ expenses that led to quite a number going to jail, plenty more who were lucky, and a large number who resigned their seats and had their careers ended. It was a system based on honour, and it did not work.
This is an opportunity for us to collectively create systems of transparency here, recognising that we are in the information age, and to open ourselves up to criticisms. Let us set standards in the House of Lords. It would refresh our democracy. If we wish to survive, before the tempest arrives that blows us away—because it certainly will do, one unexpected day when we are not looking—we might give ourselves a future in that democracy. That is my hope for the conclusion of this debate today.
My Lords, I am reminded listening to this debate of the opening words of Francis Bacon’s essay on truth:
“‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”
We know that democracy depends on an open debate about what truth is, and respect for reasoned argument and for evidence. It is partly the move away from that recognition of and respect for reasoned debate, and the search for the appropriate and correct outcome—and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that one has to admit that the whole debate over Brexit has fed a lot of that movement—that has taken us to where we are now.
It is highly appropriate that this debate should be led by a Cross-Bencher and dominated by Cross-Benchers. They have a role in being non-party and in asking questions about evidence and the quality of the argument which the Government are putting forward. It is part of the deterioration even in this House over the last few years that I have heard senior Conservatives saying, “Well, you know that all the Cross-Benchers are systematically left wing”. I will not name the senior Conservatives who have said that, but some Cross-Benchers know them well.
Of course, that is a general label used to close down political debate. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which has its Second Reading next Tuesday, is based on Policy Exchange papers which at one point state that 80% of the academic teaching in British universities is left wing. This would puzzle the nearly 35% of scientists who work in universities and many others, but that is what Policy Exchange and the Telegraph have stated on a number of occasions. When judges disagree with the Government, they are dismissed in the Daily Mail and elsewhere as “lefty lawyers”. BBC and Channel 4 public service broadcasters are regularly attacked; I am bored by the number of occasions every week that the Times runs anti-BBC stories. This also happens when the Bishops say anything which is deemed to be political. It seems to have escaped the new right-wing consensus, as it were, that the gospel is systemically left wing in a number of ways, particularly in its clear bias towards the poor and against the rich—but the Bishops are told that they should not mention that.
Dismissal of reasoned argument damages democracy. We have skirted around the issue of written constitutions versus unwritten constitutions. I recall that, when I used to teach the American constitution as a graduate student in an American university, we talked about the importance of having a Government of laws and not of men. However, what we are seeing in the United States at the moment is a Government of laws being tested to the extreme by the politicisation of the courts, by bending the rules and by challenging what the rules have promoted. Good and honest Conservatives in Britain, and there are many, should look across the Atlantic and be as concerned about what is happening there—the damage to democracy and to the idea of a national community—as they are about developments in Poland and Hungary.
A democratic Government depends, ultimately, on the self-constraint of those who lead it. Laws and institutions strengthen these constraints and add transparency and external pressure. Where the self-constraint of political leaders weakens, the case for strengthening and institutionalising external constraints becomes stronger. That is why I support the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to institutionalise some of these constraints further.
We all recognise that some politicians are rogues—in all parties. My party has suffered, as well as others. Lloyd George has been mentioned; I had severe problems with Jeremy Thorpe when he was our leader; I did not know enough about Cyril Smith. The importance in every political party is that there are enough people who are concerned about the maintenance of standards, and enough influential people in public life to resist the rogues when they appear.
Since we are talking about public life, this also applies to the role of the media, which in Britain has contributed to the decline in our standards. The Daily Mail has become the Fox News of British life in its denunciation of anyone who disagrees with whatever the government line may be at the present time. The Telegraph is a pinnacle of English nationalism, owned by people who escape British tax by living in the Channel Islands. Culture wars, the dismissal of experts and the constant attacks on the BBC are all damaging the quality of the idea of democracy as a process in which we argue and disagree with each other while also respecting each other’s opinions. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn mentioned the importance of civic education and ensuring that we encourage our public to take an informed approach to politics and public life, not treat them as spectators of a game that is simply played in Westminster.
There has been mention of the role of the House of Commons, the decline of the independent Back-Bencher and the rise of the political professional parachuted into safe seats by central office. Part of what we see has gone wrong is that the Government now have 20% of the membership of the House of Commons on their payroll—140 people. The majority of Conservative MPs who are not on the government payroll voted to dismiss the Prime Minister but, when the King’s friends—to use the 18th-century phrase—are as large a group as that, the Commons ceases to be an effective check on the Government.
Then we come to the role of Ministers and Cabinet government, in which each Cabinet Minister has his sense of responsibility—shared responsibility—from the Government. Ministers should recognise that governing is different from campaigning. Part of what is wrong with this Government is that they seem to think campaigning is all that matters—“Promise them what they like, and forget about it next year.” Patronage is to be used responsibly, not simply to reward friends or donors. Political leadership requires putting hard choices to the public from time to time, not simply relying on easy promises. Responsibility is held to the country and the national interest as much as to the party and the Prime Minister. The acceptance of advice and evidence, even when unwelcome, is a necessary part of a Minister’s role.
The noble Lord, Lord True, is himself a Minister and shares that responsibility, collective and individual. I have listened to him defending each constitutional twist and turn of this Government. I have watched him pushing through the Elections Act, and I am sure that he is aware that the chairman of the Electoral Commission has just stated that the Act makes the Electoral Commission no longer an independent regulator. It is a real weakening of our democratic constraints on an unscrupulous Government in power, and the noble Lord was complicit in that. I have heard him sweeping aside concerns about PPE and test and trace—I have read his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, on that subject—and defending inappropriate public appointments. I am sure that the Minister recognises that his responsibility as a Minister is not to be too complicit in allowing standards of public life to decline. I hope that he examines his conscience from time to time on that very point and asks himself what contribution he is making towards restoring higher standards of behaviour and honesty in public life—because, I repeat that, in the last resort, democracy is sustained only by the leadership of those who hold responsibility at the top and their willingness to open and maintain dialogue with their public.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for initiating this debate. Trust and confidence are, as we have heard, built and sustained by adherence to rules—rules that are applicable to all, without exception. As the right reverend Prelate correctly stated, they have a moral foundation but, like our constitution, they have developed over time. They have developed because of circumstances and issues—sometimes bad apples, but sometimes something more systematic. That is what this debate is really about.
My noble friend Lord Stansgate referenced the Nolan principles, which are themselves relatively new in the development of our constitution. At the time, I felt, “Why should the obvious need to be stated?”, but those principles were important not only because of the odd bad apple but because there was a problem with the system. We developed proper structures arising from that.
My noble friend also talked of resignations. One of my abiding memories from doing my A-level in British government is my teacher constantly banging on about Crichel Down. The underlying case appeared trivial but the subsequent public inquiry exposed a catalogue of ineptitude and maladministration. My teacher said that its significance was that it was taken as a precedent on ministerial responsibility. As we heard in the debate, the case resulted in the resignation of the then Minister of Agriculture, Sir Thomas Dugdale. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, reminded us, it became a convention. We do not need rules and regulations: we have conventions that we can adhere to and support.
Of course, when Sue Gray’s final report exposed industrial rule-breaking at the heart of government, the person who said he took full responsibility suffered no consequence. That is something that really hits you in the face. Her report should have been a catalyst for change—an opportunity to introduce reforms to strengthen integrity and ethics in our politics, as proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its November 2021 report. The committee is absolutely right to suggest placing more of the ethics regulators on a statutory footing, covering ministerial interests, public appointments and business appointments for former officeholders, thus giving them clearer accountability and greater independence from the Executive they regulate.
I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Butler, on his assessment of the Government’s response to that report. I think that it required a much more positive response then the Government were prepared to give. The Prime Minister’s response was to cherry pick the recommendations, weakening the Ministerial Code and concentrating power in his own hands. He ended the long-standing principle that breaking the Ministerial Code should be an automatic resigning offence and failed to introduce the committee’s recommendation that resignation should be the outcome of the “most serious breaches”, setting a dangerous precedent in which Ministers who commit offences such as bullying, sexual assault or bribery would not automatically have to resign.
This week, in the other place, Labour proposed an Opposition day Motion backing the full package of recommendations from the CSPL’s 2021 report. Sadly, that Motion was defeated by government MPs. Labour’s proposal is to restore standards in public life by introducing an ethics and integrity commission: a single, independent body, removed from politicians. It would have powers to launch investigations without ministerial approval, collect evidence and decide sanctions.
Although we support the introduction of graduated sanctions for minor breaches of the Ministerial Code, as the committee recommended, they will be meaningful only if full independence is granted to the adviser to open investigations. Without that, it is left to the whim of the Prime Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, described these two changes as “inextricably linked”. He said:
“Graduated sanctions and greater independence for the Adviser were … part of a mutually dependent package of reforms, designed to be taken together.”
More graduated sanctions are meaningless without an independent adviser.
Boris Johnson also confirmed that the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, before his resignation as the independent adviser, would still require approval by the Prime Minister to launch investigations. The Prime Minister will also retain a power to veto investigations—in contravention of the recommendations of the committee. One has only to look at the difference between the previous foreword and Boris Johnson’s diluted version: integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency and honesty have all disappeared, as has the reference to the public interest. The Ministerial Code is not supposed to be a reference guide; it is supposed to be a rulebook to protect the highest standards.
The noble Lords, Lord Geidt and Lord Evans, have both warned of the Prime Minister’s “low level of ambition” in his handling of the Ministerial Code and his failure to grant more independence to investigations. I hope the Minister will be very clear about why the Prime Minister went against the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Evans. It would be good to have a clear response on that. We have also seen that the PM’s own anti-corruption tsar John Penrose walked out on him, accusing him of breaking the code of which he is both author and protector.
What we have seen from the Prime Minister in recent times is a pattern of degrading the principles of our democracy, a pattern of dodging accountability and a pattern of demeaning his office. He has now driven both of his own hand-picked ethics advisers to resign in despair—twice in two years. The noble Lord, Lord Geidt, described resignation as a “last resort” to send
“a critical signal into the public domain”.
He said that the Prime Minister had made a “mockery” of the Ministerial Code and that he would play no further part in that.
It was not about steel. I was on a BBC political programme the day the resignation letter came out, and I could hear the spin from the Prime Minister’s office: “Oh well, this is about a trade agreement; it’s about steel.” It was not. When I read the letter, particularly the last paragraph, it was clear to me that the Prime Minister is prepared to break the rules. What I am concerned about is that I have no doubt that he will do it again, and that is why the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, resigned. That is a very powerful message that people should take account of.
The truth is that this Prime Minister behaves as though there is one rule for him and another for the rest of us. During the Lords debate on the Urgent Question repeat, the Minister said it would be ensured that
“any work being undertaken by the independent adviser continues and is completed.”
Is that still the case? Can the Minister give us that answer? In response to my noble friend Lady Smith’s question about what will happen now, the Minister said that
“the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, raised a number of issues about the role of the independent adviser, as indeed did PACAC in its session earlier this week. As was said this morning, it is right to consider those carefully and take time to reflect on them before moving forward. However, this role has been important in public life.”—[Official Report, 16/6/22; cols. 1747-48.]
How long will it take the Government to reflect, and does the Minister still think that this role is important in public life?
My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to hear this important debate. At one point in what I thought was a very interesting and wide-ranging speech from the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, he referred to politicians being infuriated by things that they hear and by each other. I am never infuriated by your Lordships—certainly never at the Dispatch Box. One is always improved by hearing debates in your Lordships’ House, and I thank noble Lords for their contributions. They will not be surprised that I have not agreed wholeheartedly with all of them, but I thank all those who have spoken. Indeed, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for moving the Motion on this important topic, which I believe should be a topic of universal agreement. Who does not want to see the highest standards of behaviour and honesty in public life?
It would not be unreasonable to note that it was one minute and 15 seconds into the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morse, when he moved from the general to the particular and launched an attack on my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. This remained a theme in his speech, and it seemed to be a theme that is quite congenial to many noble Lords who spoke. Noble Lords will not, with all respect, expect me to agree with that. I understand some of the criticisms, which the Prime Minister has acknowledged, which allude to faults and mistakes. Some ventured into hyperbole. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in a characteristically fresh and interesting contribution, added some useful correctives.
I feel there was a sense behind some of the speeches that if one could somehow remove, without election, an elected Prime Minister with the confidence of the House of Commons, then we would all emerge as chevaliers sans peur et sans reproche, and public life would be wonderful. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, in the opening of a powerful speech, had a strong response on this: issues of trust are very wide, and I think the House was silent when he made what some might have felt was a shocking reference to this House’s performance in regard to the referendum result.
The standards for public servants in the United Kingdom, including those who serve in public life, are expected to be high, and I agree with my noble friend Lord Balfe and others, that we bear a particular responsibility, and that is the focus of today’s debate. Although we beat each other up, those standards are rightly regarded as among the world’s strongest still.
In relation to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, there is, as noble Lords know, an upcoming Procedure Committee inquiry into subjects which some have alluded to, and I am not going to pre-empt the conclusions of another place. I acknowledge that the Government asked the country to make extraordinary sacrifices in the Covid pandemic, into which there will be a full and, I hope, searching inquiry which will reflect the principle of transparency—which, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mann, is very important. The Prime Minister has acknowledged, in the other place, people’s anger and hurt, and offered a full and unreserved apology for the mistakes made. I do not propose to repeat the Prime Minister’s words, but I reiterate that he has been clear he is committed to making changes to address the issues raised, and learn from those mistakes, which is one of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised.
The Government have already been taking steps since the Second Permanent Secretary’s interim update to address some of the specific shortcomings identified in the report and ensure that there is stronger and more professional leadership. This includes appointing a new Permanent Secretary to lead the new leadership team in No. 10, charged with applying the highest standards of governance, as well as ensuring that every government department has a clear policy on the consumption of alcohol in the workplace.
I acknowledge your Lordships’ impatience to hear a response to all the very important reports that have been put to the Government. My erstwhile noble friend Lady Wheatcroft asked about the Boardman review. The Government are carefully considering both the Boardman review report and the other reports that have been referred to, such as the CSPL report on upholding public standards. They are wide-ranging reports.
Some of the recommendations from the CSPL report have already been responded to, as has been alluded to, in terms of the Ministerial Code. On the Boardman report, some changes have been implemented and made public. For example, the Treasury has issued revised guidance on the use of supply chain finance and the Government have recently made changes to the independent adviser role and the Ministerial Code, which are also alluded to in that report, in response. The Government will respond to those reports. Again, I have to disappoint your Lordships by saying that this will be in due course, but these are important matters. Your Lordships have rightly underlined their importance, and I will take that message back.
The seven principles of public life are woven into the codes of conduct for Members of this House and those of another place. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, complains that the seven principles are not in the foreword. They were put in the foreword of the previous version by the current Prime Minister, and I believe they are in section 1 of the Ministerial Code. The principles are central to the code, which sets the standards of behaviour expected of those of us who have served, do serve and will serve in Her Majesty’s Government, which I hope Her Majesty will oversee for many more years to come. The seven principles of course apply much more widely too. They apply to all civil servants, to those in local government and across public life.
There were some interesting references and thoughts in the debate on honour and a moral framework. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, said with a touch of regret that the time when honour was enough has passed. The right reverend Prelate spoke of the need for a moral framework, as did my noble friend Lord Cormack. It is certainly true that, long before the seven principles, there was a good and simple principle that reigned in your Lordships’ House which did not, in those days, have an army of institutions to police: that every Peer should stand on his or her honour. That may not be the whole answer, but I believe it is for each of us. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, talked about conscience. Each of us must stand on what we believe is our honour and I will certainly always try to be truthful at this Dispatch Box.
I reject the assertion that standards of behaviour and honesty across public life or in other areas have declined to the degree that some of your Lordships have asserted. I would argue that there are some areas of public life where standards are higher and enforced more firmly, by both colleagues and opponents, than they ever were. All of us have the overriding duty not to betray the trust of the people, returning to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mann. There are big issues. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, reminded us that policies and politics are also things we are all judged on. We are not complacent about matters of ethics and conduct, or about upholding the principles of public life. We should all remain vigilant about the need to hold ourselves to the high standards the public expect of us, and to account for our behaviour.
There is another side to that. I have been guilty in the past and doubtless will be again of lashing out with criticism of people in other political parties who strive in all honour to do their best for the public and the public polity. I challenge the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, when he perhaps impishly said that the Church could not be Conservative because of a concern for the poor. Does he not believe that Conservatives strive to elevate the condition of the people and have ever done so since the days when Disraeli spoke of the two nations in our country? We should not throw so many stones at each other so furiously that perceptions, which many noble Lords have alluded to, that standards of behaviour have deteriorated become self-fulfilling prophecies.
We must be held to account. The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, made some interesting remarks on that, saying that we perhaps place ourselves at the mercy of powerful interests outside the House if we criticise each other when it is not justified. I do not challenge justified criticism. He also made some interesting remarks about resignation, which is of course the ultimate weapon—the ultimate resort—and he gave some very good examples.
Turning to some of the specifics in the debate before I run out of time, many noble Lords addressed the role of the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and the Ministerial Code. The noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, in a thoughtful and in some places challenging speech, said that there is a balance here. There are difficult issues which must be reflected on. The reforms recently made represent the most substantial strengthening of the role of the independent adviser since its creation in 2006. I will not go through all the changes that were made but I will touch on a couple of the most important, which some of your Lordships alluded to. The independent adviser’s role has been expanded to include a new ability to initiate investigations in relation to allegations where there has been a breach of the code. That is a significant change. Some say that the long-stop demur of the Prime Minister is unacceptable. I have given instances where that might be necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, added his own insights on that. However, it is a move forward.
The Ministerial Code now also includes new detail on proportionate sanctions for a breach of the code. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said on that. That was a recommendation, which we supported, of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Government have agreed that the independent adviser will also be consulted about revisions to the code, again as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It was the opinion of the former independent adviser that this new regime was workable but now, in light of the recent resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, the Government have further committed to considering the adviser’s role and to reviewing how best this important function can be delivered.
Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, raised a number of issues in relation to the role of the independent adviser, as did the PACAC, to which he gave evidence just prior to his resignation. It is right that these comments be carefully considered, which means that time will be taken to reflect on them before a decision is taken on how best to fulfil the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensuring rigorous oversight and scrutiny of ministerial interests. I know that some concern has been expressed about the timing and potential outcome of this review. Let me echo the commitment made by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office earlier this week in the other place. The Government will undertake this work in good time. The independent adviser’s role is an important one and our commitment is that it should continue.
Be in no doubt that we remain fully committed to making sure that all Ministers maintain high standards of behaviour and behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety, as the public rightly expects—and, frankly, carefully watches. Woe betide those whom the public conclude are irredeemable. We want to ensure that whatever arrangements are made, they are workable and can be trusted by Parliament and Ministers alike.
I reassure noble Lords that during this period of review, the process of managing ministerial interests will continue, in line with the Ministerial Code. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said about Permanent Secretaries. In the interim, the code sets out that Permanent Secretaries in each department and in the Cabinet Office can provide advice to Ministers and play a role. We published transparency information just two weeks ago, in the form of the latest list of ministerial interests. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that transparency information is a key part of accountability. Accountability is one of the issues that one must reflect on in talking about creating statutory bodies which have oversight of elected officials or Ministers. To whom are such bodies ultimately accountable, in the way that the Prime Minister is accountable for the conduct of matters?
I agreed with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn said about the need to adhere to a moral framework and with his remarks about a growing illiberalism in our society. That is not a comment about the Liberal party but about how a sense that one has to think one way appears to be emerging—he referred to the so-called cancel culture. That is a form of intolerance which is unattractive.
I was asked about the Northern Ireland protocol, and some noble Lords referred to breaking international law. We will have opportunity to debate the Northern Ireland protocol and indeed, shortly, matters relating to retained European law and the Bill of Rights proposals. The Government’s position as to the Northern Ireland protocol legislation is that it is lawful under international law, and the Government’s legal position is set out in the policy paper that the Foreign Office published online on the Government’s website on 13 June.
On secondary legislation, I accept that there is a widespread feeling in your Lordships’ House that this is a thorny topic. It is the position constitutionally that delegated powers are granted only by Acts of Parliament, each one of which will have been thoroughly scrutinised in both Houses of Parliament. Your Lordships’ Delegated Powers Committee rightly challenges the Government, and the Government will seek to make sure that there is an appropriate balance between measures that are put in a Bill and those which, for various reasons, will need to be delegated. Ultimately, however, it is for Parliament and your Lordships’ House in the passage of legislation to consider these matters. For example, the Schools Bill was referred to as being currently scrutinised in Committee in the Lords; the Government are listening carefully and engaging closely with Peers on these important debates.
My noble friend Lord Wolfson, in an opening speech which one could not forget although it was quite early in the debate, made a powerful contribution on the rule of law. He recalled the events of 2005, which I think were a great sadness to many of us who were either working here or Members of the House at that time, when, I believe, ill-considered reform led to the changes in the office of Lord Chancellor which have taken place. He made no criticism of successor Lord Chancellors, and I endorse what he said about my right honourable friends Sir Robert Buckland and Mr Raab—I assure the House that their intent and desire to uphold the rule of law is absolutely clear. I will reflect carefully on my noble friend’s speech, but it is not a current priority for the Government to assess whether further legislative changes to the office might be necessary. The Ministry of Justice submitted evidence to this effect to your Lordships’ Constitution Committee inquiry into the role of the Lord Chancellor, which is published on the committee website.
I finish by saying that the Government continue to regard standards in public life as of paramount importance and the seven principles of public life as the bedrock of ethical conduct and integrity. The whole Government, from the Prime Minister down, are committed to making sure that all Ministers are held to account for maintaining high standards of behaviour and behaving in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety, as the public rightly expect. As part of that commitment, we continue to consider carefully the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the other committees that have been referred to, and will update your Lordships’ House on this work in due course.
My Lords, briefly, I thank your Lordships very much for this debate and the fantastic quality of all the speeches. I do not see how I can pick out any particular ones to praise, because there were so many very impressive contributions that, as a relatively new Member of the House, I took note of. I will mention only the comments of the noble Lord, Lord True, for two reasons. He showed imperturbable resolve at the Dispatch Box, and it came as a bit of a surprise to me to find that repeating facts was regarded as an attack on the Prime Minister. But with that, I thank your Lordships very much for participating in this debate.