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We have also strengthened Parliament with pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and with evidence sessions before the line-by-line consideration of a Bill starts in Committee, and there will be post-legislative scrutiny soon as well. Similarly, the Government have taken significant steps to improve probity and transparency in our electoral system. The Government created the independent Electoral Commission. We banned foreign donations. We required every Member of Parliament to declare any gift or donation above £1,000 that he or she receives. The public can see that information listed on the Electoral Commissions website. That is on top of the Houses own requirement to register any financial interest worth more than 1 per cent. of a Members salary. We also required local political parties to declare any contribution of more than £1,000 and national parties anything over £5,000. We required loans to political parties to be
declared. We introduced a toughened ministerial code of conduct and an independent adviser on Ministers relevant interests.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: Given what has been reported over the past few weeks, should we not embrace the Public Administration Committees suggestion and introduce a mandatory register of lobbyists, giving details of the lobbyist and those whom they are lobbying?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion, but it is important to understand what counts as a lobbyist, not least because one of our constituents ancient rights is to come to the Lobby and demand to see us as their Members of Parliament. Obviously, nothing should undermine that, but my colleagues will want to reflect on the interesting point that he makes.
Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Given that a substantial amount of the Government amendment is obviously welcome, given that there is a consensus across all parts of the House about the importance of electing the House of Lords and given the events of the past few weeks, is he prepared to make a commitment to introduce election to the House of Lords in the forthcoming Bill, particularly given that the Queens Speech contains only 14 Bills this year and that there is plenty of parliamentary time to discuss and pass them?
All the things that the Government have done have been vital, because the truth is that, although the instances of wholesale corruption are blessedly rare in the United Kingdom, we should never be complacent about the body politic. Equally important is the reputation of Members of Parliamentvital to the golden thread of trust between the Government and the governed and between the elected representative and the citizen. The public rightly expect those who are in a position of trust to exercise their duties without fear or favour and with sole regard to the common good. As this Houses code of conduct puts it,
Members shall base their conduct on a consideration of the public interest, avoid conflict between personal interest and the public interest and resolve any conflict between the two, at once, and in favour of the public interest.
This House has a robust disciplinary process, with an independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards and Privileges Committee, whose Chairman is with us this evening. Only two weeks ago, the House agreed to tough new rules on our own expenditure, a tougher system of audit including a full-scope audit by the National Audit Office of all Members expenditure, and a far greater degree of transparency regarding our expenditure than we have ever had before.
Let me now turn to the rules governing the House of Lords, particularly in the context of the allegations made last week in The Sunday Times. The Leader of the House of Lords, Lady Royall, has acted swiftly. She has referred the allegations to the Sub-Committee on Lords Interests for a swift and rigorous investigation. In addition,
as she told the House last Monday, she has asked the Chairman of the Committee for Privilegesthe Chairman of Committees, Lord Brabazon of Tara
to consider any issues relating to the rules of the House that arise, especially in connection with consultancy arrangements, and in connection with sanctions in the event that a complaint against a Member is upheld.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 26 January 2009; Vol. 707, c. 10.]
We want to see very, very clear laws brought in that deal with misconduct by members of the House of Lords so that if they commit a criminal offence or something else which is wholly improper then they can be expelled.
Andrew Mackinlay: If I catch the Speakers eye, I shall develop the theme of how disappointingly conservative the Labour Government have been on constitutional reform. I buttress that by drawing my hon. Friends attention to the fact that the late Robin Cook gave me an undertaking at the Dispatch Box that they would address the question of Members of the House of Lords who had been in prison, and it did not happen. That is the reason for my disappointment, my frustration and my charge against the Government tonight: they say one thing, and never do it. It is time that my hon. Friend broke that pattern, and said that we will have legislation immediately to address the problem.
Chris Bryant: I remember my hon. Friend challenging Robin Cook when he was Leader of the House, and also saying that it would be wrong merely to clear up a couple of instances in terms of Lords reform
Chris Bryant: I think that my hon. Friend did. If he did not, it was someone sitting in the seat where he is sitting now who argued that it was important that we should not undermine possible future substantial reform of the House of Lords by merely dealing with the de minimis elements that Lord Steel, for instance, would like to introduce in his Bill. I merely point out to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that although he agrees with some elements of Lord Steels Bill, it says absolutely nothing about elected peers.
I should also say this to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. He said that the views that he quoted had come from the Lord Chancellor entirely out of the blue. In fact, the White Paper on House of Lords reform, published last Julythe hon. Gentleman may have had time to read it by nowmakes it clear that we would like to change the rules on disqualification, and that we would like to put the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis.
That is precisely the point: putting it in a White Paper does not make it so. We want it in legislation. I am afraid that the Deputy Leader of the House sounds dangerously complacent when he simply says
that things might be done at some stage in the future without giving a commitment to make them happen now.
I think that the hon. Gentleman also underestimates the desire of most people in this country to see major constitutional reform happen as far as possible on a cross-party basis, with as much consensus as possible. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor for achieving precisely that.
The hon. Gentleman said that there had been interminable meetings. I sat on the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, and those were pretty interminable meetings, but the truth is that this is a goal that the hon. Gentlemans party, when in government, espoused back in 1911, and these are measures that we want to pursue. We want to build on the Governments White Paper on Lords reform, published last summer, which outlines our commitment to a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber, to a statutory appointments commission for any appointed peers, and to introducing the system that applies in the House of Commons and automatically disqualifying a Member of the second Chamber who is convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment.
Simon Hughes: I think that there is a clear majority across all parties in favour of what the Deputy Leader of the House has sought to do, which is to reform the House of Lords and make it either wholly or substantially elected. I see no reason, from the point of view of this House, for that not to happen in the current Parliament. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to convey to his colleagues that if they were to allow that proposal to take up some of the time in the current Session, they would have the full support of the Liberal Democrats and, I suspect, significant support from the other two parties, so that we could get it through at least for the first time in this Parliament.
Chris Bryant: It is also worth pointing out, however, that legislation has to go through two Houses, and that is a different matter. I heard the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)who chairs a Select Committeesay earlier that this was the primary House, but I think the second Chamber would have significant views on the matter of Lords reform.
Chris Bryant: I remember Lord Howe saying that he did not want an elected second Chamber because he did not want clones of the clownsreferring to us as the clowns. All that I thought at the time was that it was particularly sad that a former clown should have so changed his mind.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be fatal to many of the sensible proposals made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to link them to the question of elections? The reason reform of the House of Lords has eluded us for 100 years is that we keep opting for big bang solutions rather than concentrating on the issues on which we all agree.
Chris Bryant: I think that my hon. Friend is at least two thirds right. It is important to proceed in a way that carries a large body of opinion. However, there comes a time when one must declare whether one is in favour of a wholly appointed Chamber, as some Members of this House are, whether one believes that there should be no second Chamber, as others do, or whether, like meas my hon. Friend knows, I have argued this for as long as I have been in the Houseone supports a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber. The difficulty, late in a Parliament, lies in ensuring that that agenda can be taken forward.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is a recent adornment to the Front Bench. I am very pleased that he was appointed to be part of the Government, but he did enter the House a little later than most of us, and he will not recall that we were being told in those first years that nowor, rather, thenwas not the time for Lords reform. A time would come, and we would know when it was. Now we are being told that it is too late. What has happened? Why has my hon. Friend lost his radicalism in his transfer from the Back Benches to the Front Bench?
Chris Bryant: I merely say that I want to see reform of the House of Lords. I do not want to squander through impatience the opportunity that exists; nor, for that matter, do I want fear of radicalism so to infect us that we do not advance reform.
it is obviously wrongwholly wrongif what peers do to earn a living warps their work as parliamentarians.
We in this House have a responsibility to adhere to high standards, and we have to ensure that we adhere to those high standards in order to ensure that there is trust in the whole of our parliamentary process.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 26 January 2009; Vol. 707, c. 11.]
Of course, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome himself said, our constituents are primarily concerned about their families, their homes and their jobs; but they also want to be as certain as possible that, in the words recited every day by the Speakers Chaplain, we, as Members of Parliament,
lay aside all private interests and prejudices
seek to improve the condition of all mankind.
They want to know that Parliament is entirely focused on the sole purpose of the common good. That is why in every era we need to restate our high ideals. When the Nolan Committee produced its report in 1995, it pointed to seven principles that it saw as vital in public life and that have since been included in the code of conduct. They are worth repeatingselflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It is also why Parliament must always be ripe for reform.
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): There can be no doubt on either side of the House that both Houses of Parliament need to be reformed urgently and brought up to the standards of the 21st century. As servants of the people and as legislators, we must set an example in all our doingsin our dealings with taxpayers money, in the way we do business in Parliament and in the way in which we operate and work within the political process.
Parliament and parliamentarians have come in for much criticism recently, and it is vital that we address those concerns head on. Public confidence in politiciansby which I mean parliamentarians, Members of the European Parliament and local councillorsis at an all-time low, as is confidence in our political institutions. Let there be no misunderstanding: the current malaise is not a passing fashion or a temporary aberration of the political process. It is a matter of very serious concern, and it should be a source of concern for all politicians.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have much to do to earn the respect of the public, both here and locally. However, will he accept that there are some encouraging signs that, at local government level, there is much greater satisfaction with certain councils than there has been for many years? I am not making a party political point, because that applies to councils run by all parties. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, there is often considerable satisfaction with individual Members of Parliament and their performance. While the hon. Gentleman is right to encourage us, I hope that he will not downplay the progress and support that exists in many places.
Mr. Vara: The hon. Gentleman makes two valid points. While there are many well-meaning councillors and much is being done that is worthy of credit, let us not delude ourselves. It does not take much for local councillors to acquire a bad reputation, especially when it comes to postal votes and the rigging of them. I shall come to that issue later. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned individual Members of Parliament, and it is fair to say that the vast majority do their work as diligently as they can, they claim their expenses honestly and fairly, and they should have nothing to worry about. It is only a small number who earn the bad reputation that we have, and we must address that.
I agree strongly that there is a danger that Parliament is held in disrepute by the electorate, and that is a serious danger because it is when external forcesthe streettake over. We are not far away from such a situation now. Indeed, we saw such a situation today when those on the three Front Benches were all patting each other on the back and agreeing about the
particular economic model that has caused the problem. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that differences in Parliament are healthy for democracy? When those on all the Front Benches speak the same language, that is not good for democracy.
Mr. Vara: I have news for the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned keeping this debate consensual and said that he did not wish to make it partisan, but I am afraid that I will break rank with that particular pledge. I have certain issues to address, and I will not be taking the side of the Liberal Democrats.
It cannot be right that we expect individuals and organisations outside to show openness and transparency in their dealings with public finances, but that we should seek to draw a veil of secrecy when it comes to public money being dealt with by parliamentarians. We must have full transparency in all our dealings with money, and proper accountability for all that we do in our role as parliamentarians. By doing so, we may make some progress. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said that confidence was at a dangerously low level, but I hope that if we make reforms we will be able to regain some of that respect and confidence, both for ourselves and in the political system.
Kelvin Hopkins: Some good research shows that the only thing that correlates with low and decreasing turnout at elections is the growing similarity between the philosophies of the political parties. That is a fundamental problem that we have not addressed, and it is up to the parties, as much as Parliament, to do something about it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Mr. Vara: I certainly believe that there is a fair amount of difference between the parties, but we will have to wait until the manifestos are produced for the general election. It will be for the electorate to decide not only which party they wish to support in policy terms, but in which political group they have the confidence to run the country properly. It is not only an issue of policies, but of the public judging our characters and who is best to serve the country.
David Taylor: Approving remarks have been made about the new standards regimes in parish councils and elsewhere as a possible model for reform here, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of those standards boards have become a way for people in a local community to grind axes and pursue vendettas? Some of those boards are over the top. The Secretary of State for Health, with a budget of £100,000 million, has much less responsibility for standards than does the chairman of a parish council with a budget of £10,000. The whole thing is out of kilter.
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