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Simply in order not to be accused of misleading your Lordships, perhaps I may add by way of footnote and not by way of argument, that the privilege is sometimes easier to state in principle than to define in practice. Those noble Lords who would like to pursue the subject will find a discussion of it in the report last year of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which was chaired with great distinction by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, and on which I was privileged--in a quite different sense of that word--to serve.
But none of that is part of this debate. The right of your Lordships' House to make decisions relating to its own affairs is common ground. Where the noble Lord and I see the matter differently is over the question whether the right to take a decision is exercised more effectively by taking an informed decision, or by declining to take advantage of the information and reflections which are available.
As I understand it, no one is proposing that your Lordships' House should abdicate the right to take decisions or deliver that right into the hands of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen. What is proposed is that that committee should be invited to offer us the benefit of its deliberations and expertise--a formidable expertise it undoubtedly is--and that then, with that advantage, your Lordships' House should proceed to take the decisions which arise. Your Lordships may then decide to reject every
The committee has invited us individually to submit comments and evidence. Any noble Lord or noble Baroness is entitled to decide the extent to which he or she will respond. It would be surprising--perhaps I may anticipate what the committee may decide--if the committee failed to take account of the differences between the two Houses that were mentioned in the previous debate, particularly that Members of your Lordships' House act in a voluntary capacity and, of course, are more likely than Members of the other place to have outside interests from which arises a valuable source of expertise. If, amazingly, the committee were to overlook those differences, the remedy would lie in your Lordships' hands when assessing its report.
The difference between the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, and myself, as I perceive it, is whether the House should wait until the report of the committee is available to us, or whether it should proceed to take decisions without even reading what the committee has to say. Of course, sometimes it is simpler to reach a conclusion without being confused by the facts, but usually they improve the quality of the conclusions.
I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I say that one aspect of what he said rather puzzled me. A visitor listening to his speech and to what he said in The Times on 10th April, might have assumed that the proposal that the committee should look at our practices burst like a thunderbolt on a previously unsuspecting world. When the committee originally chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, was established in 1994 under the previous administration, it was always contemplated that after considering the other place it would turn its attention to your Lordships' House. Indeed, that was confirmed in another place by the then Prime Minister in answer to a parliamentary Question on 31st October 1994 (at col. 913 of Commons Hansard). In fact, his answer had been anticipated by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, in your Lordships' House on 25th October (at col. 471 of Lords Hansard).
Even a superficial glance at the debate on the 5th report of the Select Committee on Procedure--usually referred to as the Griffiths report--would reveal not only that it was generally accepted that that was in the terms of reference of the Nolan committee, but also that no one suggested at that time that it was improper or that the proposal should be resisted. The only element that was not predicted at that time was how long it would be before the committee felt able to proceed to that step. The assumption in that debate was that it would happen quite quickly.
Perhaps I may move to a more pragmatic consideration. I beg to doubt whether the reputation and dignity of your Lordships' House would be best served if it were to appear that we do not want our affairs to be investigated objectively. Of course, it should go without saying that we all recognise that that is not the motivation of the noble Lord; but we live in a world where, contrary to Plato's teaching, perceptions are often more real than reality.
The contemporary discourse of our generation emphasises two key words--"accountability" and "transparency". We may approve or disapprove of that, but our disapproval will not set back the clock of history. If it were to appear that we resented any inquiry into our affairs, the public reaction at the very best would be that we alone, of all the estates and conditions of people in the realm, claim to be above and beyond public scrutiny. At the worst, the reaction would be, "What have they to hide?" That would not be conducive to either the reputation or the dignity of this House.
Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out from "House" to the end and insert "welcomes the enquiry into Standards of Conduct in the House of Lords by the Committee of Standards in Public Life, and asserts the House's ultimate responsibility for the conduct of its own affairs".--(Lord Archer of Sandwell.)
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, the whole House ought to be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, for the Motion that he proposed so elegantly--indeed, if I may say so, predictably elegantly--this evening. With the greatest respect, I should also like to say to the Leader of the House that I am sorry that we had to wait for the noble Lord to introduce this matter rather than the noble Baroness coming to this House and telling us frankly what was in the wind, thereby giving us an opportunity to debate it in government time. No matter what view your Lordships may take individually of what we are discussing, this matter, for reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, made so abundantly clear, seems to me to be one of very great importance.
I shall turn to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said in a few moments, but perhaps I could remind noble Lords that about five years ago, and largely prompted by me when I was Leader of the House--though this may be the glow of glorious recollection--your Lordships asked the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, to chair a sub-committee of the Procedure Committee to examine the question of Members' interests. I believe that your Lordships were wise to ask the noble and learned Lord to do so, for a number of reasons.
I hope that your Lordships will allow me to explain why I thought then, and do so now, that the attention that all noble Lords expected to be turned by the committee on to our affairs was a bad and a dangerous idea. The Committee on Standards in Public Life was established on the authority of my then boss and the previous Prime Minister, my right honourable friend Mr Major. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, so ably demonstrated, it was, therefore, ultimately established--if it was established under any authority--under the authority of the Royal Prerogative.
As the noble Lord also pointed out, the history of this Parliament has, to a very large extent, been the history of its struggle to establish its independence of the Crown--something that we have always particularly valued in this House. I suggest that part of that independence has been its unfettered right to regulate its own affairs--a right which both the noble Lord and the noble and learned Lord emphasised tonight. However, I believe that we should also consider the practicalities as well as the theory in these matters. After all, the practicalities very often lead to a change in the theory. It is that to which I wish to address the burden of my remarks this evening.
It is perhaps a measure--and I say this with very great sorrow--of how feeble another place has become, as well as of the climate prevalent in 1994, that it so readily accepted my right honourable friend's suggestion that it should be investigated by a committee whose authority ultimately came from the Crown.
The noble Lord, Lord Neill, has argued that it is open to both Houses of Parliament to accept and reject the committee's recommendation. Indeed the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, deployed the same argument with his usual elegance a moment ago. In theory, of course, that is true. However, I think that all noble Lords will agree that to a substantial extent in the present climate it is not as true as we would like it to be. That is so first because we have developed what I think is an increasingly unfortunate habit in this country of relying on the judgment of the great and good rather than on the judgment of Parliament. No one respects the great and good more than I do but I hope that noble Lords will agree that however great and good they may be, ultimately Parliament is greater and better.
Immediately there are consequences of that increasing dependence, which is in itself perhaps the sign of the crisis of self-confidence that afflicts Parliament, notably another place. Immediately this means that Parliament dares not disagree with the judgments of the great and good, even though in my experience--I say this with the greatest of respect to them--they are wrong at least as often as Parliament is. It has a further consequence. In the longer term it means that it has become increasingly difficult for the great and good to become parliamentarians themselves, and Parliament increasingly loses its authority as a result.
Secondly, in practice we cannot oppose the recommendations that may come from this committee of the great and good because we shall, to put it crudely, be frightened of being accused by the Government and the press--as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, made clear--of wishing to cover up all kinds of wrongdoing, however innocent of wrongdoing we might be. Noble Lords know at least as well as I--after all, the Government of today practise this device perhaps more effectively and more worryingly than almost any of their predecessors--that the two questions, "When did you last see your father?" and "When did you stop beating your wife?", have always been virtually impossible questions for the weak to answer, particularly when they have been posed by the strong. This is not a matter, I suggest, the practicalities of which have been addressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, in his remarks a moment ago, despite his valiant efforts to do so.
It therefore seems to me that the authority under which any inquiry into Members' interests in your Lordships' House is conducted is a practical and important matter rather than merely a theoretical and abstruse debating point of the kind that it has been characterised as being by some commentators, and, I am sure, will be characterised as being from certain quarters during the remainder of this debate. This is particularly important as neither House of Parliament has had a chance to examine the qualifications and prejudices of the committee's staff of advisers, which I understand is considerable. Before we are investigated in practical terms it would be extremely useful to know who they are, where they come from, what their existing opinions are and whether they are as balanced as we would hope.
I think that it would be a good idea to review our present arrangements with regard to Members' interests. It is, after all, about five years since we introduced them. As noble Lords are wont to observe, the composition and nature of this House have changed pretty radically of late. I believe that the public would expect that any review that we conducted should be seen to be well conducted, thorough and, to use the word of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, "transparent". I hope that the public would also want to be satisfied that the Government were not using such a review as a way of emasculating your Lordships' House. If I were the public, I would be worried at the way the Government so clearly resent our independence. It would be all too easy for the
Therefore it seems to me that there may be an obvious way to get out of what I think is not just a theoretical but a practical difficulty. Perhaps it would be sensible for the House to reconvene a sub-committee of the Procedure Committee. Perhaps we should ask the noble Lord, Lord Neill, who has the great advantage--that is also to our advantage--of being a Member of your Lordships' House, to chair it. Perhaps that committee should be instructed to conduct as much of its proceedings in public as possible.
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