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Earl Russell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount. He is invoking our independence. Does he remember an occasion on 7th May 1996 when this House, by carrying the amendment to the then Defamation Bill which allowed Mr Neil Hamilton his day in court, incorporated our privilege in statute and therefore, for the first time in our history, made it subject to the scrutiny of another place? Will the noble Viscount, who is now straining at a gnat, explain to us why he then swallowed a camel?
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, the memory of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is something I should always beware of. I remember as vividly as he does--and, I am sure, as vividly as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, does--that particular debate on the matter of Section 9 of the Bill of Rights. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I have conducted various conversations on that subject. He will remember that at that time I was as anxious about that matter as the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It is perhaps indiscreet of me to say so, but the noble Earl may know that, perhaps in rather an unorthodox way, I alerted the noble Lord, Lord Richard, to what I thought were the inherent dangers of that piece of legislation.
I return to the conclusion of what I was about to say. I apologise that I have spoken for even longer than the first two speakers. Transparency could be achieved by holding hearings in public. It seems to me that this formula meets all the real objections put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, to this way of proceeding rather than following the Neill committee's formula. I have heard it said that the fellow commissioners and staff of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, would object to such a matter. That is a serious difficulty but noble Lords may legitimately ask, in view of the issues at stake, which is the lesser of two evils.
Lord Neill of Bladen: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest. I am the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life whose activities have given rise to this debate. It is a remunerated position on a part-time basis. The remuneration is a matter of public record.
I consider the function of my speech to lay certain facts before noble Lords in an objective manner. I wish to stress the history of this matter in a little more detail than noble Lords have heard before. I wish also to identify certain factors that I should like noble Lords to have in mind, some of them being factors which animate the approach of the committee.
My desire is to be non-contentious. I am a Cross-Bencher. The only thing I regret so far in the whole of this matter is some injection of party spirit or animus into what should be a debate rather like the previous one initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. I believe that he said that it should not matter where one sits in the House or what one says; the debate should be completely non-political. I should have thought the subject matter of what we are discussing this evening fell into that category. I shall not, of course, vote either on the Motion or on the amendment as I do not think that that would be proper.
It is an historical fact that in October 1994 the then Prime Minister created a committee to be called the Committee on Standards in Public Life. He did that with the assent of the other parties in another place. Whether he did that pursuant to prerogative powers is not a matter which I propose to enter into. I think he did it on the basis that any Minister of the Crown can appoint a working party, a committee or any similar body to assist in public functions. That matter is much simpler than people make out.
Very quickly the question arose, "Does the remit of this committee extend to the House of Lords?" The first answer to that question was given in this House by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, who said "Yes", and added words to the effect of "and a good thing, too"--because he would not want a situation where your Lordships' House was outside the remit and another House was within it. The Prime Minister gave the same reply in a Written Answer (Official Report, Commons, 31/11/94; WA913). So there is no question but that the man who conceived the origin of the committee thought that it should have jurisdiction, if that is the right term--or certainly a remit--to go into all public bodies, including both Houses of Parliament.
As the House has heard, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, became the first chairman. He set out, very briskly, the following month, in November, on a wide-ranging inquiry which he certainly intended to cover both Houses of Parliament. He wrote to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, on 23rd November 1994, stating:
The noble Viscount replied and referred to the fact that it was in contemplation that a sub-committee to the Procedure Committee would be set up. That happened very rapidly and by the month of December 1994 the Griffiths sub-committee of the Procedure Committee was in existence. Then the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, who had a very large remit and a number of other matters to cover, decided that he would stand back, if that is the right phrase, and wrote to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, on 13th February 1995, stating:
So a perfectly clear procedure was thereupon agreed: the Nolan committee would not look at the House of Lords and the Griffiths committee would carry on with its work. But in fact the reports came out in the reverse order. The first report was from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan--it came out in May--and the Griffiths sub-committee reported in July.
There was then a debate in this House on 1st November, the issue being whether that report should be adopted by the House. Your Lordships will know that that is indeed what happened. The report of the Griffiths committee was adopted here but it was said--I informed your Lordships about this in a letter that I wrote to every Member of the House--that it was plainly contemplated that Nolan would be returning to this problem.
Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, simply for the avoidance of doubt, when I said that the Nolan committee did not proceed to look at your Lordships' House as quickly as had been expected, I did not imply any criticism of any kind. I just wanted to make that clear.
In the autumn of 1997, I succeeded the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, as chairman of the committee. On that occasion we were given a remit to look into the funding of political parties. Your Lordships will be aware that a Bill on that topic, which followed the report of the committee, is now in front of your Lordships' House.
At the end of last year the committee decided that the time was right to look at this House. Many changes had taken place which had altered the composition of the House and we thought, as a committee, that this is what we should do next, having declared our intention to do it about four years ago.
We so informed the Government. Those who say that we are poodles, lap dogs or whatever other form of beast they might like to suggest, are mistaken. This was our proposal; it was what we were intending to do and it was at our initiative.
I then followed precisely the precedent set by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, and I wrote to the Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. I informed her of what we were doing in embarking on this inquiry and I sought her guidance. I wrote:
The noble Baroness also said that the right thing to do was to write to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde; to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers; and to the Convenor of the Cross Benches, which I duly did. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said:
There was no suggestion at any of those points that something deplorable was taking place that threatened the sovereignty of this House. May I make it crystal clear--as I did in a letter that I addressed to your Lordships and in a letter that I addressed to The Times--that when our report comes to be written, it can be approved, amended or rejected and thrown into the River Thames, which is adjacent. All that lies within your Lordships' power. I do not, with respect, accept the argument of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that somehow the pressures will be so great that this House will slavishly have to adopt what we have written.
That is not what happened in the Commons with the first Nolan report. Although the spirit of Nolan was accepted, many of the detailed recommendations were revised, reviewed, and some of them were jettisoned. So there was complete consideration by the House of Commons. But I fully accept that the Nolan report was very influential on what happened.
As to future procedure, all our hearings will be in public. They will take place in the months of June and July. We shall be inviting witnesses to come and speak to their special interests. Our hope is that many Members of this House will be willing to give evidence. I have spoken to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who, as the chairman of the Association of Conservative Peers, is going to put in a written submission, and it is correct that he should be on the list of witnesses whom we shall invite.
The points I should like to make--I know that I have trespassed long on your Lordships' time--are as follows: this inquiry is not based on any allegation of impropriety, misconduct or--to use a modern word--"sleaze". This is not a sleaze witch-hunt. The papers are not full of allegations about misconduct in the House of Lords. Such allegations are entirely absent. No such remarks are made in the public press. We are not proceeding on that basis. The principle which animates us is, as I have endeavoured to formulate in the press release, that the public rightly expects that holders of public office should set for themselves the highest possible standards of conduct. Nowhere is this more true than in connection with members of the legislature. So our inquiry will be to see whether this House is setting for itself the highest possible standards. We hope to hear evidence directly from Members of the House who think the answer to that very question is "yes".
My committee is absolutely independent. It was set up, it is true, by the Prime Minister, but what we write and what advice we give is completely independent of the Government. The next major fact is that we have no major power whatsoever. We cannot even summon
The committee will bring an open mind to this problem. Any noble Lord who has read the six reports which have so far been promulgated by the committee could hardly fail to recognise the quality of independence. Your Lordships may not agree with the reports, but they are certainly independent.
Perhaps I may finally say that my wish or hope is, as I have said before, that your Lordships will assist the committee in its work. If we have asked questions which are misconceived, say so. If the answers to some questions are completely obvious, please tell us. The better the quality of the evidence, the better the report will be. When that report comes in, of course your Lordships will be free to do with it what you will.
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