Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. Is he aware that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards does not impose penalties? She merely reports to the House of Commons Select Committee on Standards and Privileges whether she finds an allegation proved. It is

10 May 2000 : Column 1689

then for that committee of the House of Commons to decide whether to impose a punishment and, if so, what punishment.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is absolutely right. But I am quite certain that he will agree that if someone of the standing of the parliamentary commissioner makes a suggestion, it is very unlikely that the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges will reject it. If it rejected every one that she made, she would not last very long in that position. So whoever holds the position has great power and great sway.

There is a feeling nowadays of the old Victorian parent who said to the nanny, "Go and see what the children are doing and tell them not to". On the whole, your Lordships have conducted yourselves with considerable decorum and trust. There is a real danger that these things can snowball out of control.

All this was caused because certain Members of Parliament were considered to have conducted themselves improperly. As has been said, the Nolan committee was set up by the Prime Minister. It was not a statutory body; it was not a Royal Commission; it was not a committee set up by either House. It was set up by a man--albeit a Prime Minister--who asked an eminent and respected man to look at the issue. I agreed with my noble friend Lord Crickhowell when he said that he was surprised that the committee still existed.

The House of Commons is paid; it is elected. It was considered, rightly or wrongly, to have been behaving improperly. Your Lordships' House is not a paid House; it is a voluntary House. It is not elected--other than some 90 of us who, to use that awful phrase, have "more legitimacy" than anyone else and therefore are primus inter pares among your Lordships.

It is not a figleaf; it is fact. One wonders what is going to happen with this ferret? Where does one go? The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said that there was openness and transparency in what has been happening in another place. Apparently, it is a fact that in the House of Commons anyone who has any degree of interest is now not allowed to table an amendment on a subject in which he may have an interest and of which he certainly therefore has knowledge. I understand that there is one Member of Parliament whose child has a horrible and long-drawn-out disease. Let us say for the sake of argument that it is something like multiple sclerosis. He knows all about it. Therefore, he is apparently not allowed to table an amendment on this. He is not allowed to take a delegation to see the Minister. It is absolutely absurd. I do not think that we want to have that sort of thing happening here.

A noble Lord: If it is true.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, if it is true, it is not absurd. I was working on the assumption that what I was saying was true. I am quite happy to be told that it is

10 May 2000 : Column 1690

not true. All I am saying is that that is the kind of matter where you get led down alleyways which you do not expect.

The short answer is that I do not think that this particular form of investigation by the Neill committee is necessary. I do not think that there is a call for it. I do not think that there is a need for it. The noble Lord, Lord Neill, said on another occasion that the committee had decided to make the House of Lords its next subject for scrutiny. It did not know what to do next so it thought that it would have a go at your Lordships' House. He wrote to a few party leaders and said, "This is what we propose to do; I do hope you will agree with it". The noble Baroness the Leader of the House shakes her head. I was going to say that she said she agreed, which I thought she did. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde said that he agreed. It would be quite difficult for anyone to say that they did not agree with that.

So this goes on. The committee will eventually make recommendations on how your Lordships' House should operate. I find it difficult to think that any suggestions which the Neill committee might make would not be acceptable. Can anyone imagine the committee sitting for six months and coming out with its suggestions and then your Lordships rejecting them, even if that was your entitlement? I think that that is taking away from your Lordships the responsibility which your Lordships should have for conducting and scrutinising your own affairs.

On page 20 of the noble Lord's report, question 10 asks:

    "Should the rules governing members of either House of Parliament make specific provision in relation to those who are opposition spokesmen and women for the divestment (or otherwise) of financial interests similar to that contained in the Ministerial Code?"

That means that anyone who is an Opposition spokesman would have to divest himself of any directorships or any other money-making affairs in order to make sure that he is clean and above board, as it were. Opposition spokesmen are not paid. Of course, they have to earn an outside interest. If that were to come about, noble Lords on the opposite side may rejoice in the fact that they are in government but one day they will be in opposition again. If this had happened 12 months ago, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, would not be able to be a non-executive director of Scottish Power; the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, would not be allowed to be Mistress of Birkbeck College; the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, who was on the Front Bench, could not have been President of Queens' College; and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, could not have been Shadow Lord Chancellor because of course he was a barrister.

The lawyers always get away with it. There is the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who has the engaging habit of looking at his notes as though he is reading from a score of Handel's "Messiah". He really ought to declare an interest in everything. He says, "My Lords, I am a barrister. I am an advocate specialising in putting forward good points". But, of course,

10 May 2000 : Column 1691

lawyers do not do that. Only if you earn your money as a director of a firm do you have to do it; not if you earn your money as a lawyer.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Crickhowell that the Nolan committee was set up for a specific purpose at a specific time. It has grown out of control. We are being asked to accept that the Neill committee may consider your Lordships' House as it is at the moment but that from there will come all kinds of antennae, such as are happening in another place. That would be undesirable. It would be much better if we organised our own affairs.

10.25 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I cannot imagine that the example given by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, of the disabled child whose parent is a Member of Parliament can be correct. The MP would possibly have to declare the interest but I would not imagine that he would have to absent himself.

My starting point is that by being here we are participating in the public life of this country. On the inside front cover of the Neill committee's consultation paper, published last month, is a list of seven principles of public life. My noble friend Lady Goudie read them out. I agree with every one of them, especially the principles of openness and accountability, mentioned by several noble Lords, including my noble and learned friend Lord Archer.

We may be a House of non-political politicians but we are part of the public and political life of this country. We should therefore all be concerned about the alienation mentioned by my noble friend Lady Warwick. People feel alienated from politics and politicians. The suggestion that we should appoint our own committee would contribute to that alienation. By contrast, the amendment of my noble and learned friend Lord Archer helps to overcome that alienation by its openness and accountability. He is trying to build bridges between the public and ourselves. That is why I support his amendment.

Of course we have independence and the right to conduct our own affairs. I cannot see any way in which the Neill committee could be a threat to that right. The noble Lord, Lord Neill, confirmed today that his committee is independent and advisory and that it cannot force anyone to do anything. It cannot even require people to give evidence. What is done with his report is entirely a matter for your Lordships' House. As he said, we could throw it into the Thames. So where is the threat? I do not fear the report as pressurising us, as was envisaged by the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Crickhowell, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. I believe that the Committee for Privileges would be better able to investigate the effectiveness of the House of Lords Register of Interests armed with the report of the Neill committee.

Of course we have rights and privileges. I value them. I also value our independence. But this is the 21st century. These are times when you do not protect rights and privileges by asserting legal ownership over

10 May 2000 : Column 1692

them, as other noble Lords are exhorting us to do. No, we protect them by demonstrating that we use those rights and privileges for the benefit of the public. If we do not, it is probable that we will lose them; not necessarily by them being taken away from us. We will lose them by being marginalised. That is what happens in this day and age to institutions which do not have public support. By insisting on our legal rights, we may keep our independence but we will lose our influence--our influence to serve the public.

So I cannot support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, but I support the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer.

10.29 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I strongly support the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that, whatever else happens, we should not divide on this matter tonight. At this hour, on this Motion, there will be no representative vote of the House. If it is the wish of the House to invite or welcome this committee to investigate our affairs, there should be a Motion so to resolve. It should be arranged by the usual channels. There should be a full debate, and the view of the House should be taken. I sincerely assert that as a proposition in the interests of the House. It has nothing to do with the fact that I sit on the Conservative Benches and nothing to do with where any other noble Lord sits. If we are going to hand over to this external body--contrary to the whole constitutional basis on which we operate--an invitation to inquire into our domestic affairs, let the House so decide on a representative basis, on a fair basis, not on the basis of some amendment proposed in a thin House at this hour.

It would not be possible for me to support the amendment, for the reasons so clearly given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. There are other reasons to which I shall turn in a moment, but at this stage I am concerned with the voting. If the amendment were by any chance to be rejected by the House in a Division, then I should be in the position of not being able to support the Motion. Although I wholly accept its constitutional propriety and the principle on which it is put forward, and totally reject that of the amendment, I should wish for an opportunity for some arrangement to be made by the usual channels or by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House which was acceptable to the House and to the Neill committee.

I go along with the suggestions that have been made that the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, who is an honourable man and eminently suitable, should be asked to serve with the noble Lords, Lord Shore and Lord Goodhart, on our Select Committee and that the usual channels should be asked to appoint other Members of this House to sit on the committee. But what I cannot accept is that any external body should investigate our affairs, for the reasons that have been given.

10 May 2000 : Column 1693

Nor is it necessary that it should be done. What I am proposing, with respect to the House--and, I beg the House to accept, in the interests of this House--is not to be seen outside the House as a cover-up. It is nothing of the sort. If the Houses wishes the committee to investigate, so be it; if not, let us consider whether we can put forward the alternative proposal.

One wonders why the committee took the initiative to return to this matter. I am worried that a kind of Trojan horse is being wheeled into the capital by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, with the support of those who are keen to impose statutory regulation on this House. I do not know; I have had no such conversation on the matter, but as a Celt I have a hunch about it. I believe that there is something like that in the air. I am fearful that this matter should be disposed of tonight on the basis of a quick Division. These matters should be inquired into in proper debate.

How this House can welcome, of all things, a pre-emptive investigation before a Select Committee has been appointed and its report debated wholly defeats me. That this House can welcome an investigation on the basis that there is no time to go into the issues and questions formulated in April 2000 is wholly unacceptable. To give one example, there are no allegations of misconduct, sleaze, want of efficacy or what-have-you, and yet a Question is tabled about whether there should be a code of practice and sanctions for enforcement. How can we welcome that kind of investigation?

As was put by Mr Peter Riddell in today's Times, and asserted by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, this is not a mere matter of accountability and openness but of fundamental constitutional importance which involves the very independence of this House. I urge your Lordships and the noble and learned Lord in the interests of this Chamber to refrain from dividing the House tonight.

10.38 p.m.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, put his finger on it when he quoted Plato in saying that perception was more real than reality. The problem that this country faces at present is that there has grown up a dangerous and pernicious culture of contempt for our national institutions: the monarchy, the Churches, the judiciary, the police and, not least, Parliament. In part this contempt is caused by the unwise behaviour of some members of those institutions. I was for many years a journalist with The Economist, observing Parliament. In part the contempt has been caused by the media who have exaggerated, misrepresented and, in many cases, misinformed the public about matters connected with those institutions. I believe that this culture of contempt is very dangerous. I believe that the events we saw in London on 1st May are a product of that. Once there is a national culture of contempt, there is no respect for democracy; and once there is a lack of respect for democracy the door to anarchy opens.

10 May 2000 : Column 1694

It is important that we do not add to that culture. Media expectations will be aroused by the setting up of this inquiry. Of course, we take at face value what the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, says: that there is no prima facie reason to suggest we are doing something wrong. But that is not how the matter will be perceived. The committee, by its very existence, will be expected to produce for the tabloids a story of misdoings. That is what people will be looking for. Let us hope at least that the report does not provide it.

I do not think our situation is helped by someone as distinguished as the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, saying that Members in this House are under less constraints than the smallest parish council. In fact, the Companion makes perfectly clear that we are not expected to vote on a matter in which we have a personal pecuniary interest. However, as the noble Lord well knows, when a parish council fixes the rate--there may be disagreement; and each member of the parish council will have an interest in it--the members will vote on what the rate should be. Frankly, it is not helpful for the noble Lord to talk in a manner which, with great respect, is somewhat below the standards of debate we expect in this Chamber.

One matter particularly concerns me about the terms of reference for the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, said that the procedure would be transparent and in public. I was delighted to hear that. However, paragraph 1.33 of the terms of reference states:

    "Any respondents who would prefer their submissions to be treated as confidential should state this clearly and their wishes will be respected".

I can see no conceivable reason why that should be so. That is the route to anonymous denunciations, aspersions and other pressures. I hope that the committee's first meeting will decide that it will not keep confidential any representations made to it.

This has been an extremely useful debate. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg. I do not believe that it is a matter we can resolve by a vote today, but we must hope that the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, will come to conclusions which will diminish rather than increase the culture of contempt in this country.

10.42 p.m.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I have always cherished a remark made some years ago by a noble Lord at a late night debate in this House to the effect that everything which needed to be said on the subject had already been said but not everyone had yet said it. I must crave the indulgence of your Lordships' House at this late hour because I believe that there is still something to be said on this issue.

When I first heard that my noble friend Lord Neill was to turn his attention and that of his committee to this House I was somewhat concerned on the simple ground that during 35 years' attendance in this House I had always assumed that standards of behaviour in your Lordships' House were a matter for the House

10 May 2000 : Column 1695

and not for an outside body, as we heard argued powerfully this evening. When my noble friend Lord Rees-Mogg told me that he had decided to table a Motion, I decided to listen to the debate before responding to the request of my noble friend Lord Neill for comments on the work of his committee.

I have listened to every single word of this debate so ably initiated by my noble friend Lord Rees-Mogg and I have to confess that I still have some serious concerns. I am far from convinced about the need for this initiative. In the previous debate, there was a good deal of talk about change for its own sake. Not for the first time, I am reminded of a remark made by Lord Falkland in 1641. Noble Lords will remember that that was the time when, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, has said, Parliament was under siege first by Charles I and then by Oliver Cromwell. Lucius Cary, Lord Falkland, who was a colleague of Cromwell's, made a remark which has echoed down the centuries and it has certainly always echoed in my mind. He said,

    "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change".

I see no necessity whatsoever for change here.

As other noble Lords have said, there has been no public demand for an inquiry of this kind. Indeed, so far as I know, there has been no demand from anyone at all. There have been no allegations about Members of this House as there were in 1994 when certain Members of the other place were accused of corruption. As my noble friend Lord Neill has said, it was he who approached the Leader of the House to seek her views on such an inquiry. My noble friend could not have had much doubt about what her response would be.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page