Baroness Boothroyd: I am sure that Members of the Committee understand that, when making a speech, it is better to declare at the beginning of that speech any financial interest there may be in the subject. Will the Leader of the House make it clear to the Chamber what is intended with regard to tabling a Parliamentary Question and asking a supplementary question? It is sometimes difficult to make a declaration at those times. Perhaps that point should be made clear at this stage.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: The noble Baroness makes an extremely important point and one on which I have remarked in my own experience. Seven minutes for a Question is extremely short. Sometimes Members
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of the House say, "I declare my interest". But many of us remain baffled as to what that interest is. I agree with the noble Baroness that that is the virtue of registration. If there is ambiguity, one can go to the registration and clear that ambiguity out of the way. I am grateful for the intervention and agree with the thoughts behind it. That is why I was suggesting earlier, I hope acceptably to the Committee, that registration may well be a significant protection for someone who simply does not have the time to explain the interest when asking the supplementary question.
The question that develops naturally from that helpful intervention is: what is a relevant interest? Paragraph 8, which was agreed to unanimously, deals with that and states:
"The test of relevant interest is whether the interest might reasonably be thought by the public to affect the way in which a Member of the House of Lords discharges his or her parliamentary duties.
The test of relevant interest is therefore not whether a Member's actions in Parliament will be influenced by the interest, but whether others might reasonably think that this might be the case".
"Relevant interests" include both financial and non-financial interests. Members of the Committee will see that amendments have been made, but I repeat--I hope not at tedious length--that those were matters agreed by the whole committee.
The fundamental dissent in the letter from the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Elton, related to paragraphs 11 and 12. Originally paragraph 11 read in the way that is set out. Again it does not help for me to read everything out. There is an addition to deal with visits paid for from public funds. It was thought inappropriate to require registration in that regard.
We then come to paragraph 12, which states,
"The list in paragraph 11 above is not exhaustive. For example, relevant financial interests may also include (depending on their significance)"--
and a list follows.
The Earl of Onslow: In relation to declaration of interests, I am on the Armed Forces parliamentary committee. Our air fares are paid for, I believe, by sponsorship. Does that sort of sponsorship count as public funds--I have nothing to do with it--or is it something which should be looked at?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: If it is commercial sponsorship, it is plainly not public funds. Perhaps I can help the noble Earl. There are bound to be questions of that sort which strike any of us, "Have I done the right thing? Where is the line drawn? Where does it fall?". The noble Earl will find the answer in paragraph 17. I accept that this comes later but I deal with his question as it arises.
Questions of that sort are bound to arise. The committee said that,
"The Registrar is available to advise Members of the House. A Member who acts on the advice of the Registrar in determining what is a relevant interest satisfies fully the requirements of the Code of Conduct".
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I shall develop that point later, but it is useful to mention it at this stage. There are bound to be some difficult areas where honourable people will honourably take different views. I hope that Members of the Committee will accept that we were looking for a light touch. I did not want to introduce the spirit of Savonarola into our affairs. If one looks at the situation free of all prejudice or preconception, as Members of the Committee always do on these occasions, and asks the Onslow question: "Which side of the line am I on? I should not wish to be the object of criticism. Equally, I should not like to be overly fastidious", we find the answer is in paragraph 17, "Go and see the registrar". It is an important question and that is why we use a light touch. Even if the registrar is wrong, no transgression follows. That is important.
I turn to paragraph 12:
"The list in paragraph 11 above is not exhaustive. For example, relevant financial interests may also include (depending on their significance):
--shareholdings not amounting to a controlling interest;
--landholdings (excluding Members' homes);
--the financial interests of a spouse or relative or friend".
Lord Renton: That is extraordinary.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: As I said earlier, it is not extraordinary when one examines the possible mischief. Perhaps I may explain that and then it will not seem extraordinary. No one has yet had the great facility of listening to the argument. Perhaps I might be allowed to develop it. Paragraph 12 continues:
"--hospitality or gifts given to a Member which could reasonably be regarded as an incentive to support a particular cause or interest".
Members of the Committee will see that all of those have been struck out in consequence of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. With regard to:
"--shareholdings not amounting to a controlling interest",
I give an illustration which I stress is entirely hypothetical. I am not in the happy position of being a 1 per cent holder of a shareholding in BP, but if I were, two consequences would follow. First, I probably would not be doing this job and, secondly, I would be an extremely happy bunny. A 1 per cent shareholding in BP is not a controlling shareholding and cannot be under any definition of company law or City practice that I have encountered. However, it is a significant interest.
Lord Marsh: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. This is one of the matters which concerns me and one which is based on a total misunderstanding. The situation is inconceivable. First, in that particular case the noble and learned Lord would have to be a billionaire because BP is a multi-billion pound company. Secondly, it is inconceivable that anything that we debated here could have that direct effect upon any company, certainly not a multi-national.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: There are two points I should like to mention. First, I wish that the noble
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Lord had not been quite so incredulous about the prospect of my becoming a billionaire at some stage. Secondly, the noble Lord has excavated his own elephant trap and leapt willingly into it. It is not a question of "whether or not anything which could be done here could affect" but one of public perception, among other things. This Chamber may lack legislative power but it is extremely influential. Members have debates which lead to no legislation. I refer, for instance, to the stem cell debate. I do not believe that a debate of such high intellectual and moral quality could have been found in any legislature in the world. Members sometimes address public meetings. On occasions they write articles, give lectures and so forth. A good deal of the attention paid to noble Lords is because they are Members of this place, which is why I sought to stress earlier that we are not talking simply of parliamentary duties; we are also talking of public duties.
Lord Strathclyde: The noble Lord--
Lord Williams of Mostyn: Perhaps I may deal completely with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. I would not like it to hang evanescently in the air. The perfect answer to it is in the caveat to paragraph 12:
"The list in paragraph 11 above is not exhaustive. For example, relevant financial interests may also include",
and then the further caveat,
"(depending on their significance)".
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his illustration. If one considers this matter, it is a light touch. It is supposed to be subtle and sophisticated enough to deal with a variety of different circumstances. Perhaps I may finish this matter before giving way to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.
"--Landholdings (excluding Members' homes);
--the financial interests of a spouse or relative or friend".
My old friend and companion in arms, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said that that was extraordinary; it is not. The question to be asked is whether there is a close enough relationship to give the impression to those outside who might come to a conclusion that we had not voted wholly impartially.
Some people have a large circle of friends; some have only one or two. It may be that some people are closer to their closest friends than to many of their relatives. I certainly know many in those circumstances. I am told that it may well be these days that people have friendly relations even with those who are not their spouses. That may not be true, but I heard it in the Bishops' Bar, so it is likely to be true.
The point here is not that every friend's modest shareholding or small amount of Treasury notes under the bed in North Wales has to be declared. The overarch here in paragraph 12 is:
"relevant financial interests may include (depending on their significance)",
those following matters.
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Again, if there is any difficulty or doubt, what does the puzzled or troubled person do? He or she goes to the registrar to see what is the conclusion.
I shall round off this part and then give way. Could hospitality or gifts reasonably be regarded as an incentive to support a particular cause or interest? There is nothing difficult about these matters if we recognise the enormous influence of this House.