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Lord Neill of Bladen: I speak as a former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life--I demitted office at the end of February this year. The report that led to the Williams report was produced during my term in office. Perhaps I may say that I very much welcome the debate taking place today. I welcome, too, the code being put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, and the bound red volume of the report, to which reference has already been made. It is true that, to a substantial extent, that report did adopt recommendations made in the report from my committee.
We were in the privileged position of hearing extensive evidence from Members of this House. Written submissions were made by 71 Members of the House and oral evidence was submitted by some 39 Members. That put the committee in a strong position to understand what were the views. It would be true to say that the great preponderance of opinion--although it was not unanimous--was that a code is now required to be put in place, because the House of Lords stands out as an exception to what has become more or less a universal rule for any public body, be it the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the administration in Northern Ireland and, of course, local government as well as public services and business.
A code will gather together the scattered strands to be found in various places, such as in the 1995 resolution as well as the tremendously important principle of honour by which all noble Lords are bound (although it proved rather elusive because it was taken out of one edition of the excellent books on guidance) and will be stated plainly.
First, I shall sketch briefly the work of the committee and where I stand in the debate. The committee put forward a recommendation for a code. Secondly, we stated that the time had come to end the voluntary nature of the current Part 3 of the code; it should now be put on a compulsory basis. Thus, noble Lords' interests should be declared by prescription.
The code should cover financial and non-financial interests, as is set out in the proposal put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams. Furthermore, we produced a new test of what would make something registrable. Perhaps I may refer to paragraph 8, which uses our language, and states in regard to the test of relevant interest,
We then left it to your Lordships' House to compose the fine print. Noble Lords may consider that that was cowardly, but I did not think that it was appropriate for an outside committee to define for noble Lords what should or should not be included as regards financial interests and other matters. We offered a few hints in paragraph 5.55, but we did not write the rules. Today's debate concerns essentially two different versions of the way in which financial and other interests ought to be defined. All the detailed points about friends and colleagues and so forth can then be included in the consideration of what would be the desirable way forward.
One thing we were clear about was that it was not necessary to declare quantum--that is, what people earn from the various interests they declare--with the exception of earnings from parliamentary consultancies. If people are being paid to do that job, we believe--we may be wrong, but it is our view--that that is something the public are entitled to know.
As regards enforcement, we thought that there should be just and fair procedures, accompanied by the maximum of simplicity. We saw no need for any standing office and the hiring of new public servants. That would be completely unnecessary in this House. There has been no trouble ever, as far as I can tell, and nothing like that is necessary.
If a case should ever come to light, it would be tried and dealt with by the sub-committee on Lords' interests. We recommended that there should be a right of appeal, which is now standard in virtually every kind of disciplinary or professional body. The Williams group accepted that recommendation, and we suggested that the Select Committee for Privileges should be the appropriate appeal body.
The question of penalties has recently been looked at by the noble Lord, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, and his committee dealing with the issue of contempt. Our view broadly coincided with his that there is no need to take any further action on penalties, that they are quite adequate. Your Lordships have already the most deadly remedy at your disposal--that is, naming and shaming. In our view--which is subject to correction by your Lordships--that is the most effective way of bringing someone to book if ever such a case should arise, which it has not.
To sum up, we were looking for simplicity, proportionality--avoid the overkill; nothing in excess--and courtesy. For example, if there were to be a complaint where someone said to a Member that he had left out from the register something he surely should have put in, the first the Member would hear about it would be a phone call or a letter; he would not read about it in the News of the World on a Sunday. What has gone wrong is that that kind of mechanism can be used for political purpose, the only result of which is to do enormous damage to the people who sit in the other House, if I may speak of another place, I hope not in disrespectful terms. When the noble Lord,
Lord Elton: Does the noble Lord therefore see reason in the wording which has been included in the amendment tabled by my noble friend and myself but not included in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that references to the sub-committee should always be made in private so that they cannot get to the press until they have been resolved?
Lord Neill of Bladen: Although I cannot speak for the committee, it would be my view that a matter should be dealt with in private, unless there is a hearing where the defendant may want the advantage of publicity. My own personal opinion is that matters should be dealt with in private.
Many points of detail cannot be dealt with today. However, perhaps I may deal with one point that is not covered by what is before us today but is covered in the Williams report, and that is the question of who is to be the investigator. If a case arises which has to be investigated, the proposal is that that should be done by a group or a panel, possibly of retired Law Lords. It is an excellent proposal but it is not difficult to imagine circumstances--this is hypothetical but, based on experience, one does not have to look very far to find examples--where a case may arise which is inappropriate to the investigatory skills of a Law Lord and where it might be necessary for the investigator to have other skills. The Law Lords have judicial skills, but their terrier and hunting skills may not be so strong.
The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for what he said about the proposed code of conduct, and to the Neill committee for highlighting the seven principles of public life, which the Minister mentioned, though briefly. I believe, however, that he had no intention of diminishing their importance. Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership are values close to the heart of the Christian faith, as they are to other faiths.
Personally, I should like to have seen spelt out the element of servanthood, which must always exist within leadership--not least for us because we are here to serve the nation. I believe that noble Lords will agree that that should always be in our minds, particularly so in this debate.
I have sympathy with the reservations which have been eloquently expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. I accept, for example, that it could be deemed superfluous and a breach of confidentiality to identify the extent of financial relationships where the rules of the House already prevent a noble Lord from
We all agree that there is a need to restore public confidence in Parliament and parliamentarians, and to submit to greater openness and accountability. I hope that some of the detailed concerns which have been properly expressed in the debate will not deflect us from supporting the Motion before us.
Lord Wright of Richmond: In the light of earlier exchanges, I should start by declaring an interest: I have very recently retired as a non-executive director of BP. My friends will know that I do not have to declare either a controlling or a significant interest in BP shares. As the only Cross-Bencher on the group, I need hardly say that I represented the views of no one else on these Benches other than myself.
I join in the tributes which have been paid to the Leader of the House for the way in which he chaired our group, and I join in his tribute to the administrative staff, particularly to our clerk, Mr Brendan Keith.
I understand very well the reservations underlying the amendments put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Ezra, some of which I shared at an earlier stage of the group's deliberations. But I have concluded, with one reservation, to which I shall return in a moment, that the Motion proposed by the Lord Privy Seal is on the right lines and that I shall support it if it comes to a Division today.
My one reservation, which I have already brought to the attention of the Lord Privy Seal--and which has been echoed in the debate--is whether it is wise or necessary to include in paragraph 12 of the Motion a reference to "friends" in the context of financial interests. This seems to raise insoluble definitional problems, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, suggested, and even the faintly ludicrous prospect of noble Lords having to decide or defend the distinction between whether a mere acquaintance should or should not be regarded as a friend. I would have much preferred the reference to "friends" to be omitted altogether.
However, in view of the permissive--or, in Latin grammar, subjunctive--nature of the wording of the introduction to paragraph 12 and the possibility that, in rare circumstances, the interests of a close friend might be perceived as genuinely significant, I do not wish to press my reservation.
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