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Code of Conduct

11.59 a.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

With one exception, the Motion is purely consequential on the resolution that your Lordships passed on 2nd July, when the House agreed to adopt a new code of conduct to take effect from 31st March next year. The Motion simply gives effect to that decision in the usual way.

The code to which we agreed requires us all to register various interests in various categories by the date that I mentioned. To allow us to comply, there needs to be a register in existence between now and then so that interests may be registered.

There may have been some misunderstanding, so I must make it plain to your Lordships that the Motion has been tabled on the advice of the Clerk of the Parliaments and drafted by the House authorities. They have advised me--and I entirely accept their advice--that the Motion is a procedural necessity consequential on our earlier decisions.

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I said that there was one exception. Your Lordships will have seen that one part of the Motion is not consequential on our earlier decision. It is the amendment to paragraph 18 of the code, which inserts "in private" after "allegation". I promised your Lordships that I would bring forward an amendment to ensure that any allegations of misconduct were to be made privately. I took that--I think correctly--to be the will of the House. That is the reason for that single amendment. I made that promise and I hope to have fulfilled it by placing that matter in the Motion.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, has tabled an amendment. I thank him for his invariable scruple in informing me of what lay behind his views. Perhaps I can help him and the House by setting out the thinking that I have come to. I agree that we would benefit from a review of the operation of the code once it has bedded down. I have mentioned to him that I thought that 12 months was rather a short period for a review and have suggested 18 months. If it will satisfy the noble Lord, I am happy to give an assurance that the House will have an opportunity to have a full debate reviewing the operation of the code 18 months after it comes into force. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That the resolution of the House of 2nd July be amended as follows: After paragraph 6, insert: "Register of Interests

    6A. There shall be established a Register of Lords' Interests referred to in this Code. The register shall be maintained under the authority of the Clerk of the Parliaments by a Registrar appointed by him.

    A Member of the House must register relevant interests before 31st March 2002 and thereafter within one month of acquiring them. The register shall be available for public inspection in accordance with arrangements made by the Registrar. The register shall be regularly updated and shall be reprinted annually. The annual publication shall include all interests registered since the previous edition and all continuing interests unless their termination has been notified to the Registrar." In paragraph 17, at beginning insert "The operation of the register shall be overseen by a Sub-Committee of the Committee for Privileges on Lords' Interests and the Registrar shall consult the Sub-Committee when necessary.". In paragraph 18, in sub-paragraph (b), line 2, after "allegation" insert "in private". Leave out paragraph 19 and insert:

"19. Paragraph 6A shall have effect forthwith; the remainder of this Code shall have effect from 31st March 2002; and the resolution of the House of 7th November 1995 on the practice of the House in relation to Lords' interests shall cease to have effect on the same date."--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Elton rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at the end of paragraph 19 to insert "; and the Code apart from paragraph 6A shall cease to have effect on 31st March 2003."

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships will not have forgotten the temperature of our discussion on 2nd July. I certainly never will. On that occasion we came to a decision. It was achieved by a narrow vote and I suspect that many kicked themselves afterwards for the way in which they voted, but our rules of procedure are that we do not return to the same question in the same Session. I do not intend to do that. I have my reservations. They are known because of the dissenting report that my noble friend Lord Kingsland and I signed when the report of the committee was adopted.

However, we are committed to a course about which many of your Lordships have sincere, deep and, in my view, well founded anxieties. As we cannot re-open the issue now, we wish to be assured that there will be an opportunity to re-open it in the future.

My amendment would provide for the system that we have put in place to cease on 31st March, 12 months after it comes into force. I would have tabled a different amendment had the procedure been available to provide for the debate that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House has undertaken to afford us an opportunity to hold--that is, to make our order a negative procedure order. I see the Clerk furrowing his brow to follow my reasoning. If he is having difficulty, I am sure that I have lost the rest of your Lordships entirely.

My intention is that there shall be a cast iron opportunity for a review. That can be achieved by the undertaking that the Leader of the House has offered your Lordships. That does not mean that the system will collapse if the date passes without his honouring that opportunity. We rely on his good faith and that of the Government to deliver his undertaking. I am therefore minded to seek the leave of the House to withdraw my amendment when your Lordships have had an opportunity to speak your minds and have heard the noble and learned Lord repeat his undertaking that there will be a full debate on the system in government time before 31st October 2003. In that debate, any noble Lord will be able to table an amendment to bring the system to an end. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at the end of paragraph 19 to insert "; and the Code apart from paragraph 6A shall cease to have effect on 31st March 2003."--(Lord Elton.)

Lord Renton: My Lords, I support the proposals of my noble friend Lord Elton, but I feel bound to make some other points. I welcome the amendments now proposed by the Government. They will help, but they do not overcome the problems raised by paragraph 12 of the code of conduct, about which I protested on 2nd July and have done so again at Question Time since then. It would be helpful to the House--and to the Leader of the House--if, in preparation for any future development, the inadequacy of the drafting of that paragraph was addressed. The paragraph requires us to declare "relevant financial interests", which may include:

    "shareholdings not amounting to a controlling interest;

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    landholdings (excluding Members' homes);

    the financial interests of a spouse or relative or friend".

That last provision is the most obscure and puzzling.

The difficulty with paragraph 12 is that there is no limit, except the rather strange limit "depending on their significance", which appears in brackets on the second line. We are not told what the significance is. There is no limit to that definition. When Members are anxious about the issue, who is to decide what the significance is to be? The phrase is undefined. Requiring the declaration of the

    "financial interests of a spouse or relative or friend"

covers a very broad range and the provision is unenforceable. If the Leader of the House wants the code of conduct to be acceptable in all parts of the House and to be successful, he should consider what can be done about that.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Renton. There are significant problems in the drafting of the code. I shall touch on some of the points that he raised in a moment.

On 2nd July we debated a new code of conduct and Register of Interests. The Motion was passed by the House, albeit by a very narrow majority. The code was the noble and learned Lord's first gift to the House as its leader. In authorship and advocacy, it is truly the Williams code. It might be helpful if we called it that, to differentiate it from the Griffiths code, which we have had until now.

After only three weeks, we are seeing amendments to the code. The noble and learned Lord rightly said that the Motion was to some extent consequential. But one of the main reasons that it is consequential is the glaring inadequacy of aspects of it, as pointed out at the time by my noble friend Lord Kingsland. Originally, there was no requirement that complaints against Peers should be made in private, thus avoiding the unedifying spectacle of competitive allegation by press release that has so damaged the reputation of another place. When my noble friend put forward amendments to put that and, in my submission, other defects right, the noble and learned Lord advised the House to reject those amendments. He has now accepted this one. I thank him very much for doing so, and I urge the House to support the Motion in that respect.

However, if the noble and learned Lord missed that fundamental point after many months of work on the code that he recommended, is he sure that he is still happy with the rest of it? For example, as my noble friend pointed out, is he still happy with the requirement to register relevant interests of friends? After all, who are friends and how are they defined? Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that he has no friends. My noble friend Lord Marlesford said that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is a friend. Therefore, will the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, now be obliged to spell out to the House the interests of friends who contributed to the Prime Minister's blind trust, of which she was the chief trustee? Shall we hear the footsteps of the noble Lord,

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Lord Levy, carrying his black book up the staircase to the registrar's office? If not, why not? After all, they voted for this code. There appears to be no guidance anywhere as to what will constitute "friends".

In the past, the Leader of the House has claimed that all that is set out in the Griffiths code. But if he cannot see the distinction between a recommendation to declare orally a relevant interest in a specific debate and mandatorily hanging the interests of one's friends, relatives, spouses and partners on the Internet washing line in a register, I suspect that the House can.

I also understand that concerns have been raised about human rights, on which the noble and learned Lord is an expert. Therefore, I wonder whether he will be able to explain exactly how his code is compatible with the human rights of those who are not Members of the House but whose privacy will be infringed by the publication of their interests on the Internet.

We still do not know how widely drawn the definition of "relatives" will be. Will it include a stepbrother, a second cousin or a divorced wife's sister? I refer to the point made by my noble friend Lord Renton, who perhaps expressed the matter rather better than I am doing. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, prides himself on his mastery of precision in language. But it is striking that the Williams code is riddled with generalities and uncertainties, and I do not believe that it does a service to this House to leave Peers in this position. It is also grotesquely unfair to the Clerks of the House to place all responsibility in relation to what is right and what is wrong on the registrar.

In the past, the noble and learned Lord has spoken of a "light touch". Therefore, perhaps I may ask him where the light touch will be applied, to whom it will be applied and on what grounds. Those questions require clear answers. Furthermore, why is there no de minimis rule in the code or the register? After all, another place has one. Under the guidance of the noble and learned Lord's predecessor and, indeed, on his own guidance, noble Lords opposite who are Ministers have had to register interests as trivial as the gift of a golf ball or a packet of tea leaves. That is all set out in the ministerial register. Is that the way that the noble and learned Lord wants all Peers in this House to behave?

I have taken a few minutes of the House's time to illustrate a few of the many difficulties that still lie in the code as voted through on 2nd July. It is right that we should review sceptically all aspects of the code before we are made to live with it. It is not the principle that is the problem; that is done, dusted and agreed. However, the small print is causing an increasing amount of confusion. It cries out for clarification and amendment if this House is not to risk division and, still worse, ridicule. Even worse, the code may risk being ignored by Members of this House.

Therefore, I welcome the fact that the noble and learned Lord has accepted the suggestion by my noble friend of a review. I welcome the fact that today he brought forward the first amendment to the code. However, I very much hope that it will not be the last.

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I hope that we shall be able to use the next six months to make changes in order to avoid some obvious and avoidable problems, and I look forward to receiving the assurance of the noble and learned Lord in his reply.

I also do not believe that on the last day before the Summer Recess, with almost a minimum of notice, we should discuss a matter which touches every Peer. We should not bring in a new register forthwith before, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, wrinkles identified in the code are ironed out. It is all very well for the noble and learned Lord to say that "forthwith" applies only to the existence of the register and not to its operation. But can he confirm that, as from the end of this debate, any Peer who goes to the registrar will have to register the interests in the Williams code and not the Griffiths code? We were not given notice of that through the usual channels before the Motion was laid. It is only because I do not wish to be churlish or to confuse what is a crucially important issue of finding a workable register that I let that rest.

Perhaps I may repeat the advice that I gave to the noble and learned Lord last week. He risks allowing himself to appear a little too much in a hurry, a little too impatient for the detail and a little too ready to identify wisdom with his personal conviction. Today, the noble and learned Lord has made a good move in listening and acting on the matter of privacy. I hope that he will now listen and act on other worries that many Peers have. It is not sufficient merely to accept the amendment of my noble friend Lord Elton; he will need to be ready to make other amendments before next March.

12.15 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words. I had not realised that my noble friend was intending to rise. Then the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip rose and I believed that he was going to tell us to hurry along.

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