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In this context, could we not ask the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and his colleagues who are UKIP members—I do not know whether permanently or temporarily—to take more interest in the way in which their UKIP MEPs behave in the European Parliament? There have been many examples of officials investigating their claims on expenses and the misuse of expenses drawn directly as Members of the European Parliament for use outside, which UKIP members have freely confessed to. Those are the things that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, should be asking questions about, rather than wasting the time of this House in an endless debate on these matters, repeating points endlessly and not listening to the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, and others, who put the record straight.

2.17 pm

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I am a member of the Committee for Privileges, but I do not anticipate that I shall be for more than another week or so. I am one of those who took this decision, and I agree with it. I should say at once that I do not go along with all the remarks made either by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, or by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. With regard to the minutes, I at least am perfectly clear, and was at time of the meeting, that this question arose from others as well as from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. I never was in any doubt about that. I endeavour to approach the matter in as objective a manner as possible.

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No one asserted that there had been any change in the position since 2004, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, examined the position, as has been said, and he set out the legal position as he saw it in considerably greater detail than the sub-committee did when it looked at this again recently. We had the advantage on the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, who has today given us a small flavour of what he said on that occasion, when he spoke in considerably greater detail, both about the position of Commissioners and the position on former employees of the EU. He did so after his very long experience of living and working under exactly the rules that we are discussing. As a very senior official of the Commission, he had to make judgments on exactly those rules. That is why he knows them so well. He also worked intimately with all the Commissioners who were there during his time on their obligations under the articles. I do not think that I can add anything to his interpretation.

What weighed most strongly with me was that no one produced then, just as no one has produced today, any evidence at all of the abuse that we are warned about having happened or being threatened. There appears to be no case of anyone having their pension curtailed or receiving a threat of their pension being curtailed for any reason of the kind suggested, and certainly not in connection with the work of your Lordships’ House. I do not think that there is any such instance. Therefore, we are worrying about something that, over many years, has never occurred and has never been threatened.

The other important point is that, if ever the EU officially, or any official of the EU, or anyone purporting to speak for the EU, should threaten, privately or publicly, that the pension due to one of your Lordships might be curtailed if he or she expressed a view that was not liked, that would be an obvious and disgraceful breach of the privilege of Parliament. Any official who did that or even contemplated doing it should be extremely careful because the row that would ensue would be immense and exceptionally damaging to the EU. Therefore, I do not think that it will occur and, as I said, no one has produced any evidence that I am aware of, or has suggested, that any threat of this kind has been made. That is why I support the decision of the Privileges Committee.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down and as, according to the Clock, we have a few minutes left, perhaps I may put something to him. Like the royal prerogative, parliamentary privilege is subservient to European law. I do not have time now but I can show him lots of examples where the Commission has threatened to remove people’s pensions. There was a headline in the Telegraph on 12 July last year, for example, concerning Madame Cresson, and so on. Could it be that if this power has not been much used, it is precisely because people do not break the rules when they know that they can end up without a pension?

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, if the noble Lord has examples of any Peer or, for that matter, anyone else who has had their pension curtailed as a

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result of disobliging things that they have said about the EU, then he should have produced them. Of course, I accept that someone may be threatened with having their pension curtailed if they take on an unsuitable job. Similarly, there are controls over what jobs can be taken by civil servants and Ministers after they leave office, and I can imagine other examples where pensions have been threatened. However, in this case, I have not heard anything. If the noble Lord has examples of people having had their pension curtailed as a result of what they said or were thinking of saying, he should have produced them, either to the committee or today. If we have evidence of abuse, we should deal with that abuse.

2.23 pm

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in the debate today, and I am glad to have this opportunity to explain to the House the background to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. We have had a very lively debate and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that it has been worth giving up one’s lunch break for. I apologise in advance that in my remarks I shall probably duplicate some things that have already been said.

The short answer to the noble Lord’s Question is yes. The Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests recently presented to the Committee for Privileges a recommendation on the lines described in the noble Lord’s Question, and the committee decided not to make that recommendation to the House.

Because the committee’s decision involved no change of practice, it decided not to make a report to the House on this matter. That is quite normal. Committees usually make a report only when they make a recommendation to the House but, as no change was involved here, there was no need for a report to be made. However, the sub-committee’s report and the minutes of the committee’s meeting on 5 June, when the report was discussed, have been made available on the intranet and in the Library and the Printed Paper Office. I do not think that anyone who is in the least bit interested in this matter will have had any difficulty in finding them.

The Committee for Privileges first considered the position of noble Lords in receipt of pensions from the European Union in 2004 as a result of a request from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. In its first report of Session 2003—04, the committee endorsed a recommendation by the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests that:

That recommendation was based on the opinion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, who was its chairman at the time.

Recently the sub-committee, with three new members and now chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has revisited the issue in response to,

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This time the sub-committee reached the opposite conclusion; namely,

This new recommendation was considered by the Committee for Privileges on 5 June, when there was general agreement that the committee should not reverse the decision that it made in 2004. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, asked me whether there had been a vote in the committee. There was no need for one. I do not like taking votes in committees unless it is clearly necessary to do so, but I can tell the noble Lord that at least half a dozen members of the committee all spoke in the same way and they all agreed that they did not wish to reverse the decision made in 2004. At that stage, I began to get a sense of the feeling of the committee. I asked whether anyone dissented from that view and answer came there none. Therefore, it was not necessary to take a vote.

Obviously, different members may have had different reasons for reaching that conclusion, so I cannot give definitive reasons on behalf of the committee, but it may be helpful if I briefly mention the two main arguments brought forward during the discussion.

The first argument concerns the scope of the obligations on those receiving EU pensions. The sub-committee’s report says:

For the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, the main committee was not persuaded that there is such an obligation.

The rules for former Commissioners are slightly different from those for former members of the staff of EU institutions. The duties of Commissioners and former Commissioners are governed by Article 213 of the Treaty of Rome and those of staff and former staff by the European Union’s staff regulations. However, in both cases, the obligations are mainly on serving Commissioners and staff, and the restrictions on those no longer holding office are confined to the acceptance of certain appointments or benefits. That point was clearly made—

Lord Waddington: My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord, because he has come to the essence of the matter here. Article 213 states:

Therefore, how can it be suggested that their duty to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance of certain appointments or benefits is their only obligation, when that is cited as just one of

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their obligations? There is this obligation in particular, but nothing whatever in that section could lead anyone to believe that they do not have other obligations.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, perhaps I may also intervene. This fundamental point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, on the previous occasion so I refer to it only once: the obligations apply to the commissioners while they are in office and are undertaking certain duties. The obligations do not apply in general after they cease to undertake those duties, and in particular they do not apply under any circumstances on any reasonable man’s interpretation of this article to obligations about speaking in this House.

Lord Waddington: My Lords—

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I have a very limited amount of time left.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, perhaps I may say one other thing, given that we had the rather odd procedure from the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. What he said was all very interesting, but again it does not bear the slightest relationship to what Article 213 says.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I really think that the general debate ought to end and that the Chairman of Committees should be allowed to complete his reply.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for intervening, but we had the benefit of two noble and learned Lords, Lord Browne-Wilkinson and Lord Woolf. One of the reasons the law is such a good thing to be in is because lawyers do not always agree. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, will know that if they always agreed about everything, it would be a pretty thin business to be in. I shall not pursue the matter but rest my case on the words of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, and on the report in the first place of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson.

Let me move on because we have limited time. The second argument which found favour in the committee was that the committee found it absurd to suggest that any of the distinguished noble Lords who receive EU pensions needed to declare their interest in debate in order that others might form a balanced judgment of their arguments. There is no doubt of the integrity of the Members of the House concerned, and the committee felt that it would be distasteful to call on them to declare their pension interest whenever they spoke in the House. It said that mainly because the committee last month reaffirmed the view which it took in 2004.

Criticism has been made of the minutes of the committee and the reference in them to the fact that the matter was reconsidered only because of pressure by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. I ask

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noble Lords to read the first part of the sentence in the minute, which says that in discussion it was suggested that nothing had happened since the committee’s 2004 report to justify reopening the matter, and that it had been reconsidered only because of pressure by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. One must take the whole of that sentence. That is what was said in discussion. Whether one agrees with it is a matter of opinion. If there is some doubt about those minutes, I must apologise. The report itself on the other hand makes it extremely clear when it says that the matter was reconsidered on a request made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and other Members of the House. That is what this should rest on. I hope the House has found it helpful to have that explanation on the record.

Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

2.33 pm

House again in Committee.

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 235AB:

The noble Lord said: The amendment, which is put forward in the hope that it might lead to one or two interesting bits of debate, is intended to abolish the entire Standards Board for England, all its doings and the entire standards regime. On that basis I do not have a huge amount of optimism that the Government will accept the amendment this afternoon, but I believe that various points need to be made.

It is seven years since the new regime was agreed in the Local Government Act 2000, and five or six years since it came into operation. Has it made any real difference to the way councillors behave and to how local government acts? Has it increased the level of ethical standards within local government, or has it not really made much difference at all? In the very few serious cases which have arisen in that time, would it have been allowed to carry on without it? There is a general view within local government—if you get people talking honestly and, perhaps in some cases, off the record—that the answer to all these questions is that the regime is not worth the large amount of resource that goes into it.

Various problems have arisen in the standards regime, which the Government are responding to. They are particularly changing the emphasis from pretty well everything going through the Standards Board for England towards local resolution of complaints in the majority of cases. I will come on to that at the end of my remarks.

What is wrong with the system? First, the whole complaints system is in many ways operated at a trivial level. Cases which are taken to the Standards Board and often referred back to the local monitoring officer or, indeed, to the local standards committee, should really be sorted out there and then, without

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any great to-do and certainly without the great bureaucratic procedure that takes place. The system is very expensive to operate and the outcome does not seem to be worth the candle that is put into it.

I was fascinated when listening to the previous debate on whether people with a pension from the European Union should declare it as an interest. The word used by the Chairman of Committees was that in many cases people would find this “distasteful”. The difference in culture between what is declared in this Chamber and the restrictions on people taking part in debates here, and the very restrictive, sometimes penal, regime which takes place within local government, was fascinating.

Secondly, in many places the complaints procedure has been used as a means of political campaigning. It has been used as a weapon in “partisan dialogue”—I think was the phrase used by my honourable friend Andrew Stunell when this issue was discussed in the House of Commons. I regret to say that there have been places and times where and when it has been used as a weapon, not just politically but by some officers, against what I might call the persistently awkward squad among councillors, or perhaps just people who were saying things they did not want to hear.

It is an open question as to how far you can go in having a robust discussion with a council officer without being accused of bullying. There have certainly been instances when council officers have made complaints of bullying when all that has been happening is that a councillor has been persistent in trying to put forward his or her view of what should happen, perhaps in their ward or the authority. There is a feeling that the rules laid down mean that robust debate is more difficult to have in some councils than it ought to be.

Accusations can come from anyone and do not have to be backed up with anything. An accusation can appear in the local newspapers before it has been investigated and be used as a weapon in that way. When someone is put through the mill, it really is a traumatic experience, and sometimes good councillors go through hell when, in their view, they are doing no more than representing the people who elected them. I am aware of many instances of this, particularly of someone who was made quite ill by the whole process. In the end that person was found guilty on a technicality, but was clearly exonerated by the local standards committee.

We discussed yesterday why people stand for the council. Very often they have to be persuaded. People who would make good councillors have to have their arms twisted to stand. Most do not say, “I am just waiting for the local party to come round and ask me to stand”. They do not think like that. Instead, they find themselves on the council and then they may find themselves being put through a very vigorous complaints system if someone makes an accusation against them. That leads one to ask why on earth anyone does it any more.

The proposal being put forward by the Government is for everything to be dealt with locally, and there is a lot of sense in that, but there are some

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problems as well. One of the more serious problems is that in some areas the political culture is based on the presence of the long-term majority party. It permeates the culture not just of the local authority, but also that of local organisations, partnerships and so forth. Anyone who challenges that can be seen as a dissident, and there can be a real fear that they are not going to get a fair deal from the local standards committee. There is also the problem of the role of the monitoring officer on the council. The monitoring officer is there to advise councillors, but councillors have the right not to take that advice. Once they have checked the code of conduct and read the advice of the standards board, they may think that the monitoring officer is wrong. But if a complaint is then filed and goes to the local standards committee, it is the monitoring officer who advises it. Even if a different solicitor within the authority is technically present to do it, the monitoring officer is looming in the background all the time, so this is a difficult situation.

I have not talked about some of the serious cases such as Islington because that would take a long time. Those cases alone may be responsible for the changes the Government are now making. But there is a serious difficulty in some places about representing your local ward. In some councils, the fact of representing a particular ward is in itself perceived to be an interest. I have referred previously to Birmingham where I am told that if you are a ward councillor, you cannot deal with a planning application anywhere within your ward. That is total nonsense, and yet this kind of thing is going on. On the one hand, candidates stand for election on the basis that they live in the ward—“Vote for me, I am local”—but nowadays if a town is divided into several wards, I ask that people are put into different ones otherwise they will be considered to be too local. There is a serious problem here and at the heart of the standards regime.

Those are just a few of the problems. I hope that the Government’s changes will bring improvements, but I believe that we will be back here debating the problems with the new regime before very long. Indeed, there is a body of opinion in local government that would say, “Let’s scrap the whole thing”. At the last general election the Conservatives went to the polls saying, “Let’s close down the Standards Board for England”. I hope that that is still their policy. If it is, then on that at least I shall join forces with them. I beg to move.

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