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Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I shall certainly need to write to the noble Earl. There are improvements in the penal code system in general, but there are
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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, we continue to work with the UN, EU, the Sri Lankan Government and key international partners to alleviate the humanitarian situation facing the estimated 250,000 civilians displaced by the fighting and to press for progress on a political solution that is based on equality, consent and the rule of law. On 17 May, the Prime Minister announced an additional £5 million in humanitarian aid for Sri Lanka, taking the total to £12.5 million since September 2008.
The President of Sri Lanka the other day reached out to the Tamil community. Does the Minister agree that it would sent a very positive sign to that community if the Government of Sri Lanka now allowed international access to the conflict zone and the main IDP camps?
Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I agree with both of the noble Baronesss points. Now that the battle has been won in terms of securing their territory, it is absolutely incumbent on the Government of Sri Lanka to show statesmanship, reach out and try to find a political solution that allows the Tamil people a sufficient degree of control over their affairs so that they become contented citizens of a united Sri Lanka.
The second issue is humanitarian access. We have been repeatedly promised, both as the UK and through the international communitythe United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Crossthat the staff of international humanitarian organisations would be given access to the area in the north where the fighting has been taking place. That is still frustrated. Every day that goes by we worry about the costs, in terms of lives lost and disease and hunger not dealt with.
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, does the Minister have any news about when the battle of Parliament Square will be over, and when Members of this House will be able to attend their business without let or hindrance?
Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, like every Member of this House, I hope that it will be over soon. The young men and womenwell, people now of all ageswho are out there would be doing their cause as well as
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Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, one interest that this Parliament has in the question of Sri Lanka is access through Parliament Square. However, there is equal interestlet us put it that wayin the welfare of the people of Sri Lanka. Although it is not for Her Majestys Government to determine parliamentary relations, is this not a good time to suggest a parliamentary visit, specifically incorporating all of the points and conditions stated by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover? Perhaps my noble friend could have a word with the high commissioner.
Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, a group of MPs representing an inter-parliamentary group from the House of Commons went to Sri Lanka recently, as did the Foreign Secretary. There have been a number of visitors from Sri Lanka here; this morning I received the leader of the Sri Lankan opposition at the Foreign Office. There is continued dialogue. I am extremely anxious that we should go on making the point to the Sri Lankans that there is a long, historic friendship between our two countries and that we want them to do right by this community and to find a political and democratic solution to this long-running conflict.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, on humanitarian access, is the Minister aware that it is not only the zone formerly occupied by the LTTE, but also Menik Farmthe largest displacement camp, which contains 100,000 displaced personsto which access is severely restricted? When the UN Secretary-General visits Sri Lanka, as I understand that he will in the next couple of days, will the Government ask him to raise the question of total freedom of access, not only for the ICRC but for agencies such as the WFP and UNICEF?
On the political front, what consultations are being conducted by President Rajapaksa with the Tamil community to see how the necessary constitutional changes can be taken forward immediately, instead of waiting a long time while people become more discontented?
Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have both spoken to the UN Secretary-General in recent days, and the Prime Minister has also spoken to President Rajapaksa. Access to the IDP holding camps as well as to the areas of displacement in the conflict area itself has been repeatedly raised, and we will continue to raise it. That covers organisations such as WFP and others.
On the noble Lords second point, there is a long-standing political discussion under way, which includes Tamils in a subordinate way, around the so-called Article 13 amendment. We are pressing for something more ambitious than that and a broader dialogue with a more representative group of Tamils.
Lord Naseby: My Lords, have Her Majestys Government congratulated the Sri Lankan Government on defeating the Tamil Tigers and bringing peace to the country? On the international front, is it Her Majestys Governments policy primarily to tackle the resettlement of the 250,000 Tamils and the 100,000 Muslims who were ethnically cleansed from Jaffna, or is it to continue to lecture that there should be a constitutional settlement, which really rests with the Parliament of Sri Lanka?
Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we certainly respect the noble Lords final pointthat the political solution to this must come from inside Sri Lanka from a process set up and led by President Rajapaksa. Indeed, in our initial contacts with the president, we congratulated him on the finishing of a brutal 26-year civil war, which was instigated by the Tamil Tigersa terrorist group. But we also made it extremely clear to him that, whether or not that victory would be seen as the opening of a new and happier chapter in Sri Lanka depended on whether he could now go that next step and show the statesmanship to find a political as well as humanitarian solution to this communitys issues.
The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons. The Statement is as follows:
With permission, Mr Speaker, and following on from your Statement to the House yesterday, I should like to make a Statement on the decisions made yesterday at the meeting of the Members Estimate Committee which you convened, with the Prime Minister, the party leaders and the chair of the Committee on Members Allowances, and on the Prime Ministers proposals for a new parliamentary standards authority.
First, I want to set out how we are dealing with the past and the immediate steps that we are taking in the present. At the meeting last night we agreed a process, proposed by the Committee on Members Allowances, which will reassess Members claims over the past four years and which will identify those claims which should not have been made and should not have been paid out because they were outwith the rules, and make arrangements for repayment. The public are entitled to see a process of reparation and Members are entitled to know that this will be orderly and fair.
Secondly, on immediate steps, the House has already voted to ensure that the threshold for receipts has gone down from £25 to zero and voted to introduce full-scope audit under the National Audit Office. But, in addition to that, the MEC meeting last night agreed to an immediate ban on claims for furniture, a cap on interest payments for accommodation at the equivalent per year of £1,250 per month, a restriction on any changes to designation of main and second homes and preventing two Members who are married or
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At the MEC meeting last night all parties agreed to the Prime Ministers proposal that the keystone of any reform must be to switch from self-regulation to independent external regulation, and that we should end the gentlemans club approach, where we set and enforce our own rules, and instead bring forward proposals for a new parliamentary standards authority. The proposal on which we seek to consult would see Parliament legislate to delegate specific responsibilities to a new, independent parliamentary standards authority.
The new parliamentary standards authority would revise and update the code of practice for Members of this House, investigate complaints where a Member of this House is alleged to have breached the code of conduct, take forward the implementation of the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life as to allowances, take responsibility for authorising claims for payment under the new allowance system, as well as disallow claims, be able to require payback of claims wrongly paid out, and be able to impose financial penalties.
It is clearly appropriate that this new body also takes responsibility for these issues in the Lords, including administering and regulating the system for Peers allowances, overseeing the code governing Peers conduct and the Register of Lords Interests, ensuring the highest standard of propriety and financial conduct, investigating alleged abuses of the system, and recommending any necessary sanctions.
In this House, we recognise that the principle of self-regulation operates differently in the House of Lords. It is clear that extensive work and consultation will be necessary in order to ensure the agreement of the House of Lords to the effective transfer of responsibilities to the new body.
But turning back to this House, disciplinary actions which might require sanctions, such as suspension from this House, which have a bearing on the ability of a Member to perform their work would remain, as at present, for the whole House, through the Standards and Privileges Committee. Only the electorate, or those who are themselves democratically elected, should be able to prevent a Member doing their work in this House.
So we have set in place the actions for reparation and for reassurance. For renewal for the future, we look forward to Sir Christopher Kellys proposals and
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However, we must recognise that, even before the allowances revelations, there was a problem of public disengagement, public cynicism and a public sense of distance from Parliament, and we must now seize the opportunity to promote a debate that will see the proposals to change and to strengthen our democracy move from the margins to centre stagewhere they ought rightly to be.
Parliament and politics are important precisely because there are deeply held, different views about public policy and big choices, but there is consensus across all parties that we need to put the reputation of Parliament above reproach, and we will.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. It is not for us to intrude on the other place or to comment on the system that was operated under the authority of Mr Speaker, but it is a sad day to see that great House under such a cloud.
My right honourable friend Mr Cameron has made it clear by his powerful leadership in this affair that he will brook no wrongdoing and expects the very highest standards from all members of this party in both Houses. I am glad to see that many of the suggestions first put forward by my right honourable friend are included in this Statement. The Government can be assured of full co-operation from this side in addressing this crisis, although I must say that the best and only way of cleansing Parliament would be an early general election.
We cannot be complacent in this House. Change must come here, and it will come here. We cannot resist calls for openness and transparency, and we must accept accountability. We must review systems of remuneration, propriety and discipline; but serious issues arise from the different natures of the two Houses, and I am troubled that this may be forgotten in the dash to do something. Laws made in Parliament in a hurry are rarely good laws; laws made for Parliament in a hurry may prove to be no better.
I am glad to see some acknowledgement of that in the Statement, although it seems to point two ways in that it says that a single authority must make rules for both Houses and, on the other hand, that your Lordships House is different from the other place. The Houses are different. The other place is paid; your Lordships are not. The other House is representative; your Lordships House is not. The other House had a complex expenses system costing almost £100 million a year, while your Lordships have a relatively simple allowance system costing £17 million a year. The other place is expected
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I do not say any of this to resist the change or any further inquiryquite the reversebut can the Leader of the House, who as a member of the Cabinet is in a unique position to speak up for the House, assure us that nothing will be done by the back door to make this House a facsimile of the other place? If, for example, a model of a full-time salaried Parliament emerged from this process, it would inevitably have implications for who we are and how we get here.
Of course, none of us should harbour any illusions. There have been, and no doubt are, problems in this place, but their scale, nature and context are different from those of the other place and they may well require different solutions. The diversity of the two Houses of Parliament is one of the strengths of Parliament, and any regulator must understand that.
Yesterday afternoon, the House Committee considered the question of allowances. It was decidedand many noble Lords will have seen the press release that was so swiftly issuedthat there should be an independent external review of Members allowances. However, if this is to be regulated by a new parliamentary standards authority, how will this Houses review relate to that authority and how will noble Lords be able to contribute to it?
On standards, the Leader of the House has convened a Leaders Group of senior Members of your Lordships House to look into the code of practice and the register. I welcome that. But the Statement says that this will be the job of a new independent regulator. How will the Leaders Group relate to this body? Will it report to it? Will the new body be able to reject the work done in your Lordships House on this question? In recent years, this House has worked hard right across the parties to develop a code of conduct and establish a register. Is that work now to be set aside?
We are shortly to discuss sanctions on the basis of a careful and authoritative report from your Lordships Committee for Privileges. The committee has policed and defended this Houses good conduct since 1621. It has not done too badly, but how will the committee relate to the new body, and will it have to submit its reports to the regulator for approval? The authority of this House in regulating its procedures is not subject to interference by the courts. What will the status of the new regulator be, and is there a risk that inquiries will take longer, that conclusions will be less secure and, worst of all, that procedures may become tied up in legalism and open to challenge in the courts? These matters deserve careful consideration if we are not to end up with a more complex and costly system than we have now.
Finally, can the noble Baroness expand on the next steps that the Government plan? Will there be a Green Paper or a White Paper? What is the timing for legislation? Will she accept that all of us have a duty to restore the good name of Parliament and that, in doing so, we must also maintain and develop its existing strengths?
Lord McNally: My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, perhaps I can save the House some time by briefly saying that my party leader is wonderful too and that he, too, had a lot of good ideas. However, I follow the noble Lord in thinking that, in looking at the Statement and what follows it, it is very important that we see the distinctive position of the House of Lords and that we do not just find ourselves as an afterthought to decisions being made down the Corridor.
There is a public mood that demands urgency and we certainly should respond to it, but in looking at the parliamentary standards authority, it is worth remembering that the Standards Board for England, which looks over local government, has not always been universally praised on carrying out its mandate. In appointing an overlord group, we have to be careful about the powers and relationships. Looking at it at first blush, particularly down that end of the Benches, are we really talking about the end of self-regulation for this House? As the Daily Express used to say, I think we should be told.
It is also interesting that in the paper itself a distinction is made that the new standards authority will in the Lords investigate alleged abuses of the system and recommend any necessary sanctions, but for the Commons it is clearly pointed out that any such recommendations would be a matter for the whole House. Even at that stage, we see slight differences in nuances between what the Commons sees as its responsibilities and what is likely to be imposed on us.
On a wider matter, how much of this will be in the new Constitutional Renewal Bill, and when can we hope to see that? Finally, does the Lord President now accept that the Statement and the related matters surrounding it put the idea that we can postpone Lords reform into the next decade, which is the Labour Partys policy, or the third term of a Cameron Government, which is the Conservative Partys policy, quite in the realms of unreality? Surely the time has now come to use the last year of this Parliament to put the wider issue of constitutional reform firmly on the agenda and for the Prime Minister to redeem his early promise on a Constitutional Reform Bill by putting it at the front of the Government's legislation. They can deal with the economic crisis without legislation. The legislative time is there for a radical programme of constitutional reform, and the Government should take this opportunity.
Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. While any and every mechanism to increase transparency and accountability is clearly to be welcomed,
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