|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
That is why I regard the Bill as almost wholly misconceived. Why does it impose new criminal penalties when the existing law already covers theft and fraud? Why does it open the door to the courts concerning themselves with proceedings in Parliament-something that they have never had to do before? Why does it provide for enforcement procedures that may infringe the European Convention on Human Rights? Why should we rush through all this legislation and major constitutional changes? As the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, has asked twice at Question Time, what is the hurry?
Our job is to rescue another place from itself. The House of Commons is, above all, a citizens' Parliament, representative of all the interests and varied communities that make up our nation. We do not want to end up with a Parliament consisting only of full-time politicians with no outside interests, cowed by what the Clerk at the other end called the "chilling effect" of finding themselves accountable not to their constituents but to the courts. That will be the effect of the Bill unless it is amended drastically.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, most of us agree that the Bill has all the hallmarks of a government quick fix for the sorry situation in which the Commons has found itself in recent weeks. There has been no consultation to speak of on the Bill's provisions, and a never-ending stream of complaints about the lack of it. One obvious consequence was the deletion of two objectionable clauses in the course of the hasty two-day Committee proceedings in the other place.
The Bill presented to your Lordships for Second Reading is therefore different in important respects from that presented to the Commons, and will be subject to further government amendment in the course of proceedings here, as we learnt earlier in the debate. Nevertheless, the basic principles of the original Bill remain. Furthermore, as we have heard, we are expected to complete our detailed consideration of the Bill before we rise for the Summer Recess on 21 July. This is fast-tracking in Formula 1 style, crashing through barriers galore.
Why all the hurry, when all who have studied the Bill are urging care and caution? This is a constitutional Bill touching on fundamental principles, as our Constitution Committee-headed by my noble friend Lord Goodlad-and others have pointed out in their excellent reports. The Government have told us that they hope to have the independent parliamentary standards authority in place early next year. Presumably the commissioner for parliamentary investigations would follow soon after. The rest of the parliamentary rescue operation would also be executed as envisaged by the Government, for the benefit and gratification of an angry electorate who will brook no delay, according to the Leader of the House. All necessary reforms under the Bill should be done and dusted before the next election. That is the scenario that we are asked to accept.
A governmental package such as this Bill is little short of an insult to my concept of Parliament. It will certainly not enhance the reputation of the other place and may very well further detract from it, as a number of your Lordships have suggested. Reading between the lines, one suspects that the ultimate effect of these provisions will be to subject Parliament still further to the Government's will, as has happened time and again. The creation of offences unique to membership of the House of Commons under Clause 8 is particularly galling, especially when related to the fact that some of these offences already exist for other citizens under other statutes. Do we really need offences specific to MPs? I was very glad to hear the noble Baroness the Leader of the House saying that one of these offences would be withdrawn in the course of proceedings here, and, of course, we have the full assessment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, on this issue.
Of course, the Commons should never have got themselves into this dangerous position where their nominal or-should I say?-quasi self-regulation of pay and allowances could be so extensively abused. This provoked the extreme chagrin and disgust of the electorate when it was revealed to them first by the Daily Telegraph and then in the odious, redacted version obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Yet, when we seek the causa et origo of this extremely perilous position, I find it very difficult to exonerate the Government from some blame for negligence. They have dominated the Commons for the last decade, not only through their party majority, their leadership of the House and the precedence given to their business at every sitting, but institutionally, behind the scenes. The wishes of the Government are supreme and their influence irresistible in this context. They create the ethos in which Parliament operates and may be held culpable if a corrupt and mendacious ethos prevails.
On a personal note, I was a Member of the Commons for 27 years and stood down in 1997. Towards the end of the Major Government the atmosphere in the Commons on our side was uncomfortable to say the least, besieged as we were by the gutter press, but the discomfort nowadays permeates all parties. Some remedial action should have been taken long before this, preferably by the House itself. The current situation should certainly have been foreseen.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves whether something can be made of this Bill. It has some fundamental defects. In my mind, it is clear that we must not further compromise the independence of the House of Commons and belittle it as an institution. Its privileges, particularly freedom of speech, must be safeguarded. There must be no further encroachment by the Crown which has long since moved from royal palaces to No. 10. We must also buttress the self-regulatory aspects of each House of Parliament in the near certain knowledge that what is imposed on the other place today will be imposed upon us tomorrow. I hear indeed what the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said to us earlier, but again, like my noble friend who has just spoken, I refer her to what was said by the Justice Secretary. All I want to emphasise to her and to the House is that the Justice Secretary actually referred to the Prime Minister, so it is not just he alone who holds the view. Let me quote:
"As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear on 10 June, it is envisaged that in due course the arrangements relating to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should indeed apply to the other place; that is why we sought to create an authority that covers both Houses".-[Official Report, Commons, 29/6/09, col. 47.]
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I think it might be useful at this juncture for me to respond very briefly to the noble Lord and other noble Lords, and to repeat what I said in my earlier statement. Yes, the Justice Secretary did make that statement on 29 June. Yes, he was quoting from my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and, as I said earlier, I myself have said in this House that I thought at some stage it would be appropriate for this Bill to pertain to the House of Lords. I now speak with the full authority of government. This Bill does not and will not apply to the House of Lords. I categorically state that fact and
8 July 2009 : Column 711
The issue of timing has arisen in the course of this debate and my view is that ideally there should be time to properly review the relationships between Parliament, Government and the public to establish key principles and build upon them. It is also my view that this Bill is not a suitable vehicle for that purpose, but of course we shall see in the course of amending it.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, I had intended to start my brief remarks by saying that I would not oppose the Bill on Second Reading. Listening to some of the quite brilliant speeches we have heard today from the former Lord Chief Justice and many others, I must say that I have my doubts but I am sure my noble friend for whom I have the greatest respect will support it. I am extremely concerned that a major constitutional Bill of this kind should be rushed through in the timescale that is suggested without being properly considered. Indeed, whether a Bill of this kind is even necessary is becoming clearer and clearer the more we hear from distinguished Members of your Lordships' House.
A couple of times in the House the other day, I asked our Chief Whip what the hurry was. The reply that I got, which was rather brief, if not to say slightly rude, was that it was self-evident. But listening to this debate there is nothing self-evident about rushing this Bill. Some of us on this side of the House have received an e-mail from my noble friend. I can quote it because e-mails, as we all know, are quoted quite frequently around the world. This one is very interesting because of this criticism of the Front Bench. My noble friend assured us that,
That was also rightly stated by the noble Earl when he referred to all Front-Benchers. I have said it before in this House that all Front-Benchers do not usually speak for the Back-Benchers in this House. On these kinds of issues, and on Lords reform, they certainly do not.
I know that my noble friend Lord Peston looked up that word in the dictionary but I assure noble Lords that, whatever it said there, if anything it understated the extent of the condemnation of this haste by the Constitution Committee. The committee's report was brilliant and explained matters fully. I shall not go into it again because it has been referred to frequently and has probably already been read by most of the speakers in the debate today.
The main case put by my noble friend for the haste in relation to this Bill is that the public want it. The mass of the great British public have many concerns
8 July 2009 : Column 712
My noble friend Lord Peston said that the Minister has only to say tonight that there will be full discussion and that she will not seek to fast-track the Bill, and she will get the Bill by October, probably amended, as she and many others have suggested. Therefore, there is absolutely no case for rushing it through over the next couple of weeks; it would be absurd to do so. Unless my noble friend is able to assure us of that-and I would regret it if she did not-I shall support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. That would at least delay the Bill so that it had to continue until October, unless the Government decide to recall Parliament in September. That would probably be more to the liking of the media than trying to rush it through now.
Whatever you do, running scared of the media will not help you with the criticism that you get. The media are in full cry but I hope that we can ignore that and concentrate on the real issues. The Bill has already been scrutinised by Select Committees and in some of the speeches here today. For my part, as I said, I hope that my noble friend will give us the reassurance that I seek. If she does not, I shall support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I hope that everyone else will as well.
Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, the Leader of the House, for her sympathetic way of dealing with the Bill in her introduction and in her latest very welcome intervention. I also thank her for the way in which she kindly allowed me yesterday, at her request, to talk to her about my concerns about the Bill.
I am not a lawyer, nor am I a former Member of the House of Commons. Many others who have spoken and will speak after me are far more expert and articulate than me, but I am a passionate defender of the British constitution and I feel extremely strongly about the damage that is being done by the Bill to the basic constitutional strength on which our democracy rests.
I should like to make two very simple points, although others have made them far better and perhaps slightly differently. First, Members of Parliament have certainly suffered a blow to their public esteem. The allegations have applied to a small minority of them but there are no headlines in saying that there are 400-odd honest MPs. No one wants to read a headline like that. After the first few days when the Daily Telegraph had done a necessary job of exposing the dangers of the expenses system, it began to descend into nothing but salacious gossip along the lines of, "Guess what someone claimed for", and so on. That contributed absolutely nothing to the important point that was being made about the difficulties of the expenses structure.
However, that is a very small part of what is at issue here. This matter involves one fleeting generation of a
8 July 2009 : Column 713
We need to help people to understand-perhaps they already have a gut understanding of this-that Members of Parliament are the people. They are not individuals-Mr Bloggs and Miss Jones-but representatives of the people. As I keep saying, they are the heart of our democracy, and the voice of the people is heard through the freedom of speech and freedom of action that Members of Parliament are able to exercise in Parliament.
As the only female to speak in this debate after the noble Baroness, the Leader of the House, introduced the Bill so eloquently, I hope that I can be forgiven if I introduce a rather homely example of my concerns. Anyone who has ever taught young children or who has been a parent of young children knows one simple truth: the more they are trusted, the better they behave, but the more they are watched over, suspected and caught out at every opportunity, the more they will behave properly when watched but behave very badly when not being watched. I think that we have seen in the way in which the Bill is worded an example of the danger of failing to trust people. Failing to trust our Members of Parliament is, as I have said many times in the past couple of minutes, a failure to trust the people of this country who elect them and give them the freedoms to which they are entitled.
I hope that we can convey to Members of the House at the other end of the Corridor that they must stand up for their own freedoms. To me, it is extraordinary that they have voted through a Bill that now makes them subject to scrutiny from an outside body which is not part of the democratic process. That says, "We are not to be trusted. We are people whom you cannot trust, and the only way that we can restore any kind of confidence is for someone to watch over us and breathe down our necks". Therefore, I believe very strongly that if people's trust in Parliament and in Members of Parliament is to be restored, it is vital that those Members of Parliament reassert their authority.
I was unfortunate enough to be on a public panel last week in which the debate was about who governs: the media, politicians or the people themselves? The point was made that the politicians are the people but every time someone tried in any way to defend the actions of politicians, there were hoots of derision. People commented, "They tried to blame the system but they themselves created the system". It appeared to me as a lay person and non-expert that a very simple measure would be to say, "We as parliamentarians and Members of the House of Commons will create a new system in which the public can have trust. We will not let someone else do it for us but will do it ourselves".
8 July 2009 : Column 714
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I recognise the urgency for this Bill, but it is not so urgent as to exclude proper scrutiny. I understand that the Government want to get IPSA working on the scheme as soon as possible, but we need to be satisfied that the Bill is right. The Government could and should, at the very least, provide further time for the Committee stage on Wednesday and/or Thursday next week in place of the not very urgent legislation which is now listed for both those days. I understand that the Committee stage of both of those Bills will not be completed before the Recess, so it will make very little difference indeed if they are replaced in the timetable by this Bill. I am absolutely certain that one day in Committee for this Bill will not be enough, and I am far from certain that two will be sufficient.
The basic principle of the Bill, the setting up of IPSA as a body independent of control by the House of Commons with a duty to set up and manage the allowances scheme, has been endorsed by all three parties, or at least their leaders, and I believe rightly so. I agree that the new code should be prepared by IPSA and should require approval by the House of Commons, although that could cause problems in the case of disagreements between IPSA and the House of Commons. We shall see whether that occurs.
In my view, there are quite serious problems with Clauses 6 and 7 on investigations and enforcement respectively. Those problems have been pointed out by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, by my noble friend Lord Lester in the debate today and particularly effectively by the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House in its admirable report. There is a need for proceedings to be fair and for there to be a right of appeal, whether to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council or to some other independent and impartial body. Various options could be adopted for that. We shall have to think about that very rapidly.
I have serious doubts about Clause 7, even though I understand that the Government have now agreed to withdraw the subsection which allows IPSA to make recommendations about disciplinary proceedings to the Committee on Standards and Privileges before it has decided on the actual sanction. That was a very unusual and, frankly, odd provision which divided responsibility for imposing punishment and could have led to all sorts of difficulties. It is essential that it goes.
The way in which the system operates seems to be that under Clause 6 the commissioner makes a report and sends it to IPSA. It is not wholly clear what happens next. Does IPSA simply accept the report? Does it have any power of its own to carry out further investigation? Is it bound to accept the report as factually correct? If not, does it have power to modify
8 July 2009 : Column 715
Another provision which concerns me is Clause 8. Is it right that Members of Parliament should be subject to criminal offences to which no one else at all is subject? I am very doubtful about that. The offence in Clause 8(1) of knowingly giving false or misleading information for the purpose of claiming an allowance is plainly a fraudulent act which is already a criminal offence with a much higher maximum sentence than is proposed under that subsection of the Bill. I agree with the Constitution Committee's report in paragraph 39, where it says that no criminal offences should be applicable only to MPs when the general criminal law already covers the situation.
However, the committee goes beyond that. The offence under Clause 8(2) of failing to register an interest is hardly serious enough to justify criminal proceedings and could perfectly adequately be left to disciplinary action by the House of Commons and its power to suspend or to expel a Member from the House. For that particular misbehaviour that seems to be a perfectly adequate punishment. In addition, the Constitution Committee in paragraph 22 points out that Clause 8(2) could lead to a conflict between the courts and Parliament.
The offence under Clause 8(3) of paid advocacy is probably not a criminal offence at present but is likely to become one, if and when the draft bribery Bill, now getting pre-legislative scrutiny, is enacted. The Constitution Committee says that a criminal offence of paid advocacy is unlikely to be workable. In my view, the conclusion is that all three of the offences in Clause 8 should be removed from the Bill; and I am certainly prepared to support the amendments tabled by the Conservative Party to remove them from the Bill.
I very much welcome the idea of a sunset clause as, given the inadequate time to get this Bill through, it is likely to produce serious problems within the next couple of years. For an unavoidable sunset clause to come into effect in a year's time would be too soon as that would take us up to shortly after the next general election, but a two-year period would be sufficient to give time for further consideration and to identify the shortcomings of the Bill, not all of which I suspect have yet been realised by those of us speaking in this debate. Although we are anxious to get this Bill through quickly and although we certainly support the principles behind it, I believe that we shall need to carry out a very detailed inspection even within the very limited time that may be made available to us.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|