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House of Lords: Members' Conduct and Expenses


3.16 pm

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I wish to make a Statement.

Last year, when the House came under some scrutiny in relation to both Members' conduct and Members' expenses, I undertook to keep the House informed about major and relevant developments in this area. That is the purpose of my Statement today.

Although uninformed criticism seeks to paint this House as resistant to change, this House has embraced sensible change, including the Life Peerages Act 1958, proposed by the party opposite, and the House of Lords Act 1999, proposed by this side of the House. I can confirm the Government's intention to bring forward proposals for further reform of your Lordships' House.

In relation to financial support for Members of this House, a week today the House will debate proposals from the House Committee for long-term and permanent reform of the designation and declaration of Members' principal residences. The proposals are drawn from the work of the all-party ad hoc group established by your Lordships' House and chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, following a review of financial support for Members of this House carried out by the independent Senior Salaries Review Body. The ad hoc group has been dealing with some very difficult issues and is now considering further matters referred to it by the leaders in this House and by the Clerk of the Parliaments. As a result, the group's examination of these issues is unlikely to be available until after the forthcoming general election. However, in advance of that, the House will have before it next week a rigorous definition of what constitutes a Member's primary residence and associated requirements on declaration.

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As the report from the House Committee putting forward the new proposals states, a main weakness of the current system has been the inadequacy of the definition of what constitutes a Member's principal residence outside London. The proposals from the House Committee detail new arrangements for the future but, at the same time, the Clerk of the Parliaments has been considering a number of complaints against Members of the House under the current arrangements for Members' expenses, which the new proposals will replace. As part of his consideration of these complaints, the Clerk of the Parliaments set out some general principles for what the minimum threshold of residence might be and he sought the endorsement of the House Committee for these principles, including what the minimum frequency of stays in a Member's main residence should be. The criteria that he proposed were endorsed by the full House Committee on 26 January on behalf of the whole House. It is these criteria that were cited by the Director of Public Prosecutions last week in relation to a decision that he had taken in respect of a Member of this House following an investigation by the Metropolitan Police. There has been considerable media criticism following the decision by the DPP, including unfair and unjust criticism of the Clerk of the Parliaments in this House.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I deplore the media criticism of the Clerk of the Parliaments, who is a fine, conscientious and distinguished public servant.

The changes that we will be considering next week will replace and supersede any and all previous definitions or criteria and will give this House a clear and robust system. I believe that they are valuable and important improvements and I will be strongly recommending them to the House. The systems that I hope we will have in place will be reinforced by the decision before this House tomorrow on new guidance for the code of conduct for Members of the House, which the House approved last year following the report of the Leader's Group chaired by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. I look forward to the House approving the new guidance tomorrow.

I know that these are difficult issues. They are issues that make many Members, including me, feel uncomfortable. However, just as we took clear and decisive action last year on issues of conduct, which led to the suspension, unprecedented in modern times, of Members of this House, so, too, we are now taking clear and decisive action on the issues surrounding Members' principal residences. At all stages, all sides of this House have acted in concert and in agreement. I thank the leaders of the principal political parties in this House and the Convenor of the Cross Benches for their positive, constructive and consensual support. I undertake again to continue to keep this House informed of developments and I look forward to the important steps that I hope the House will now take.

3.21 pm

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for making that Statement and keeping the House informed. We face an enormous issue of public

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confidence in the House as a result of the actions-and perceived actions-of a few. It is a terrible day when the reputation of your Lordships' House is dragged through the mire. The overwhelming majority of Members of this House are honourable and act as such. I support the noble Baroness in the programme of action that she has outlined, which also included last year's unprecedented exclusion of two Peers found not to have acted in accordance with the code of conduct.

We will, indeed, debate a new code of conduct tomorrow, which I trust will be supported. I also support the debate that we shall have next week on the new proposed definition of a main residence, although I regret that we will be unable to introduce a new regime for expenses this side of a general election, albeit for reasons that I understand. The expenses system that we currently have was recommended not by the House but by the SSRB. As noble Lords know, we on this side proposed a system of reform of expenses that would have swept away the regime of second homes and shut down scope for abuse, but the SSRB, in its recent report, did not support it. I therefore do not accept that all wisdom on this subject lies outside this House and I reject the widespread attacks on your Lordships' House.

When abuse was uncovered, we moved with speed to put matters right. We must of course pay heed to public indignation and apologise for the causes, but the public should not underestimate the anger that most Peers-in what, let it not be forgotten, is an unpaid House-will feel against those guilty of abusing the trust of the House. There is a limit to what further comment I can make. Some cases will now be brought before the sub-committee on interests, where they must be heard with fairness but with the utmost rigour. I join the noble Baroness in rejecting the public attacks on the Clerk of the Parliaments, an outstanding servant of this House and a public official of the highest integrity. The Clerk of the Parliaments has, I know, tolerated no abuse; indeed, it was he who advised the House that it could revive its ancient powers to exclude Members guilty of misconduct.

As a layman, not a lawyer, I find it hard to see how a jury would not have taken a view on the whole range of factors on what constitutes a main residence, rather than a single point that, taken out of context, has received such publicity. I think that most of us know what constitutes a home and what does not. There will be grey areas, especially in a part-time, unpaid House, many of whose Members lead very different lives in recess. However, I venture to conclude with this: whatever the rights and wrongs in the small print, noble Lords who may have abused the system in any way should now examine their consciences and consider making amends for any profit that they have made in relation to what they will know, in their own minds, was not a main residence. I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for keeping us informed of these matters.

3.24 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, I associate myself and these Benches with both the Statement of the Leader of the House and the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition. This House has been well served by the

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fact that there has been no attempt by either the government or opposition sides to get into a nuclear arms race of indignation. Instead, we have addressed the difficult problem of moving from what I once described as a vaguely drawn and lightly policed system to a more precise and fit-for purpose system, which we have done with due concern for the issues at stake. We have been well served by the Leader of the House, the Lord Speaker and the Clerk of the Parliaments. I thought that the attacks on him were outrageous; the House has already indicated its feeling about those unworthy statements.

3.25 pm

Baroness D'Souza: I wholly support the Statement of the Leader of the House and the actions that have been and will be taken. I also look forward very much to the debates on the reports from the Privileges Committee and the House Committee that will take place this week and next week. I look forward to contributing at that time.

Sunbeds (Regulation) Bill

First Reading

3.26 pm

The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.

Child Trust Funds (Amendment) Regulations 2010

Motion to Approve

3.26 pm

Moved by Lord Myners

Motion agreed.

Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2010

Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Consequential Amendments No. 2) Order 2010

Tobacco Advertising and Promotion (Display of Prices) (England) Regulations 2010

15 Mar 2010 : Column 457

Protection from Tobacco (Sales from Vending Machines) (England) Regulations 2010

Motions to Approve

3.27 pm

Moved By Baroness Thornton

Motions agreed.

Building Societies (Insolvency and Special Administration) (Amendment) Order 2010

Motion to Refer to Grand Committee

3.27 pm

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motion agreed.

Building Societies (Financial Assistance) Order 2010

Motion to Refer to Grand Committee

3.27 pm

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motion agreed.

Digital Economy Bill [HL]

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill
Explanatory Notes

Third Reading

3.28 pm

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, before we begin the debate it may be helpful for me to say a few words about Third Reading amendments. In line with the procedure agreed by the House, the Public Bill Office advised the usual channels on Friday that two amendments on the Marshalled List for Third Reading today fall outside the guidance in the Companion on Third Reading amendments. On the basis of that advice, the usual channels recommend that Amendment 1, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and Amendment 6 in the names of the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, should not be moved. As ever, this is ultimately a matter for the House as a whole to decide.

Amendment 1 not moved.

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Clause 4 : Obligation to notify subscribers of reported infringements

Amendment 2

Moved by Lord Whitty

2: Clause 4, page 7, line 40, after "subscriber" insert "which have been the subject of notifications sent after the effective date of an order made by the Secretary of State under section 124H"

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am allowed to move Amendment 2, and in doing so I declare my usual interest as chair of Consumer Focus.

The amendment, which is fairly straightforward, is intended to ensure that notification of apparent breach of copyright by subscribers in a notification letter should not count towards any subsequent imposition of technical measures until after Parliament has decided that we should move to technical measures. However, I need to put this in a rather wider context. Those of your Lordships who have been present during earlier stages of this debate will know that I am not enamoured of Clauses 4 to 18, both from my concern as a consumer representative and from my concern about human rights. The Minister may be pleased to hear that I owe him an apology in relation to one aspect of the Bill where I misunderstood the intention. However, in general, although the Government have ameliorated some aspects of the Bill in the course of the Committee and Report stages, the basic problems still remain. So although this is a specific amendment, it goes to the heart of the way in which the Government propose to deal with the issue of online copyright infringement.

3.30 pm

I regret to say that during the course of our consideration of the Bill, we have seen one of the worst examples in my memory of the political parties being captured by a producer interest. That applies not only to the Government and the bringing forward of the Bill, but to the opposition Front Benches as well. Indeed, we had the extraordinary position of the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, including the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who I know to be a decent and liberal chap in most of his political endeavour, bringing forward an amendment-which is now Clause 18-that is actually more draconian than the Government's Clause 17. I hope that at some point, when we reach that stage, they will recognise the error of their ways.

Unfortunately, in terms of the balance of debate within this House, we seem to have a near unanimous position in support of the government proposals. Apart from the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, myself and one or two others who have appeared maverick in this debate, this House seems to have accepted the wisdom of going through a whole range of changes in our approach both to the law and to the way in which our digital media operate. We have imposed police powers on ISPs, which are reluctant to accept them. We have threatened several millions of our citizens with exclusion from the internet by administrative decree, with dubious means of identifying who was actually the perpetrator of the alleged

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infringement. We have seen the Government, putatively this House and other political parties backing protectionism rather than competition and innovation, moving towards an exclusion of people from digital access rather than the inclusion that the rest of the Bill-which I fully support-provides. It has landed us with a pretty much unenforceable law that will not get a penny back to the rights owners whom the legislation was intended to support.

Out there, however, there is no unanimity at all. There is a very widespread opposition to the Bill from individuals who feel threatened, from parents who are concerned that measures will be taken against them because of their children's use of the internet and from employers who are worried about the same thing in relation to their staff. Surveys conducted by my organisation, Consumer Focus, indicate that 75 per cent of the population do not understand what is lawful and unlawful in this context and that a rather higher proportion, when told what is lawful and unlawful, do not support those laws.

There are alternative ways of moving to a different system of accessing copyright material on the internet. Lawful systems of file-sharing exist in the music industry and elsewhere; it is just that they have a very low recognition by the public. The survey that we conducted showed that, of the 20 such systems that are or have been in operation, none has received an awareness level above single figures in percentage terms. Yet, ultimately, at various points in this debate, we have all agreed that a move to lawful systems of file-sharing is the aim of this measure.

Anxieties about the throttling or suspension of their internet connections have been expressed by people who will not be perpetrators. This includes not only businesses and parents, as I mentioned, but also the hotel trade-which provides access to the internet as part of its services to guests-libraries, colleges and other institutions whose students use the internet and wi-fi facilities. The Government have sort of acknowledged those anxieties but they have done nothing about changing the Bill to recognise them. They say that it will all be taken care of in the wash, as Ofcom develops its code with the industry, and that all these things will be clarified and no one needs to be anxious about them.

However, despite a few ameliorations, this is still a bad Bill. It is bad for the digital rights holders to press their interests in this way, when there are alternatives, and it is bad for the Government to risk alienation of a very significant part of the population by enforcing these measures. My noble friend Lord Puttnam-who probably takes a different view from me in terms of supporting the digital rights owners-said a very wise thing earlier in the debate, namely that the Bill would clearly have benefited greatly from pre-legislative scrutiny in which we could have looked at all the options.

Instead we have a Bill that does virtually nothing to encourage ways of bringing together the rights holders-the ISPs and lawful file-sharing operators-so that new business models could be developed. It could provide to the punters, and certainly to the casual users who are not making any money out of their

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copyright infringement, the ability to access cheaply, freely and flexibly through the new business models provided by those systems.

Surely that is the road that we should go down, to move from the impossibility of pursuing millions of people under these arrangements to a situation where there are lawful means of gaining access and the only people who will continue to be accused of infringement of copyright are those who are making money out of it or who are such mega-multiple-serial offenders that some punitive measures are necessary.

If we are to move to a more positive arrangement where most file-sharing is done lawfully, then an educational process will have to take place. All sides of the House have recognised that. My noble friend the Minister, like others, has said that stage 1 is an educational stage. However, it is not simply an educational stage. It is the beginning of measures whereby a subscriber can be designated and accused of an apparent infringement of copyright, which can eventually lead, through proceedings under the Bill, to a situation where draconian measures to throttle, cut off or suspend digital access are imposed.

As I said, I have an apology to make to the Minister. I misunderstood the provision on the second-tier appeals procedure, which I thought was another part of the body to be set up by Ofcom; in fact it is a separate body and has a quasi-judicial function. However, I am not entirely clear that that meets all the requirements of European law on the telecoms package. Even if it does, it does not alter the fact that, at the beginning of this process, an administrative body will be threatening and imposing a sanction that is not subject to due process and where the subscriber is effectively regarded as guilty until proved innocent.

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