Register of Lords' Interests
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I welcome the Motion standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, although I cannot support it. I welcome it because I hope that it has cleared the air and removed some misunderstandings because with hindsight--I emphasise "with hindsight"--I think there might have been a better way of introducing the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, to the House; in other words, enabling the House to take account, at an earlier stage, of the fact that he had embarked on his inquiry.
When I first heard about the inquiry and received formal notice from the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on 8th March, it did not come as a surprise. It was--I use the expression used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer--not a "thunderbolt". It did not occur to me that any noble Lord would take exception to it. In that, I was clearly wrong. I looked at it as a Member of your Lordships' House who had served as a member of the Griffiths committee. Indeed, I spoke from these Benches when its report was discussed and approved on 1st November 1995. It seemed to me that as almost five years had since elapsed, there was an adequate case for another look at those matters. I noted that the House had been significantly reformed. One consequence of the changes is that now there are nearly 200 new Members who were not in the House at the time of the Griffiths committee report. All those reasons seem to be good ones for not being surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, should embark on his inquiry.
In addition, it seemed to me that public opinion was even more concerned about standards in public life than it had been five years ago. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said, we cannot ignore public perceptions about how we conduct our business if we are expected to recognise and to exercise the privileges, rights, and obligations of one of the two Houses of Parliament.
That is why I took it for granted that the inquiry of the Neill committee would cause no great surprise. However, I always took the view that the Griffiths committee, on which I served with the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, among others, was too limited in its scope and experience and even rather unprofessional. I do not believe that the House should pass responsibility to the great and the good, but, in my view, the new committee is better equipped to do the job. The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, said that it had the expertise needed for an inquiry. I am sure that she is right.
I concluded that it was perfectly reasonable that the Neill committee should conduct the inquiry. It did not seem to me that it was a cause for controversy. In that respect, I certainly misjudged the mood of some Members of the House. It seemed to me that the five reasons that led me to be "unsurprised"--if I may put it that way--by the arrival of the Neill committee are points that stand now. They are all relevant to the decisions we are called on to make.
Five years have elapsed since the Griffiths committee. The House has been significantly reformed. There are nearly 200 new Members. Public opinion and perceptions of this place are important, and the Griffiths committee or a successor committee of this House would not be fully equipped for the job. It seems to me that all those are very good reasons for why we should welcome the Neill committee and speed it on its way in the task that it has to do. However, with hindsight, it may have been better to approach the matter in a different way. It may have been better to report to the House the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, to undertake the inquiry and to ask formally for its co-operation. It may have been better for the Procedure Committee to have considered the request and to have been the agent by which the House made its decision. But that is in the past. That is the way in which we may view it with hindsight.
If mistakes were made, today we are picking up the pieces. For that reason, I welcome this debate, but that is not sufficient reason for failing to support the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer. I cannot support the Motion. I hope that on all sides of the House this will be a free vote. Certainly on these Benches it will be a free vote, although I recommend my noble friends to support the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, if it comes to a vote.
All sides have said that the House itself will finally decide. There is no dispute about that. In relation to self-regulation, again the House will regulate itself. It will either support the report of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, or amend it, or reject it. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Neill, may recommend, I believe that the House has the will and the strength to decide what is right for it in future. I have no anxiety on that account at all. I have more faith in your Lordships' House than some Members of the House appear to have.
The Neill committee will recommend. It cannot lay down rules. It will not infringe the constitutional sovereignty of the House. None of these matters is at stake. That is why we can and should support the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Neill.