Clause 1 — Expulsion and suspension of Members of the House of Lords

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:40 am on 6th March 2015.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 10:40 am, 6th March 2015

We were discussing these amendments last Friday. There was a Division and, because the House was not quorate, under the relevant Standing Order we have, in effect, gone back to the start. That does not mean that it is necessary for me to repeat everything that I said last week, because that is on the record. However, I will repeat the point that the Bill is a very serious piece of legislation, because it provides not only for the suspension from service of Members of the other place, but for their expulsion on the basis of breaches of conduct. My amendments are designed to ensure that the code of conduct in the House of Lords is linked specifically with the Bill, so that expulsions and suspensions can take place only for breaches of the code of conduct, rather than just for conduct, as currently set out in the Bill.

The precedent for my approach is none other than the contents of the 2012 House of Lords Reform Bill, which did not make progress because the Government were unwilling to allow the Bill to proceed to a full debate and wanted to control it by a guillotine process. That Government Bill specifically linked the code of conduct in the other place and powers to suspend or expel.

Last week, in the interests of brevity, I did not address amendments 6 and 19. To freshen our proceedings, it might be worth referring to those. They amount to the same thing. How do those two amendments fit into the Bill? The Bill provides in clause 1(4) that

“A resolution passed by virtue of subsection (1) must state that, in the opinion of the House of Lords, the conduct giving rise to the resolution—

(a) occurred after the coming into force of this Act”.

That is a proviso to ensure that the legislation cannot be retrospective and is limited by clause 1(4)(b), which says:

“or

(b) occurred before the coming into force of this Act and was not public knowledge before that time.”

We had some discussion of that last week. The issue is addressed in some of the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend Sir Tony Baldry.

After the words

“occurred after the coming into force of this Act”,

my amendment 6 would add the words

“and any Standing Orders made under subsection(1)”.

Without the amendment the following could happen. A Member of the other House could behave in a way that people found embarrassing, although their conduct was not in breach of the relevant Standing Orders and code of conduct of the House, but the code of conduct and the Standing Orders were subsequently changed in order to cover that scenario. In other words, without the safeguards set out in amendment 6 and/or amendment 19, it would be possible for the conduct giving rise to the expulsion or suspension to be conduct which, prior to the change in Standing Orders, would not have been in breach of them.

This is a straightforward issue of whether we support the principles of prospective rather than retrospective legislation. In the 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, I would have thought that we would be very much against introducing more scope for retrospection in our legislation. In fairness to my right hon. Friend Sir George Young, who is promoting the Bill in this place, he said, when I raised this issue in the Public Bill Committee:

“Serious issues have been raised. I will take advice on the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch raised about the issue of retrospectivity between the time that the Act comes into force and the Standing Orders being changed. I cannot promise any amendments, but I will see whether I can get some assurances that shed some light on that.”––[Official Report, House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Public Bill Committee, 4 February 2015; c. 13.]

The amendments are designed to ensure that we have the opportunity to put into the Bill the safeguards that my right hon. Friend, in fairness, accepted were reasonable. I therefore hope that they can be put into the Bill and that he will accept, in particular, amendment 6. I look forward to hearing from him all the reasons why the amendment is technically defective or in some other way falls short of the high standards that he has brought to legislation in this place throughout his very long career. Unless or until I hear what those technical objections are, it would be much better for us to insist that the other place deals with issues relating to discipline on a prospective basis rather than a retrospective basis.

We have had similar issues in our own House. The Standards Committee, on which I have the privilege of serving, dealt with the case of one of our right hon. Friends who was being sanctioned by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on the basis of a fresh interpretation of the rule book which, prior to that, had never been thought to be fair or reasonable. The Standards Committee said that if there was to be a reinterpretation of our code of conduct, it should be prospective rather than retrospective, and that we could not start condemning people for acts that they had had no reason to believe were in breach of the code.

The issue was whether someone should make a declaration of interest to the House—to a Committee—when they did not have an interest but might be thought by somebody to have an interest. Until now, it has always been thought that that referred to other knowledgeable people sitting in the Chamber or in a Committee. The commissioner interpreted it as meaning that it could apply to anybody—the person on the Clapham omnibus—such that if they heard somebody talk about a particular subject, even though that person did not have an interest that should be declared, it might seem as though they ought to have one, and that if the other person thought they might have an interest, there was a need to declare that. That is now being incorporated into the new code of conduct, but we took the view that it should not be incorporated with retrospective effect.

That is why amendment 6 is not a mere academic exercise; it goes to the heart of what is fair and reasonable in a rules-based organisation. Before people are accused of breaking the rules, they should know what those rules are, and the rules should not be changed after the conduct takes place just so the person can be brought to book for something embarrassing. That is the brief but fundamental point.

It is clear from the discussions I have had with my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire that he has sympathy for the amendment, but he may feel inhibited in accepting it, because the Bill is not his Bill. It does not even belong to its promoter in the other place; it is, essentially, like every Bill that comes here on a Friday, a proxy Bill for the Government, who have a veto over all such Bills.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Joseph Johnson will accept that amendment 6 would be a valuable addition to the Bill, rather than detract from it. If he has not had the chance to clear it with the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, I am sure he should not feel inhibited by that and he should feel able to express his view on behalf of the Government today.

The Medical Innovation Bill is also on today’s Order Paper. It was promoted in the House of Lords by my noble friend Lord Saatchi, who was led to believe, as the Bill was going through the other place, that it had the support of the whole Government, but then we read in the Sunday papers that apparently at no stage did it have the support of the Liberal Democrats, although they were not prepared to say so openly. I assume that the Bill being steered through the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire does have the support of the Liberal Democrats and that they support the principle that we should not legislate retrospectively in relation to conduct that could give rise to expulsion or suspension from the House.

On that basis, I have talked myself into quite an optimistic frame of mind, thinking that the amendment is so compelling that it is likely to be accepted not only by my right hon. Friend, but by my hon. Friend the Minister on behalf of the Government.