Register of Lords' Interests

– in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 10th May 2000.

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Photo of Lord Rees-Mogg Lord Rees-Mogg Crossbench 8:15 pm, 10th May 2000

rose to move to resolve, That the House asserts its responsibility for the conduct of its own affairs and that the sub-committee of the Committee for Privileges should investigate the effectiveness of the House of Lords' Register of Interests.

Photo of Lord Rees-Mogg Lord Rees-Mogg Crossbench

My Lords, I am not addressing this matter as an ordinary piece of day-to-day business, but as a question of the constitutional sovereignty of this House. It has much wider significance than the immediate issue of the Neill committee or the Register of Interests. I am glad to see that the first part of my Motion, which reasserts the responsibility of this House for handling its own affairs, is effectively reaffirmed in the amendment proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell.

This principle is important not only to us, but to the other place as well. It is also essential to the independence of the judiciary, which reaches its summit in the Lords of Appeal. The Scottish Parliament was, I think, a sovereign body down to 1707. It is now a statutory, subordinate legislature. I think that they, too, will soon be claiming back the status that we already enjoy.

Tonight we have the opportunity to renew precedents which were considered by Lord Coleridge in 1884 in the famous constitutional case of Bradlaugh v. Gossett. Lord Coleridge, a great Lord Chief Justice who had been Gladstone's Attorney-General, summed up the constitutional doctrine:

"The jurisdiction of the Houses over their own numbers, their right to impose discipline within their walls, is absolute and exclusive".

Earlier cases trace that doctrine back to the earliest days of the British Parliament. It has always been regarded as an inherent part of parliamentary sovereignty.

Why is this so important? It protects both Houses of Parliament from arbitrary acts by the executive; paradoxically it also protects the other place from us. If each House of Parliament does not have its own absolute responsibility for its own discipline, then its disciplinary decisions can be taken to the courts. On ultimate appeal they would come to the House of Lords. In 1884 Lord Coleridge was protecting the other place from a potential appeal on a point of law to your Lordships' House.

Some people think that 1884 is a long time ago, but precedents can weaken through disuse. My Motion tonight, even if it should be amended, will put the matter beyond doubt for this new century.

That is the less contentious but more important part of my Motion. The more contentious part is that we should do the job to reform ourselves through our own committee structures and that we do not need to call in the Neill committee to do it for us. I should like to express my admiration for my noble friend Lord Neill of Bladen. This is not a criticism of him; I simply believe that we do not need his committee to do a job we ought to do for ourselves.

I am a self-reformer, on four grounds. First, I believe that we know the needs and circumstances of this House better than any outsiders can. Secondly, I believe that we undermine our independence if we bring in an outside body to do our job for us. Thirdly, the Neill--or previously the Nolan--committee, has been a constitutional anomaly from its first creation. Fourthly, the independence of this House is the eggshell which defends the infinitely valuable yolk of the independence of the judiciary. Before the executive can lean on the judges, as happens in many countries even today, it has to lean on us.

I remind the House that the Nolan committee was not established as a statutory body, as it could have been; nor has it ever been the subject of an affirmative resolution by either House, let alone both. It was established in October 1994 by the mere statement of a previous Prime Minister and has implicitly been maintained by the present one. It is an independent and cross-party committee, but it was set up by a Prime Minister and reports to the Prime Minister. It is paid for out of public funds. If it has any constitutional basis, it comes from an act of pure prerogative on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Of course, the prerogative power of the executive can establish a committee, just as it can send an army abroad. But the executive has no more right to tell us what to do in this House than King Charles I had the right to search the Palace of Westminster for the six Members. The executive has no more right to send a committee here without our consent than to do what Cromwell did, and send an army here. Our independence and the independence of the judiciary always need to be guarded against the presumption of the executive, just as in the United States the independence of the Senate and Supreme Court need to be protected from the power of the President.

It is the fourth point--the independence of the judiciary--which matters most. After the Griffiths committee, a committee of this House, had recommended the creation of a voluntary register (which has, in fact, so far led to no complaints) the Lords of Appeal decided that the independence and different situation of the judiciary required that they should none of them register an interest on that register. Now the Neill committee, an outside body which has great legal but not judicial experience, may be called in; it may recommend a compulsory register.

Probably the rules covering the whole judiciary should be reviewed, but the Lords of Appeal must be involved in the process, not merely consulted. The declaration of interest appropriate for a Peer speaking in a debate and a judge trying a case are not necessarily the same. The judges should make their own rules.

We are on the edge of having a de facto Supreme Court to consider human rights claims. It would be quite wrong to ask a committee established by the executive, with no judicial membership, to lay down the rules for the new judiciary. We should be moving towards a clearer separation of constitutional powers, not away from it.

This evening's earlier and excellent debate--for which I join my thanks with those of others to the noble Lord, Lord Peston--showed how many Members are concerned about the future development of this House. I fully share that feeling. I am a reformer, but I am a self-reformer. It is consistent with our historic independence and our historic responsibility that we should do the job ourselves, subject only to statute. In the case of the Neill committee there is no statutory basis whatever.

There will be great further changes in the composition and perhaps in the functions of your Lordships' House in the coming years. Perhaps the Law Lords, whom we so greatly value, will become a separate body; a free-standing Supreme Court. Some people regard that as inevitable. We ourselves have elected Members. But whatever happens, we should not compromise the independence or the sovereignty of this House, or our exclusive right and duty to reform our own disciplines. That would betray the future, whatever it may prove to be.

I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That the House asserts its responsibility for the conduct of its own affairs and that the sub-committee of the Committee for Privileges should investigate the effectiveness of the House of Lords' Register of Interests.--(Lord Rees-Mogg.)

Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour 8:25 pm, 10th May 2000

rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out from "House" to the end and insert "welcomes the enquiry into Standards of Conduct in the House of Lords by the Committee of Standards in Public Life, and asserts the House's ultimate responsibility for the conduct of its own affairs".

Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, moved his Motion in a typically moderate and constructive way. He has helped to define what lies between us and I believe that he has enabled me to discard the habits of a lifetime and to make my contribution a relatively brief one.

It may assist your Lordships, and perhaps reassure the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, if I begin by attempting to clarify what is not in issue in this debate. The major premise of the argument which the noble Lord has just deployed is common ground. Indeed, it is expressly included, as he said, in my amendment. One of the privileges of Parliament is the right of each House to regulate its own affairs--what is usually referred to as the privilege of exclusive cognisance. That is not in question. As the noble Lord reminded us, it was reiterated in 1884--I emphasise "reiterated"--rather than established, in the case of Bradlaugh v. Gossett. But it goes back much further than that. If it will assist the noble Lord, it was established in relation to your Lordships' House in 1677 in the case of Lord Shaftsbury (reported in Volume 1 of the Modern Reports).

Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour

My noble friend says he was there; some of us came a little later!

Simply in order not to be accused of misleading your Lordships, perhaps I may add by way of footnote and not by way of argument, that the privilege is sometimes easier to state in principle than to define in practice. Those noble Lords who would like to pursue the subject will find a discussion of it in the report last year of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which was chaired with great distinction by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, and on which I was privileged--in a quite different sense of that word--to serve.

But none of that is part of this debate. The right of your Lordships' House to make decisions relating to its own affairs is common ground. Where the noble Lord and I see the matter differently is over the question whether the right to take a decision is exercised more effectively by taking an informed decision, or by declining to take advantage of the information and reflections which are available.

As I understand it, no one is proposing that your Lordships' House should abdicate the right to take decisions or deliver that right into the hands of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen. What is proposed is that that committee should be invited to offer us the benefit of its deliberations and expertise--a formidable expertise it undoubtedly is--and that then, with that advantage, your Lordships' House should proceed to take the decisions which arise. Your Lordships may then decide to reject every observation and recommendation of the committee. But our decisions are likely to be better informed than if we close our eyes and minds to that resource. That would not in any way diminish the right of the House to take exclusive cognisance of its own affairs. Indeed, it is normal for the two Houses of Parliament to seek the best information and advice before making any decisions. As I understand it, that is the purpose of our having a Printed Paper Office.

The committee has invited us individually to submit comments and evidence. Any noble Lord or noble Baroness is entitled to decide the extent to which he or she will respond. It would be surprising--perhaps I may anticipate what the committee may decide--if the committee failed to take account of the differences between the two Houses that were mentioned in the previous debate, particularly that Members of your Lordships' House act in a voluntary capacity and, of course, are more likely than Members of the other place to have outside interests from which arises a valuable source of expertise. If, amazingly, the committee were to overlook those differences, the remedy would lie in your Lordships' hands when assessing its report.

The difference between the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, and myself, as I perceive it, is whether the House should wait until the report of the committee is available to us, or whether it should proceed to take decisions without even reading what the committee has to say. Of course, sometimes it is simpler to reach a conclusion without being confused by the facts, but usually they improve the quality of the conclusions.

I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I say that one aspect of what he said rather puzzled me. A visitor listening to his speech and to what he said in The Times on 10th April, might have assumed that the proposal that the committee should look at our practices burst like a thunderbolt on a previously unsuspecting world. When the committee originally chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, was established in 1994 under the previous administration, it was always contemplated that after considering the other place it would turn its attention to your Lordships' House. Indeed, that was confirmed in another place by the then Prime Minister in answer to a parliamentary Question on 31st October 1994 (at col. 913 of Commons Hansard). In fact, his answer had been anticipated by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, in your Lordships' House on 25th October (at col. 471 of Lords Hansard).

Even a superficial glance at the debate on the 5th report of the Select Committee on Procedure--usually referred to as the Griffiths report--would reveal not only that it was generally accepted that that was in the terms of reference of the Nolan committee, but also that no one suggested at that time that it was improper or that the proposal should be resisted. The only element that was not predicted at that time was how long it would be before the committee felt able to proceed to that step. The assumption in that debate was that it would happen quite quickly.

Perhaps I may move to a more pragmatic consideration. I beg to doubt whether the reputation and dignity of your Lordships' House would be best served if it were to appear that we do not want our affairs to be investigated objectively. Of course, it should go without saying that we all recognise that that is not the motivation of the noble Lord; but we live in a world where, contrary to Plato's teaching, perceptions are often more real than reality.

The contemporary discourse of our generation emphasises two key words--"accountability" and "transparency". We may approve or disapprove of that, but our disapproval will not set back the clock of history. If it were to appear that we resented any inquiry into our affairs, the public reaction at the very best would be that we alone, of all the estates and conditions of people in the realm, claim to be above and beyond public scrutiny. At the worst, the reaction would be, "What have they to hide?" That would not be conducive to either the reputation or the dignity of this House.

I do not believe that there would transpire to be any evidence of impropriety in this House. Would it not be wholly beneficial if that were to be made manifest? I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out from "House" to the end and insert "welcomes the enquiry into Standards of Conduct in the House of Lords by the Committee of Standards in Public Life, and asserts the House's ultimate responsibility for the conduct of its own affairs".--(Lord Archer of Sandwell.)

Photo of Viscount Cranborne Viscount Cranborne Conservative 8:34 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, the whole House ought to be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, for the Motion that he proposed so elegantly--indeed, if I may say so, predictably elegantly--this evening. With the greatest respect, I should also like to say to the Leader of the House that I am sorry that we had to wait for the noble Lord to introduce this matter rather than the noble Baroness coming to this House and telling us frankly what was in the wind, thereby giving us an opportunity to debate it in government time. No matter what view your Lordships may take individually of what we are discussing, this matter, for reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, made so abundantly clear, seems to me to be one of very great importance.

I shall turn to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said in a few moments, but perhaps I could remind noble Lords that about five years ago, and largely prompted by me when I was Leader of the House--though this may be the glow of glorious recollection--your Lordships asked the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, to chair a sub-committee of the Procedure Committee to examine the question of Members' interests. I believe that your Lordships were wise to ask the noble and learned Lord to do so, for a number of reasons.

Noble Lords will remember that there was more than a little public unease about the probity of some Members of another place at the time. It was clearly important that this House should show that it placed the highest possible premium on probity. As the noble and learned Lord recalled a few moments ago, I acknowledged to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, on 25th October 1994, that this House clearly came within the scope of the remit of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Indeed, that was something that I confirmed at the time. I believe that I am also right in saying that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who was then the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, who was then the chairman of the new committee, and a number of other noble Lords fully expected the committee to turn its attention to your Lordships' House as its second inquiry.

I hope that your Lordships will allow me to explain why I thought then, and do so now, that the attention that all noble Lords expected to be turned by the committee on to our affairs was a bad and a dangerous idea. The Committee on Standards in Public Life was established on the authority of my then boss and the previous Prime Minister, my right honourable friend Mr Major. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, so ably demonstrated, it was, therefore, ultimately established--if it was established under any authority--under the authority of the Royal Prerogative.

As the noble Lord also pointed out, the history of this Parliament has, to a very large extent, been the history of its struggle to establish its independence of the Crown--something that we have always particularly valued in this House. I suggest that part of that independence has been its unfettered right to regulate its own affairs--a right which both the noble Lord and the noble and learned Lord emphasised tonight. However, I believe that we should also consider the practicalities as well as the theory in these matters. After all, the practicalities very often lead to a change in the theory. It is that to which I wish to address the burden of my remarks this evening.

It is perhaps a measure--and I say this with very great sorrow--of how feeble another place has become, as well as of the climate prevalent in 1994, that it so readily accepted my right honourable friend's suggestion that it should be investigated by a committee whose authority ultimately came from the Crown.

The noble Lord, Lord Neill, has argued that it is open to both Houses of Parliament to accept and reject the committee's recommendation. Indeed the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, deployed the same argument with his usual elegance a moment ago. In theory, of course, that is true. However, I think that all noble Lords will agree that to a substantial extent in the present climate it is not as true as we would like it to be. That is so first because we have developed what I think is an increasingly unfortunate habit in this country of relying on the judgment of the great and good rather than on the judgment of Parliament. No one respects the great and good more than I do but I hope that noble Lords will agree that however great and good they may be, ultimately Parliament is greater and better.

Immediately there are consequences of that increasing dependence, which is in itself perhaps the sign of the crisis of self-confidence that afflicts Parliament, notably another place. Immediately this means that Parliament dares not disagree with the judgments of the great and good, even though in my experience--I say this with the greatest of respect to them--they are wrong at least as often as Parliament is. It has a further consequence. In the longer term it means that it has become increasingly difficult for the great and good to become parliamentarians themselves, and Parliament increasingly loses its authority as a result.

Secondly, in practice we cannot oppose the recommendations that may come from this committee of the great and good because we shall, to put it crudely, be frightened of being accused by the Government and the press--as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, made clear--of wishing to cover up all kinds of wrongdoing, however innocent of wrongdoing we might be. Noble Lords know at least as well as I--after all, the Government of today practise this device perhaps more effectively and more worryingly than almost any of their predecessors--that the two questions, "When did you last see your father?" and "When did you stop beating your wife?", have always been virtually impossible questions for the weak to answer, particularly when they have been posed by the strong. This is not a matter, I suggest, the practicalities of which have been addressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, in his remarks a moment ago, despite his valiant efforts to do so.

It therefore seems to me that the authority under which any inquiry into Members' interests in your Lordships' House is conducted is a practical and important matter rather than merely a theoretical and abstruse debating point of the kind that it has been characterised as being by some commentators, and, I am sure, will be characterised as being from certain quarters during the remainder of this debate. This is particularly important as neither House of Parliament has had a chance to examine the qualifications and prejudices of the committee's staff of advisers, which I understand is considerable. Before we are investigated in practical terms it would be extremely useful to know who they are, where they come from, what their existing opinions are and whether they are as balanced as we would hope.

I think that it would be a good idea to review our present arrangements with regard to Members' interests. It is, after all, about five years since we introduced them. As noble Lords are wont to observe, the composition and nature of this House have changed pretty radically of late. I believe that the public would expect that any review that we conducted should be seen to be well conducted, thorough and, to use the word of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, "transparent". I hope that the public would also want to be satisfied that the Government were not using such a review as a way of emasculating your Lordships' House. If I were the public, I would be worried at the way the Government so clearly resent our independence. It would be all too easy for the Government to use a review by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and a review of our procedures, to emasculate us, to their great convenience and to the disadvantage, ultimately, of the electorate.

Therefore it seems to me that there may be an obvious way to get out of what I think is not just a theoretical but a practical difficulty. Perhaps it would be sensible for the House to reconvene a sub-committee of the Procedure Committee. Perhaps we should ask the noble Lord, Lord Neill, who has the great advantage--that is also to our advantage--of being a Member of your Lordships' House, to chair it. Perhaps that committee should be instructed to conduct as much of its proceedings in public as possible.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount. He is invoking our independence. Does he remember an occasion on 7th May 1996 when this House, by carrying the amendment to the then Defamation Bill which allowed Mr Neil Hamilton his day in court, incorporated our privilege in statute and therefore, for the first time in our history, made it subject to the scrutiny of another place? Will the noble Viscount, who is now straining at a gnat, explain to us why he then swallowed a camel?

Photo of Viscount Cranborne Viscount Cranborne Conservative

My Lords, the memory of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is something I should always beware of. I remember as vividly as he does--and, I am sure, as vividly as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, does--that particular debate on the matter of Section 9 of the Bill of Rights. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I have conducted various conversations on that subject. He will remember that at that time I was as anxious about that matter as the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It is perhaps indiscreet of me to say so, but the noble Earl may know that, perhaps in rather an unorthodox way, I alerted the noble Lord, Lord Richard, to what I thought were the inherent dangers of that piece of legislation.

I return to the conclusion of what I was about to say. I apologise that I have spoken for even longer than the first two speakers. Transparency could be achieved by holding hearings in public. It seems to me that this formula meets all the real objections put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, to this way of proceeding rather than following the Neill committee's formula. I have heard it said that the fellow commissioners and staff of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, would object to such a matter. That is a serious difficulty but noble Lords may legitimately ask, in view of the issues at stake, which is the lesser of two evils.

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench 8:47 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest. I am the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life whose activities have given rise to this debate. It is a remunerated position on a part-time basis. The remuneration is a matter of public record.

I consider the function of my speech to lay certain facts before noble Lords in an objective manner. I wish to stress the history of this matter in a little more detail than noble Lords have heard before. I wish also to identify certain factors that I should like noble Lords to have in mind, some of them being factors which animate the approach of the committee.

My desire is to be non-contentious. I am a Cross-Bencher. The only thing I regret so far in the whole of this matter is some injection of party spirit or animus into what should be a debate rather like the previous one initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. I believe that he said that it should not matter where one sits in the House or what one says; the debate should be completely non-political. I should have thought the subject matter of what we are discussing this evening fell into that category. I shall not, of course, vote either on the Motion or on the amendment as I do not think that that would be proper.

It is an historical fact that in October 1994 the then Prime Minister created a committee to be called the Committee on Standards in Public Life. He did that with the assent of the other parties in another place. Whether he did that pursuant to prerogative powers is not a matter which I propose to enter into. I think he did it on the basis that any Minister of the Crown can appoint a working party, a committee or any similar body to assist in public functions. That matter is much simpler than people make out.

Very quickly the question arose, "Does the remit of this committee extend to the House of Lords?" The first answer to that question was given in this House by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, who said "Yes", and added words to the effect of "and a good thing, too"--because he would not want a situation where your Lordships' House was outside the remit and another House was within it. The Prime Minister gave the same reply in a Written Answer (Official Report, Commons, 31/11/94; WA913). So there is no question but that the man who conceived the origin of the committee thought that it should have jurisdiction, if that is the right term--or certainly a remit--to go into all public bodies, including both Houses of Parliament.

As the House has heard, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, became the first chairman. He set out, very briskly, the following month, in November, on a wide-ranging inquiry which he certainly intended to cover both Houses of Parliament. He wrote to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, on 23rd November 1994, stating:

"At the second meeting of this committee we considered whether our remit covers matters affecting the House of Lords. Our conclusion was that it does. I am therefore writing to make preliminary contact to let you know that we shall be considering matters affecting the House of Lords and to give you some idea of how we expect to proceed".

He then referred to an issue of a questions paper that was then in contemplation. He continued:

"During our first six months we shall be concentrating on three main areas"-- the first of which was--

"issues affecting MPs and Peers"

One may note that there, rightly or wrongly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, did not say, "I seek your consent" or "your blessing"; he simply said that the decision had been taken and that he was proceeding with that inquiry.

The noble Viscount replied and referred to the fact that it was in contemplation that a sub-committee to the Procedure Committee would be set up. That happened very rapidly and by the month of December 1994 the Griffiths sub-committee of the Procedure Committee was in existence. Then the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, who had a very large remit and a number of other matters to cover, decided that he would stand back, if that is the right phrase, and wrote to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, on 13th February 1995, stating:

"I understand that your committee is not likely to have completed its work by the time we need to complete our first report. I propose therefore that this committee"-- that is the Nolan committee--

"defer consideration of issues relating to the House of Lords until your committee has completed its work. Once your committee has reported we shall then be able to take its conclusions into account before submitting any recommendations which we may make in this and related areas for the consideration of the House".

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, replied:

"The members of the sub-committee are in unanimous agreement with the course that you suggest".

So a perfectly clear procedure was thereupon agreed: the Nolan committee would not look at the House of Lords and the Griffiths committee would carry on with its work. But in fact the reports came out in the reverse order. The first report was from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan--it came out in May--and the Griffiths sub-committee reported in July.

There was then a debate in this House on 1st November, the issue being whether that report should be adopted by the House. Your Lordships will know that that is indeed what happened. The report of the Griffiths committee was adopted here but it was said--I informed your Lordships about this in a letter that I wrote to every Member of the House--that it was plainly contemplated that Nolan would be returning to this problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, wrote:

"Your Lordships will be aware that the Committee on Standards and Conduct in Public Life is proposing to consider matters relating to this House in the near future. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, has indicated that it would not cause his committee any difficulty if the House were to accept the recommendations of the sub-committee in whole or in part in advance of that consideration".

It could not be clearer on the record but that the Nolan committee was standing ready, in due course, to look at the recommendations made in the Griffiths report.

In fact, the Nolan committee was put to work on other topics that were thought to be more pressing: local public spending bodies was one; serious problems in local government was another. That completed the three-year term of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan. I was then appointed as chairman.

Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour

My Lords, simply for the avoidance of doubt, when I said that the Nolan committee did not proceed to look at your Lordships' House as quickly as had been expected, I did not imply any criticism of any kind. I just wanted to make that clear.

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I did not understand him to be expressing a criticism. I expressed myself badly if I used words which implied that.

In the autumn of 1997, I succeeded the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, as chairman of the committee. On that occasion we were given a remit to look into the funding of political parties. Your Lordships will be aware that a Bill on that topic, which followed the report of the committee, is now in front of your Lordships' House.

Last year we produced another report in which we looked again at the House of Commons, which had been discussed in great detail in our first report.

At the end of last year the committee decided that the time was right to look at this House. Many changes had taken place which had altered the composition of the House and we thought, as a committee, that this is what we should do next, having declared our intention to do it about four years ago.

We so informed the Government. Those who say that we are poodles, lap dogs or whatever other form of beast they might like to suggest, are mistaken. This was our proposal; it was what we were intending to do and it was at our initiative.

I then followed precisely the precedent set by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, and I wrote to the Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. I informed her of what we were doing in embarking on this inquiry and I sought her guidance. I wrote:

"I am anxious that we should proceed in a manner which is procedurally correct and also courteous to the House".

I was very anxious that we should do that.

The noble Baroness replied on 6th March that she welcomed our decision. She said:

"I welcome your decision to take forward this long-standing commitment".

She said that the best way of handling the matter would be by a Written Question and Answer, which she would arrange. That came out very quickly because there was going to be a leak in the press, which we knew about, and it was published at high speed.

The noble Baroness also said that the right thing to do was to write to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde; to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers; and to the Convenor of the Cross Benches, which I duly did. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said:

"I hope that you will let me know how you think I can best assist your work".

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, thanked me for letting him know of the inquiry, and said:

"In due course we will be deciding whether we wish to present any evidence to you on behalf of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords".

I had a letter from the Convenor stating that he had informed the Cross-Benchers of what was in train.

There was no suggestion at any of those points that something deplorable was taking place that threatened the sovereignty of this House. May I make it crystal clear--as I did in a letter that I addressed to your Lordships and in a letter that I addressed to The Times--that when our report comes to be written, it can be approved, amended or rejected and thrown into the River Thames, which is adjacent. All that lies within your Lordships' power. I do not, with respect, accept the argument of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that somehow the pressures will be so great that this House will slavishly have to adopt what we have written.

That is not what happened in the Commons with the first Nolan report. Although the spirit of Nolan was accepted, many of the detailed recommendations were revised, reviewed, and some of them were jettisoned. So there was complete consideration by the House of Commons. But I fully accept that the Nolan report was very influential on what happened.

As to future procedure, all our hearings will be in public. They will take place in the months of June and July. We shall be inviting witnesses to come and speak to their special interests. Our hope is that many Members of this House will be willing to give evidence. I have spoken to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who, as the chairman of the Association of Conservative Peers, is going to put in a written submission, and it is correct that he should be on the list of witnesses whom we shall invite.

The points I should like to make--I know that I have trespassed long on your Lordships' time--are as follows: this inquiry is not based on any allegation of impropriety, misconduct or--to use a modern word--"sleaze". This is not a sleaze witch-hunt. The papers are not full of allegations about misconduct in the House of Lords. Such allegations are entirely absent. No such remarks are made in the public press. We are not proceeding on that basis. The principle which animates us is, as I have endeavoured to formulate in the press release, that the public rightly expects that holders of public office should set for themselves the highest possible standards of conduct. Nowhere is this more true than in connection with members of the legislature. So our inquiry will be to see whether this House is setting for itself the highest possible standards. We hope to hear evidence directly from Members of the House who think the answer to that very question is "yes".

My committee is absolutely independent. It was set up, it is true, by the Prime Minister, but what we write and what advice we give is completely independent of the Government. The next major fact is that we have no major power whatsoever. We cannot even summon a witness. If someone does not wish to come and give evidence to the committee, we have no way of compelling that person. The powers of this House will remain completely unaffected by anything we write or recommend. Nothing that we will be doing will contravene the judgment of Lord Coleridge in Bradlaugh v. Gossett or in any other of the revered constitutional cases which could be cited. Regarding the differences between the two Houses, of course we shall take account of those. We would be mad if we did not. Of course, it is a critical fact that Members of this House are not remunerated. The impact of that is something that requires mature and careful consideration.

The committee will bring an open mind to this problem. Any noble Lord who has read the six reports which have so far been promulgated by the committee could hardly fail to recognise the quality of independence. Your Lordships may not agree with the reports, but they are certainly independent.

Perhaps I may finally say that my wish or hope is, as I have said before, that your Lordships will assist the committee in its work. If we have asked questions which are misconceived, say so. If the answers to some questions are completely obvious, please tell us. The better the quality of the evidence, the better the report will be. When that report comes in, of course your Lordships will be free to do with it what you will.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to ask one question. Does the noble Lord accept that the question put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer--as I understand it, the question was this: does the noble Lord agree that it is for this House to invite the committee to conduct its investigation into our affairs?--could, if the answer is "yes", be a contempt of this House: to investigate without our consent?

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench

My Lords, I do not want to equivocate on the matter of language. The word that I like is the word in the Motion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and in the letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that this House "welcomes" the inquiry. I do not think that we should be in the position of being invited to do it because I believe we are an independent committee.

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench

My Lords, noble Lords express surprise. They could not have been following the drift of my earlier argument because I stressed that part of the letter of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, in which he informed the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that an inquiry was going to be conducted. It was not saying, "May we have leave to do so?" I think that it would be a completely false position for the committee, of which I currently have the honour to be chairman, to seek the permission of, or to request an invitation from, the proposing body.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative

My Lords, with respect, with the leave of the House, does not the noble Lord accept that it is not for the noble Baroness the Leader of the House or for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, as Leader of the Opposition; it is for the House as a whole to resolve the position?

Photo of Baroness Goudie Baroness Goudie Labour 9:06 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I welcome the decision of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, to hold an inquiry into the rules of conduct and disciplinary procedures. I have been most disappointed by the reactions of some of the Members of this House. Regarding the idea that this is a government plot, let me remind the House that the original terms of reference were set down by the right honourable John Major, Prime Minister in 1994, and covered Members of both Houses. The only reason the original Nolan committee did not look at this House was that the Committee of the Upper House, under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, was already looking at the issue. The Nolan, now the Neill, committee has shown its value, in particular on the difficult issue of party political funding. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill is to be dealt with by this House in Committee tomorrow and will give transparency to party political funding. The majority of the Bill is based on the report of the Nolan committee of 1995.

Let us remind ourselves of the seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. The Neill committee is the correct body to look at this House. The role of this House has changed. The majority of us are here by choice and have outside interests. None of us has anything to fear from transparency. I have submitted my views to the Committee. I believe that the register of Members' interests should be compulsory and should include income and all hospitality and gifts over £140, and should specify if one is a chair or president of a voluntary body.

Photo of Lord Trefgarne Lord Trefgarne Conservative 9:07 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I think it is important to emphasise that our debate today is about the mechanics of any inquiry, not the principles. Back in 1994 when the Committee on Standards in Public Life was first set up under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, your Lordships swiftly, and in my view rightly, moved to set up a Select Committee under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, to look into the questions being addressed by Lord Nolan. I believe that that was entirely right and I regret very much that we have not followed a similar course now. Indeed, I took the liberty several weeks ago of writing to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the Leader of the House, suggesting that course. I am sorry that she does not agree. But let me emphasise again that I have no difficulty with the idea of an inquiry. Indeed, I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Neill, who now chairs the committee--he confirmed it again this evening--that I shall be asked to give evidence. I look forward to that. I am my Back Bench colleagues will be submitting in the near future a detailed response to the noble Lord's consultative paper.

None the less, I very much agree with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, and my noble friend Lord Cranborne that it really would have been much better for this inquiry to have been conducted by a committee of the House rather than a wholly external body appointed for the purpose by the Prime Minister, although of course I recognise the independence of the body, which the noble Lord, Lord Neill, emphasised.

The noble Lord has said on several occasions that his committee is a purely advisory one and that it is open to the House to accept, modify or reject any proposals that he may make. But the plain fact is that, once the committee reports, given the eminence of its members and the high respect which it rightly enjoys, the House will find it difficult to do other than for the most part go along with the recommendations, whatever they may be. The noble Lord, Lord Neill, has been at pains to emphasise that his colleagues have as yet reached no conclusions on the answers to the various questions posed in the consultative paper. But I do have to say to the noble Lord that the fact that he has chosen to pose some questions at least, to which the answer to anyone with the slightest knowledge of your Lordships' House is perfectly obvious, had led some to fear that the noble Lord and his colleagues may have already formed some preliminary views on those matters. I, of course, accept that that is not so, but others who know the noble Lord less well may take a different view.

I want at this point to make it absolutely clear that I have the highest possible regard for the noble Lord, Lord Neill, himself. I would go further. I have reason to be personally most grateful to the noble Lord for assistance that he gave me on a past occasion. It is therefore with great personal regret that I find myself not wholly at one with the noble Lord on this matter. But our differences are ones of mechanics, not principle.

It was, of course, well known that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, had intended to conduct a further study into the affairs of your Lordships' House. He made this clear at the time when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, began his work five years ago. The noble and learned Lord felt that other matters were more pressing in the interim and it has therefore fallen to the noble Lord, Lord Neill, toward the end of his term of office, to conduct this inquiry. When the noble Lord leaves his post later this year, as I gather he intends to do, there will still be some tasks undone. For example, it would seem that the noble Lord will not have time in his term of office to inquire into the affairs of the Members of the European Parliament, nor for that matter the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.

Despite the evidently satisfactory nature of the Griffiths arrangements and the lack of public concern--which the noble Lord repeated--regarding your Lordships' affairs, the noble Lord none the less decided to complete the work begun by the noble and learned lord, Lord Nolan. I am slightly surprised that he did so, but so be it. That is entirely a matter for him. I am not aware of any noble Lord with anything to hide and I hope that many noble Lords will submit their views to the committee.

It is entirely necessary, as the noble Lord, Lord Neill, well recognises, for him to come to his task from a completely apolitical standpoint and for his committee to be completely above reproach in that regard. There are, however, two points which I feel obliged to make. First, I must refer to the passage in his consultative paper which raises questions about the interests of Opposition spokesmen in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord has explained that these questions were inserted following one letter from a Labour Member of Parliament. I wonder how wise it was to include questions instigated by just one government Back-Bencher. The noble Lord has said that he anticipates that the evidence on this matter will be "all in one direction". I daresay it will.

My second point relates to composition of the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Neill, is a distinguished Cross-Bencher; the noble Lord, Lord Shore, is a distinguished member of the Labour Party; the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is a distinguished member of the Liberal Democrat Front Bench in your Lordships' House. But the other bodies in your Lordships' House are singularly absent. I refer not only to the Conservative Party, which is the largest single group: the noble and learned Lords are not represented; nor are the right reverend Prelates, the Bishops. Of course, I recognise that my right honourable friend John MacGregor is a member of the committee, and a very distinguished man he is too, but he is not a Member of your Lordships' House. Is it too late to ask the noble Lord, Lord Neill, to look again at the membership of his committee in this regard? He will no doubt say that this is a matter for the Prime Minister, as indeed it is.

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? It is a matter for the party leaders. To clarify the point, the three political appointments--Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour--are nominated by the parties.

Photo of Lord Trefgarne Lord Trefgarne Conservative

My Lords, I accept that. However, were the noble Lord to think that he needed additional representation on his committee, I dare say the Prime Minister would move to meet his wishes.

I say again that I have absolutely no problem with an inquiry five years on into the arrangements established following the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. I regret that the inquiry is being conducted by a body outside the House; however, I take comfort from the assurances of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, that he will have full regard to the evidence that he receives. I hope that every noble Lord who has views to express will send them in as the noble Lord has asked.

I also acknowledge the assurances of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, that his committee is a wholly advisory one. Although technically he reports to the Prime Minister, his recommendations when they come are purely a matter for the House and not for the Prime Minister or the Government. I imagine, therefore, that in due course the recommendations will be subject to careful scrutiny by your Lordships--perhaps by a Select Committee established for the purpose.

I repeat that it would have been much better had the inquiry been conducted by a committee of the House. Such a committee could have been chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill; it could have included the noble Lords, Lord Shore and Lord Goodhart, and doubtless there would have been others. I repeat that I know of no noble Lord who has anything to hide, and I and my colleagues will, therefore, co-operate fully with the noble Lord's committee.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat 9:15 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I speak as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Like the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, I must declare a direct pecuniary interest. I shall be paid for any day on which I sit as a member of the committee during the hearings on this matter. For that reason, if the matter comes to a vote, as I very much hope it will not, I shall not vote.

I believe that this issue has been blown up seriously out of proportion. I have a relatively short series of numbered points to make. First, the inquiry, as the noble Lord, Lord Neill, explained, is not proposed on the basis of any allegations of dishonourable conduct by any person in relation to the business of the House. Individual Members of the House have in the past acted dishonestly in matters of business or in their private life. Some, indeed, have gone to prison. No doubt that will happen again in the future. But there is no suggestion here of any institutional sleaze.

Secondly, it is absolutely clear that we are not acting on behalf of the Government or at the instigation of the Government. The member of the Labour Party who is its nominee on the Neill committee is the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney. I think it fair to say that, if anything, the noble Lord is rather more hostile to new Labour and the present Government than I am. Frankly, I resented the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, about the political views of our staff. I believe it was offensive to the staff to imply that they were unable to act in accordance with the traditions of political impartiality in the Civil Service. I believe that it is offensive also to members of the committee to suggest that we are liable to be hoodwinked by politically motivated staff.

Thirdly, there has been a change in the composition of this House which makes this an appropriate time to return to a review of the disclosure rules. All Members of the House are now here by choice--either by virtue of having accepted a nomination to a life peerage, or by virtue of having chosen to stand for election as a representative hereditary Peer. That raises the question: are the very wide distinctions between the disclosure rules of this House and those of another place justified, assuming that they were justified previously?

Fourthly, all members of the Neill committee are aware of the significant differences that still exist between this House and the other place. It is known to all of us that Members of this House are not paid a salary, and that younger Members--"younger" in this context is a relative term!--need to earn a living and can only attend part-time. Those factors are plainly relevant to any question of divestiture of interests by Front Bench spokesmen as well as to disclosure of interests.

The letter from Mr Kemp is not the only reason why this is an appropriate matter for investigation. Your Lordships may remember that at the beginning of February Mr Archie Norman, on his appointment as an Opposition Front Bench spokesman in the House of Commons, was required as a result of public pressure to resign from his directorships of Railtrack and Asda. This matter is not based simply on the issues raised by Mr Kemp.

Fifthly, the members of the Neill committee are also fully aware of the value of the expertise of Members of your Lordships' House in business, agriculture, science, medicine, law, the armed services and many other fields. It is clear, and accepted, that no rules should prevent those who know most about a subject from speaking on it.

I believe that the sixth point is an important one. All organisations benefit from being studied and reported on by an independent and objective external body. That is why we have Royal Commissions and inspectors of schools and prisons, although far be it from me to suggest that your Lordships' House has anything in common with either a school or prison. Internal reviews are not valueless, but undoubtedly external ones are much more useful. I do not believe that your Lordships' House should take a high and mighty line and say that any external audit of its rules is inappropriate.

Seventhly, the Neill committee is advisory only, as pointed out by both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, and the noble Lord, Lord Neill, himself. If we recommend changes it is entirely up to your Lordships' House whether to adopt, reject or amend them. In this context Bradlaugh v. Gossett is entirely irrelevant.

The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that your Lordships' House would be unable in practical terms to reject the advice of the Neill committee once it was given. That has not happened in the other place and I am not sure why it should happen here. It is illogical to say that your Lordships' House can reject the whole of this inquiry but cannot reject any one recommendation which results from it.

Eighthly, I do not believe that it is in the interests of your Lordships' House to refuse co-operation with the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We are, after all, one of the Houses of Parliament and are legislators. Our rules of conduct are a matter of legitimate public interest. We simply cannot say that they are a matter for us and no one else. I do not believe we can, or should, say that we shall not allow any outsiders to look at the rules and comment on them. If this Motion is passed unamended, people will say, perhaps rightly, that your Lordships' House is stuck in a time warp. As someone who greatly respects the work of your Lordships' House and enjoys the enormous privilege of taking part in its work, I do not wish to see its reputation damaged in any way. I believe that that would be the result if this Motion were passed without amendment.

As a member of both your Lordships' House and the Neill committee I shall not support any proposal that I believe damages the role of this Chamber as one of the Houses of Parliament. I believe that all my colleagues on the Neill committee share that view. We are an independent and objective body in so far as any group of human beings can be objective.

Photo of Lord Rees-Mogg Lord Rees-Mogg Crossbench

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord as a member of the Neill committee whether he agrees with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, that the committee is neither a statutory nor prerogative body? If so, can he tell the House what he thinks the Neill committee is?

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat

My Lords, we are not a statutory body. That fact is well known. However, the costs are paid out of the Consolidated Fund and we are operating, it seems to me therefore, by virtue of a prerogative. But that does not mean that we are acting on behalf of the Government.

The proposed report is not, and I believe cannot be, a threat in any way to the independence of your Lordships' House or of the judiciary.

Photo of Lord Crickhowell Lord Crickhowell Conservative 9:24 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I am one of those who believes that the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, has rendered a considerable service by raising this issue and by the important speech he made tonight. The noble Lord made clear that there are two issues, which should be kept separate. The first concerns the kind of regime we should have to control our conduct; the second is the constitutional issue which he described.

We have heard how, in 1994, the Prime Minister of the day, John Major, on his own initiative responded to a crisis created by a handful of individuals by setting up the Committee on Standards in Public Life. In the circumstances that prevailed at the time, it is not surprising that Parliament went along with the Prime Minister's decision. What is perhaps a little more surprising is that five and a half years later even those who feel deeply anxious that Parliament's control and scrutiny of the executive are so often feeble and ineffective should feel content that the committee should still be in existence and continually extending its activities, despite its lack of statutory authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, has made a strong case. In his article in The Times he quoted William Blackstone in the 18th century, Lord Ellenborough in 1811 and Lord Chief Justice Coleridge in 1884 in support of the proposition that we have an absolute and exclusive right to impose discipline within these walls. He referred again to those precedents in his speech today.

In a letter to The Times on 12th April, the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen--unwisely in my view--dismissed the article by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, as "eccentric and essentially misguided" but failed to address effectively the central part of the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg. The noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, justifies the activities of his committee--he did so tonight--by referring to the terms of reference of the committee when it was set up in 1994. Those terms were established by the Prime Minister but not by Parliament. The fact that the other place, in the circumstances in which it found itself in 1994, accepted what the Prime Minister had decided does not provide a sound argument for this House casually to surrender its exclusive right to initiate procedures and impose discipline within these walls

I am not a lawyer and the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, is a very distinguished lawyer, but as a parliamentarian I find it strange--dare I say even eccentric--that he should think it whimsical for the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, to have cited what William Blackstone wrote in 1765,

"that whatever matter arises concerning either House of Parliament, ought to be examined, discussed and adjusted in that House to which it relates, and not elsewhere".

Neither the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, nor anyone else could argue that there should be a ban on any public discussion of matters concerning either House of Parliament. There is, however, all the difference in the world between general public discussion about our affairs and the launching of a formal inquiry by this committee as a result of which we are to be questioned and proposals to be made about how we should conduct ourselves. It may be that the other place has, by the manner in which it reacted to John Major's initiative, given its consent for the committee to pursue its activities in that House; but this House has not given that consent. Instead, in 1994 it set up its own committee under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, to produce recommendations which it subsequently debated and substantially accepted.

It has been suggested tonight by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, that once the committee has functioned we would be able to choose what to do with the report. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, volunteered that we might be able to throw it into the Thames if we wished. That comment ignores the constitutional point that if we are to maintain control of our own affairs it should be this House and not any outside committee that decides whether a procedure should begin and the manner in which it should be conducted. It also ignores the reality referred to by my noble friend Lord Cranborne that our freedom to reject the committee's proposals would be severely circumscribed simply because the committee has a grand name and is believed to have a great authority, whatever its origins and however misguided we might later judge some of its recommendations to be. These things have a momentum of their own and once launched are hard to check.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, argued that it was right to be better informed. That would be fine if we had initiated the actions which sought the wisdom and advice that he suggests we should have. But I do not see that it is necessarily a good thing that we should have to accept what is given to us uninvited.

In his letter to The Times, the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, having put on one side Blackstone, Coleridge, Ellenborough and a good deal of our constitutional history, was then rash enough to turn his attention to the Cecils and quoted words by my noble friend Lord Cranborne as giving proof of the authority his committee possessed. It seemed to me that my noble friend knocked that argument on its head pretty effectively in his letter to The Times on 13th April and indeed by his intervention in the House again tonight confirming that from the outset he had,

"thought it outrageous that either House of Parliament should meekly accept that it should be investigated by a committee set up under the Royal Prerogative", which is precisely why he made arrangements for the Griffiths committee of this House to be set up.

The noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, described the history in some detail tonight. I fully accept his account. The issue is not what has happened, but whether it should have happened. I do not believe that it should have happened in this way. What ought to happen now is that this House should decide itself to review the Griffiths arrangements and should set up an appropriate committee. The amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, if passed, would give the Neill committee some limited authority without dealing with the essential criticisms that have been made. Because those criticisms have such constitutional significance--because as the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, himself said, he is anxious that it ought not to be a party matter--I hope that the rumours I have heard that there is effectively, if not in terms of black lines on a piece of paper, a Whip on the other side and that Members of the executive are being marshalled to vote are untrue. It would be very unfortunate. I believe that this is an issue that should not be pushed through by the executive. If ever there was an issue that should be left to individual Members of this House, this is it. I hope that we shall hear from the Front Bench opposite before the end of this debate that my suspicions and the rumours I have heard are totally without foundation.

I turn now to the kind of regime that we might have. I believe that we need to learn some lessons from what has happened in the other place. I fear that, to an extent that has not yet been sufficiently recognised, any good that the committee has achieved as a consequence of its recommendations may have been exceeded by the harm that it has generated in accelerating a move towards a House in which knowledge and experience derived from outside occupations are in increasingly short supply.

I have served for about 30 years in Parliament and was for a time a Member of the Select Committee on Members' interests in the other place. During most of my time as an MP there were large numbers of Members who had occupations outside Parliament and whose contributions were all the more effective because of the experience that they brought to debates. I fear that the regime that is now in place discourages such membership and inhibits such contributions. Furthermore, it seems to me that niggling supervision by an appointed official, and the demand that details of the minutiae of fees for articles, lectures and invitations to sporting and other events should be all recorded, adds little to the integrity of the House, but detracts from its dignity and effectiveness. We need to avoid going down that road.

Even the Griffiths recommendations have thrown up some pretty strange anomalies. It seems odd that for 11 years, as a director of ABP, I was able to declare an interest and contribute to debates. The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, was kind enough generously to praise one of those speeches. But now, because I have a modest consultancy so that I can continue to give advice to the company on a range of issues, I could not make the speeches that I have made in the past. Oddly, the rule in the other place is less restrictive and would give me greater freedom.

I make the point only as an illustration of the difficulties that we are likely to get into if our proceedings are controlled with a legalistic framework. I am absolutely clear that by far the best way to proceed is on the basis that we declare interests and leave it to our colleagues to judge the value of our contribution in the light of that declaration. On the whole, this House is excessively punctilious about declaring interests, but that is a fault on the right side.

Whatever may have been true in the past, it cannot now be asserted that wealth, business interests and influence exerted through professional elites are confined to these Benches, a fact brilliantly brought out in the Channel 4 programme last Sunday.

I have no desire to probe the precise details of the earnings and business affairs of the rich and very successful noble Lords I see on the Benches opposite me. I am confident that they will declare interests when they are relevant and then I shall listen with even greater respect, reassured that they actually know what they are talking about.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life was set up for a particular purpose in the wake of a particular scandal at a particular moment in time. Like Frankenstein's monster, it has grown. It is now time seriously to consider whether it should be allowed to continue its activities. I say, "Halt", and let us rely on those well-tested conventions that have served us well in the past.

Photo of Lord Grabiner Lord Grabiner Labour 9:36 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, the resolution which is proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, reflects the piece that he wrote in The Times on 10th April. I want to refer to that article in the course of my remarks.

There are two limbs to the resolution. The primary limb is to the effect that the House asserts its responsibility for the conduct of its own affairs. This is an uncontroversial proposition. Indeed, it is a statement of the obvious. I do not believe that any Member of this House could possibly disagree with it. Nor do I believe that one needs recourse to Messrs Blackstone or Bradlaugh for that very basic proposition.

The second limb of the resolution deals with that part of the noble Lord's Times article which raised the question:

"whether the House of Lords needs to reconsider its present, relatively mild, system of registering interests in the light of changes made elsewhere".

I do not believe that it is appropriate to debate the merits or otherwise of the present system this evening. All that I would say is that the duties in respect of self-discipline which are currently imposed on members of the smallest parish council in Britain are more onerous than those which currently prevail in this House.

There is an explicit concession in the second limb that the time has come for the matter to be looked at. Again, I suspect that many noble Lords on all sides of the House would agree with that. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, certainly agreed with it earlier, although I gained the impression from the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that he would have no inquiry of any kind whatever.

Photo of Lord Crickhowell Lord Crickhowell Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. On the contrary, I suggested that I thought it was time to follow up on the Griffiths committee and that we should set up a committee to do just that.

Photo of Lord Grabiner Lord Grabiner Labour

My Lords, I certainly gained the impression from the noble Lord's closing remarks that he took the view that the matter should be left entirely between his conscience and the views of other Members of the House.

Photo of Lord Crickhowell Lord Crickhowell Conservative

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will accept what I said. If he comes to read my speech, he will see that I was quite specific on the point. What I questioned was whether we should allow this outside committee to continue in the present way. I suggested that, indeed, there were strong reasons for reviewing the conclusions of the Griffiths committee and pointed to a personal example as to why they should be reviewed.

Photo of Lord Grabiner Lord Grabiner Labour

My Lords, I shall read the observations with care tomorrow. I was commenting upon the closing remarks just before the noble Lord sat down. I believe that there is no point in irritation in these matters.

In his piece in The Times, the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, went on to say:

"The question to be decided now is a simple one: should the House of Lords refer the future of its discipline to an outside committee or to the procedure committee?".

I agree that that is a simple enough question. However, in my submission, it reveals a flaw in the article because it is obviously the wrong question. Framed in that way, the question assumes that the future of the discipline of this House may be delegated or transferred from this House to the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Neill. If that were even a possibility, it would certainly offend against the fundamental principle that the House must retain full power to regulate itself. And so I put aside the Aunt Sally question.

The real question, I suggest, is which committee, in the first instance, should examine the matter. My own view is that it should be the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Neill. That committee has developed a good understanding of the issues. It has also developed considerable expertise in what has become a rather complicated subject. I suggest that the House should make full use of those talents. Any proposals or recommendations would, in due course, be the subject of full debate and a decision by this House as to which, if any, of the suggestions the House will adopt.

I also believe that there is a real risk that, if we were to adopt the suggested resolution of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, it would seem to the outside world that we were trying to sweep under the carpet something which is of considerable public importance and interest. I do not believe that we should run the risk of giving that impression. I suggest that the whole question should be dealt with in an open and, as I believe has already been said by a number of noble Lords this evening, transparent fashion.

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative

My Lords, I wonder whether I may ask the noble Lord if he would be kind enough to say what are the relevant constraints under which parish councillors are put but under which Members of your Lordships' House are not put? I declare an interest as the chairman of a parish council.

Photo of Lord Grabiner Lord Grabiner Labour

My Lords, I suspect that, for example, one is not entitled to vote in a matter which affects one's own interest.

Photo of Lord St John of Fawsley Lord St John of Fawsley Conservative 9:43 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene in this dialogue between the two noble Lords, but I wish to speak only briefly. I shall certainly not detain the House too long. I shall not follow the example of my distinguished predecessor, Chadderton, who was Master of Emmanuel and who preached for three hours from the pulpit, then hesitated and said, "I feel I should stop", whereupon the entire congregation said, "For God's sake, go on". I believe that perhaps it might be testing the tolerance of the House too far if I were to follow that particular precedent.

I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, on introducing this Motion and on what he said. I can assure your Lordships that this is much more than the normal formal courtesies which are used in this House and which make it such an agreeable place in which to be. Those congratulations are genuinely meant because it took his Lordship's detective intelligence and dedication to pursue the point and to bring it to the Floor of this House. I congratulate him too on the quality of mind that he displayed in his speech as he does in his articles, one of which the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, subjected to a certain amount of exegesis.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, for what he writes in The Times. I frequently do not know what to think before I have read what he has said. I sometimes feel that I regret my celibate status. I wish I had a wife to break it to me at breakfast before I took it neat, like a glass of whisky. One feels in a similar way when one reads his distinguished colleague, Dr Stuttaford. I do not know what is wrong with me until I read his articles.

So the noble Lord is more than a journalist; he is less than an intellectual. I should describe him as a sage and a sage who has used his sagacity to bring this Motion before us and to argue so eloquently for it. I wish that I could refer to him as the Sage of Printing House Square but that would be an anachronism. If I refer to him as the Sage of Canary Wharf, it would sound as though he were some sort of exotic inhabitant of an aviary. But the whole House is indebted to him for his actions.

The noble Lord does not stand alone. He speaks and writes in a great tradition; namely, the great Victorian line of literary prophets--Ruskin, Carlyle, both the Arnolds, the people we thought were totally extinct, with no successors. But, unlike them, he does not carp; nor does he nag.

However, what his speech and this debate have done this evening is to provide an antidote to the contemporary scourge of the soundbite, which is the enemy of scholarship and true debate. What can we think of a society which dismisses those who attempt to sit and make conclusions from the ideas and actions that are current in society as the "chattering classes", when in any other society, there would be gratitude to them for their efforts?

I shall not follow the noble Lord on his general grounds of principle nor on his legal use of precedent, save to say that I agree with him. It would be a dreadful state of affairs if anybody made it a matter of reproach to quote the jurist Blackstone either in this House or outside it.

But I want to look at the broader aspects of the Motion. Mr Disraeli, at the Crystal Palace--and, if your Lordships want to know what is wrong with the Dome, look at a picture of the Crystal Palace--said that the political duty was to preserve our institutions. Alas, we now have only three independent institutions--the Crown, the Church and your Lordships' House and all three are under attack. We shall only defend this institution if Members have confidence in themselves. To maintain that, we should discuss and order our own affairs. That is the significance of this Motion and that is the point of difference between the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell.

We are suffering from a disease which I would call "commissionitis": take no responsibility for ourselves but shove it off on to some commission. That is dangerous for two reasons. First, not all commissioners are of the quality of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen. He was a Warden of All Souls and a former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, but in that respect he is a comet without an appropriate tail. The path that we are following is one of a government of the appointed, appointed by the appointed, which is what "government by commission" means, and we are heading for the worst of all worlds. I reflect that at least the Prime Minister is elected. That is more than one can say of any of these commissions.

The people to investigate this House are the members of this House itself. Your Lordships understand what the House is about. The strengths and the weaknesses of the House are known by your Lordships in a way in which they are known by no one else. That is what Bagehot meant when he said that to be in Parliament was to have the advantage of knowing the characters directly involved and experiencing matters for oneself rather than reading about them or looking at plates and descriptions.

Your Lordships should investigate what is needed because it is not good enough to say that this House exercises ultimate responsibility but can abandon interim responsibility altogether. To abandon interim responsibility is to abandon something that is just as important as power--namely, influence. That is the difference between the two noble Lords this evening. We should conduct the diagnosis as well as the cure and to do otherwise would be not a trahison des clercs, but, worse, a trahison des seigneurs.

The full purpose and justification of the law of privilege is to ensure that parliamentarians discharge their responsibilities free of interference from outside. The Motion reminds us of that.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, in a most eloquent speech, seemed to be hypnotised by the current state of our society. He said that it was a society in which perceptions are regarded as important as realities. My reaction to that is not to bow down before that illusion, not to offer incense to idols, but to expose the falsity of that society. The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, has done that in his Motion and speech. For that reason, he deserves our congratulations and our gratitude.

If he decides to divide the House, I shall be happy to follow him. I do not say that I would go on a tiger shoot with him because I would not go on a tiger shoot with anybody--I like tigers, although I would be rather nervous of them--but, if one is to be found in a minority division lobby, I would rather find myself with the noble Lord than with anyone else. If he chooses not to divide the House, I shall abide by that choice. However, I congratulate him on succeeding in launching a debate as well-informed and as responsible as any to which I have had the privilege of listening in this House.

Photo of Lord Simon of Glaisdale Lord Simon of Glaisdale Crossbench 9:53 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I too acknowledge the debt that we owe to my noble friend Lord Rees-Mogg. It seems to me that his constitutional argument has been completely accepted now. The only difference is as to its application.

Perhaps I can deal with one or two constitutional points, with direct reference to the Motion before your Lordships. First, it is now clear that we did not devote anything like the attention that we should have to the constitutional implications of the Nolan committee in relation to the Houses of Parliament.

But that is now in the past. Unfortunately, a great deal has happened since then and we must take the situation as it is today with, as one noble Lord said, passions inflamed on this matter and stronger views taken than perhaps the differences can justify.

However, to begin with I should emphasise one point. I shall pick up the phrase used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer. What we are concerned with here is the sphere of exclusive cognisance or exclusive jurisdiction. That is dealt with clearly in paragraph 13 of the Nicholls report:

"This privilege is also of fundamental importance ... of scarcely less importance than the right to freedom of speech. Both rights are essential elements in parliamentary independence".

I turn to the word "exclusive". Your Lordships will have to consider that word when we come to consider the actual terms of the amendment. The Nicholls committee, the Joint Select Committee, went on to make it clear in paragraph 113 that it regarded the Register of Members' Interests as falling within the scope of the exclusive jurisdiction. Indeed, in recommending that the various phrases in the Bill of Rights should be clarified, it went on to say that it should be made clear that the proceedings in relation to Members' interests are proceedings in Parliament. So we are at the very heart of the Bill of Rights, at the very heart of the rule of exclusivity, in this debate.

My noble friend Lord Rees-Mogg reviewed the authorities from Blackstone onwards, or at any rate the important ones. I wish to refer to only one other, a recent case in your Lordships' House taken against British Railways which was decided in 1974. I suppose I must declare that I was a member of the committee. It was of interest because it involved a difference between the Court of Appeal and your Lordships' Appellate Committee. It concerned the question of whether the courts could go into an issue which was raised; namely, that a private Bill in Parliament had been obtained by fraud. The late Lord Denning, in whose chambers I started my career at the Bar, and who was in everything a judicial activist, said that it could be gone into.

He went on to say, "Parliament will be grateful for our looking into the matter and recommending the issue." Of course, that was wildly wrong. Parliament would have been intensely resentful, as indeed your Lordships' Appellate Committee, headed by Lord Reid, a former Lord Advocate, said without question. The proposal of Lord Denning in the Court of Appeal had the further disadvantage in that that Bench might come to a different conclusion to that to which your Lordships' House would come in its own investigation of what had happened before the Select Committee. That raises the question whether there would be embarrassment in invoking the help--indeed, welcoming the help, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer--of the committee on standards while at the same time your Lordships' House, as it is now accepted, has to make up its own mind on the matter. I suggest therefore that in addition to all the other authorities--Blackstone and Burdett v. Abbot, Stockdale v. Hansard and Bradlaugh v. Gossett--we have the highly relevant authority of BR v. Pickin.

That takes me to the actual terms of the Motion before us. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, proposes that we should welcome the inquiry. There are two reasons why that seems to me inadvisable. In the first place, it invites an outside interference with what is a matter of your Lordships' exclusive cognisance. Secondly, it tends to exacerbate the impression, which has been illustrated in various places in your Lordships' House, that if your Lordships do not accept that, it will lead to misunderstanding. There is no lack of unfriendly noises where your Lordships' House is concerned, and it is entirely true that we may put ourselves into a position where unfriendly noises may be made by what we are doing.

The other point where, with respect, the amendment is quite unacceptable is that it,

"asserts the House's ultimate responsibility for the conduct of its own affairs".

That is quite wrong. It is a primary responsibility, not an ultimate responsibility; and it is a crucial responsibility. I hope therefore that the noble and learned Lord, after his constructive and, as always, moderate speech, will see that it is very much in the interests of your Lordships' House that the amendment should not be accepted.

I return to the Motion of my noble friend Lord Rees-Mogg. It seems to me that that is unexceptionable constitutionally. On the other hand, after this debate, it seems to me that it would be mostly in the interests of your Lordships' House if both proposals were withdrawn. We had an invitation to go ahead independently by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. If we now wiped the slate clear, we would leave it open to the Procedure Committee--or, indeed, to the noble Baroness as Leader of the House--to request the help of the Neill committee, while still keeping exclusive cognisance of the matter so that the submissions of the Neill committee would be ostensibly, and not merely as a matter of form, a submission to the proper authority of your Lordships' House.

I suggest--and I hope that it will appeal to the noble Baroness--that by far the best thing for this House would be to wipe the slate clear. Her position is not an easy one. She owes a double duty. That often arises in our constitution. It arises constantly with the Law Officers. However, the position of the noble Baroness is more difficult because the present Government have very much an agenda as far as concerns your Lordships' House. It is not easy for the Leader of the House to balance that against her undoubted duty to your Lordships' House. Nevertheless, while recognising the difficulties that the noble Baroness may have, I hope that she, prompted, I trust, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, will think it better to have neither the Motion nor the amendment carried so that the matter can then be properly considered by the House authorities and the proper committee.

Photo of Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Labour 10:06 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I rise to support the amendment to the Motion moved by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer. I do so with some trepidation following the many erudite contributions of so many noble Lords, and particularly as I must confess some confusion at the sound and fury that has been generated by the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Neill.

I have to declare an interest because, until a few months ago, I was a member of the Neill committee; indeed, I was appointed to the committee when it was set up under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and other speakers made clear, the proposed inquiry was anticipated four years ago. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Neill, pointed this out in the letter that he sent to us with his committee's "Issues and Questions" pamphlet.

The noble Lord, Lord Neill, has given the background to the establishment of the committee, but it is rather easy to forget the atmosphere in which the Nolan Committee, as it then was, was established. Sleaze was at the top of the media agenda; politicians--all politicians--we were told, were held in the lowest regard. The then Prime Minister had what many regarded as the courage to set up a committee which would investigate and advise on ways in which confidence in Parliament, and in all holders of public office, could be reaffirmed. That is what the Nolan committee did and it is what the Neill committee is doing. It investigates and advises. It has no powers to compel or impose. But its seven principles of public life have clearly helped the House of Commons, and the other public bodies that the committee dealt with, to develop procedures that all commentators said have contributed to restoring public confidence, which was so badly dented at that time.

It seems to me to be entirely appropriate that the Neill committee should turn its attention again to the House of Lords. This House has gone through many changes and, as my noble and learned friend pointed out, the Griffiths arrangements have been in place for four years. The work carried out by the Neill committee in relation to the other place can surely help this House. It can help us to reassure ourselves that we have procedures that command public confidence.

As was said in an earlier debate, your Lordships' House is the second Chamber of the legislature of this nation. Each of us here is a holder of public office. Surely we cannot pull up a drawbridge and say that we do not need to account for ourselves in the way we conduct our affairs.

I was rather startled at the inference which I drew from the contribution of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, when, he described the other place--as I heard it; I may have been wrong--as feeble. I wondered whether he really meant that we should declare our superiority over that House. That seems a rather novel approach to our constitutional position. However, I am not a constitutional lawyer and I hesitate to comment on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee are providing us with an opportunity to look at the arrangements, for example, for declaration of interests, for paid advocacy and for dealing with any breach of rules relating to conduct. As many noble Lords have said, they have established a considerable degree of expertise on these issues, not just here in the UK but also overseas. As I said at the start, they will investigate and advise. Are we really reluctant to say that their expertise will help us? Are we really unwilling to say that we ought to look at these issues? Are we really prepared to resist the help of a committee which has built up the respect to which the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, so rightly referred? I hope not.

If some of the fears expressed arise from changes that have been accepted in the other place, as I inferred from some contributions, it is quite clear from the issues and questions paper that the committee acknowledges the differences between the two Houses. It is clear that it will adopt a sophisticated approach that will take proper account of those differences. It is equally clear that it does not at all threaten self-regulation. It cannot impose any recommendations on your Lordships' House.

I should regret it if this debate in this House degenerates into a party battle. The great strength of the Nolan, and now the Neill committee, has been its ability to attract cross-party support in making recommendations which have produced openness and transparency in parliamentary procedures on conduct in another place. If we in this House are seen to resist an inquiry which could help us to ensure similar openness, I urge noble Lords to consider that that is bound to increase the cynicism into which the public can so easily slip as regards our ability to regulate ourselves. On that point I quote a respected commentator, the journalist Peter Riddell, in his evidence to the Neill committee,

"Parliament is pretty awful at looking at systems, because it cannot detach; it is often divided on partisan grounds. So I think the Committee-- he referred to the Neill committee--

"has shown its value in that respect--not that everything you suggest is right, but you can do it from detachment and you have now built up the case work and experience".

Surely we should not be averse to taking advantage of that detachment and that experience. Surely we want to confirm that the country which we serve can have confidence that we, as holders of public office, act solely in terms of the public interest, as the Neill committee first principle of public life affirms.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 10:13 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, one of the greatest privileges that one can have is to listen to the first two speakers in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, put his case clearly, impressively, in an understandable fashion, and with enormous erudition. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, in moving his amendment could have made an aggressive speech. However, it was not at all aggressive; it was a gentle and enormously persuasive speech. It is wonderful to hear two people with totally different views on this subject put their cases in such a gentle and courteous manner.

I have great reservations about the Neill committee looking into the matters we are discussing. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said that we do not have to worry: the Neill committee will make its report and we can accept it, amend it or reject it. If the committee has sat for quite a while and made various suggestions, I do not feel that it will be an option for the House of Lords to say, "We will reject the whole lot. We do not agree with that". I do not think that that will happen. I think that we will be in a position of either accepting or possibly amending the report.

My real fear is that we will find that we have got a tiger by the tail and that we will be taken down alleyways we do not expect to go down. I find it difficult to understand why the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, "welcomes" the inquiry into standards and conduct in the House of Lords. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that, if we "welcome" it, that implies that we welcome outside interference.

We have always been responsible for our own measures and conduct in this House. That in itself is not a bad thing; it is not a derogatory thing; it is not something of which to be ashamed. Always in the past, noble Lords have declared their interests when they have spoken and, on the whole, that has been to the satisfaction of everyone. I do not think there has been a whisper of any kind that your Lordships have been underhand in any way.

One of the most pathetic sights we have seen recently is the establishment of the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. It has been set up--almost as a headmistress--over and above the Members of another place to investigate whether they have been right or wrong; and, if it is found that they have been wrong, to impose a punishment. The House of Commons was always primus. It is terrible that we have come to that state. I ask whether that is what we want here. Your Lordships may say that we will not get that here, but I am not so sure.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. Is he aware that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards does not impose penalties? She merely reports to the House of Commons Select Committee on Standards and Privileges whether she finds an allegation proved. It is then for that committee of the House of Commons to decide whether to impose a punishment and, if so, what punishment.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is absolutely right. But I am quite certain that he will agree that if someone of the standing of the parliamentary commissioner makes a suggestion, it is very unlikely that the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges will reject it. If it rejected every one that she made, she would not last very long in that position. So whoever holds the position has great power and great sway.

There is a feeling nowadays of the old Victorian parent who said to the nanny, "Go and see what the children are doing and tell them not to". On the whole, your Lordships have conducted yourselves with considerable decorum and trust. There is a real danger that these things can snowball out of control.

All this was caused because certain Members of Parliament were considered to have conducted themselves improperly. As has been said, the Nolan committee was set up by the Prime Minister. It was not a statutory body; it was not a Royal Commission; it was not a committee set up by either House. It was set up by a man--albeit a Prime Minister--who asked an eminent and respected man to look at the issue. I agreed with my noble friend Lord Crickhowell when he said that he was surprised that the committee still existed.

The House of Commons is paid; it is elected. It was considered, rightly or wrongly, to have been behaving improperly. Your Lordships' House is not a paid House; it is a voluntary House. It is not elected--other than some 90 of us who, to use that awful phrase, have "more legitimacy" than anyone else and therefore are primus inter pares among your Lordships.

It is not a figleaf; it is fact. One wonders what is going to happen with this ferret? Where does one go? The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said that there was openness and transparency in what has been happening in another place. Apparently, it is a fact that in the House of Commons anyone who has any degree of interest is now not allowed to table an amendment on a subject in which he may have an interest and of which he certainly therefore has knowledge. I understand that there is one Member of Parliament whose child has a horrible and long-drawn-out disease. Let us say for the sake of argument that it is something like multiple sclerosis. He knows all about it. Therefore, he is apparently not allowed to table an amendment on this. He is not allowed to take a delegation to see the Minister. It is absolutely absurd. I do not think that we want to have that sort of thing happening here.

A noble Lord:

If it is true.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, if it is true, it is not absurd. I was working on the assumption that what I was saying was true. I am quite happy to be told that it is not true. All I am saying is that that is the kind of matter where you get led down alleyways which you do not expect.

The short answer is that I do not think that this particular form of investigation by the Neill committee is necessary. I do not think that there is a call for it. I do not think that there is a need for it. The noble Lord, Lord Neill, said on another occasion that the committee had decided to make the House of Lords its next subject for scrutiny. It did not know what to do next so it thought that it would have a go at your Lordships' House. He wrote to a few party leaders and said, "This is what we propose to do; I do hope you will agree with it". The noble Baroness the Leader of the House shakes her head. I was going to say that she said she agreed, which I thought she did. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde said that he agreed. It would be quite difficult for anyone to say that they did not agree with that.

So this goes on. The committee will eventually make recommendations on how your Lordships' House should operate. I find it difficult to think that any suggestions which the Neill committee might make would not be acceptable. Can anyone imagine the committee sitting for six months and coming out with its suggestions and then your Lordships rejecting them, even if that was your entitlement? I think that that is taking away from your Lordships the responsibility which your Lordships should have for conducting and scrutinising your own affairs.

On page 20 of the noble Lord's report, question 10 asks:

"Should the rules governing members of either House of Parliament make specific provision in relation to those who are opposition spokesmen and women for the divestment (or otherwise) of financial interests similar to that contained in the Ministerial Code?"

That means that anyone who is an Opposition spokesman would have to divest himself of any directorships or any other money-making affairs in order to make sure that he is clean and above board, as it were. Opposition spokesmen are not paid. Of course, they have to earn an outside interest. If that were to come about, noble Lords on the opposite side may rejoice in the fact that they are in government but one day they will be in opposition again. If this had happened 12 months ago, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, would not be able to be a non-executive director of Scottish Power; the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, would not be allowed to be Mistress of Birkbeck College; the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, who was on the Front Bench, could not have been President of Queens' College; and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, could not have been Shadow Lord Chancellor because of course he was a barrister.

The lawyers always get away with it. There is the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who has the engaging habit of looking at his notes as though he is reading from a score of Handel's "Messiah". He really ought to declare an interest in everything. He says, "My Lords, I am a barrister. I am an advocate specialising in putting forward good points". But, of course, lawyers do not do that. Only if you earn your money as a director of a firm do you have to do it; not if you earn your money as a lawyer.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Crickhowell that the Nolan committee was set up for a specific purpose at a specific time. It has grown out of control. We are being asked to accept that the Neill committee may consider your Lordships' House as it is at the moment but that from there will come all kinds of antennae, such as are happening in another place. That would be undesirable. It would be much better if we organised our own affairs.

Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Labour 10:25 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I cannot imagine that the example given by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, of the disabled child whose parent is a Member of Parliament can be correct. The MP would possibly have to declare the interest but I would not imagine that he would have to absent himself.

My starting point is that by being here we are participating in the public life of this country. On the inside front cover of the Neill committee's consultation paper, published last month, is a list of seven principles of public life. My noble friend Lady Goudie read them out. I agree with every one of them, especially the principles of openness and accountability, mentioned by several noble Lords, including my noble and learned friend Lord Archer.

We may be a House of non-political politicians but we are part of the public and political life of this country. We should therefore all be concerned about the alienation mentioned by my noble friend Lady Warwick. People feel alienated from politics and politicians. The suggestion that we should appoint our own committee would contribute to that alienation. By contrast, the amendment of my noble and learned friend Lord Archer helps to overcome that alienation by its openness and accountability. He is trying to build bridges between the public and ourselves. That is why I support his amendment.

Of course we have independence and the right to conduct our own affairs. I cannot see any way in which the Neill committee could be a threat to that right. The noble Lord, Lord Neill, confirmed today that his committee is independent and advisory and that it cannot force anyone to do anything. It cannot even require people to give evidence. What is done with his report is entirely a matter for your Lordships' House. As he said, we could throw it into the Thames. So where is the threat? I do not fear the report as pressurising us, as was envisaged by the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Crickhowell, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. I believe that the Committee for Privileges would be better able to investigate the effectiveness of the House of Lords Register of Interests armed with the report of the Neill committee.

Of course we have rights and privileges. I value them. I also value our independence. But this is the 21st century. These are times when you do not protect rights and privileges by asserting legal ownership over them, as other noble Lords are exhorting us to do. No, we protect them by demonstrating that we use those rights and privileges for the benefit of the public. If we do not, it is probable that we will lose them; not necessarily by them being taken away from us. We will lose them by being marginalised. That is what happens in this day and age to institutions which do not have public support. By insisting on our legal rights, we may keep our independence but we will lose our influence--our influence to serve the public.

So I cannot support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, but I support the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative 10:29 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I strongly support the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that, whatever else happens, we should not divide on this matter tonight. At this hour, on this Motion, there will be no representative vote of the House. If it is the wish of the House to invite or welcome this committee to investigate our affairs, there should be a Motion so to resolve. It should be arranged by the usual channels. There should be a full debate, and the view of the House should be taken. I sincerely assert that as a proposition in the interests of the House. It has nothing to do with the fact that I sit on the Conservative Benches and nothing to do with where any other noble Lord sits. If we are going to hand over to this external body--contrary to the whole constitutional basis on which we operate--an invitation to inquire into our domestic affairs, let the House so decide on a representative basis, on a fair basis, not on the basis of some amendment proposed in a thin House at this hour.

It would not be possible for me to support the amendment, for the reasons so clearly given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. There are other reasons to which I shall turn in a moment, but at this stage I am concerned with the voting. If the amendment were by any chance to be rejected by the House in a Division, then I should be in the position of not being able to support the Motion. Although I wholly accept its constitutional propriety and the principle on which it is put forward, and totally reject that of the amendment, I should wish for an opportunity for some arrangement to be made by the usual channels or by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House which was acceptable to the House and to the Neill committee.

I go along with the suggestions that have been made that the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, who is an honourable man and eminently suitable, should be asked to serve with the noble Lords, Lord Shore and Lord Goodhart, on our Select Committee and that the usual channels should be asked to appoint other Members of this House to sit on the committee. But what I cannot accept is that any external body should investigate our affairs, for the reasons that have been given.

Nor is it necessary that it should be done. What I am proposing, with respect to the House--and, I beg the House to accept, in the interests of this House--is not to be seen outside the House as a cover-up. It is nothing of the sort. If the Houses wishes the committee to investigate, so be it; if not, let us consider whether we can put forward the alternative proposal.

One wonders why the committee took the initiative to return to this matter. I am worried that a kind of Trojan horse is being wheeled into the capital by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, with the support of those who are keen to impose statutory regulation on this House. I do not know; I have had no such conversation on the matter, but as a Celt I have a hunch about it. I believe that there is something like that in the air. I am fearful that this matter should be disposed of tonight on the basis of a quick Division. These matters should be inquired into in proper debate.

How this House can welcome, of all things, a pre-emptive investigation before a Select Committee has been appointed and its report debated wholly defeats me. That this House can welcome an investigation on the basis that there is no time to go into the issues and questions formulated in April 2000 is wholly unacceptable. To give one example, there are no allegations of misconduct, sleaze, want of efficacy or what-have-you, and yet a Question is tabled about whether there should be a code of practice and sanctions for enforcement. How can we welcome that kind of investigation?

As was put by Mr Peter Riddell in today's Times, and asserted by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, this is not a mere matter of accountability and openness but of fundamental constitutional importance which involves the very independence of this House. I urge your Lordships and the noble and learned Lord in the interests of this Chamber to refrain from dividing the House tonight.

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative 10:38 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, put his finger on it when he quoted Plato in saying that perception was more real than reality. The problem that this country faces at present is that there has grown up a dangerous and pernicious culture of contempt for our national institutions: the monarchy, the Churches, the judiciary, the police and, not least, Parliament. In part this contempt is caused by the unwise behaviour of some members of those institutions. I was for many years a journalist with The Economist, observing Parliament. In part the contempt has been caused by the media who have exaggerated, misrepresented and, in many cases, misinformed the public about matters connected with those institutions. I believe that this culture of contempt is very dangerous. I believe that the events we saw in London on 1st May are a product of that. Once there is a national culture of contempt, there is no respect for democracy; and once there is a lack of respect for democracy the door to anarchy opens.

It is important that we do not add to that culture. Media expectations will be aroused by the setting up of this inquiry. Of course, we take at face value what the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, says: that there is no prima facie reason to suggest we are doing something wrong. But that is not how the matter will be perceived. The committee, by its very existence, will be expected to produce for the tabloids a story of misdoings. That is what people will be looking for. Let us hope at least that the report does not provide it.

I do not think our situation is helped by someone as distinguished as the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, saying that Members in this House are under less constraints than the smallest parish council. In fact, the Companion makes perfectly clear that we are not expected to vote on a matter in which we have a personal pecuniary interest. However, as the noble Lord well knows, when a parish council fixes the rate--there may be disagreement; and each member of the parish council will have an interest in it--the members will vote on what the rate should be. Frankly, it is not helpful for the noble Lord to talk in a manner which, with great respect, is somewhat below the standards of debate we expect in this Chamber.

One matter particularly concerns me about the terms of reference for the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, said that the procedure would be transparent and in public. I was delighted to hear that. However, paragraph 1.33 of the terms of reference states:

"Any respondents who would prefer their submissions to be treated as confidential should state this clearly and their wishes will be respected".

I can see no conceivable reason why that should be so. That is the route to anonymous denunciations, aspersions and other pressures. I hope that the committee's first meeting will decide that it will not keep confidential any representations made to it.

This has been an extremely useful debate. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg. I do not believe that it is a matter we can resolve by a vote today, but we must hope that the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, will come to conclusions which will diminish rather than increase the culture of contempt in this country.

Photo of Lord Chalfont Lord Chalfont Crossbench 10:42 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I have always cherished a remark made some years ago by a noble Lord at a late night debate in this House to the effect that everything which needed to be said on the subject had already been said but not everyone had yet said it. I must crave the indulgence of your Lordships' House at this late hour because I believe that there is still something to be said on this issue.

When I first heard that my noble friend Lord Neill was to turn his attention and that of his committee to this House I was somewhat concerned on the simple ground that during 35 years' attendance in this House I had always assumed that standards of behaviour in your Lordships' House were a matter for the House and not for an outside body, as we heard argued powerfully this evening. When my noble friend Lord Rees-Mogg told me that he had decided to table a Motion, I decided to listen to the debate before responding to the request of my noble friend Lord Neill for comments on the work of his committee.

I have listened to every single word of this debate so ably initiated by my noble friend Lord Rees-Mogg and I have to confess that I still have some serious concerns. I am far from convinced about the need for this initiative. In the previous debate, there was a good deal of talk about change for its own sake. Not for the first time, I am reminded of a remark made by Lord Falkland in 1641. Noble Lords will remember that that was the time when, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, has said, Parliament was under siege first by Charles I and then by Oliver Cromwell. Lucius Cary, Lord Falkland, who was a colleague of Cromwell's, made a remark which has echoed down the centuries and it has certainly always echoed in my mind. He said,

"When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change".

I see no necessity whatsoever for change here.

As other noble Lords have said, there has been no public demand for an inquiry of this kind. Indeed, so far as I know, there has been no demand from anyone at all. There have been no allegations about Members of this House as there were in 1994 when certain Members of the other place were accused of corruption. As my noble friend Lord Neill has said, it was he who approached the Leader of the House to seek her views on such an inquiry. My noble friend could not have had much doubt about what her response would be.

Photo of Baroness Jay of Paddington Baroness Jay of Paddington President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt. The noble Lord did not seek my views. He wrote to say that this was his intention.

Photo of Lord Chalfont Lord Chalfont Crossbench

I imagine that if he wrote to the noble Baroness to say something he was expecting her views on it.

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench

My Lords, would the noble Lord be good enough to give way? I made it very clear that I wanted her advice on how, most courteously, we could inform the House to proceed. I did say that the committee had reached a decision.

Photo of Lord Chalfont Lord Chalfont Crossbench

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. He sought her advice as the noble Baroness has just said. I cannot imagine that her advice would have been, "No, Lord Neill, leave it alone. The House of Lords is perfectly capable of regulating its own affairs".

In any case, there is no real authority for this committee to investigate the standards of the House of Lords at all. That argument has been made many times tonight and I shall not repeat it in any great detail. It seems to me that if the inquiry was needed at all, the more proper approach would have been for a sub-committee of our own Procedure Committee to have examined the matter first. After all, according to Standing Orders, the business of the Procedure Committee is,

"to consider any proposals for alterations in the procedure of the House which might arise from time to time and whether Standing Orders require to be altered to effect such alterations".

Although the syntax of that paragraph may be a little shaky, I believe that the sense is very clear. It is for this House to consider these matters and no one else. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, has made very clear, this is not just a matter of territorial imperative, exclusivity or accountability, it is a matter of great constitutional importance.

Although my noble friend Lord Neill has an impressively regal appearance, I do not seek to compare him with Charles I and certainly not with Oliver Cromwell, if only because Oliver Cromwell is known to have a sharp and untunable voice, which the noble Lord certainly does not. However, I believe that we are getting perilously close to surrendering an important principle of the independence of your Lordships' House. It is all very well to argue, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, did in his extremely powerful and persuasive speech, that my noble friend's committee can only make recommendations and that your Lordships will have the final say on whether to accept them or not. But that will be a little late in the day.

As other noble Lords have said, by then the recommendations will be public knowledge. They will be in the press and subject to comment by the press. As the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, has said, there will be heavy pressure from many quarters, from the Government, the press and elsewhere, for those recommendations to be accepted. If my noble friend Lord Neill and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, really believe that that pressure will be easy to resist, then they live in a different world to the one in which I live.

Two other arguments have been put forward in the course of this debate which need a little close examination. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and others have suggested that it would be wrong for your Lordships' House to regulate its own affairs in this way. The word "internalise", which is an extremely ugly new invention, has been used in this context. It has been suggested that, if this House objects to the proposal of my noble friend Lord Neill that his committee should investigate our affairs, that in some strange way would be sending a wrong message, whatever that means. It would be showing that we had something to hide.

The logical conclusion to that, if one puts it on a broader footing, is that, if someone came to me, say, as chairman of a company and said, "I am an independent body and I wish to examine the standards which are prevalent in your organisation", and I told him that I did not intend to allow him to do so, that would mean that I had something to hide. It would really only mean, "Mind your own business". The suggestion that--

Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He will recollect that I said that it might well be perceived that we had something to hide. I was talking about perception.

Photo of Lord Chalfont Lord Chalfont Crossbench

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for repeating his comment on perceptions and reality. I am saying that here the perception will matter more than the reality. I want to avoid the perception that we have something to hide. We have nothing to hide in this House and I am pleased to see the noble and learned Lord nodding in agreement.

The other argument that is totally without substance is that which suggests--and it has been suggested several times tonight--that there is something intrinsically admirable about having an inquiry into standards of conduct in your Lordships' House conducted by what is called an "independent body". My noble friend Lord Neill repeated tonight that his commission is totally independent. That is the principal argument against it. For centuries, it has been accepted that matters concerning either House of Parliament should be dealt with in the House to which they relate, not by any outside body however distinguished or independent. Independence is a total irrelevance to this argument.

It may be old fashioned nowadays to quote the Companion to Standing Orders, but I am sure that your Lordships need no reminding that it is a long-standing custom of the House of Lords that Peers speak always on their personal honour. That implies that they act also on their personal honour. In an ideal world, there should therefore be no need for any other prescribed standard of conduct, register of interests or any other bureaucratic meddling nonsense. But that pass has already been sold. In 1995, the Committee for Privileges agreed to the setting up of a register of interests. But that was after a sub-committee of the Procedure Committee under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, had made certain recommendations which had been debated and accepted in your Lordships' House. No outside body was involved.

As the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said, that is what should happen now. If my noble friend Lord Neill wants desperately to inquire into our standards of conduct, there is no reason why he should not do so, possibly, as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said, as chairman of a sub-committee of the Procedure Committee, a role which he would fulfil most admirably. The sub-committee could then make its recommendations to the House.

In conclusion, I ask noble Lords to reflect on an analogy from the military sphere. Students of military history may know that today is the anniversary of the day on which the great Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson, was killed. He fell on the battlefield of wounds from friendly fire. I have a feeling that we are in danger of suffering a similar fate and I should much regret it. Having listened carefully to the debate, I am still of the opinion that my noble friend Lord Rees-Mogg was right to table the Motion. I congratulate him on doing so with such lucidity and skill. Arguments have been put forward that amendments should be withdrawn, that no amendments should be debated and that the House should have no Divisions. I have no view on that except one, which is that, if there are Divisions in the House tonight, I shall follow my noble friend Lord Rees-Mogg.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 10:54 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, in an earlier debate on this very long afternoon we discussed various issues about how the House should conduct itself in future. In the process of that debate, we gave thought to the relative power and relationships of the Crown or the executive on the one hand and Parliament on the other. We return to that issue with this debate.

When my right honourable friend the then Prime Minister, John Major, set up the Nolan committee, he was acting as the chief executive of the Crown. Therefore, the committee is a creature of the Crown and, as it happens, in the pay of the Crown. I do not say that in a derogatory sense. I do not mean that in receipt of that money they are in some way suborned or that their judgment is perverted, but it is a constitutional fact that they arise from the sole motive of the chief executive of the Crown.

When my right honourable friend's successor confirmed the policy of my right honourable friend, he was acting in the same role. When my noble friend Lord Cranborne acceded to that process, he did so as a member of the executive. When my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition agreed to that process, he was acting of his own motive and had no right. None of those people at any stage said anything which pre-empted noble Lords' privilege to express their view, if necessary by vote, as to how we should conduct our affairs. That is so because the freedom of this country from before the Civil War has depended on the independence of Parliament.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, whom I greatly respect, sought to reassure your Lordships in his speech that it was unnecessary to address the sovereign independence of Parliament and, in particular, of this House because precedents already existed to say that that was so. However, I forget who it was who rightly said that the British constitution broadens from precedent to precedent. Of course, this debate and the decision that we take tonight will be a precedent. It is in that light that I look at it. It seems to me that that is immensely more important than the question of whether or not we should now subject our fiduciary conduct to consideration. As it happens, I believe that we should. I disagree with noble Lords who have said that the time is not right.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would consider withdrawing the word "subject". The committee has no authority over this House. It will take no decisions. It will comment. In the light of that, is his argument a little like that which used to be advanced against any discussion of parliamentary affairs outside this House? I believe that we abandoned that when we allowed the publication of parliamentary debates.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, we subject ourselves to scrutiny in the same way as an actor subjects himself to the spotlight. "Subject" is definitely the word. That calls to mind the reaction of the noble Lord, Lord Neill. Again, there is nothing whatever personal in anything that I say about him or about any member of the committee, all of whom I hold in high regard. What is at issue is not their personality but their position.

When it was suggested that an amendment would be appropriate--that is, to say that his committee was "invited" instead of "welcome"--I recall that he rather vigorously rejected that as being a change to the status quo, not welcome and, indeed, not agreeable to the situation as he saw it.

Therefore, the central issue concerns not your Lordships' probity, which may be above reproach, but the fact that it should, from time to time, be subject to scrutiny. The question is whence that scrutiny comes. I do sympathise with the noble Baroness. My back has been giving me torture too. My cushion is at her service since I have had a little time on my feet. I have completely lost the thread that I was following. The question of probity needs investigation but the question is: who should do it? We are dealing with constitutional precedent and any decision we take this evening is a precedent for future decisions.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, invites us to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Neill; but it is not just him. What he is welcoming in the guise of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his eminent committee is an agent of the chief executive of the Crown disposing of the prerogative of the Crown. That is something about which wars have been fought. It is fundamental to the structure of Parliament. It is not irrelevant; it is not intellectual; it is not abstract; it is the substance of politics. The noble and learned Lord said how he thought it was appropriate to have a completely non-political debate. In that case, the Civil War was not political and there is no Whip on the government Members this evening. I am reassured to hear that there is not. That is at least one step in the right direction.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the noble Lord think that this House would have been asked to approve the activities of the Royal Commission on the future of the House of Lords, whose impact on this House seems to me potentially to be far greater than that of the Neill committee?

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, there is a long-established position relating to the role of Royal Commissions and I do not believe that there is any analogy whatever.

The tragic point is that this debate would be unnecessary, and could still be unnecessary, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, in a most luminous and luminary speech, has made clear, were the Government, even at this stage, to say that if the Motion and the amendment were both withdrawn, they would give government time for the passage of a Motion which many of my colleagues and I would undertake to support--and I expect that my Front Bench might do the same--inviting the noble Lord to come to the House.

But it is one thing to have somebody subjecting you to scrutiny at your invitation and it is quite another to be beaming and opening the door to an emissary sent from a power outside. I repeat to your Lordships that we are discussing the balance between the Crown and Parliament. If we must have a Division or Divisions, I am in the camp of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg. But I very much hope that by that simple manoeuvre, all that can be made unnecessary.

Photo of Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 11:03 pm, 10th May 2000

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.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may put a point to the noble Lord before he sits down. If he agrees that it was a mistake not to issue an invitation, why will he not support me in my request to the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal to set the mistake right by offering that invitation on behalf of the House as a result of a Motion of the House on the withdrawal of these two Motions?

Photo of Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I do not think that that is a serious and adult way of approaching this matter. Common sense should prevail. We have had a four-hour debate during which we have all had an opportunity to express our views. All noble Lords who wished to take part could have done so. Why should we cover the ground again if a decision can be reached today? I think that we should come to a decision. It would be simply playing games to postpone the matter on procedural grounds.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative 11:10 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. How much better things could have been handled on this study than they have been. We should not be debating this important issue on a Back Bench/Cross Bench Motion late in the evening or even, dare I say, in the comment and letters pages of The Times. Nevertheless, I think that we should express our thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, for giving us this opportunity. I am grateful to him for having aired the issue.

He is right about the constitutional substance of the issue that he has raised. However, how much better it would have been to have debated this in prime time on a Motion introduced by the Leader of the House. How much better it would have been to have had an oral Statement when it was first announced. Furthermore, looking at the rather full Benches opposite, I dare say that many Members agree with me. Noble Lords will appreciate the irony of having listened to the debate earlier today about family friendly hours. Yet here they all are, unbidden by the Chief Whip. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, should become the Chief Whip because they have all come to their places voluntarily.

I should like to make three points very clearly. First, I intend to co-operate with this study if it goes ahead.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

My Lords, heaven knows, the people who scripted the issues and questions paper have a great deal to learn about Parliament and the House of Lords. We shall be doing them and, more importantly, the House, a disservice if we do not give evidence. I did write to the noble Lord, Lord Neill, to say that arguably this House lay outside the terms of reference of his committee, but I also told him that none the less I would give evidence on behalf of the Conservative Party. I shall do that not least because my spokesmen on the Front Bench are specifically targeted by sections 3.29 and 3.33 of the issues paper.

However, in my view this question is not a matter for the parties but for the House. Taken together, the issues we discussed in our debate earlier today--the 1999 Act and tighter controls on political parties--may well radically change the nature of our House. That is not something that should happen by accident or as a side effect; it should be addressed directly and openly. So I hope that as many Peers as wish to do so will make their views known.

My second point is one that I touched on earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, is right to say that no one appointed by the Prime Minister and acting on the Royal Prerogative has the authority to bind or constrain this House of Parliament. It would have been far preferable if, after consultation, we had followed the same course as we did in 1994-95 and set up a committee of this House to look into the workings of the register. Then there would have been no question about the constitutional position. I must bear some responsibility for not suggesting it when I first received the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Neill.

However--this is my third point--I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, that we are where we are: in a fine old, wholly avoidable mess. We shall have to make the best of it. We must emerge with the answer that best suits the House, certainly not the Government or even the Opposition.

It may be, of course, that the Griffiths system--the current system--is not working. If so, let us change it. It may be that there is a raging crisis of public confidence in standards of conduct in this House. But where is the evidence that Griffiths is not working? Does the Committee on Standards in Public Life have evidence that it is not? If so, what is it? The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said that there is none. Yet anyone reading the paper could only conclude that there is something rotten in this House.

We do Parliament no good if we judge it guilty and require it to prove its innocence. That is not a test that would be applied in any court in the land. Should not your Lordships know the charges and who made them so that we have a fair chance to defend ourselves? Even the humblest accused has the right to know that.

Another point of fundamental importance arises. I am glad that the noble Lords, Lord Neill and Lord Goodhart, recognised it. I am glad also that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agreed with me last Thursday that, as she put it,

"membership of the House of Lords is very different from that of the other place".--[Official Report, 4/5/00; col. 1125.]

But the issues paper says,

"irrespective of the outcome of the debate on our approach, we believe that developments in the House of Commons are relevant. We have therefore adopted a common format in respect of the issues raised".

I do not agree with that. There can be absolutely no assumption that rules can simply be extrapolated from another place to your Lordships' House. There are clear differences between the other place and this House in their roles, functions and composition; in the non-representative role of the Lords; in the fact that Peers are unpaid, part-time and sit for life; in that we have very little power over finance; in that no Peer may hold the highest office in the land, nor that of Chancellor of the Exchequer and, in practice, many others in the Cabinet; in that this House cannot bring down a government; and in our self-regulating procedures which are much admired. Indeed, the Griffiths committee was part of the self-regulation of the House. Those differences are of substance and are much valued. They cannot be ignored and I hope that they will be recognised by those conducting the study.

I should like to make one final point. Regrettably, we should be aware that there are those who are seeking, quite wrongly, to exploit this inquiry for political ends. Like my noble friends, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Ferrers, I was surprised, in common no doubt with the leader of the Liberal Democrats, to find that my Front Bench spokesmen, without any prior warning, were being singled out for investigation on the question of whether they should be forced to divest their financial interests. Who imagines that there would be a stream of people prepared to take on the onerous, unpaid duty of being a Liberal Democrat or Conservative spokesman, or indeed a Labour spokesman in opposition, if they were also forced to divest their interests?

I read, as I am sure other noble Lords did too, in the words of the issues paper, of,

"an issue which has recently been drawn to the attention", of the committee. I inquired of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, who had raised the matter. I was told just one person: a Mr Fraser Kemp MP. I do not have the privilege of knowing who Mr Kemp is, so I looked him up in Dod's. This is what I found.

He was a full-time Labour Party organiser in Leicester from 1981 to 1984; he was the Assistant Labour Regional Organiser for the East Midlands, 1984 to 1986; he was a Labour Party regional secretary for the West Midlands from 1986 to 1994--and this is where it really gets better--he was Labour's National General Election Co-ordinator in 1994 to 1996 before becoming Secretary for Labour's National General Election Planning Group in 1994 to 1996. Is that a dispassionate authority on opposition spokesmen? In whose party interests is it to have Liberal Democrats and Conservatives targeted in that way in the run-up to a general election? And why did the committee allow itself to be hijacked in such a way?

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, a few minutes ago defended the political neutrality of the committee. How can he possibly have allowed this matter to go through? If it is to do with Archie Norman, why is it buried in an investigation of the House of Lords? Whatever else happens, I hope that this House will manage to keep separate in the months ahead the issues of how it runs itself and the private, political agenda of the Labour or any other party.

I repeat, this should not be a party political matter. It is a House matter. For that reason, I hope that there will not be a vote at the end of this debate. I hope that both the noble Lord and the noble and learned Lord will withdraw their Motions. If a Division is sought, I shall not vote. I entirely agreed with the very persuasive speech made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. Why? I did so because we have seen the grubby words of Mr Kemp about your Lordships having their "snouts in the trough".

We can see that there is a political agenda afoot and we should not play that game. It would be sad for a vote on a high and important constitutional principle, which most Members of this House have affirmed to be right tonight, to be twisted by Mr Kemp and his friends among Labour's professional election co-ordinators for tawdry political ends; namely, that,

"they have something to hide".

To the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, I say that it will not be the perception: that is what they will say. We have nothing to hide.

Perhaps I may conclude my remarks by putting a few questions to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, who is to reply to the debate shortly. We need a clear view of where we go from here. We need to hear from the noble Baroness now how this study will be handled. What will happen when the noble Lord, Lord Neill, reports? Will his report be presented to this House, or, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, suggested in his opening speech, will it be presented to the Prime Minister? If it is to be presented to the Prime Minister, will there be a Cabinet discussion on it before it comes to this House? Will Mr Alistair Campbell be made aware of its contents before your Lordships? Will it be presented to the House with a statement of government policy, or will it be put to the Procedure Committee? I give way.

Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Labour

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Does he not agree with me that these are really questions for the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and not for my noble friend the Leader of the House?

Noble Lords:

No!

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

Forgive me, my Lords, if I say to the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, that I believe this must be a House matter. The noble Baroness is the Leader of the House and, therefore, she must have a view. I hope that she will tell us what that view is when she responds in a few minutes--

Photo of Baroness Jay of Paddington Baroness Jay of Paddington President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, if the noble Lord will give way, I shall tell him now. I repeat exactly what I said in response to the question of the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, when he put this to me during oral Questions last week. Of course it will be a matter for the House to decide what it wishes to do with the report of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and how it wishes to handle it.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

My Lords, I am glad to hear that. However, when the noble Baroness replies, perhaps she will also tell me whether the report will be presented to the House or to the Prime Minister. If it is to be presented to the House, can she tell us in what form it will be presented? Will it go to a committee of this House? Will it be given to the Chairman of Committees? Will it be given to the noble Baroness; will it be debated by the whole House? Will it go to the Procedure Committee or perhaps the Privileges Committee for consideration before it is submitted to the House?

I shall conclude my speech in about 30 seconds, but it strikes me that the noble Baroness must have put some thought into the matter. She has, perhaps, taken advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments. However, if she has not, perhaps she will do so and write to me, as well as putting a copy of the letter in the Library of the House. The noble Baroness should let us know what she thinks. I hope that she will not let tonight's debate pass without explaining in the clearest terms how she intends to handle these matters.

As our Leader, I have no doubt that the noble Baroness will uphold the authority and involve the opinions of this, I believe, still honourable House.

Photo of Baroness Jay of Paddington Baroness Jay of Paddington President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 11:23 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, this has been a very instructive debate in every way. It has sometimes been erudite. I personally should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, for his uniquely authoritative overview. I hope that he and his other distinguished colleagues in public service, both those who serve with him and those like my noble friend Lady Warwick who have served with him before, have not been dismayed by the suggestions that were again made in the last concluding speech by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that they are politically influenced; that they are politically swayed; and, indeed, that they have not been dismayed by being described disparagingly as "the great and the good". That is rather a strange and singular criticism to come from your Lordships' House!

We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, a repetition of the old American political cliche that everything has been said but not everyone has said it. I feel very much in that position tonight. However, it is appropriate to mention the two key issues that have been discussed, my view on them and the view on which I have consulted with my Front Bench. The two legitimate issues that have been discussed tonight are: does the Committee on Standards in Public Life have the authority to hold an inquiry into the conduct of Members of this House? And, if so, should this House now seek to prevent such an inquiry taking place, or should it wait for the results, and then, if appropriate, act properly to regulate itself?

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked a stream of questions about business management. As I said in earlier replies to the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, these issues are a matter for the usual channels, as every bit of organisation in your Lordships' House always is.

I turn to the first question: does the committee have the authority to hold an inquiry? We have heard a number of conflicting views tonight. I have been convinced by the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen--as I was by his written explanation--with regard to the background of the committee of inquiry. I was grateful for the further explanation of that matter given by my noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe.

There is little I can add but I think that it is relevant to quote briefly from a Hansard extract of the previous discussions. As has been said many times this evening, until the Griffiths sub-committee of this House was set up, it was widely assumed that the first inquiry of the Nolan committee, as it then was, would include your Lordships' House. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, explained, consideration of the issues involving this House was postponed. I emphasise that it was postponed, not cancelled.

I was not sure from the contribution of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne--who gave a somewhat revisionist view of his role at that time--when the dates of his revisionism began or ended. However, I remind him of what he said during the debate on the report of the Griffiths sub-committee. I emphasise that this occurred after the internal committee of your Lordships' House had done its work. The noble Viscount said:

"Of course, in due time it may be that the Committee on Standards in Public Life will wish to consider the arrangements which prevail in your Lordships' House, and it will be ... quite within its remit for it to do so".

Photo of Viscount Cranborne Viscount Cranborne Conservative

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. I have never for a moment denied that it was within its remit to do so. I said that when repeating the Statement on the establishment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in October 1994 and I repeated that in the words that the noble Baroness has already quoted. However, that does not mean to say that because it was within its remit I thought it was desirable that this House should go along with it.

Photo of Baroness Jay of Paddington Baroness Jay of Paddington President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, my non-legal brain is probably not sufficiently acute to follow that line of argument. However, as I understood the noble Viscount's contribution this evening he said that he had revised his view and his view was that the internal organisation committee--as expressed originally by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and perhaps replaced by a similar committee--at this present moment was the most satisfactory way to proceed.

Photo of Viscount Cranborne Viscount Cranborne Conservative

My Lords, I do not want to detain the House longer than is absolutely necessary. However, it seems to me that it is perfectly compatible to say that within the remit as given by my right honourable friend Mr John Major to the original committee came responsibility for your Lordships' House. But because that was given under the royal prerogative it did not necessarily mean to say--I have emphasised this during the course of the debate--that it was necessarily right that your Lordships should accept that. It was for that reason that it seemed to me sensible to propose to your Lordships that the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, should pre-empt the matter in hand, which is indeed what happened.

Photo of Baroness Jay of Paddington Baroness Jay of Paddington President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, I merely draw the attention of the House to the remarks I have quoted, which were made after the Griffiths report. The noble Viscount is right. There is no point in detaining the House with the history.

In my view, to say that the committee has the authority to hold an inquiry does nothing to undermine the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, as several speakers have emphasised. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, has told your Lordships' House, it is an advisory committee. It does not attempt to take power away from Parliament; it has no power to compel witnesses or to force compliance with its recommendations. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, it will "comment" on procedures in its recommendations to this House.

Again, as has been said several times, the committee will produce a report at the end of its inquiry. Judging by past practice, that may well contain a number of conclusions and recommendations. The recommendations directed to your Lordships will be entirely for your Lordships' House to consider, and to accept or reject as your Lordships see fit. I say again to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that that process of rejecting or accepting will be for the usual channels in the normal way.

Let me emphasise once again that the committee's inquiry will have no effect on the right of this House to regulate its own affairs. That is a separate matter, I agree, but it is a fundamental one. It is one that is not at issue here. It would be quite wrong to try to portray the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his colleagues as enemies of the independence of this House. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in reflecting with some concern on the disparaging remarks made about the credibility and integrity of the noble Lord's professional colleagues and Civil Service advisers.

So having established, at least to my satisfaction--and, indeed, on the learned advice that I was enjoined to take--that the committee has the authority to examine standards of conduct in your Lordships' House, the second question, the one which has taken some time today, is whether the committee merits our co-operation or our disdain. I believe--and it is the view of the Government Front Bench and the view of those colleagues on these Benches I have consulted--that we have nothing to fear from this inquiry. To co-operate with the inquiry does not imply that anyone believes that there are any specific concerns or allegations of misconduct to be investigated. Indeed, quite the reverse. Not to fear this inquiry signals our confidence that high standards of conduct are observed by noble Lords.

On the other hand--this, too, has been pointed out before; I simply re-emphasise it--the converse is true. If we seek to prevent the committee's inquiry, or to replace its scrutiny with an in-house committee, we will be thought to be trying to hide from the spotlight of open scrutiny. We would be judged--this may, as we have discussed, be a question of perception rather than reality; but, as we have also discussed, perception is formidable--to be extraordinarily arrogant in suggesting that what is right for MPs, civil servants and local councillors is somehow beneath this House and that we can only order our affairs by internal review. Distinguished though the Members of this House are, I do not believe that we would wish to suggest that only noble Lords themselves can have good ideas about ways of improving this aspect of the functioning of this House of Parliament.

Let us not forget that that is what this place is--a working House of Parliament, a matter we have spent the whole day discussing. As we identified in our earlier discussions, it is not a private club. We are parliamentarians; we have influence over matters of national and international importance. It is right that we should be open about those matters which might affect or, it is true, be thought to affect the way in which we conduct ourselves. "Transparency" was how my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell rightly described it.

That is why Ministers in this House and in this Government already declare their interests far beyond the current requirements of this House. That is why the evidence of the Labour Peers Group to the Griffiths inquiry called for compulsory registration. That is why I welcomed the inquiry when the noble Lord, Lord Neill, informed me of his committee's intention. I was glad to be joined in this welcome by the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. But I repeat that while all the party leaders welcome the inquiry, we all acknowledge that it in no sense undermines the responsibility of the House to conduct its own affairs. The amendment of my noble and learned friend Lord Archer to the original Motion puts that position succinctly and accurately and I entirely support it.

Photo of Lord Rees-Mogg Lord Rees-Mogg Crossbench 11:35 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, I should like first of all to thank all Members of the House who have taken part in this debate. It is quite right that it is somewhat unusual that this debate should have taken place on a Cross-Bench, Back-Bench Motion. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, had a point there. Of course, we are all Back-Benchers on the Cross Benches, just as we are all equal in this House. Perhaps it was no bad thing, even though the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, thought it odd that this Motion, on what is really a very important matter to this House, should have been raised by someone as humble as myself.

I should like to thank one or two noble Lords who have spoken, because it would be discourteous not to. First, and particularly, I should like to thank my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell. I thought that the way in which he moved the amendment, which was done with clarity and courtesy, was an example to all of us. I am most grateful for that. I am also grateful for his reference to the case of Lord Shaftesbury in 1677. I share with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the fact that members of our family came to a fatal end as a result of associating with Lord Shaftesbury. Nevertheless, he was the founder of the party which became the Liberal Democrat Party, so I am glad to have his case brought in on our side.

I should like to thank also the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I found that I agreed with him, so naturally I should wish to thank him. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, who spoke in flattering terms about myself at a quite inordinate length. I was most grateful for that. He made one point which I believe to be absolutely true: a self-confident institution believes in reforming itself, and an institution which has lost its self-confidence believes in going outside to get itself reformed. I think that this is one of the key arguments in favour of my side of the debate.

I have had my greatest difficulty with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I hope the whole House will remember that I am an innocent Cross-Bencher, not accustomed to these great political matters and who does not approach matters, certainly this evening, from a political point of view. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, gave the advice that, having considered various defects, as he saw them, of my version on the one hand, and of the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, on the other, the right procedure would be for both of us to withdraw our provisions. That advice has been given by some other Members of this House. But there is an almost mathematical difficulty here: I cannot understand the procedure. We always have difficulty in this House when there is a Motion with an amendment. The debate, as we all know, is supposed to take place on the amendment. The debate, as we all know, usually takes place on the Motion rather than the amendment, as, largely speaking, it did this evening. So most of us were out of order much of the time.

However, the amendment has the Floor. If at this stage I asked the leave of the House to withdraw my Motion, that would necessarily kill the amendment.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, perhaps I may help the noble Lord. He is correct that the Question before the House is the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Archer. If the noble Lord had wanted a general debate on this issue, he should have put down a Motion to draw attention. He has put down a Motion to resolve, which means a vote. Therefore, he was seeking the opinion of the House. My noble and learned friend Lord Archer, with his amendment, is seeking the opinion of the House on his amendment, which the House is entitled to take. If my noble and learned friend loses on his amendment, the noble Lord can then decide what to do with his Motion. The noble Lord put down a Motion to resolve--that is the important point--and not a Motion to draw attention.

Photo of Lord Rees-Mogg Lord Rees-Mogg Crossbench

My Lords, I am most grateful for that explanation. It appears, therefore, that I cannot ask at this stage for the leave of the House to withdraw my Motion, even though I might agree with the advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale.

I have some difficulties here. I am speaking quite openly to the House and consulting. I am not advising or trying to persuade noble Lords of anything. There is a very even balance between the two arguments. I do not wholly object to the amendment. It has two advantages from my point of view--the point of view of a strict constitutionalist. The first advantage is that it reaffirms--even though, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, pointed out, the word "ultimately" is somewhat ambiguous--the traditional doctrine about the duty of this House. It has another advantage. Although the Leader of the House would not agree to invite the Neill committee into the House--she seems to have a view that that would be wrong because she thinks that it can come in anyway--the amendment does at least welcome it. It therefore gives some colour of decency to the Neill committee coming into the House. It does not come in as an outsider or burglar; it comes in as a welcome guest. Therefore, I do not find the amendment wholly without merit. I do not see it as destructive of the constitutional position that I would adopt.

My position is that, if the House would like me to withdraw my Motion subsequent to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, may choose to say, I should be only too happy to do that. If the House would rather pass the Motion as amended--there is no doubt where the votes are--I should be perfectly content with that. I am in the hands of the House.

Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour 11:42 pm, 10th May 2000

My Lords, if I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, it is a pleasure doing business with him.

It is conventional at this point in a debate to say that it has been a good debate. This has been a good debate. It has been an informative and instructive debate, as my noble friend said, and the two cases have been very effectively deployed. The two issues have been addressed by my noble friend the Leader of the House and I doubt whether anything which she said would benefit from repetition by me. In an earlier debate today a great deal of reference was made to the late hours which we sit. I do not think that I would improve my position in the popularity stakes if I were to contribute to that now.

Perhaps I may make just one comment.

Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour

My Lords, as my noble friend said "just one", and he can count if he wishes. Only the very boldest spirits in the debate--two or three of the boldest spirits--have suggested that we do not need a review of how the register is working. The issue is whether that review would be better carried out by the committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, or by a committee of this House. Some noble Lords have used the word "interference" of the committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Neill. I do not think that that was a happy word. There are better words--words like "assistance" and "information". The advantage of the Neill committee is precisely that it is not a committee of your Lordships' House. By welcoming that, we can demonstrate that we are not investigating ourselves. We have a right to reject that course of action. But this is an opportunity to demonstrate that we are not proposing to incarcerate ourselves in our ivory tower.

The question therefore arises: what course ought I now to take? It is always with the greatest regret that I resist the blandishments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, particularly as he is supported by the noble Lords, Lord Campbell and Lord Elton. But I am bound to say that I found the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, more persuasive.

There are real differences between us. I believe that it is in the interests of everyone that they should be resolved. The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, said in his opening remarks that it was a pity that the House had not had an opportunity to express a view on the subject. The debate has been on a Motion that has been on the Order Paper for a substantial time. All the issues have been well ventilated and this appears to be an opportunity to resolve them. I seek to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 111; Not-Contents, 3.

Division number 1

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

Photo of Viscount Simon Viscount Simon Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the Question is that the original Motion, as amended, be agreed to.

Photo of Lord Rees-Mogg Lord Rees-Mogg Crossbench

My Lords, I must ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Photo of Viscount Simon Viscount Simon Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, unfortunately as the noble Lord has established, the unanimous opinion of the House is not in agreement with his wish to withdraw. Consequently, the Question is that the original Motion, as amended, be agreed to.

On Question, Motion, as amended, agreed to.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, who was the one besides the Tellers? I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at two minutes before midnight.