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Cabinet Office: Standards-setting Bodies

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:08 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 1:08 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I see from the Clock that I have slightly less than an hour in which to respond. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I would put the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, slightly differently, and say that the emphasis has been on quality rather than quantity. Sometimes a short debate can be more productive than a long one and, as the Minister said, it has been especially valuable to hear from noble Lords with experience of one or more of the bodies that we are discussing. That has shown the value of debates such as this.

I take many of the points that have been made. I especially agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, on a Civil Service Act; there is general agreement from everyone on the quality of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as evidenced by its latest annual report. However, it will be no surprise that I agree with the theory of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, rather than that of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, concerning the remit of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and what flows from that. Once the committee starts to look into the role of political parties, that puts it beyond simple answerability to the Prime Minister.

I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said about not seeing this as a perfect solution. It is merely a means to an end, and it is important to get the means themselves absolutely right. I take his point: one would have to devise the statutes so that, in effect, flexibility was written into them. As I mentioned earlier, it is merely a starting point and there is then a question of how the powers are used.

I am grateful for the Minister's reply. He offered us some insight into the Government's thinking, which appears to be, "We can't see what the problem is". He is right to say that the standards maintained in this country are comparatively high, but some of the other surveys commissioned by the Committee on Standards in Public Life show a less rosy picture than he indicated in respect of particular actors in this country. The fact that we achieve higher standards than elsewhere is no basis for complacency. We should strive for the best, not simply to be above average.

The Minister's other argument concerned perception. I rather enjoyed listening to it because he effectively destroyed the whole case put forward by the Government for the Constitutional Reform Act. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, will remember, the Government's argument was: "We can't prove that there is any perception that the Law Lords are not independent but we perceive there's a perception; therefore, we need to move them out of the House of Lords". So the logic of the argument advanced by the Minister is that the Government should now introduce a Bill to repeal the Constitutional Reform Act. I am sure that we look forward to that.

As I said, this has been a valuable debate. There is a case for looking at the role of these bodies to see whether they should be on a statutory basis and whether some, rather than all, of them should be on a statutory basis. We need to pursue that and I may well pursue it later through a Private Member's Bill to ensure that it remains on the agenda. I am sure that we will return to the matter in due course but, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.