Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:39 am on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Brabazon of Tara Lord Brabazon of Tara Chairman of Committees, House of Lords 11:39 am, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House that as well as speaking to this Motion on the committee's 3rd report of the last Session, I shall also speak to my second Motion and the 4th report, which is the more substantial of the two reports on the Order Paper.

First, I shall briefly comment on the 3rd report. It arose out of two complaints made against the noble Lord, Lord Warner, relating to the declaration of relevant interests in debate. The conclusions of the Committee for Privileges are, I hope, self-explanatory. We dismissed the complaints and agreed unanimously that the noble Lord, Lord Warner, had not acted improperly in breach of the House's Code of Conduct. However, we also felt that the complaints had highlighted two significant gaps in the guidance currently available to noble Lords: first, whether they are required to declare future interests in debate; and, secondly, whether, and if so how often, declarations of relevant interests should be repeated in the course of proceedings on Bills. Our conclusions are as follows.

First, we believe that Members should, where there is a clear prospect of a future interest, declare that interest in debate. This is essential so that both participants in and readers of the debate can gauge the interests that might be thought to affect the actions of the Member concerned. In making this recommendation, we are simply reinstating guidance previously agreed by the House in 1990 and 1995, which applied until superseded by the present Code of Conduct in 2001. I should emphasise that we are talking only about declarations of interest in debate; we do not believe that any requirement to register future interests would be workable or appropriate.

Secondly, we believe that it would assist Members and the general public if the principles governing the need to repeat declarations were clarified. We suggest that constant repetition of declarations of interests would be time-consuming and futile. A balance has to be struck. We therefore recommend that, as a minimum, a declaration of any interests relevant to a particular Bill should be made on the occasion of the first intervention at each stage of the Bill's progress. If these recommendations are agreed, the committee suggests that future editions of the Companion be amended to incorporate the new guidance.

I now turn to the 4th report on the procedure for considering complaints against Members. This is a more substantial report and it may be helpful if I take a little time to set out the background.

Members will be aware that the Code of Conduct, agreed in 2001, is couched in very broad terms. Although paragraph 19 of the code sets out some key principles concerning the examination of complaints against Members for alleged breaches, it provides no detail on how investigations should be conducted. Consequently, neither complainants nor noble Lords against whom complaints have been made have up until now been able to refer to any guidance as to how the process works or what their rights and expectations are. Nor has the Sub-Committee on Lords' Interests, on which responsibility for examining complaints falls, been able to draw on agreed procedural guidelines to assist it in its work.

Until recently, none of this really mattered—to put it bluntly, there were no complaints against noble Lords, so there was no need for a detailed description of the procedures for dealing with them. However, as we are all aware, times have changed. We live in a world of media scrutiny, transparency, freedom of information, and a "complaints culture" that affects all walks of life. The House of Lords is not immune from these influences.

Hitherto we have, in practice, relied on successive chairmen of the Sub-Committee on Lords' Interests to take a heavy personal responsibility for dealing with complaints as they saw fit. Here, I pay tribute to all those chairmen and, in particular, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who has chaired the sub-committee since 2006 and has presided over a period in which the number and complexity of complaints have increased substantially. I have always thought that one of the great strengths of this House is that we manage without having an overly complex set of rules and procedures. That we have done so has been down in no small measure to the work of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and his predecessors.

However, as I have already said, times change, and in the past year or two it has become increasingly obvious that the general principles in the code need to be supplemented by more detailed guidance, giving Members of the House, potential complainants and the general public a clear and accessible source of information on how we deal with complaints, on the rights of those concerned in complaints, and on the range of possible outcomes.

The Committee for Privileges therefore set up a working group in July, composed of myself, the Leaders of the three main parties and the Convenor, to bring forward proposals for new guidelines. The group, which was assisted by the Clerk of the Parliaments, reported back to the main committee in November, and the conclusions of both the working group and the committee are embodied in the 4th report now before the House.

I shall not take up the time of the House by going through the report in detail. The content is self-explanatory and I hope that all noble Lords will take the time to read it. In summary, we propose a procedure that is clear and transparent, with a number of key stages clearly set out. At the same time, we need to ensure that noble Lords who may, through inadvertence, have committed a minor breach of the code, which they are entirely willing to acknowledge, are given every opportunity to put the record straight without having to go through a long, drawn-out investigation. We therefore propose that arrangements to facilitate what we call remedial action be built into the process at each stage.

In conclusion, we need a process for considering complaints that is clear and workable, but reasonable and proportionate, and which respects the House's tradition of self-regulation. We believe that these proposals fit the bill. They are consistent with the terms of the existing code of conduct, which sets out the fundamental principles governing conduct of Members. There is no attempt here to change any of these principles. We are concerned with how to clarify the way in which they are implemented in practice. We have to ensure that noble Lords, against whom complaints are made, are aware of their rights, and able to exercise them, while at the same time the legitimate expectations of the general public are respected.

I therefore commend both reports to the House, and beg to move that the 3rd report be agreed to.