Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:45 am on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour 11:45 am, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I am concerned about aspects of the 3rd report. My concerns do not centre on the report's recommendations in the case of my noble friend Lord Warner, but on the proposal in the report to incorporate in future editions of the Companion new wording set out in paragraph 2 on page 6 of the report. It reads:

"On certain occasions, such as Oral Questions and the stages of a Bill following Second Reading, it may be for the convenience of the House that Members should not take up time by making repeated declarations of interest. In particular, during a Committee or Report stage, constant repetition of declarations of interest is unnecessary. But a full declaration of any interests relevant to a Bill should be made at least on the occasion of the first intervention at each stage of the Bill's progress"— in other words, at the start of Committee stage, the start of Report stage or the start of Third Reading. In essence, that wording is taken from a resolution of the House in November 1995, which states:

"On certain occasions such as Starred Questions and the various stages of a bill following Second Reading, it may be for the convenience of the House that Lords should not take up time by repeating declarations of interest but Lords should make a declaration whenever they are in doubt. The nature of the interest should be made clear notwithstanding that it may be well known to most other Lords present in the Chamber.

Similar principles apply to proceedings in committees off the floor of the House".

In 2000, a recommendation was made by the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life that the House should adopt seven principles on conduct in public life, along with a code of conduct for Members. In 2001, before my time, the then Leader of the House—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Jay—established a Leader's group which, in April 2001, recommended that many of the Neill committee's recommendations be incorporated in the Companion. The code was incorporated in the Companion in 2001 and it stated that:

"Members of the House must ... declare when speaking in the House ... any interest which is a relevant interest in the context of the debate or the matter under discussion".

It is significant that the code of conduct, approved in 2001, did not include the words in the 1995 resolution, which I read out earlier, that:

"it may be for the convenience of the House that Lords should not take up time by repeating declarations of interest".

The committee wisely resisted incorporating those words in the code of conduct. Yet seven years later, the Privileges Committee is recommending that the words be incorporated on the basis that they are tightening up and removing ambiguity.

I believe that the effect will be the reverse. The inclusion of those words is an open invitation to some Members to make use of the new wording, on occasions, to avoid making subsequent declarations when a declaration has been made earlier—to a lesser extent at Question Time—and far more importantly, it would enable some Members to avoid making declarations on specific amendments in Committee or on Report or at Third Reading where a pecuniary interest is particularly pertinent to an amendment. The idea that at the commencement of Committee, Report or Third Reading such a declaration is sufficient, when the Long Title is vague or remote, is ludicrous. The Long Title of a Bill may in the perception of the public fail to indicate any connection with the nature of the amendment. I shall give an elementary example. Let us take a local government (miscellaneous provisions) Bill and an amendment that deals with late-night café opening where a pecuniary interest might be involved. There is clearly no identifiable connection between the two. I recognise that most Members of the House are scrupulous in the declarations that they make, but some are not. I believe that a specific amendment where there is a pecuniary interest must carry with it a declaration. The House cannot tolerate a failure to make a clear declaration on amendments where there is a pecuniary interest as defined under the code.

I remind the House of the words under the heading "Purpose of the Code". They are,

"The purpose of this Code of Conduct is .... to provide the openness and accountability necessary to reinforce public confidence in the way in which Members of the House of Lords perform their parliamentary and public duties".

Why is it so important? It is because under the new wording, Members who are the subject of a non-declaration complaint would, in certain circumstances, be able to use in their defence the new wording as a justification for their failure to declare. In my view, the committee is unintentionally loosening the rules and softening the regime. The committee's intention was to tighten up, but that will not be the effect of the proposed amendment to the Companion. I ask the committee to reconsider this recommendation and, if necessary, to return to the House with a further amendment. It might wish to consider the fact that we are a self-regulating House and, as such, we need to be extra diligent in the defence of our institution.