Second Reading

Part of Parliamentary Standards Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 8th July 2009.

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Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative 4:43 pm, 8th July 2009

My Lords, I, like my noble friend Lord MacGregor, must acknowledge that for a short time—just one year compared with his two—I was Leader of the House of Commons and chairman of the Privileges Committee, as we then called it without blushing. I agree absolutely with all that has been said both by my noble friend Lord MacGregor and by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad.

We are faced with a serious situation, which has prompted—although not in a very sensible way—the preparation of serious measures in response to it. However, it is important to put them in perspective. I fear that, in the 20 years that have passed since I was Leader of the House of Commons, the morale of parliamentarians, Members of the other place, has declined steadily. We need to consider the impact of what is now being proposed on the long-term prospects for that.

My recollection of the atmosphere in those days, when we had only just invented our first parliamentary standards commissioner and the Privileges Committee had greater freedom and greater self-confidence, is that the committee and its members were confident that if such a crisis had arisen, they would have been able to handle it. I had as my colleagues parliamentarians as diverse and emphatic as the late Lord Biffen and the by no means late Tony Benn. It was a traditional, confident body. I am anxious that what follows from this will try to restore that confidence as well as the standards.

We have, in a way, been here already. I had forgotten until the other day that the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, had himself been charged, in April 2000, with making proposals for standards of conduct in this House. I wrote then a document for his consideration and this is what I said:

"My central proposition is that the tide of oversight and regulation of Members of Parliament should now be seen as having already reached its high water mark. In the Commons indeed it has already become unduly intrusive and should now begin to recede".

I drew to his attention a quotation that I have overworked frequently. It is from Lord Moulton, the distinguished liberal Law Lord, in 1912:

"There are three great domains of human conduct. The first is where our actions are limited or forbidden by law. Then there is the domain of free personal choice. But between these two is a third domain, that in which there is neither law nor unfettered freedom. This is the domain of 'obedience to the unenforceable', where people do right although there is no one and nothing to make them do right but themselves".

That was then a proposition understood. It has been a proposition on which many of our self-disciplines have been based. Indeed, it was the foundation of the determination of this House to be self-regulating without the need for external pressure. It is a perfectly respectable standard. That is why I was distressed when the Prime Minister, I think, began repudiating the notion of behaving on our own devices like a gentlemen's club. In fact the whole essence of self-regulation, if it is properly to work, is mutual respect in that way, and that is a way to which we should wish to return, if we can.

I am not challenging the need now for tighter measures of the kind that we are discussing today. I am really saying that we need to try to get the balance right and restore the morale and self-confidence of Members of the other place, as we would here. I agree with those who have said that there has been a decline—one must put it as crudely as this—in the self-confidence of Members of the other place, alongside an enhancement in the narrow professionalisation of their political role. The other place now lacks the presence of people with wider experience in almost every occupation of which I can think. Nowhere is it more obvious and more critical than in the field of the law officers of the Crown. We have at the moment an Attorney-General in this House who is immensely competent and well qualified for the post. But in the days when I became Solicitor-General, and that is now some 30 years ago, I was one of probably half a dozen people competing for the job. At that time the House of Commons had a mass of people, not just in the law but in other professions, who were there with those qualifications, giving a spread of confidence and competence to the House.

That has changed, and the prospect of entering Parliament at the present time is not very encouraging. We need to have a Parliament that is able once again to spread its confidence and its talent. That is why I feel that we must not only be careful in the adjustment and measurement of the measures that are necessarily now being taken but also ask ourselves whether there are not other ways in which Parliament has abdicated from areas where it once used to be responsible and behaving effectively in areas of need.

The first example is the fact that we have now had in the Commons a sequence of four parliamentary commissioners for standards, all people of great integrity and all coming from a background wholly different from the one in which they have had to exercise their powers. One wonders whether we cannot get away from that contraction of the self-regulatory capacity of the House of Commons.

Another example is the extent to which the Electoral Commission has taken over many functions that used to be determined by Speaker's Conferences. The first chairman of the Electoral Commission was a man for whom I had the greatest admiration as the director of the BBC World Service. However, his background and training, and that of his colleagues, were not the most appropriate to handle an area that had been taken away from the House of Commons. Speaker's Conferences are not all that ancient—the first was held in 1916—but they became more frequent after World War II, being held in 1944, 1965, 1973 and 1977. Parliament—the House of Lords was also represented on Speaker's Conferences—then played a part effectively and with respect, but we have now sub-contracted that role to an organisation which, frankly, lands a whole range of ill considered propositions in front of us. Therefore, over the past decade or so the electoral system has gone through turmoil so fast that even I can hardly understand the ballot paper.

Those are my two points: Parliament should set about reclaiming functions that it used to do well and we have to get the balance right, although we have to be very careful to ensure that we have a sufficiently tight means of preventing any further misbehaviour of the kind that has caused this problem. Just as my noble friend Lord MacGregor drew attention to the current under-financial reward for Members of the House of Commons, so we also have to ensure that the House itself is rewarding and welcoming, so that it can once again attract real people and not just narrowly qualified professional politicians to perform a job of huge importance. It is our function not only, as some people have said, to protect the House of Commons from itself but also to enable the House to regain some of the self-confidence that it used to enjoy—I sound like a very old man indeed—in the days when we were there.