Second Reading

Part of Parliamentary Standards Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:51 pm on 8th July 2009.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Constitutional Affairs 7:51 pm, 8th July 2009

My Lords, I have never had a government Whip come to my help in that way; I hope that is not a bad sign.

Clause 4, which provides for IPSA to pay for claims, raises an important question. Presumably the authority will have a budget equal to the sum of all MPs' allowances. What if MPs decide in the Finance Bill to increase or reduce that budget? What would happen then? What would happen to the underspend? None of these issues is clear.

I turn to the issue of parliamentary privilege, with which a great number of Members have been concerned this afternoon—and rightly. I was, in common with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nicholls, a member of that Joint Committee on parliamentary privilege, reporting in 1999. That was a decade ago. The committee's recommendations have never been followed through by the Government.

The Bill originally, in the other place, encroached on an important element of parliamentary privilege; the right to expect that proceedings in Parliament should not be used as evidence in a court of law. The House of Commons—rather rarely—showed some teeth in defence of that principle, and voted the clause down. But the Bill still leaves a big gap. One of the Joint Committee's central recommendations was that there should be a parliamentary privilege Act, to define—and therefore limit—what privileges are conferred on Parliament. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, told our committee:

"The term 'privilege' is, I think, plainly unfortunate, although hallowed by long usage. It wrongly suggests some perk or special right or dignity, which certain office-holders enjoy, when attention should be concentrated on the limited exemption from the ordinary law which the effective performance of a public duty requires".

That has been a constant thread in our debate today. As the Bill stands, even with the exclusion of the previous Clause 10, this is still a problem. My noble friend Lord Lester has set out very properly the concerns that have been already reported from the Joint Committee on Human Rights about proper process and fairness. Those too have not been properly addressed. It is a real concern to all Members, on all sides of the House, whatever they think about the timetable for this Bill, that we make sure that it is not just going to be a very temporary Bill, with all the weaknesses that that would entail; and that it is going to stand at least the test of time until we are able to give it—with a sunset clause, which again I strongly support—a reconsideration.

Can the Leader of the House give some indication of what the Government intend to do about parliamentary privilege? It is left in abeyance at the moment—in limbo. It is a real problem, but so too are the issues raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Due process and right of appeal surely have to be built into any procedures to ensure that there are guarantees of fairness.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, pointed out; the 18th report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which reported today with admirable timing, has indicated that there are real problems with the section of the Bill dealing with offences.

In paragraph 39, the report says that it is,

"noteworthy that while the maximum sentence for the Fraud Act offences is 10 years imprisonment only 12 months is proposed for the new offences created by the bill. We do not support the retention in the bill of provisions creating criminal offences applicable to members only when offences in the general criminal law already adequately cover the misconduct in question".

As the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, has just said, it would look from that as if the general public, in committing a fraud offence, have to be subjected to a much more formidable sentence than Members of the other place. That surely will do nothing to encourage reconnection between the people and Parliament.

In the other place, Mr Jack Straw said of Section 8,

"There is a difference between what is in section 2 of the Fraud Act and what is in this provision, not least in that in the Act one of the components of fraud is dishonesty, while in the Bill it is knowingly making a false statement".—[Official Report, Commons,29/6/02; col. 46.]

I am no lawyer, but knowingly making a false statement sounds to me to be pretty dishonest. Playing games of that sort seems to be not very helpful when we are trying to encourage greater trust in Parliament and parliamentary proceedings among the general public.

I will not attempt to go into some of the other inadequacies of the Bill. The point that I have to make to your Lordships' House—it has been made so often this afternoon and this evening—is that we have a responsibility to make sure that what comes to us goes away again in a better form than it came.

I do not believe that simply delaying matters meets that point. What I certainly believe very strongly indeed is that the process that we are setting up for the other place has implications for your Lordships' House as well.

Many Members have taken great heart from the statement made by the Leader of the House that the Prime Minister has undertaken a U-turn at some speed—U-turns at speed have very dangerous implications as we all know—and that he has given instructions to other members of the Cabinet that this Bill should no longer apply to your Lordships' House. I take that as a perfectly proper way to listen to Parliament, but it has implications for your Lordships' House.

Clearly, anything that has implications for parliamentary privilege does not just address the situation at the other end of the building; it addresses your Lordships' House too. This Bill has such implications.

It will be said, sooner rather than later, that the arrangements for the other place in terms of setting and deciding allowances—"outsourced" was the word that one of your Lordships' used—should apply to your Lordships' House as well. There are implications; and we would all be behaving like a herd of noble ostriches, if we felt that there was nothing in this Bill that could affect your Lordships' House. The dangerous situation with ostriches is that they tend to get bitten in a very uncomfortable place.

It has already been pointed out by a number of noble Lords speaking in this debate that the Clerk of the Parliaments has drawn attention to this issue. We must take very seriously indeed what he says to us. Surely the time will come—it might not be immediately, but it will come—when, if this Bill goes through in its present form, or anything like its present form, there will be direct implications for your Lordships' House as well. Some would say that that is right and proper. Some would say that our present arrangements are as lamentable and as indefensible as those of the Commons. I do not necessarily take that view, but certainly there will be those who question that. Therefore, if the Bill reaches the statute book in its present form, it will have implications for us.

If we take at face value what the Leader of the House has told us this afternoon, the title of the Bill—the short title as well as long title—is a now a misnomer. This is not a Parliamentary Standards Bill if it is set out now that it is not going to apply to one half of Parliament; it is the House of Commons independent standards authority that we are legislating for. That, surely, is what should be on the face of the Bill.

We are in a difficult situation, which is not entirely of the Government's making—of course we recognise that; some of us would blame the Daily Telegraph. It should have done the job much earlier. However, we have a problem with the onset of the Recess. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said that he had been reassured on a number of occasions by his Front Bench that the urgency was self-evident. What is self-evident from all the speeches on all sides of the House is that this Bill is nowhere near the satisfactory form which would meet even the objectives of the Government, let alone the deep-seated concerns of Members of both Houses.