Motion to Take Note

Part of House of Lords: Code of Conduct – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 30th November 2009.

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Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative 5:45 pm, 30th November 2009

My Lords, first, I congratulate the Leader of the House on the very sensible decision that we should endorse the code of conduct but remit for further work the draft guidance on the code. I take this opportunity to say how valuable the Leader of the House has been to us in taking account of the House's views on these matters. She always does it, and it is a very important measure of the soundness of a Leader of your Lordships' House. I am sure that her successor will be every bit as sound. In paying that tribute to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, I also pay tribute to and thank the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who always enlightens and entertains us with his powerful mind and gifts of oratory. In fact, if he were the leader of the whole of his party, I think that my party and the Labour Party would have more to fear.

We all recognise that this exercise has been made necessary by the sad fall in public trust in Parliament caused primarily by the foolish, insensitive and very occasionally dishonest behaviour of a minority of Members of the House of Commons. Many of their woes have arisen as a result of poor and confused administration of their expenses system, which itself derived from poor guidance as to the letter of the rules. It is precisely that error that we have to avoid repeating.

The lesson that has been made clear to me from this debate so far is that things are nothing like as simple as we would wish them to be. We have heard three views from noble and learned Lords and they have not, to my untutored ear, entirely coincided. We have also had a very interesting intervention from my noble friend Lord Cope on some important technical points; and the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, spoke very clearly of the quandary regarding signing an affirmation of readiness to abide by the code. Does such an affirmation cover equally the guidance, because that is where the difficulties can arise? If we are to talk about which things can be complained about and which are justiciable, it is very important to get this right.

I hope that the Leader of the House is being realistic in thinking that the committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, can report quickly. It must not report with unanswered questions. There should be a sort of Second Reading of the guidance when it is produced to make sure that we get it right. I do not think that people in general will see a distinction between the code and the guidance. The guidance is every bit as important and, in many ways, much more difficult to produce. My recommendation is that it should be as general as possible. The current guidance is far too specific, covering how many e-mails you can have, whether you are waiting for an important vote or doing something private as justification for being here. Frankly, it is a little absurd. The committee has done a jolly good job on the code of conduct, but it needs, in many ways, almost to start from scratch on the guidance.

We are all aware that there have been a number of allegations of improper behaviour by a very small number of Members of your Lordships' House. From reading the press reports, all of them, with a tiny number of exceptions, seem to have been unfair, inaccurate and on occasion clearly defamatory. That said, all those who have done wrong must in my view be sternly dealt with. We took some steps in that direction earlier this year when we suspended two Members; in my opinion, they actually got off quite lightly.

There are two crucial considerations: first, we must have a full recognition that for the majority of Members of this House-I say this in deference to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall-there is a duality of life, which has always been the raison d'être of this strange institution which harnesses the experience, achievement, wisdom and energy of those who are mainly past the peak of their career but who are prepared to work for the public good of our country, enabling them to make such a contribution. That means that not only must there be transparent outside interests, but it must be recognised and, indeed, proudly emphasised that there can be a real synergy between outside interests and membership of this House. If one looks at the Register of Interests of the two Houses one is struck-at least I was-by the far less impressive and often much less relevant interests of Members of another place.

We must also bear in mind that there are some in the media-there probably always have been and always will be-whose schadenfreude, in this case against politicians and perhaps Parliament, will encourage them to use the letter of whatever written document there is, however absurdly, as the basis of accusations. Let us face it: this schadenfreude is much more widely shared among the public, often with justification, especially in moments of national crisis that are perceived as being the product of bad government and parliamentary control over government. We all know that in politics perception is reality.