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My Lords, as some noble Lords will know, last December I participated in the debate on the report on Lord Lester. Since then, I have submitted a very full memorandum to the committee chaired by the noble Lord who just introduced this Motion, so my views are available to anybody who wants them. Therefore, I am sure I will be forgiven if I speak very briefly and confine myself to but three issues.
First, the fourth question in the report, and the one left over, is: should we make the process for investigating and determining complaints against Members more, or entirely, independent of the House? My answer to that is an emphatic yes. Perhaps I might make a declaration and say that for the last nine years or so, I have been exclusively concerned as a legal practitioner as a legal adviser to the regulatory panels that regulate the conduct of doctors, nurses, midwives, social workers and healthcare professionals. Your Lordships might think that I am a bit set in my ways, but they certainly inform my conclusions.
I entirely accept that our procedures must not deter complainants from coming forward, but we must not put in place a process that is unfair to a respondent Peer or one that does not accord with the principles of natural justice. An adverse finding against a Peer is a very serious matter for that individual. Inevitably it will cause damage, possibly irreparable, to reputation. The sanctions, expulsion or long suspension should be viewed in the same light as sentences imposed by criminal courts, or the suspension or strike-off orders imposed by the regulatory authorities.
Your Lordships will know that most regulatory authorities operate under procedures established by Parliament and supervised by the appellate jurisdiction of the courts. In summary, the processes are very similar to those that prevail in the courts and, in particular, require proper discovery of evidence, the entitlement to full legal representation and the hearing and cross-examination of all relevant witnesses. I believe that any process we create must be similar to the processes we require of all the regulatory regimes with which I am associated.
My conclusion is that the role of the commissioner should be confined to investigating the complaint, establishing whether there is a prima facie case and regulating the interlocutory procedure. The commissioner should be the prosecuting authority but not the ultimate judge of fact or the decider of sanction. The determination as to fact and the recommendation as to sanction should be matters for an independent tribunal presided over by an experienced legal practitioner. The respondent Peer should be entitled to legal representation, and that representative should be entitled to cross-examine the relevant witnesses. I do not agree with the rejection of the right of cross-examination, as set out in paragraph 45 of the report.
I turn secondly and briefly to the new conduct committee. It is essential that, from the initial hearing, there should be a proper right of appeal and I agree in substance with the provisions set out in paragraph 53 of the report. I accept that the powers of the committee should be essentially the same as those that arise in judicial review and should not, in the generality of cases, involve a rehearing of the facts. I would, however, give the committee an overarching power to quash a finding on the facts, where the interests of justice so require it. However, I disagree with the report’s recommendation on the composition of the committee. The lay element should be in the majority. All members should be voting members but the committee should be chaired by a senior legal figure, not necessarily one serving in this House.
Thirdly, I want to address briefly the role of this House. That is identified as the second question in the report, about whether this House should play a wider role. To that I answer an emphatic no, for two reasons. First, it is difficult to avoid a conflict of interest. It is thoroughly unseemly for Peers who know the respondent Peer to intervene on his or her behalf. Secondly, and differently, the committee or independent tribunal that first considered the matter will inevitably know a great deal more about the facts and the documents than any Member of this House could reasonably expect to.
Our stated objective, as set out in the guide on conduct and in the report itself, is to ensure that allegations made against Members are handled in a way that accords with the principles of natural justice and fairness. I do not believe our present procedures achieve that. My conclusion is that we should do away with the inquisitorial system presently in place and adopt a system similar to that which Parliament has imposed on all the regulatory regimes with which I am familiar. I do not recognise any reason of principle or procedure for according to Members of this House a different—I would say less fair— system of regulation than that which this Parliament has imposed by law on all professionals with whom I have worked, and within all the jurisdictions with which I am familiar. Accordingly, I hope we will look again at these procedures. I see that this is contemplated in the report introduced by the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and I welcome that fact.