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My Lords, the reforms proposed by the committee, as helpfully outlined by the Senior Deputy Speaker, will be a distinct improvement on the current system. No one who participated in the debates in November and December on the conduct of Lord Lester, or who listened to those debates, could think it was a satisfactory way for the House to assess the conduct of one of its Members. I entirely agree with the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham.
The committee is, in my view, right to recognise that there should be a new conduct committee with lay members to hear appeals from the commissioner and to vary any sanctions. My primary concern about the report is that it does not secure a sufficiently independent determination of complaints. A new conduct committee consisting of five Members of the Lords and four lay members will simply not command public confidence because it is not independent of the House. It is easy to predict what will happen if the commissioner makes a finding of a breach of the code and the new conduct committee then overturns that decision by a narrow majority, with all or most of those members who are Lords voting in favour of the relevant Peer. It is inevitable that the House will be strongly criticised and that its reputation will suffer. It will inevitably be said that the Members of the Lords are looking after one of their own. The very fact that the Members know that there would be such criticism will make it very hard for them to assess fairly the conduct of the relevant Peer and exonerate him or her if they think it right to do so.
The only system that can command public confidence and be fair, to both the complainant and the accused Peer, is a wholly independent one with appeals from the commissioner going to a panel composed exclusively of lay members with, I suggest, a retired Court of Appeal judge as the chairperson. I entirely recognise that some Members of the House will find it very difficult to give up their power in this way, but we need to do so if our complaints system is to command confidence and respect.
Paragraph 12 of the report mentions, as did the Senior Deputy Speaker, that Naomi Ellenbogen QC has been appointed to advise on bullying and harassment and is expected to report this summer. She is a much-respected figure in this field and paragraph 21 says that it would be prudent to await her report before deciding whether there is a need for greater independence on the conduct committee. I am happy to go along with that and very much hope that Ms Ellenbogen will see the force of the case for independence and report accordingly.
I will comment briefly on two other matters. The first is the role of cross-examination, mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. Paragraph 45 of the report says that cross-examination is unnecessary because the commissioner,
“can undertake a highly effective and rigorous testing of the evidence in a less confrontational style”.
It is exceptionally difficult for the same person to be both inquisitor and judge. There may not be many of them, but in cases where the commissioner has to decide who is telling the truth, her difficult task—and it is difficult—would be much easier if she listened while someone else asked the penetrating questions. The committee does not appear to have considered another solution to this problem. In these cases, where the commissioner has to decide who is telling the truth, she should have power to appoint independent counsel to assist her by asking questions of both the complainant and accused Peer, not in a hostile manner but in one that tests the evidence. The process of appointing counsel to the inquiry is a familiar means of testing evidence in other contexts. It works well and some Members of this House have used it when serving as chairmen on inquiries. I hope Miss Ellenbogen will address this point.
Finally, I mention the role of lawyers, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. I declare my interest as a practising Queen’s Counsel. I find it very disappointing that paragraph 55 of the report seeks to defend the existing prohibition on counsel being appointed by the accused Peer, or the complainant, to speak on his or her behalf before the conduct committee. We are concerned here with decisions that can end a person’s career—that can damage, sometimes destroy, reputations built up over a lifetime, not just for the accused Peer but for the complainant as well. It is rare for a Peer or complainant to be able to represent themselves effectively in such circumstances, given the inevitable emotional strain on them. The task of the committee would be assisted by having the issues presented by a trained professional, rather than by the Peer or the complainant themselves. I hope that Naomi Ellenbogen will advise the committee that the fairness and efficiency of an appeal will be promoted if those involved can appoint counsel to make submissions on their behalf.