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My Lords, I agree entirely with the final remarks of the noble and learned Lord. I always listen to the lawyers in this House. I have nothing against lawyers—indeed, how could I since I have been married to one for 49 years? I listen to him too. It is important that we are able to draw upon the expertise of lawyers across this House, and that has been the opportunity afforded to us today.
I was, as my noble friend on the Front Bench taking the place of the Senior Deputy Speaker for the moment has said, co-opted to the committee to support the discussions. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, I did that to the best of my ability. We were not privy to any discussions about existing cases. I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for his skill in managing what was a complex, significant and very sensitive discussion. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said, it is important that we do not continue as we are and that we take account of where the system has not worked to the best ability. That is because the best ability is a system that provides reassurance for those who wish to bring complaints against Members of this House and protection for Members of this House who do not, as I certainly would not, wish to face vexatious and unfounded claims made against us. That is a difficult challenge to face and I believe that the report before us takes a significant step forward in helping us to meet that challenge. It has already been mentioned that a report by an eminent QC is to be published this summer and that we would take account of it at that stage. We cannot predict its outcome. We can deal with what we have, and that is based upon our own experience and indeed the consultation which has taken place.
I would like to refer in a little detail to two matters, but since one of them, cross-examination, has been widely covered, I hope to be briefer than otherwise I might have been. The first matter concerns the behaviour code and what defines the behaviour that comes within it. Paragraph 35 of the report proposes a widening of the definition of activity that would fall within the code. The existing requirement says that,
“a member should act always on their personal honour”,
when it applies to a Member’s,
“performance of their parliamentary duties”.
This paragraph extends the requirement to cover the performance of “parliamentary activities”. I very much welcome it, because it would, for example, cover behaviour while parliamentarians are on visits overseas connected with these activities.
Since I ceased being a Minister over a year ago, I have been able to join other parliamentary colleagues on overseas study visits. On three occasions, I have been a member of Inter-Parliamentary Union visits. On each occasion, the British Group IPU has given absolutely clear directions on the importance of appropriate conduct and action that would be taken by the IPU in the event of inappropriate behaviour overseas. That guidance is given not only in print but verbally by the director of the IPU. That is good practice but, currently, if there were inappropriate behaviour, no action could be taken within our own rules here. I am therefore very pleased that paragraph 35 clarifies what comes within the behaviour code.
There has been much reference, both in discussions in December and subsequently in the case of Lord Lester and today, to what should frame the nature of our investigatory process; to whether it should be very much focused on a judicial process or have independence built into it but still reflect what has been the good character of this House. More generally, I support the proposals in the report, on the basis that they try to ensure there is fairness, as far as is practicable, in the system for reporting and responding to complaints on matters of conduct, but do so in a way that retains the investigatory approach rather than cross-examination. It is vital that those who believe they are victims of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct can bring a complaint to the House without feeling that they will be at a disadvantage in what they will consider to be a power imbalance against them, or indeed Peers’ staff. Here, I very much reflect on what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said about a definition of “Peers’ staff”; he was right to raise that matter.
I am particularly concerned about House staff—not those to whom the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, referred. We must ensure that they are able to report breaches of the behaviour code without any fear of being automatically disbelieved or at risk of damaging their career. They deserve that respect, but I feel that their faith in our system has been undermined.
It is of course absolutely vital, however, that the respondent to a complaint—she or he—knows that the system adopted by the House means that best efforts will be made to discourage and weed out vexatious allegations. It is something I would not wish to be subject to, and I am aware of some of the prying questions that can be asked by people outside the House. That is part of being in politics; it is not part of a system of judging people’s conduct, where we need to get at as much of the reality of what has happened as we can.
No way of trying to elicit evidence can ever produce the perfect answer, unless there is an incontrovertible DNA sample. It is all a matter of testing evidence and being confident that those testing the evidence are doing so in as fair a way as possible. Cross-examination is not the only way to discern facts of events. It is often perceived to be hostile, even if not intended to be, and can be counterproductive. Over several years of sitting as a layperson on appeal tribunals on social security, and during 30 years of working as a volunteer in various capacities with Citizens Advice, I have seen the success of investigatory techniques. Through careful, cautious, sensitive but utterly determined questioning, those who are professionally trained can arrive at the information required to be able to give a fair judgment on what events have proceeded.
As has already been said, there are provisions in the report that provide the commissioner with additional resource to have access to those who can give advice, whether or not they are legally qualified.
We have within the report a significant way forward to ensure that we have confidence in ourselves to respond properly to complaints, for the public to have confidence in our procedures, and for the staff of this House and other staff to have confidence that powers will not work against them.