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Privileges and Conduct - Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 4:00 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I declare an interest, having spent 30 years either supervising or carrying out complaints-handling as an independent adjudicator for students, for the NHS, for staff at Oxford University and regulating the Bar.

I agree with every word spoken by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and my noble friend Lord Pannick. I am afraid that the report, although well intentioned, is going in the wrong direction. I hope the House will suspend action on it until we receive the results of the further, and perhaps final, investigation by Naomi Ellenbogen QC. I say that because there is no doubt that in modern circumstances one has to have a totally independent outside investigation of complaints made in a body such as this, in the NHS, in universities, at the Bar or anywhere else like that. Therefore the committee should have at least a majority of lay members and preferably it should be 100% non-Peer. None of us wants to go again through the excruciating embarrassment and possible miscarriage of justice that occurred last December when we were looking into the case of Lord Lester.

I wish to raise a few questions on definition. First, the report needs to define natural justice. Lawyers take it for granted that everyone knows what natural justice is but that is not the case—even lawyers disagree—and it was in part the interpretation of natural justice that come to the fore when we discussed the case of Lord Lester at the end of last year.

Secondly, we need to know what is personal honour. Is it the same as bringing the House into disrepute or is it to correspond with the seven principles of good behaviour in public office? It is important that we remember the criteria on which Peers are appointed—at least Cross-Bench Peers—by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. They have to be vetted, sign up to, understand and abide by the seven principles—selfless, honest and so on—of behaviour in public life. We need to know exactly what is included in personal honour and whether it includes, for example, bringing the House into disrepute.

We also need to know exactly what is harassment and whether it includes racism. For example, a meeting could be held in one of the committee rooms in the House, hosted and organised by a Member of the House, which is devoted to racism, the necessity of Jihad or something equally unpleasant. All the Members attending will be in favour of that. They will all be signing up by their attendance to some form of discussion of racism or terrorism and yet no one will complain because everyone there is in agreement. It is only outsiders and third parties who would complain that a Member is holding a meeting of that nature. Would that be covered by the code because the report states that only someone who has been offended should be able to complain?

We need further clarification but I hope that we will swiftly move to a state, which must come about sooner or later, where such complaints are determined in the end by a wholly non-Peer committee.