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Privileges and Conduct - Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 4:15 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I want to say a few words because, very unusually, I want to express a different view from that of my noble friend Lord Pannick, the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and my noble friend Lady Deech.

Having taken part in the debates about Lord Lester, I of course recognise that when the House has the responsibility of reaching a verdict on the conduct of one of its own staff or Members and on any sanctions attaching thereto, it is vulnerable to the appearance of conflicts of interest. Quite understandably, this debate has concentrated on the subjects of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, which come into the code of conduct for the first time. But we have to remember that the code of conduct is hugely about other matters, not just those three; in fact, paragraphs 10 to 106 are about other matters that reflect the rules of the House.

Breaches of the code of conduct, including those in the future relating to bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct, will often be breaches of the criminal law. In those cases, it is obviously right that the inquiry should be entirely independent. It should be carried out by the police, have lawyers on each side and be subject to the courts of law.

In this case, even with our distaste for bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, we are talking about something short of breaches of the criminal law. We are talking about the rules of the House. It seems anomalous that, in a self-regulating House, the ultimate decision on those breaches and the sanctions that attach to them should not be a matter for the House itself. I therefore agree with the report, which introduces a procedure in which there is an independent investigation and a committee with a significant element of independent members, but the discipline committee is chaired by a Member of the House and has a small majority of Members of the House on it. When we are talking about the rules of this body, like any other institution, it should ultimately be for this body to decide whether those rules have been broken and what sanctions should attach to it.

I welcome the respects in which the report makes changes. I welcome that it brings in bullying and sexual harassment, and I support the other changes, including the widening of the code of conduct to parliamentary activities, not just parliamentary duties. As I have said, I believe it is right that the discipline committee should have a small majority from the House because that seems consistent with a self-governing House. I also welcome the encouragement to the commissioner to call upon the support of teams of independent investigators to help establish the facts; in the case of Lord Lester, I felt that aspects of the way in which the commissioner carried out her investigation were defective.

One aspect of the report gives me pause—here, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford—and that is the proposed change to Standing Orders so that a report of the discipline committee is put to a vote of the House without debate. I see the dilemma here. On the one hand, like others, I am anxious to avoid the House getting involved in distasteful debates and votes, as in the case of Lord Lester. On the other hand, it seems that to vote on a question without any opportunity for debate is to go through the formality of obtaining the House’s assent without any reality in the substance; it is, to coin a phrase, “a meaningless vote”. Therefore, like the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, I would prefer that the report of the disciplinary committee be subject to a take-note decision and not to a vote without debate.