Parliamentary Democracy and Standards in Public Life - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 11:51 am on 11 January 2024.

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Baroness Featherstone:

Moved by Baroness Featherstone

That this House takes note of the current standing of parliamentary democracy and standards in public life.

Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I have no doubt that this noble House knows right from wrong, believes in decency, wisdom, truth and honesty, and values our freedoms and way of life and the vital part that parliamentary democracy and standards in public life play. Inevitably, much criticism in this debate will be levelled at the current Government, but this is about principles that are for all time and all Governments and opposition parties—all of us in politics. We all need to do better.

In recent years, there has been an erosion of many of the cornerstones of British political life. Recent Prime Ministers and Cabinets have shown a disregard towards parliamentary process; a preference for journalists and broadcasters who support the Government’s position; an apathy for the rule of law; an overwhelming transfer of law from primary to secondary legislation; a disdain for domestic and international courts; a reduction within freedom of protest; and an undue influence on the operational independence of the police services, and indeed the electoral process itself. At the same time, we have witnessed a deterioration in standards of public life, particularly highlighted in the Covid inquiry, where we are seeing how poor standards at the heart of Government led to unnecessary amounts of human suffering at a time when the public needed those standards more than ever. Instead, the Government created a shoddy PPE procurement process, which allowed profiteers to benefit at a time of crisis.

I raised the issue of political preference in media coverage in my response to the gracious Speech. The guidelines for government communication services say that dealing with journalists

“should be objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical”, and

“should not be—and not liable to being misrepresented as—party political”.

In 2019, a Freedom House report entitled Media Freedom: A Downward Spiral stated:

“The fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is under attack, and part of the assault has come from an unexpected source. Elected leaders in many democracies, who should be press freedom’s staunchest defenders, have made explicit attempts to silence critical media voices and strengthen outlets that serve up favorable coverage”.

This is sadly now true of us.

When the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman flew to Rwanda, the Guardian, the Mirror, the i and the Independent were all excluded, and initially also the BBC. That happened less than a year after journalists from the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Mirror were blocked from joining the then Home Secretary Priti Patel’s trip to Rwanda to sign the original asylum deal. In 2020, political journalists, including the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston, staged a walkout after Downing Street communication staff attempted to brief some journalists but not others. Those excluded by former Mirror and Sun journalist Lee Cain—and that revolving door itself is incestuous—included journalists from PA, the Mirror, the i, HuffPost UK, Politicshome and the Independent.

That got me thinking about the state of us, and not in a good way. It is clearly not just me. This debate is not the first on the subject, both here and in the other place. Many voices are now speaking out about the need for change, and many of us who went into politics are sad at what has happened to it. This is a cri de coeur from me and my colleagues, and, I would hope and expect, from many across this Chamber.

On the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, the extraordinarily wise and now sadly late Lord Judge believed that we were ceding too much power to the Executive, power that should and must be retained by Parliament. In a lecture he gave, he said that

“what Parliamentary sovereignty never has been is executive sovereignty, or ministerial or government sovereignty. Indeed Parliamentary sovereignty is the antithesis of executive sovereignty. The two concepts are mutually contradictory. The democratic process is not meant to give, and our constitutional arrangements were not intended to provide us with executive sovereignty. No Prime Minister is a monarch, or president, not even the head of state … At the heart of the development of our constitutional arrangements, Parliament is there to protect us from authoritarianism, from despotism, from an over mighty monarch, but also from an over mighty executive … in the last session of Parliament just over one hundred Henry VIII clauses had been enacted … proliferation of clauses like these will have the inevitable consequence of yet further damaging the sovereignty of Parliament, and increasing yet further the authority of the executive over the legislature … Henry VIII clauses should be confined to the dustbin of history”.

I could not agree more.

Only recently we have seen machinations to subvert the Supreme Court holding unanimously that the Government’s Rwanda scheme was unlawful, by bringing forward legislation declaring Rwanda a safe country. This move is scarily reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, when party member O’Brien tests Winston Smith’s allegiance to party truth, insisting that Winston sees five fingers when he holds up only four—that is, the truth is what I say it is. We have seen contempt for international courts, such as the ECHR, which is the embodiment of high ideals of internationalist values and constants that remain today hugely important in guaranteeing peoples’ fundamental human rights in law. It came as a surprise to some in government that it was nothing to do with the European Union.

The Government have acted to strengthen their power over the judiciary in the Judicial Review and Courts Act by reducing the scope of judicial review. The Government have severely restricted legal aid, making access to justice uneven and unfair. Members of the legal profession are exhausted and court backlogs deny justice. The breaking of treaties such as the Northern Ireland protocol was once unthinkable. Mrs May spoke for many when she asked

“how can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations in the agreements it signs?”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/9/20; col. 499.]

This is not to mention the illegal proroguing of Parliament.

The phrase “free and fair election” is dashed off so easily, but it is the heart and soul of our democracy. The Government compromised that in the Elections Act 2022, by giving themselves the right to intervene and to direct or guide the Electoral Commission’s strategy and priorities. Those changes went through—of course—via a statutory instrument, the excess use of which is the preferred tool of a Government who will not be thwarted. The ability to thwart a Government acting in an overweening and injudicial way is the absolute strength of our democracy.

As to the operational independence of the police, it is a fundamental principle of British policing that sits alongside the important principle of policing by consent. The ex-Home Secretary did not approve of the Metropolitan Police’s handling of pro-Palestinian protests and went into print to criticise the police force for applying “double standards” and being “more sympathetic to the left”. To attack the police publicly is just not acceptable, let alone to accuse them of political bias. She is entitled to that view but, regardless of whether she was right or wrong, she was not entitled to say so publicly.

On the public right to protest, it has always been recognised that the right of people to criticise Governments, laws and social conditions is fundamental to democracy. Via regulation yet again we have a new definition of what “serious disruption” means: a new and astonishing threshold at which police can restrict protest for any obstruction which causes more than minor hindrance to day-to-day activities, meaning that police restrictions can effectively ban a protest. If those restrictions are breached, we are now in criminal offence territory. Exactly what does the right to protest mean when the enactment of that right is criminalised?

Britain is now a country where only 9% of people say they generally trust political leaders—that is the lowest since records began. How we do our politics really matters, both inside Parliament and in the country. Standards in public life, the Nolan principles, are not going well. Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership are a crucial part of our responsibility and are literally the antithesis of Boris Johnson, our former Prime Minister. Before I get to the deleterious effect of his behaviour, I point out that the Financial Times published an article on 16 December about the loss of trust in Parliament. More than one in 20 MPs has been suspended from the House of Commons, left Parliament altogether or been stripped of their party whip in the wake of misconduct allegations—just since the last general election. I am sure your Lordships remember the expenses scandal. We have still not recovered from that low base. That rocked public faith in all of us. Whether innocent or guilty, we were all guilty. On the doorstep, we were all scum.

Our constitutional protections have been put under huge strain because of major breaches of the standards in public office, with concerns about corruption and conflict of interest at the most senior levels. Boris Johnson’s changes to the Ministerial Code were detrimental to standards in public life. His lying, obfuscation and belief that the rules did not apply to him were shameful. He blocked his independent ethics adviser from being able to initiate his own investigations, and he rewrote the foreword to the Ministerial Code, removing all references to honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability.

In recent days, thanks to the Covid inquiry, we have seen the scale of the PPE scandal. Yes, it was an emergency, and yes, abnormal procedures were needed to facilitate that urgency, but what is a VIP lane? I would have hoped that a VIP lane was a lane that gave priority to those who came forward to help because they had the know-how, not the know-who.

As for the charade in the No. 10 garden, and the absurdity of the Barnard Castle fairy tale, what contempt for the truth and the people of this country. We all saw Allegra Stratton, then the Prime Minister’s press secretary, laughing and joking during a mock televised press briefing about a Downing Street Christmas party. Anyone who saw that clip knew in an instant what was really going on in No. 10.

This is decline and fall. We have not even recovered as a country from the way Brexit was conducted. It harmed us as a nation. Truth was a victim, and people felt empowered not only to lie but to hate the other side. Political protagonists peddled dislike, disdain, denigration of other, and fear. We created an unhappy and angry nation. We are bombarded with hate. Hate sells; hate works; hate garners votes; hate strikes emotion in us. There is hatred of other—foreigners, immigrants, scroungers, Muslims, Jews, the rich, the lazy, the lucky: we hate them all. Years of the drip-drip poison of “enemies of the people” and negative political campaigning has taken its toll on all of us.

Politicians have become reductionist in order to find simplistic messages that focus groups tell us will win votes. To win, lies do not matter any more. Truth is fake news. Facts—who cares? Experts with real knowledge are disparaged. To win, the common good comes way down the list, after party good, and public discourse is driven now by heat, not light, with the media feeding a frenzy of the negative and the nasty, amplified by the Twittersphere but led by us politicians.

Fifteen minutes was inadequate—although I understand I am running ahead of my schedule—because I have not even touched on reform of our own House, the use of hate speech by politicians in the media, nor the part that the “winner takes all” nature of our Commons elections plays in our behaviour. Yet I am absolutely sure that noble Lords across this House will fill in any gaps I may have left.

There has not even been time to lay out a prospectus for us moving to happier territory, but we have an opportunity—with an election year ahead—to demonstrate change for the better. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 12:05, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, told the Liberal Democrat conference in 2011 that men made bad decisions, but I have to say that even by that standard, that speech was a dreadful calumny of the performance of Parliament as a whole. I am sorry that she chose to make a highly tendentious and political attack in what should be a serious debate. She complains she has only 15 minutes; I have only three minutes. That says everything about the accountability which Parliament has been able to bring to the Executive. For all her talk of parliamentary sovereignty, this is the party which actually wants to set up bodies which will hold Parliament to account and create a situation where folk in public life are accountable to unelected regulators for compliance with detailed rules—which would be utterly disastrous.

We need to restore the sovereignty and reputation of Parliament, but we certainly will not do it with this kind of speech coming from the noble Baroness. I give her a piece of advice. She talks about how people ought to be able to make protests, but let us look at the conduct of her leader on the Post Office matter. He would not even see the postmasters and, when he had finished being in charge of that, went off to work at a considerable salary for the lawyers responsible for advising the Post Office. If she wants to have a debate where she throws mud, she should start with her own backyard.

The noble Baroness is of course right that Parliament’s ability to hold the Executive to account has declined, and she is right that we need to look at that. Looking at the recent dreadful news we have had on the Post Office, what lessons are to be learned? The lesson to be learned—no doubt, as I said the other day, in defence of her leader—is that we have created a whole load of quangos and agencies or nationalised organisations which are not directly accountable to Ministers and run on an arm’s-length basis. That is the point about the Post Office: it is a nationalised body. We have the situation where Ministers have to answer for bodies over which they have no executive control. That is one of the lessons that needs to come out of this.

The noble Baroness is right about Henry VIII clauses, and she is right about accountability. There is still the scandal in this House of a third of our Ministers being unpaid, because so many Ministers have been appointed in the other place. That is to do not just with pay in this House but pay in the other place. If we are to address these problems, we need to do so in a non-partisan matter.

I have only three minutes, so I am over my time, but there is a very splendid pamphlet produced by Policy Exchange called Upholding Standards; Unsettling Conventions which sets out a coherent and sensible approach to this issue, not making party-political points for election purposes and then complaining about it. If the noble Baroness is worried about democratic accountability, why on earth have we got so many Liberal Democrats on these Benches when their representation in the House of Commons is derisory?

Photo of Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Labour 12:09, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for prompting this debate.

In October it will be 30 years since the Committee on Standards in Public Life was established. I sat on the original committee in 1994—I think I was its youngest member—and our first report in May 1995 set out the seven Nolan principles of public life, which were enumerated by the noble Baroness. Their purpose was to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life. As a code of conduct, they are still a lodestar for all those who serve the public in any way.

Yet, 30 years on, the need for scrutiny seems ever greater. I want to believe that having the Nolan principles has made people more aware and thus more likely to call out poor standards. I am reluctant to accept that malpractice, chancing your arm or even headline-hitting scandals, which we have unfortunately had close to home in this House, are inevitable. However, while it would be naive not to acknowledge the tensions that exist between power and doing the right thing, the last few years have exposed too many instances where those in political life have fallen short of the Nolan principles. The litany includes lying, bullying, poor leadership, the breaching of lockdown rules, dubious lobbying practices, the Owen Paterson issue, public procurement scandals and partygate. While these fall foul of just about every one of the seven principles, what links them all is a lack of integrity in recent leadership.

Frankly, I am not surprised by the current dismal standing of our parliamentary democracy. A recent World Values Survey from the Policy Institute at King’s College London shows that the percentage of the British public who had confidence in Parliament has halved since 1990, from 46% that year to 23% in 2022. Among young people—millennials and Generation X—the percentages are even lower.

In 2021, the CSPL reported on

“the importance of high ethical standards, the continuing relevance of the”

Nolan principles,

“and the effectiveness of the rules, regulators, policies and processes related to upholding standards”.

It made 34 recommendations for reform, including a call for more power to be given to the independent adviser on ministerial standards. This recommendation was rejected. Can the Minister give us any assurance that the Government will keep the CSPL’s remaining recommendations under review, particularly that the independent adviser should have the authority to determine breaches of the Ministerial Code?

In July last year, the Opposition in the other place outlined their plans for a new independent ethics and integrity commission. I hope that this remains a high priority for any future change in government. Integrity is the overriding principle without which none of the others can be sustained. Redressing the lack of integrity in recent leadership is vital, not just for our parliamentary democracy but for our international reputation. We must not allow the damage done in the last few years to lead to any further weakening of trust in public institutions and those who work in them.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Deputy Chairman of Committees 12:13, 11 January 2024

My Lords, my noble friend made a superb speech, which was not partisan and covered ground that is common to all parties.

I will pick up first on her point about law-making by statutory instrument—by powers given to Ministers—with only very limited parliamentary scrutiny. On the only occasion during my time here when this House used that power effectively, the Government went ballistic and wheeled in the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to tell us that we should all be abolished or in some way have our powers reduced. A power which is never used is not a power. In this case, whenever these powers are introduced in Bills, they come with explanations that the matter has to be considered by, and requires a resolution of, both Houses of Parliament. If we never deny that resolution, we do not exercise the power. It is a great weakness in our system, which is more important now that the Commons devotes so little time to the proper study of legislation and sits for fewer hours than we do.

My other point is the system of appointment to this House. We have had 17 new Conservative Peers—the Liz Truss list, the Boris Johnson list and then all those who were brought into this House to serve as Ministers, perhaps for less than a year, and are Peers for life as a result. It is a completely distorted system and we need to change it to an orderly one. The Burns committee produced a system which could be used, in the absence of any more fundamental reform of the House of Lords, to give some coherence and fairness to that system of appointment. It was widely accepted right across the House, but the Government have not acted on it. Theresa May did when she was in office but subsequent Prime Ministers have not done so, and they ought to. The continuing absurdity of the nomination system brings the House into disrepute.

Across the free world of parliamentary democracies there is a very real threat. We are seeing it in France, Germany and the United States, where ex-President Trump says he wants to be a dictator for one day so that he can entirely reverse US policy on climate change. This is dangerous territory. We have got to make the parliamentary democracy system deliver and get it to the point where people find that it properly deals with their concerns. We should not treat attempts to achieve that as partisan; they are very necessary to our democracy.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench 12:15, 11 January 2024

My Lords, the democratic system is pretty robust and parliamentary democracy has survived, albeit in a less authoritative form. Democracy, however, being a process rather than a state, is fragile and needs constant vigilance. The media is awash with reports on the demise of democracy the world over, but especially parliamentary democracy in the UK. Lord Sumption has referred to “a developing totalitarian tendency”. That there are too many unfortunate examples of these tendencies has allowed an attitude of regretful acceptance of the increasing power of the Executive.

Recent legislation has included clauses that either unduly restrict current individual freedoms, infringe obligations set under international treaties or increase the power of the Government to alter clauses at will without proper parliamentary scrutiny. These actions add up to a public perception of a lack of transparency and good faith on the part of the Government and a consequent fall in public confidence in, and respect for, the integrity and credibility of the UK’s political institutions.

Parliament is one of the key institutions of democracy in the UK, along with regular elections, the independent law courts and a free press. The Westminster model is renowned throughout the world; it is one of our most potent symbols of fairness and a key instrument of soft power. It allows the UK to punch well above its weight. It is worth preserving. As the historian David Runciman has said, the end of democracy will not be signalled by tanks on the lawn but by the slow, almost imperceptible erosion of our democratic institutions. No matter how much these values are reiterated, recent history has shown that in each House profoundly undemocratic legislative clauses have been passed.

There may be those in this House today who disagree that there is any real threat to our ancient institutions. However, are these institutions in fact able to do the job for which they exist? They may well continue to function, but are they delivering? Are we noticing that institutional arrangements may be breaking down?

The role of Parliament has come under almost unprecedented scrutiny and criticism in recent months, and the calls for a rebalancing of power between the legislature and the Executive are loud. Perhaps we should resist pressures to be reticent as non-elected parliamentarians and insist on curbing executive power and the return of our parliamentary institutions to full democratic strength. That seems to be the fundamental task of both Houses of Parliament.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee 12:18, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I too think the Post Office scandal is instructive and I will use it to make my point, which is different to my noble friend’s.

The excellent ITV drama illustrates powerfully what many voters already think about those of us in positions of authority—that too often we do not listen to or take seriously what voters are telling us if what they say or want does not correspond with what we have decided is right and want to do. The travesty was sub-postmasters, the kind of people who represent the epitome of good character in communities, having their concerns dismissed time and again in favour of sophisticated arguments from Fujitsu, Post Office executives, civil servants and lawyers.

What this saga shows is how we—the powerful decision-making class—lose sight of what matters when dealing with complex challenges. While the individuals responsible for the Post Office scandal must be held to account and face the consequences of their failure, we must all understand that this event goes wider than an example of injustice—even though it is the worst of its kind. What it represents is the division between insiders and outsiders that led to Brexit and other democratic shocks that followed in 2017 and 2019.

Too often, we complain that people call for simple solutions to complex problems because “they don’t understand”. People do not expect simple solutions to complex problems, but they do expect people such as us to be motivated by the kinds of simple values that any decent, upstanding citizen instinctively shares. We evidence that by how we do our job, which must include listening and understanding their experience of the problem that only we have the power to fix.

In short, if we want to change the standing of parliamentary democracy and our politics, we must take far more seriously the views and demands of the people we rely on for support and are here to serve. They want us to uphold and share their standards in how we go about our work. If we do not learn the lessons of our collective failure, we would be unwise to believe it will be business as usual at the ballot box when the current Parliament ends.

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 12:20, 11 January 2024

My Lords, in 2019, when Parliament was certainly not at its best, the think tank Onward found that two-thirds of younger voters were in favour of a strong man leader prepared to defy Parliament. We had a leader, Boris Johnson, who flagrantly broke the rules and lied. The Hallett inquiry has exposed habitual use of foul-mouthed language in No. 10. Civil servants in No. 10 colluded with the rule-breaking by the Prime Minister. A senior Minister unblushingly told the House of Commons that the Government intended to break international law. Two independent advisers on ministerial interests have resigned. There has been the affair of PPE procurement, the VIP channel and the bounce-back loans—an issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, referred to in her admirable speech.

In 2021, a Savanta ComRes poll showed that 76% of voters were concerned about corruption in government. A series of parliamentary by-elections has been precipitated by episodes of sexual abuse and other bullying, and by improper lobbying. There are institutional reforms that a new Prime Minister intent on restoring the integrity of public life, as Keir Starmer is, could implement. The so-called Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests should be given power to initiate inquiries and his recommendations should be enforceable other than at the caprice of the Prime Minister. The admirable but airy Nolan principles should be given teeth through new powers for the Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate and regulate; the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, ditto. The revolving door of lucrative opportunities for both Ministers and officials scandalises the public. The existing feeble legislation on lobbying should be toughened up.

A new Prime Minister could refrain from constantly playing musical chairs with ministerial appointments. If Ministers stay in office for only five minutes, they cannot do the job properly and the public feel let down. Similarly, for confidence in the competence of government to be restored, civil servants should stay longer in the same post. There should be a new dispensation for local government, with radical decentralisation of power to revitalise democracy at the grass roots. Supercilious attitudes at the centre to the mayoralties and devolved Administrations should end.

A new Government must grasp the nettle of the funding of political parties. Consensus seems unobtainable. Such is the urgency of dispelling the public’s perception that political donations buy power, policy and honours that a new Government should legislate with no further ado for public funding of political parties.

If we want politics and government to be respected, Ministers must tell people the realities and not run scared of focus groups. Leaders should lead. Whatever institutional changes are made, there is no substitute for good government.

Photo of The Bishop of Chelmsford The Bishop of Chelmsford Bishop 12:25, 11 January 2024

My Lords, like others, I contribute to this discussion with a great amount of feeling, because the debate goes right to the heart of the integrity of public institutions, including both Chambers of our Parliament. After Sue Gray’s report on parties in Downing Street during lockdown, my most reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury described standards in public life as

“the glue that holds us together” and called for a “rediscovery” of these standards. That was in May 2022, but since then, it can feel like little has changed.

There are now 18 MPs sitting as independents in the other place, outnumbering the number of Liberal Democrat MPs. All 18 have been suspended from their party. Whatever the reason—lobbying, leaking, sexual misconduct or bullying—it is clear that standards are not being observed in every case. While it is impossible to create a world where no individual breaches will ever occur, we can and absolutely should create a robust system which minimises the risk of slipping standards and deals quickly and efficiently with situations where this does occur.

Standards in public life matter. This is not just a topic for the so-called Westminster bubble. When standards are not observed by those with the privilege of sitting in this House or the other place, trust in our whole democratic institution begins to crumble. Whether we like it or not, Parliament and parliamentarians act as role models, including for children and young people. People especially notice how we behave. What we say and how we say it, as well as how we behave more widely and how we ensure that standards of behaviour are maintained, have an effect far beyond the immediate and can over time erode society. Clearly, it is a small minority who do not live up to the standards that we expect of those in public life, but the effect remains. The British public’s trust in the political system has fallen significantly. A poll earlier this year for the Institute for Public Policy Research showed that only 6% of the public have full trust in the current political system. This is not just down to standards in public life, but it is certainly not unrelated.

I cannot exempt the Church of England from this discussion either, given that when More in Common recently polled relative trust in British institutions, the Church came easily in the bottom half. Governance should be for the public good, to enable the flourishing of all life. We needed, in the words of my most reverend friend the Archbishop, a rediscovery of public standards back in 2022. Eighteen months on, we still need it, so today I reiterate this call for personal and institutional integrity.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Deputy Chairman of Committees 12:28, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I endorse everything that the right reverend Prelate and others have said about the need for integrity and high standards in public life, but what I found so dispiriting over the festive season was to read constant reports that the next general election will be the dirtiest ever. I quote from Oliver Shah, writing in the Times:

“It raises the prospect of the most expensive and dirtiest election battle in British history. The two main parties have already traded highly personal blows, with Labour running attack ads claiming that Sunak did not believe paedophiles should go to prison and Sunak accusing Labour of being in cahoots with criminal gangs in the perpetuation of illegal immigration”.

Then on Tuesday in the Times, Katy Balls wrote:

“Such tactics, though, are here to stay. While Labour and the Tories do not agree on much, strategists on both sides believe that this will be the dirtiest election to date”.

I believe that the leaders of our three main parties are decent people who have no appetite for this sort of campaign and realise the damage that it can do. It devalues the political currency, debases people in public life and discourages good people from standing. I do not believe that this is what the public want or deserve. I urge my noble friend the Leader to make the case for moderation in language. Theresa May’s book is called The Abuse of Power, but too many advisers seem to believe in the power of abuse.

Secondly, people do not trust government. Noble Lords have mentioned the Post Office scandal. What people want is competence, and failure to deliver generates disillusion. One reason for underperformance, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is the high turnover of Ministers and senior civil servants. Who has been the most competent Minister in recent years? Ben Wallace. He was there for four years. Where is my party most exposed? On housing. We have had 16 Ministers there since 2010. When I was first elected, there were two Housing Ministers in nine years. Denis Healey was Defence Secretary for five years and Chancellor of the Exchequer for six. We then had two Chancellors in the next nine years. We have had six since 2016. This turnover has consequences. The same criticism was made in my noble friend Lord Maude’s excellent report on the Civil Service, which criticised

“the frequent and unplanned movement of officials from post to post, without regard to business need, at the expense of continuity and of developing and maintaining specialist knowledge and expertise”.

So I have two resolutions for promoting democracy in 2024: decency in political discourse; and stability and competence in government.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 12:31, 11 January 2024

My Lords, as I expect all Back-Bench noble Lords have done, I have thought long and hard about how best to use my three minutes. I have chosen to devote a large part of them to repeating the words of Julie Hesmondhalgh, the actress who played Suzanne Sercombe—the partner and now wife of Alan Bates—in “Mr Bates vs The Post Office”. On “The World at One” on Monday, 13 minutes into her interview she was asked why she thought this drama had been so spectacularly influential. She responded insightfully. I will read her words in part:

“It is really important to remember that this was a systemic failure … it’s about lies and corruptions on a systemic level. I think part of why this series has been so popular is that we’re at peak lies and corruption and that people have had enough and that this has … been the … final straw. The expression of that and the representation of that on screen has made people say, ‘That’s enough now’”.

In these words, Julie Hesmondhalgh is speaking for the nation. We, the political classes, need to pay attention to that state of mind—particularly so in this election year as it will naturally affect how people will vote. This therefore demands a collective and corrective response.

The extent of the lies and corruption to which Julie Hesmondhalgh referred is captured in a briefing from Spotlight on Corruption and Transparency International that we all—with the exception of the Leader—received on Tuesday. It accurately and compellingly sets out the recent extent of scandal and impropriety in Westminster and Whitehall, including:

“the sale of privileged access to the Prime Minister … government awarding £1.6 billion in PPE contracts based on political connections … ministers making ‘unlawful’ decisions to favour party donors … the award of life peerages to those who have made generous political donations … An MP caught lobbying ministers in return for cash … secretive lobbying by a former Prime Minister seeking commitments … that would put tens billions of pounds of taxpayers’ funds at risk … These follow decades of scandal over expenses, cash for questions and cash for honours”.

Helpfully, the briefing also contains clear recommendations about what needs to be done to respond to the public’s strong appetite for significant reforms to uphold public integrity. Many of them are recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

As it is impossible for me to do justice to this excellent briefing in the time available, I shall ensure that the Leader gets a copy. To the extent that he does not cover the recommendations in his winding-up speech, I ask that he treats them as my questions to him and writes.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 12:34, 11 January 2024

We are out of order; it is me next. I am always eager to hear the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, but I would like to say a few words myself. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and to anticipate the noble Baroness’s speech. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Featherstone on her formidable speech. Do not take too much notice of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth—he has never been able to see a belt without wanting to hit below it.

I will first refer to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and the noble Lord, Lord Browne. It is not the time for complacency by Parliament or investigative journalism when a television play achieves more in a week than other parts of our governance have achieved in 20 years. That is not to take any credit away from parliamentarians such as the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, who pressed for justice for those damaged by this scandal.

The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, called his seminal political novel House of Cards. That is a good description of liberal democracy—the concept, not the party. We are all familiar with Churchill’s famous quote that

“democracy is the worst form of Government”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/11/1947; col. 207.] until you have tried the others. It functions best when its various components—a democratically elected Parliament, a Government, an independent judiciary, a media that adheres to the highest standards of truth and accuracy, and a Civil Service selected and promoted on merit—deliver open government and are underpinned by a robust and wide-ranging Freedom of Information Act. Each of those elements stands alone in a functioning democracy, yet each gives strength to that democracy by helping to strengthen the others. At the apex of that house of cards are this Parliament and the determination of each one of us to protect a democracy that, at its most generous, can be described as fraying at the edges.

In my three minutes, there is no time to set out a detailed programme of reform. Like the noble Lord, Lord Browne, I refer the House to the excellent briefing from Transparency International UK and Spotlight on Corruption. It sets out a programme of reform against which all parties should be tested at the next election and against which individuals should be judged. I hope that, in his extended 20 minutes, the Leader of the House—I am glad to see that he agreed to respond to this debate—will assess the progress on the Government’s Command Paper that was published last July, Strengthening Ethics and Integrity in Central Government, and then promise us a full day’s debate on that document so that we may return to this issue.

It is a daunting agenda that faces the democracies. As so often, Shakespeare got it right when he wrote:

“The fault … is not in our stars, But in ourselves”.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 12:38, 11 January 2024

My Lords, the Library briefing for this important debate from the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, notes that the distinctive feature of parliamentary democracies

“is that the executive receives its mandate from, and is responsible to, the legislature”, but there is a revealing omission here. Actually, the distinctive feature of democracy is that Parliament receives its mandate from, and is responsible to, the demos—half of the word “democracy” along with kratos, meaning “power”.

Yet “people power” is the opposite of the public’s experience of late; indeed, it is disparaged as populism. Voter-mandated manifesto legislation is blocked by forces beyond the electorate’s control while national and local government frequently outsource decision-making to arm’s-length bodies, unelected quangos and consultants ring-fenced away from popular pressure. The public feel sidelined. Like other noble Lords, I suspect that that is one reason why the plight of the sub-postmasters has so captured the public’s imagination, way beyond the atrocious miscarriage of justice. Millions identified with the sheer frustration of being ignored and shouting into the void as the computer, the bureaucrats and the establishment machine say, “No”. Talk to a vast array of grass-roots campaigners, service users and parents’ groups: many of them also feel that they are battling against a technocracy that acts as though it knows best. Although they are not branded as criminals or frauds, as the sub-postmasters were, citizens are branded as everything from ill-informed dupes to extremist bigots because they are concerned about ULEZ, rip-off leaseholds, the politicised school curriculum or whatever.

What does it say about attitudes towards the demos that, beyond the self-interested Post Office management, so many in the judiciary, political life, corporate tech and auditor companies did not question when suddenly hundreds of decent postmasters had become venal thieves? To restore trust in democracy, it is essential that parliamentarians—the establishment—restore trust in the demos.

On the other aspect of this debate—how to halt declining standards in public life—I issue a note of caution. Many proposed solutions—such as more stringent codes of conduct and endless training courses and ethics committees—seem more like process-driven bureaucratic box-ticking than a real enriching of public service. We should also acknowledge that initiatives to regulate standards themselves have become mired in contentious ideological scandals—for example, pushing values such as diversity, inclusion and equity, as though they were interchangeable with improving standards in public life.

In the last few days, there was an apocryphal DIE tale. Rachel Meade, a Kent social worker for 20 years, won a landmark claim after being subjected to a lengthy “fitness to practice” investigation by her own professional regulator, Social Work England, because she posted legal expressions of her belief that a person cannot change biological sex. A 51-page judgment described the standards disciplinary process itself as a form of harassment. We saw similar with the hounding of the now totally exonerated noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, where unfounded allegations of bullying at the EHRC were used to mount an ill-judged process. We must beware these processes, set up to police standards, being weaponised for malicious and politicised reasons, or we will inadvertently create even more miscarriages of justice than we have seen at the Post Office.

Photo of Baroness Finn Baroness Finn Conservative 12:42, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I declare my interest as the Conservative member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The CSPL has occupied a unique position in the standards landscape since its formation in 1994. Although it includes cross-party representation, the majority of its members are independent. It provides advice for maintaining and improving standards, based on evidence gathered from a wide range of people. The most recent report, Leading in Practice, published in 2022, looked at how a variety of organisations have sought to integrate ethical values into their policies and ways of working. It has been widely welcomed across the public sector. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Evans, who led the committee with distinction over the last five years, and welcome our new chair, Doug Chalmers, who is already starting a programme of engagement with regulators and those responsible for standards across the United Kingdom.

The late Lord Nolan set out three golden threads for standards: codes of conduct, independent scrutiny and education. The key question for your Lordships’ House is who should exercise that independent scrutiny, especially when ministerial conduct has been called into question. One of the central pillars of our unwritten constitution is that the Prime Minister, appointed by and chief adviser to the sovereign, remains in that position for as long as he or she commands the confidence of the other place. Other Ministers remain in post for as long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. Not one of us in this place would object to raising standards in public life or disagree with the Nolan principles, but the Nolan principles work precisely because they are just that—principles and not rules. My noble friend Lord Forsyth mentioned the recent excellent Policy Exchange report on upholding standards, which deals with this. My fear is that, by the patchwork codification of standards, whether statutory or quasi-statutory, covert or overt, we erode the functions of political accountability that are the proper province of Parliament.

These political mechanisms of accountability are a great success of the British constitution and one that other countries struggle to emulate. We should not abdicate standards enforcements to ethics tsars or unelected regulators who are accountable to no one. If we do, we invite the unedifying prospect of judicial or regulatory pronouncement on ministerial appointments and dismissals. This, I fear, will not improve the standing of parliamentary democracy but diminish it.

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 12:44, 11 January 2024

My Lords, we are discussing very serious issues, and therefore it is important that they are tackled in a meaningful way. One way would be to have some kind of constitutional convention, like the one that the Scots had, where we might debate these issues more sensibly and rationally.

I want to talk about parliamentary democracy and how we can steer our way out of some of the mess that we seem to be facing. When we say that we are a democracy, what do we mean? Minimally, we mean two things, which is why we desire democracy as a form of government: equal rights to all citizens and benefits to all citizens. It is a system of government where people decide things themselves and which promotes public interest and benefits to all.

Parliamentary democracy is one form of democracy. It is not the only one; there are many others. What distinguishes parliamentary democracy and makes the element of trust particularly relevant to parliamentary democracy is that power lies with the people, but it is not exercised directly by the people but through their elected representatives. It is a mediated democracy—a democracy in which power is mediated through Parliament. That means that to talk about parliamentary sovereignty would be a serious mistake. It would mean that Parliament replaces people and begins to take all kinds of decisions that should be taken by people. I suggest that what we want is a robust parliamentary democracy in which people are as well organised, alert and capable of controlling their destiny as Parliament itself.

My second point is that in a parliamentary democracy there is an expectation that Parliament will continue to monitor the system of governance and how the Executive exercise their powers. With parliamentary sovereignty, whoever controls Parliament is sovereign, so the party in power in the House of Commons becomes sovereign. That is exactly what we want to avoid. In my view, we should have a parliamentary democracy in which people control their own affairs through the mediation of Parliament and in which Parliament can control and monitor the system of governance—how Ministers behave, how public appointments are made, how government money is contracted out and so on. These have been the causes of recent troubles. It is very important that Parliament should be strengthened, but not at the cost of people themselves.

Photo of Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Non-affiliated 12:48, 11 January 2024

My Lords, today’s is a debate in which we all must declare an interest, as well as a responsibility. We are part of structures that are essential to making democracy work and we are all public figures, and we share standards that are expected of professionals. Even though we sometimes would like to think that we are different, when it comes to standards, we are not.

I want to talk about the Civil Service in general and my role as the first Civil Service Commissioner in particular. An effective, capable and impartial Civil Service, guided by the Nolan principles, which include honestly, integrity, objectivity and impartiality, is essential—but remember, being impartial does not mean being irrelevant or ineffective. It means serving the Government of the day. The Civil Service Commission has a statutory basis in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. We ensure that recruitment into the Civil Service is fair, open and based on merit, and we hear complaints brought by civil servants regarding conduct that is thought to conflict with Civil Service codes of conduct.

It is important that staff know who to turn to if they feel that they are being asked to do something which would be outside the code. In the first instance, they turn to their department, but, if it is still unresolved, the commission is a statutory independent body. The annual staff survey shows a very high awareness of the existence of the code in England, Scotland and Wales. There is a little less confidence that complaints will be dealt with speedily, but it is still between 70% and 80%.

In the last five years, we have received some 500 complaints, but the vast majority of them were outside the scope. The resolution of these things really has to be within departments and I am very confident that it is.

An effective, modern Civil Service requires people to move between the private and the public sectors. Entry into the Civil Service is just as important as exit, and that is why I am very grateful for the work of the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, and his committee. It may be appropriate to say that ACOBA, the Civil Service Commission and the Commissioner for Public Appointments share secretarial and back-office staff.

I will say something about Civil Service impartiality compared to the independence of regulators. There is an important difference. Irrespective of the legal basis of institutions, there are three essential requirements to ensure independence. The first is the conduct of individual officeholders. For the commission, this is when we chair interview panels. The second is adequate resourcing that allows the regulators to plan their staff and workload in a consistent and strategic manner. The third is to fill officeholders’ vacancies as they arise. Basically, failures of standards cost time and money, and ultimately undermine confidence.

I conclude by paying tribute to the work of my fellow commissioners and a lot of very hard-working members of staff in the Civil Service.

Photo of Lord Pickles Lord Pickles Conservative 12:51, 11 January 2024

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, with whom I have very much enjoyed working and moving forward the agenda for improvement and change. I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests: I am the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—ACOBA. The committee provides independent advice to former Ministers and senior civil servants when they leave government.

Approximately 40,000 officials left the Civil Service last year. The majority of these cases are considered by government departments themselves, under the business appointments rules, without formal reference to ACOBA. The rules are not fit for purpose; they have not kept up with modern career patterns and leave open major risks to the integrity of government. This failure has been apparent for years, and I welcome the commitment of the Government to reform the system announced last year.

Now is the time to get on with it for, in truth, the reforms differ little from the measures devised by me and my noble friend the present Leader of the House, a few years back. I pay tribute to my noble friend’s commitment to reform. The revised business rules need not just the confidence of the Prime Minister and your Lordships but, more importantly, credibility in the eyes of the public. To get over the threshold of credibility to be listened to by the public, there need to be consequences for breaking the rules. Currently, there are none, save an unpleasant letter from me and a couple of days of bad publicity in the press.

The revised rules will rightly be enforced through the Civil Service contract and a ministerial bond, up to and including a fine. The latter is crucial, because it goes to the often-neglected part of Nolan’s Seven Principles of Public Life—leadership. Ministers must set an example and lead from the front. They cannot expect others to follow the rules unless they are prepared to do it first.

Reform will bring sense to the system. It is not a good use of public money when we are currently forced to consider the merits of an ex-Minister consuming the more intimate parts of some luckless marsupial on television. There is no government interest here to protect. It is far better that there should be a light touch on journalism, entertainment, voluntary work or transfers to other parts of the public service, that those coming from the private sector have a clear idea of the restrictions they will face on leaving the Civil Service and for ACOBA to concentrate on more complicated cases that protect the interest and probity of government.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 12:55, 11 January 2024

My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate and to follow the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, and his excellent words about ACOBA. I was a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life when it published its reports Standards Matter 2 and Upholding Standards in Public Life, and I strongly commend all their recommendations to noble Lords for implementation.

Of the latter report’s 34 recommendations, the Government at the time accepted 14, partially met 10 and rejected 10. When you look at the detail, you can see that the Government accepted all the recommendations that would restrict other persons or bodies from crossing ethical red lines, rejected all those that would limit their own scope to transgress ethical boundaries and kicked into the long grass any idea of embedding any of the existing ethical guidance mechanisms into primary legislation. It is easy to be cynical about the motivation of that, but I want to be constructive and look forward to how we can genuinely improve the current ethical framework, which is far too dependent on the integrity of those it is intended to restrain who, in the past, have all too often finished by being judge and jury in their own cases.

The committee’s other report, Standards Matter 2, reinforced the urgency of safeguarding all ethics regulators from interference in both their initial appointment and their scope and power when operating. That report was triggered by the fiasco of the treatment of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests by the Government of the day, and it set out the overwhelming case for embedding our ethical guidance framework in legislation and for the appointment process of ethical regulators themselves to be properly insulated from malign political veto.

The very disappointing government response to those reports came several Prime Ministers ago. Today, we have had multiple public resets of government, and I hope that the Leader of the House, in replying, will take the opportunity to give a more rounded response than was given then and to give noble Lords a strong signal that this Government accept that further reform is now urgently necessary.

When the political wheel turns and today’s Government become tomorrow’s Opposition, I predict that they will, in any case, be rapidly converted to the importance of having a statutorily embedded ethical system in our public life—when they are no longer in charge of running it. In short, it is in the interests of all parties for each Front Bench to declare today that they now heartily endorse the CSPL’s package of reforms and will set out a plan to deliver them. I look forward to hearing it in the winding-up speeches.

Photo of Lord Leong Lord Leong Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Opposition Whip (Lords) 12:58, 11 January 2024

My Lords, public trust in the individuals and institutions that govern this country—those that have the power to affect millions of lives and to spend billions of pounds—rests on a sacred trust that those in power will act in accordance with the Nolan principles. Those principles, as set out by my noble friend Lady Warwick and the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart, were established 30 years ago by then Prime Minister John Major.

In return, members of the public obey the law and expect others to do so, without a constant police presence. We all follow the Highway Code and expect others to do so, even when there are no traffic cameras. The British people will always do the right thing if they believe that others are doing the same. So much about Britain—our national character, constitution and reputation on the international stage—is vitally dependent upon a sense of trust and fairness. Our reputation has been hard won but is in danger of being too easily lost. In China, Russia and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders are blurring the boundaries between state and party interests, overriding judicial process with political convenience and prioritising the interests of their leaders over the welfare of their citizens.

Remarkably, China is exporting anti-democratic training and formally instructing its more repressive allies. Last year, it opened a so-called school for despots in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, teaching officials from governing parties who have held power for decades—often via fraudulent elections, electoral violence and grand corruption—how to tighten their grip still further and eliminate their domestic political opponents. We can combat this rising tide of oppression by ensuring that our values—fairness and freedom for all, democracy and the rule of law—are upheld at home and unquestioned abroad.

The noble Lord, Lord Evans, has given us a clear warning: the public believe that, overall, standards in public life have “gone backwards”. We are collectively wincing in anticipation of the next political scandal, fearing that public trust in politics may finally snap like an overstretched elastic band. Those of us in public life in Britain bear a great responsibility to our fellow citizens and to the wider world to act according to the Nolan principles and to ensure that we remain a beacon of hope. The world will be a far more dangerous place if trust in Britain breaks.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative 1:01, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I will concentrate on the parliamentary democracy side of our debate, since others have eloquently put the obvious point that, unless we maintain the highest standards of behaviour in Parliament and ensure that Parliament itself upholds these standards, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, rightly reminded us, no one will renew the much-diminished trust in and respect for parliamentary institutions today, whatever the circumstances.

For a gloomy and very serious subject, this has been quite an enjoyable debate so far. Everyone knows that we are facing an age of disorder and potential disintegration, but my worry is that far too few people in practising politics, the media or the so-called influencer class, whoever they are, recognise the causes or consequences of just drifting along on the technological tide. Some people are now calling for something akin to a new Enlightenment, with the philosophers stepping forward where the politicians and parties are so obviously and clearly failing to make an impact, or merely trading stale abuse and accusations while the world rolls away from them and us.

All aspects of this scene are in a state of flux. All pave the way for multiplying grievances, for placard politics in place of argument, for dissent shading into hate and for unrepresentative democracy to worm its way in. All these trends are already being fundamentally twisted in new directions by the communications revolution, the loss of deliberation in the immediacy of online response, the ugly intolerance of polarisation, the demands of uninhibited transparency and the general evaporation of trust in and respect for everyone and everything. If we add in a new universal balloon of fakery and misinformation, now being further inflated by the misuse of AI, that makes it all the worse.

I have only two immediate answers to this fragile and dangerous situation in the few minutes that I have to speak. The first is to take our parliamentary committee structure far more seriously if we want to keep pace with and get to the bottom of ever-swelling executive activity. That requires our committees to be properly resourced and empowered, as they are in many other democracies but not here. The second is to give maximum encouragement and space to deep channels of discussion throughout the UK, often far from the public gaze and well away from the media, where new thoughts may be taking shape.

Whoever forms a Government at Westminster, most of the major issues of our time are well outside the control of our national government. The levers of growth which are believed to exist—I believe that Sir Keir Starmer believes in them—are now in practice outside the state’s diminished reach, as it tries to do more and more but with less success. If that reality alone is grasped by Parliament and its leaders, then order and a mannered public debate can continue to be combined with freedom of thought, speech and ambition for our institutions and constitution—and, above all, with trust, which is so obviously missing from the whole parliamentary and political scene.

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Labour 1:05, 11 January 2024

My Lords, we must thank the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for introducing what has become an interesting debate. I agree with much, although not quite all, of what has been said. I will simply express my concern about the trend towards plutocracy, the rule by the richest in our society, and the overweening power of money and capital in relation to our parliamentary democracy.

The undue influence of well-funded special interests can distort policy-making and compromise the public interest. The only answer to this is greater exposure and more openness. We need regulations and transparency to curb the corrosive impact of money on our democratic institutions. We need to be concerned about the pervasive impact of those who have the financial resources to influence policy-making. We all see it in this building: the people who have the time and resources to influence policy are those with money. It is a simple equation. We need to be concerned about corporate lobbying, special interest groups, campaign financing, the revolving door phenomenon and the wealth gap’s influence on policy-making. These elements collectively undermine democratic principles, causing real concern about fairness, transparency and public trust.

A particular concern worth mentioning is the funding of so-called think tanks. I pay tribute to the work of openDemocracy and its “Who Funds You?” exercise, which looks at who pays for these people popping up on our television screens and opining about this, that and the other. It is a crucial issue—who funds them? There is a simple answer. We do not know where the money of right-wing think tanks comes from. I could list a whole group of them, such as the Adam Smith Institute and the TaxPayers’ Alliance. They do not tell us who funds them, so we have to draw our own conclusions—it is the power of big money. The answer to this is greater openness and disclosure.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 1:08, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I will not follow the noble Lord, although he made some interesting and powerful points. It struck me while my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, who always brings wisdom to our debates, was speaking, that what we have really lost in this country and Parliament is the ability to disagree agreeably. That is fuelled by social media and has done enormous damage to our public life.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone: she made a far-ranging and very interesting speech. She talked about Lord Judge. In the next couple of weeks, we will have the opportunity to remember at thanksgiving services two remarkable parliamentarians: Baroness Boothroyd, one of the greatest Speakers that the other place has ever had, and Lord Judge, who, although a great judge, was a parliamentarian to his fingertips. He understood the most important fact of all: the Executive are answerable to Parliament, not the other way around.

I will just touch on one other thing—this House. I have been in Parliament getting on for 54 years now, including just over 13 in your Lordships’ House. I believe in it. I believe that it does a very good job, and I believe that we have some remarkable Members in our midst. But we have to look at ourselves and the way we refresh ourselves. I beg my of noble friend who will be winding up this debate to give further thought to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Norton. Doubtless he will say more about it when he speaks.

We cannot refresh ourselves by continuing to have resignation lists produced by a Prime Minister who has had barely 40 days and 40 nights in power. I say nothing about the individuals concerned—I will give them a courteous welcome; of course I will—but we have to look at this. The way this has been handled has done damage to our parliamentary democracy. We must look at the power of Prime Ministers. Of course, they must have the opportunity to nominate—although I am not sure they should if they have had only 40 days and 40 nights—but there should be a statutory appointments commission which has the final say on the integrity of those who come to this House.

We have many tasks before us. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for giving us the chance to air some of these things, although I am sorry that our rules mean we have had such a short time to do so.

Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 1:11, 11 January 2024

My Lords, the Motion before us contains two key words: democracy and standards. I hope to say something briefly about each of them, and then to show they are fundamentally linked. Democracy is a precarious and precious achievement which is under threat in many places around the world—not just overt dictatorships but managed democracies, which have elections but then lock up political opponents, and which have a media, but one largely controlled by the Government or Government supporters.

We need to rediscover a real belief in the system we have in this country, because it actually allows us to express the better side of our nature—the desire for the common good—but also takes fully into account the darker side of our nature: our desire too often to pursue our own interests at the expense of other people, particularly organised groups pursuing their interests. As a great American theologian and political thinker, Reinhold Neibuhr, put it, the human

“capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”.

People should be learning about this in schools, but the trouble is that citizenship education, which ought to be taught, is in a “parlous state”. Those are the words of your Lordships’ committee report, The Ties that Bind, which we have brought before the House a number of times. It says that citizenship education in schools has been degraded to a parlous state and needs to be radically and totally revised. I very much hope it is not too late for the present Government once again to look at citizenship education in schools, so that pupils come out of schools actually believing in the society in which we live and willing to take part in it.

Secondly, I will say something about standards. Even in a dictatorship, some moral principles are possible. There is a limit to the degree of corruption that even a dictatorship can put up with, but there is an integral link between moral principles and democracy. In much the same way that Adam Smith argued that moral principles were fundamental to the proper working of a free market, so they are absolutely fundamental to the proper working of democracy, quite simply because the people who rule us are elected. When we elect people, we do so because we desire to trust them: we want them to be trustworthy. We want them actually to try to put into practice the policies on which we have elected them. Unfortunately, as we have heard so often around the House today, that fundamental trustworthiness is no longer believed in by many people in our society—sadly and wrongly, perhaps, but that is the case.

I wonder whether, perhaps at the beginning of the new Parliament, the Lord Speaker in this House and the Speaker in the House of Commons might call a meeting in Westminster Hall where we can once again look at and think through those wonderful Nolan principles.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Deputy Chairman of Committees 1:15, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for today’s debate and I am glad to make a contribution to it. Debates of this kind are a bit like taking the temperature of our democracy. I am very interested in all the things that have been said so far, and I need hardly remind your Lordships that around the world today democracy itself is under attack, including in countries we count among our closest allies.

I grew up in a family that for generations had the greatest possible respect for the democratic legitimacy of the elected House of Commons. But I can also say that since being elected to this House, I have come to understand, appreciate and respect the role it plays and the very good work that can be and is done here. Both Houses complement each other, but they are not perfect.

Interestingly, as recently as Tuesday of this week, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of another place conducted its second evidence session and took evidence from former Speakers of this House and others on the size, role, composition and purpose of the House of Lords. We might like to reciprocate by our Constitution Committee conducting an inquiry into the nature, purposes, role and activity of the House of Commons.

I will say a word or two about the legislative process. As others have said, we live at a time of skeleton Bills and Henry VIII clauses, and the result is that Bills can be either absurdly large or ridiculously short. Either way, huge quantities of detailed policy are forced through Parliament by secondary legislation and SIs, which this House theoretically could amend but in practice does not. This is a pressure cooker waiting to burst. The balance of power between the Executive and the legislature—reference was made, of course, to our dear departed, collective noble friend Lord Judge—has gone too far in favour of the Executive.

I will say something about the electoral process. There is something so simple and powerful about the act of marking a cross with a pencil on a ballot paper and putting it into a ballot box, but I regret to say that the integrity of our own voting system has been put at needless risk in recent years. All sides of this House had reservations about the recent measure to introduce ID for voting. The evidence of fraud under the old system was certainly less than the evidence so far of the deterrent effect under the new system. I do not want our country ever to be accused of voter suppression. That is very bad for our democracy—and we have enough threats as it is.

For example, looking forward, many have warned, including our National Cyber Security Centre, that the coming general election will feature AI-generated deepfakes designed to unsettle us. The sophistication of deepfaked videos is such that, to take a random example, you could make a deepfake video of the Leader of the House ardently advocating the return of a Labour Government. I suppose this would be the equivalent of the Zinoviev Letter, whose 100th anniversary we are celebrating this year, but much more powerful because of the effectiveness of the technology and the power of social media to amplify fake messages. The World Economic Forum has just announced that disinformation from AI is regarded as one of the greatest global risks.

My time has run out, but I wanted to say this. like other Members, I enjoy going to talk to schools. Before Christmas, I went to Chiswick School. Its sixth form asked excellent questions, but one of the things that was uncovered in our discussion was cynicism, which I think is the greatest threat to our parliamentary democracy. We all support the principles of Nolan, which are in our code of conduct, but we must protect the new generation of voters from the cynicism that would otherwise undermine their support for the parliamentary democracy we are debating today. I very much hope that the new generation will take comfort from the fact that we need to uphold the greatest possible standards in public life, and that they will benefit from it when the time comes.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 1:19, 11 January 2024

My Lords, this debate is about standards in public life. I want to focus on audit and risk management in the public sector, particularly in local government. I should remind the House that I am a vice president of the Local Government Association, but I should make it clear that it has had no role in what I will say.

I mentioned audit when we debated the gracious Speech because the hoped-for Bill was absent. Since then, audit has been in the spotlight as never before. Robust audit is central to building public confidence in decision-making and particularly in major investment decisions by public bodies. Yet, too often, audit has become part of the problem. Since the abolition of the Audit Commission 10 years ago and the increased role for private audit companies, standards have slipped. Audits are delayed, too many local authorities have dangerously high levels of debt and risky investments are ploughed ahead without proper scrutiny. Earlier this week, the Financial Reporting Council imposed penalties totalling some £40 million, including costs, for audit failures in 2023. In so doing, its aim is to improve the quality of audits, whatever the sector, and it is right to do so. In local government, the timeliness and quality of audits have declined. Only five local authority audits for 2022-23 were completed by the deadline of September 2023. The Public Accounts Committee had previously expressed concern in June 2023 that only 12% of local government audits for 2021-22 had been delivered on time. There is a problem and it is getting worse.

I want to acknowledge the importance of the work of Oflog, the newly established Office for Local Government, in devising and publishing metrics that will lead to improvement by councils, which can compare themselves with other local authorities, as can the public and journalists. I welcome that, but I have two concerns. What will Oflog do to stop local authorities, such as Woking or Thurrock, getting into unacceptable and unmanageable levels of debt? Will Oflog examine the adequacy of local authority financial controls to prevent huge errors being made in the first place?

A moment ago, I mentioned journalists. When I entered local government, there were two full-time journalists reporting on Newcastle-upon-Tyne City Council. They were part of the checks and balances of our local democracy. Today, a reporter in local government is rare. A few years ago, the BBC funded support for local reporting, but it appears that it is now being replaced by BBC online reporting, in direct competition with the webpages of local newspapers and their advertising revenue. What in this scenario is going to happen to investigative journalism?

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 1:22, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on initiating this debate. She raises some important questions. Parliamentary democracy is now under threat, not least as elected Governments seek to tackle problems that often go beyond their borders and with a public who respond to the failure to tackle those problems by embracing the calls of populist politicians. Some democracies, such as the United States, have a history of populist movements—a tendency now writ large—but we see it elsewhere as well, not least in some nations of Europe.

In the United Kingdom, we have largely managed, so far, to resist that trend, and the reason for that rests in the fundamental nature of our parliamentary democracy. Those calling for a codified constitution largely miss the point of what sustains the institutions of the state. Some nations have codified constitutions, but no culture of constitutionalism. By that, I mean an acceptance at mass and elite level of the legitimacy of the constitutional processes. That is what underpins the rule of law. We have a culture of constitutionalism that is so well embedded that it has facilitated our uncodified constitution and has provided stability through the fact that the constitution does not impose an unwieldy straitjacket. We benefit from a culture that has reinforced the value of that system. Some of the basic rules of society are so well ingrained that it is not necessary to enshrine them formally.

That culture still pertains, and it is essential to our well-being as a nation. If we start to move to a more formalised system, we are in danger of creating a society with some degree of rigidity. Problems with maintaining standards in public life have undermined confidence in the system, but that is an argument for recognising and bolstering the core culture, not an argument for eroding it.

Institutions matter, but in terms of public trust, the focus is on those who occupy them. We have seen some officeholders exhibit an egregious disregard of standards in recent years. We need to avoid displacement activity—advancing constitutional reform as if that is the answer—and instead we need to focus on behaviour. We need to embed a culture of responsibility and, instead of blaming our constitution, we need to be reflecting on how we recruit public officials, how we tighten the regulatory framework and how we inculcate a commitment to delivering outputs in the best interests of the nation.

Photo of Lord Sahota Lord Sahota Labour 1:25, 11 January 2024

My Lords, our parliamentary democracy and our standards in public life are things that have always been admired and envied throughout the world by other parliamentarians and the public alike. They look to us for guidance and advice as the mother of all Parliaments. When they visit our Parliament, they are in awe of our system and institutions, but, sadly, in the past few years some of our politicians in the Government have let that gold standard fall. Some of our politicians are as dodgy as that Post Office computer. In some quarters of the media, our democracy is now being compared with a banana republic. Some of our politicians have that third-world politician attitude towards their jobs: “Never mind my constituents or my country, what’s in it for me?” I am sorry to say this, but even our present Foreign Secretary, before he joined us, dipped his toe in some secret lobbying of Ministers.

There was a time when our Prime Minister stood up at the Dispatch Box and his or her words were the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But, as we all know, our Prime Minister has recently been found by the standards committee to be wanting on that. He repeated those words over and over again. During Covid-19 he was fined for breaching his own rules. Our present Prime Minister was no better. He was fined as well. More people were fined at the address of our Prime Minister’s residence than at any other address in this country. That says something about our politics and Government.

In an investigation by a civil servant, a former Home Secretary was found guilty of bullying her staff, yet she stayed in her job with the blessing of the Prime Minister. It was the civil servant who had to resign. Many MPs have been investigated by the standards committee over the years. I have lost count of them now. Why is it that our MPs have to have second jobs? They are elected to serve their constituents and to legislate, not to sit on foreign advisory bodies and lobby for companies that have no connection to their constituents to make money. Whatever happened to the Nolan principles of accountability, integrity, selflessness, objectivity, honesty, leadership and openness? We have to restore faith in our democracy before it becomes the laughing stock of the world.

Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Crossbench 1:28, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for securing this debate. As evidenced by many reports, disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the political process, pronounced deviation from standards in public life, perceptions of corruption in government and low trust in politicians are having an adverse impact on our democratic system. Trust is at an all-time low, which is leading to levels of political disengagement and cynicism.

As we have heard in the debate, there is no shortage of recommendations which have been made for improving matters and restoring public trust. Regrettably, the Government have been slow to take comprehensive and urgent action. They appear reluctant to grasp fully that bold, comprehensive and decisive action is needed if we are to arrest this decline. Perhaps the Minister can explain why.

Recommendations, which have been made by various bodies and will be made later this month by a governance commission chaired by the right honourable Dominic Grieve, of which I am a member, to improve the governance of our country, are now, regrettably, absolutely necessary. But, as we have heard, they alone will not be sufficient. They will need to be sustained through self-supervision, constant vigilance, strong leadership and a culture which encourages adherence to standards and compliance with codes and instils the importance of good governance and why it is important for the proper and effective functioning of democracy.

Rules, regulations and codes should not absolve those in public life from taking personal responsibility for good behaviour and setting an example. They should not lead to a culture where rules are seen as irritable constraints and that encourages minimum adherence just to stay within the rules. Currently there seems to be a lack of understanding about the connection between constitutional principles, standards and integrity. Such attitudes have led to adversarial behaviour, where breaches are contested to defend actions and justify bad behaviour. This leads to a blame culture, which undermines relationships, morale and the standing of crucial organisations while feeding public cynicism. Will the Minister please tell the House what action, if any, the Government are taking to counter this culture and to ensure compliance, an area which seems to have low priority and to be seen as an irritant?

Finally, in an election year, can the Minister—and perhaps the leaders of the Opposition in this House—tell the House what priority will be given to governance and standards in public life in their manifestos and in the way that elections are conducted? Are they or will they be taking steps to impress upon prospective parliamentary candidates the importance of ethical behaviour, what it means to be in public life and what the Nolan principles mean in practice?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 1:32, 11 January 2024

My Lords, as the final Back-Bench speaker, I will try to say something original. It is difficult, but I will try. Much of what has been said about the attitudes of the population to politicians and the political process is true. The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, has just said that it is at an all-time low, which I am not sure is quite historically true. Even I was not here then, but the politicians of the 19th century were held in pretty low esteem, which is why we had the Great Reform Act, although that never fully affected the House of Lords. Nevertheless, at times we have had to change our system.

What has been missing from the debate is the fact that we have to recognise what is going on in society. It is true, as the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, and others have said, that some of the lack of respect for our system and individual parliamentarians is due to the mistakes of recent Administrations and recent scandals such as the Post Office one, but much of it is due to changes in society itself. Deference and respect are no longer there in society. It is easier to access all sorts of information thanks to changes in technology, the growth of social media and more scandal-orientated mainstream and social media. All of this means that issues which were never really known to the public have become very well known, sometimes exaggeratedly so. That societal change has its drawbacks, but by and large I approve of a society that is that sceptical and that questioning of its so-called betters.

What is lacking is an effective response by the legislature, in particular, to those changes in society and those questions which society now raises. The bodies that government and the legislature have set up are inadequate to meet these concerns. I note the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, of why ACOBA does not have adequate powers. I pay tribute to the noble Lord and his predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, and to the staff who service the committee, on which I sat until last year, for all the systems that they have devised for making sure that potential jobs for retiring politicians and senior civil servants are not subject to corruption, potential corruption or the perception of corruption.

At the end of the day, ACOBA and the other bodies do not have the powers. Unless they are put fully on a statutory basis—let us say that those terms are written into the contractual terms of Ministers and senior civil servants—they will not have those powers. There will be no enforcement or penalties, and those sanctions need to be there. I hope that when we move to consider the constitution and indeed the reform of this Chamber, as I hope we will, we recognise that there is a special responsibility of the second Chamber, whatever its form, to ensure that the constitutional priorities as well as the personal priorities are met, and that there is a way of enforcing the standards in public life.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 1:35, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Featherstone for initiating today’s debate. The number of speakers demonstrates how much concern there is across the House about the issues we are discussing. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for responding on behalf of the Government. I know him to be a firm champion of democratic values and the need for all of us to follow the highest possible standards in our public life.

As has been made clear in today’s debate, there are widespread concerns about the way we run our parliamentary democracy in the UK and concerns that standards in public life in recent years have left much to be desired, to put it mildly. Indeed, I do not think it unfair to say that we currently face a crisis in terms of both the quality of our democracy and the standards in our public life. But there is a big difference in dealing with this crisis compared with the other major challenges which we face as a country, whether that is reigniting economic growth, getting towards net zero, rebuilding public services or dealing with major international crises such as Ukraine or Gaza. Unlike those challenges, the way we run our parliamentary democracy and the standards which we set for those involved in public life are entirely within our hands as parliamentarians to resolve. We do not need complicated international agreements to do so; we do not need to energise the private sector or to spend billions of pounds which we currently do not have. All we need is the political will to make the changes needed.

It is the lack of political will either to maintain or enhance standards, or to rejuvenate our democracy, which has characterised this Government. Remember the grand pledge in the 2019 Conservative manifesto: to establish a constitution, democracy and rights commission to look at the way we run our democracy. The day after polling day, it was quietly scrapped and the measures which we have seen, such as compulsory ID at polling stations, the reversion to first past the post voting for mayors and curbing the independence of the Electoral Commission, appear to have more to do with the Conservatives’ narrow party interests than with strengthening our democracy.

The debate has covered many specific issues and proposals for dealing with them. I cannot possibly cover them all today, but I agree that some of them need further and separate debate, not least the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, about the relationship between government and arm’s-length bodies—an issue which the Post Office crisis has illuminated but which we have, as far as I can recall, hardly debated in your Lordships’ House at all.

The issues that we have debated fall into two separate but interrelated strands. The first is how to improve standards. It is tempting, if facile, to say that those engaged in public life, particularly in Parliament and government, need to behave honestly and in accordance with the Nolan principles. If they did so, there would be no need for reform but, given recent experience, it is clear that without reform high standards are unlikely to be consistently met. There is quite a wide range of proposals for doing this which are relatively uncontentious and have been set out in our debate.

We could start by implementing the ethics reforms recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which are now incorporated into the Private Member’s Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich. We could do that, and I hope that we will in this Session. There are lots more things we could do. We should make the appointments process for significant public roles include a confirmatory vote by the relevant parliamentary Select Committee. We should also strengthen and expand the lobbyists’ registers. There are more points like that, all of which can easily be done. As chair of my party’s manifesto process, I think I can give the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, an assurance that we will be setting out our commitment to many of those things when our manifesto is produced.

The second strand covered by today’s debate, though less discussed than the issue of standards, relates to how our democracy works and how we can better involve citizens in the process. The need for this is clear and pressing. As the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, pointed out, recent polling shows that some 60% of young people think we would be better off if we were run simply by a strong leader and did not have to bother with Parliament or elections at all. The reasons for such views are no doubt many and various, but they undoubtedly, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned, include the increasing use of strident language and a declining willingness to listen to other people’s points of view. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. There is now a general sense of detachment from the political process, one which is forcibly expressed whenever you go knocking on doors. Many people are angry with all politicians, not just Liberal Democrats, and this sense is increasing, so what should be done about it?

I would like to suggest five things. First, all votes have to matter. The first past the post system means that many people rightly believe that their vote will have no impact on the result, so they are increasingly disinclined to vote at all. The introduction of PR to the Commons is the first big change needed to hand more power back to the citizen.

Secondly, your Lordships’ House must be reformed. Again, we believe that there are compelling arguments for electing this House on a regional basis, on the basis that in a democracy those who make the laws should be chosen by the people, not by party leaders. In the shorter term, given that I cannot see such a wide-ranging reform happening as far as I can see in the future, changes such as ending the hereditary Peers’ by-elections and introducing a retirement age would at least begin to tackle our bloated size.

Thirdly, local and regional tiers of government should be given more powers and resources. Far too many decisions in England are taken in Whitehall. This is a recipe neither for a responsive democracy nor for citizens feeling that they have any control over policies that most directly affect their localities and their daily lives.

Fourthly, our constitution is based on conventions and not clear rules. In recent years, many of these conventions have been torn up by arrogant and devil-may-care Prime Ministers. I am afraid I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, as I believe we need a written constitution to ensure that everybody is clear what the rules are and that they then have to abide by them.

Fifthly, we have reached a point where there are some decisions from which Parliament shies away but which need to be resolved. Assisted dying is a current prime example of this. We should take a leaf out of the book of Ireland, France, Canada and elsewhere and introduce citizens assemblies to debate and make recommendations on such issues. The case for doing so was compellingly argued by the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, in a recent newspaper article. He concluded:

“This is a time of year to enjoy some trust in each other, with a generous spirit. … A bigger role for citizens is not the whole answer to the problems that will assail free societies in the year about to begin. But it’s part of the answer”.

I agree with him.

Obviously, there is little chance of any changes of substance on any of the issues which we have been discussing today happening before the imminent election. Beyond the election, however, a new Government will have the authority to make whichever of the changes proposed in today’s debate they wish. It is purely a matter of whether they will have the political will to do so. For the sake of our parliamentary democracy and the standards followed in our public life, we must hope that they do.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 1:45, 11 January 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Newby. He described the “detachment” many people feel from our democracy, which was exactly the right word to use. We could have a longer debate on electoral reform and some of the other issues he raised, and I look forward to that, but he is right to express that in the way he did.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, on her introductory speech. I particularly enjoyed her urging us at the beginning to resist the temptation to simply throw stones at the current Government but then doing an absolutely brilliant job of doing just that; I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I agree with whoever said not to mind too much what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said. If you cannot turn up to your place in in Parliament and say what you really think, then we have a big problem on our hands. She has every right to say what she believes to be true.

This has been a helpful and in many ways timely debate. We have heard how personal integrity, robust and responsive institutions, and public confidence go hand in hand. I would add to that list effective public services, because democracy and Governments need to be seen to deliver in order to be seen as credible by the public who elect them.

Much has been said and written on standards in public life in recent years, most notably perhaps on the conduct of the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the Covid pandemic. I will not dwell on this, but it would be bizarre not to acknowledge the damage that episode has done. Rules were made and broken by the same people, and a spotlight was shone on the behaviour of people who were supposed to be in command of the country and themselves at a time of great uncertainty. Lies were told on parties, PPE, lobbying and Christopher Pincher, and resignations followed, eventually, but the damage was done.

That damage is done to all in public office, the vast majority of whom are decent, hard-working, honest and committed—although they often go unthanked—in this place, in the Commons, and up and down the country, particularly in local government. I would add that it takes courage now to put yourself forward for elected office. Two Members of our Parliament have been killed in recent years, and it takes courage for women in particular to step up in their community and put themselves forward. We should acknowledge that, thank them and respect them for what they do.

As with other episodes, such as the expenses scandal, the infected blood scandal, Hillsborough and now the Post Office, it has become clear to many that some in powerful positions use their authority to ignore, or even commit, blatant wrongs, and that it takes an almighty effort, and usually a great deal of time, before action happens. There is no doubt that these and other scandals have damaged confidence in our democracy, but for years there have been other warnings: low voter turnout, an unrepresentative political and media class, and the tragic hollowing out of local and regional media. Those in authority have sometimes behaved as though the institutions should be defended before they try to defend sufficiently our citizens. That is what lies behind the anger being felt on behalf of the sub-postmasters. There is also the collapse of Greensill Capital, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs and questions arising about lobbying and the oversight of financial institutions.

It is unsurprising, as my noble friend Lady Warwick reminded us, that investigations into public attitude towards our democracy reveal very high levels of dissatisfaction. My noble friends Lord Stansgate, Lord Sahota and Lord Leong, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, reminded us of the dire situation in other countries and our duty to uphold the highest standards here in the United Kingdom. Thankfully—not thankfully; that is the start of a paragraph I was going to read but now will not because of the shortage of time—the majority of those surveyed by the Constitution Unit here expressed the view that politicians have lower ethical standards than ordinary citizens. Having said that, the overwhelming majority of people in the UK still support parliamentary democracy; they just want it to deliver, and they want effective government and effective public services.

The effectiveness of government and confidence in our democracy go together. When accessing public services for your family can feel more like a battle than an entitlement, it is not difficult to understand why people feel frustrated, disillusioned and let down. Too many of the basics are not getting done, whether that is fixing potholes or providing access to dentistry. The experience for too many people in Britain today is that nothing works quite as well as it should, and pretending that everything is fine only makes things worse. The Constitution Unit found that being honest and owning up to mistakes was the most desired characteristic in politicians, and the same could be said for Governments. Citizens have not yet turned their backs entirely on democracy; they just want it to work a bit better.

Sadly, some of the safeguards that are supposed to protect the integrity of our institutions have been weakened in recent years, and now is the right time to reassess. An incoming Labour Government would make changes. ACOBA and the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests need to be overhauled and subsumed into a new ethics and integrity commission, operationally independent and free from government control. Reform of your Lordships’ House and further devolving power to our regions and nations are also needed.

Protecting our democracy means changing and updating it. We have done this previously and we can do it again. Intense media scrutiny can make political life uncomfortable, but the fact is that the increased accountability we have today, as my noble friend Lord Whitty said, means that more wrongdoing is exposed than in previous decades. That is a very good thing—I am glad that the age of deference is well behind us—but it means we need processes that can act when needed. Nobody argues now that the recall of MPs should be abolished. That process is relatively new; it has led to by-elections and, with it, the engagement of local people. It proves that it is up to constituents to decide whether an MP continues to represent them or not, which is a very good thing. Change is possible. It is necessary, and it needs leaders willing to fight for it, along with rigorous vetting of parliamentary candidates and swift action when things go wrong.

There must be no despair here. I have sensed a little despair this afternoon, and I understand where it comes from, but despair leads to paralysis and a lack of action. We need that clear leadership, a fresh start and a rediscovery of integrity in public life to restore confidence in us—we are not elected, but perhaps one day soon we will be—as people in political office and in our democratic institutions.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 1:54, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to be here and listen to a most interesting debate, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for securing it and making this possible. I did not greet some of her sallies with the same rapture of the noble Baroness opposite, nor did I agree that they were justified—but we will leave it at that. It has been a most interesting debate, including the proposition from the noble Viscount. I draw attention early to his interesting suggestion that the Select Committee on the Constitution of this House might have a look at the effectiveness of the other Chamber. That is not something that I shall be proposing to my colleagues in government, but I shall be interested to see if he takes that forward, in the light of their activities.

Parliament is a human institution, and we are, as Parliament and as individuals, who we are, with all the frailties that come from the human condition—and all the genius, remarkable gifts, insights, passions and commitments that come from the human condition. We are not perfect. In Parliament, we are the duties we perform and how well we perform them. As your Lordships’ Leader, my judgment is that, in this place, we perform those duties well, to a high standard that deserves respect.

But there is a third thing we are. We are also seen by the outsider as who we ourselves say we are. While I think we should be extraordinarily conscious of our frailties—and I own to and condemn where people fall short of those high standards, of course, because I believe that high standards in public life are essential—sometimes in politics we throw so many stones at each other. I heard what my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham said about expecting dirty campaigning; he can include me out on that one. There have been some in this debate who have thrown stones, and we contribute to a perception that Parliament is corrupt and that parliamentarians are interested only in themselves, are bad and not interested, et cetera. The more we contribute to that narrative—and you can make a case in a research paper for this, that and the other, and in footnotes—the more we contribute to the lowering of the esteem of Parliament, which includes this place.

In so much of this debate, with constructive suggestions, we have done that. I wish only that we would actually accentuate the positive about all that we do. I do not believe that the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party or the Conservative Party are corrupt—nor, indeed, do I believe that the Church of England is corrupt. There are bad apples, but I refer to what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said about helping people to understand civility, civics and citizenship. We need to help people to understand the good that Parliament does, as well as the follies that it may contain.

There were so many brilliant suggestions that came out in this debate. In saying that, I am not complacent or wanting to be Panglossian. There are changes that could and should be made. As my noble friend Lady Stowell said, it is true that we are seen as insiders by outsiders—we are seen sometimes as people “up there” who do not take an interest and do not do enough. We must always be mindful of our first and only duty if we are called to the high responsibility of being in Parliament, which is a duty to be public servants and to serve. I thought that my noble friend made a very powerful speech on that subject, as did others who spoke, as a matter of fact.

Having made those preliminary remarks, there are things that I do believe. I think that, really, in all our hearts, we do not believe we are as bad as we sometimes say we are, but we do believe that we could do and must do better. I believe also that we must not always privilege those who shout in the corner of the room. When I was a council leader and had young councillors come to ask me how you should address the business of service and the business of politics, I would say, think of public life and public service as a public meeting. You go into a great hall and start speaking—we have all experienced it; at least, those of us who have sought election or held public office—and someone in the corner of the room starts shouting out noisily, heckling and so on. You let him have one go—sometimes it is her, but usually him—and another go and then, finally, you say, “Look, Sir, we have heard what you think; I want to hear from all these other good people too”.

Sometimes in politics, with the ascendency of social media and the tribute we pay to it—a point made by a number of those who have spoken in this House—we privilege the shouters in the corner of the room. One great virtue of your Lordships’ House is that, in our careful scrutiny of legislation, we listen to the people who are not the noisy shouters on social media in the corner of the room. It is a vital part of parliamentary democracy that we should listen to that majority who are not always on social media, who are not always shouting and who bring their petitions humbly to the door of Parliament, as they have done for centuries.

The UK’s constitutional and parliamentary democracy is not in as bad a condition as some have said. Of course, it is flawed, like any other institution, and of course it needs consideration. I argued at the start of my remarks that its character is defined by the conduct of its actors, and that is true also of the Civil Service. The noble Baroness, Lady Stuart of Edgbaston, in an important intervention, spoke of the role and duties of the Civil Service. The system must have the capacity to evolve and adapt in order to enable political actors to respond flexibly to the events of the day. But within this system—this was one of the abiding themes of today’s debate—a common set of principles must always underpin the standards expected of public officeholders. It is incumbent on us all to protect the good and to improve things where possible.

There was a distinction in today’s debate between those who believe, as I do, that ultimately, this must come from within us and must be supervised by parliamentary accountability; and those on the other side who said—this was set out in forthright terms by His Majesty’s Opposition—that parliamentarians can never be good enough and must be protected from themselves, and that we must lend responsibility for policing who we are, how we behave and how we perform our duties to unelected outside panjandrums who are accountable to nobody and known to nobody. Most people in this country could probably name a few politicians. I wonder if any could name a single member of the various bodies that exercise enormous power over Parliament and can make and break parliamentary careers. There are real questions of accountability if you are arguing that we should go forward towards statutory oversight of the activities of Parliament.

We are a representative democracy, and the composition of the elected Chamber reflects the will of the people as most recently expressed at the ballot box. All of us in this House need to remember that, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, reminded us. I will come back to the position of the people; the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, spoke powerfully and importantly on that subject. It is germane and underlies the whole debate.

Our parliamentary democracy is effective. I was very struck by the remarks of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on this subject in his thoughtful speech. It is effective because it is grounded in a deep constitutionalism born of civil war, conflict, tremendous conflict between the two Houses, a honing of the constitution and a set of constitutional practice which is deep and profound. Anyone who, for example, witnessed the Coronation will have had that sense of the depth of Britain’s great national experience and what we can and have taught the world, and can still lend to the world, with humility. This system, this deep constitutional system, is flexible and adaptable to the circumstances of the day. It allows for the development of policy and the passage of legislation under the careful and proper scrutiny of Parliament. I therefore reject the proposition, put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that we should frame a written constitution. I am also not greatly attracted to his proportional representation proposition: I think I have heard that one before. Whenever I hear PR mentioned, I always translate it, perhaps from my frailty, as “permanent representation” for the Liberal Democrats, whoever is in office.

We must examine ourselves with humility, self-criticism and so on, but we should not throw away the great strengths of the system we have—certainly not on a coalition deal, I say to the party opposite. I might think, looking at history, that we gave rather too much away in 2010, much as I enjoyed working with my Liberal Democrat colleagues in those days. I single out the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, who was the only one, before the wind-up on the other side, to mention local government, which is such a fundamental part of the warp and woof of democracy: it is the limbs underneath Parliament and is so important. His remarks on audit were important and well taken, and I will certainly reflect on them.

The noble Lord, Lord Sahota, was a bit critical of my noble friend Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. For my part, I welcome the fact that my noble friend has come to this House. I think it redounds to the credit of this House: it was certainly the practice of the Labour Government after nineteen-ninety-whenever it was.

A noble Lord:


Photo of Lord True Lord True Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

That terrible year; I remember it. It is good that there are senior Ministers in your Lordships’ House. We are part of Parliament and there is good accountability: my noble friend appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons only very recently. I hope other people share my view that having a statesman of such experience here is to the benefit of the House. There is parliamentary accountability.

The other great thread of the debate was questions of behaviour and standards. I am not going to go into the issues of the other place—that is effectively a matter for them. Obviously, in this House, noble Lords are required to sign up to the Code of Conduct, which ensures accountability to parliamentary standards and is enforced by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards. Members are required to comply with the behaviour code for Parliament. Sanctions can include suspension or expulsion from the House, and those procedures derive from resolutions of the House: they are subject to our judgment and our decisions, but they fall short of the kind of statutory approach the Opposition propose. By the way, I was interested to hear the noble Baroness commit the Labour Party to reform of your Lordships’ House in the first term; I am sure that will be examined quite widely.

Throughout this debate, noble Lords, beginning with the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, highlighted the important role that the Nolan principles, as articulated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, play in our political system. I agree that they are fundamental: they are what anybody who aspires to serve in any walk of life, not just politics, should live up to. The current Prime Minister stated in his first speech that his Government

“will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”, and that “integrity in public life matters”—it does, my Lords.

The Ministerial Code details the Prime Minister’s expectations of his Ministers, setting out that they are expected to maintain high standards. Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the code, and must be mindful of it in discharging their duties. The code, however, is the Prime Minister’s document; he is the ultimate judge of the behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences for a breach of standards. Ministers will remain in place only as long as they retain the confidence the Prime Minister. Again, that is where accountability lies in parliamentary democracy. If, as is asserted by some, you give enforcement of that to an unelected, unaccountable, largely unknown body, you may arrive at a point where the judgments of whether somebody or other should be a Minister of the Crown would be decided in a court of law. This would be an unthinkable route to go down.

I am very grateful for the kind remarks of my noble friend Lord Pickles, and his outstanding, persistent and patient work in pushing forward reform of ACOBA will, I hope, be fully and finally recognised. Last July, the Government published Strengthening Ethics and Integrity in Central Government. It was a wide-ranging programme of reform which responded to various reports, including the Boardman report and those from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. It will mark the introduction of stricter enforcement of the business appointment rules, with a clearer pathway towards sanctions, potentially including financial sanctions, for breaches. As my noble friend knows, that is very much actively under way.

We are increasing transparency and accountability in public appointments. We will be improving the quality and accessibility of departmental transparency releases, including an integrated database which will be put on GOV.UK for the first time. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others that its implementation is under way and proceeding quickly. The revised guidance will apply to all data from January 2024 onwards. We are also tightening up on compliance processes under the existing accounting officer Permanent Secretary system—all to shine more light on some of the recesses of government.

I do not have time to take up the point which my noble friend made, but it is one which has been alluded to so often that it is something we have to think about a lot more: the relationship between government and arm’s-length bodies. The process of finding effective accountability there, which has been so brutally illumined in recent weeks and months, is something that we must address and come back to. I will reflect on requests for further opportunities to discuss these matters, although obviously the upcoming Post Office legislation will enable some reflections in that narrow area.

The changes to which I have alluded come in addition to those made in 2022 to strengthen the Ministerial Code, which increased the independence, powers and status of the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and introduced an enhanced process for the independent adviser to initiate investigations, and new details on proportionate sanctions.

There were so many other important speeches made. I alluded earlier to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, who was absolutely right when she picked up on what my noble friend Lady Stowell said: the people must never be allowed to feel that the system does not belong to them. The parliamentary system does not belong to any passing elite, or people who may think they are elite, who wander in here. It belongs to those whom we serve. I also agreed with what my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford said about the importance of Select Committees in your Lordships’ House. We must work to strengthen their effectiveness. Since I have been Leader, and my noble friend Lady Williams has been Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, we have worked much harder to bring committee debates to the Floor of your Lordships’ House and I hope very much that that will continue.

Nothing is perfect, not least my timing. I fear that I probably wandered too widely at the start of the debate, but I assure your Lordships that I will study it very carefully. I wanted to come to this debate and hear what noble Lords said. I cannot undertake to respond to documents which are sent to someone else and I will not, unfortunately, be able to accommodate the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. My father taught me never to sign a blank cheque, so I am giving no undertaking I have not seen. But I will have a look at whatever document those people care to send to me.

It has been such a pleasure to have the privilege of responding to your Lordships. I thank all those who have taken part and I can assure noble Lords that I will carefully study Hansard in the days ahead.

Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Liberal Democrat 2:15, 11 January 2024

My Lords, I would like to thank all noble Lords for their contributions; they were thoughtful and intelligent. The sense I get from the debate is that we are all struggling in a world where the old ways no longer hold sway, trying to think our way through to making it work for everyone. I also sense that this House really cares about the state of parliamentary democracy and standards in public life—so thank you all.

Motion agreed.