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Lord Neill of Bladen: My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? It is a matter for the party leaders. To clarify the point, the three political appointments--Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour--are nominated by the parties.
I say again that I have absolutely no problem with an inquiry five years on into the arrangements established following the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. I regret that the inquiry is being conducted by a body outside the House; however, I take comfort from the assurances of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, that he will have full regard to the evidence that he receives. I hope that every noble Lord who has views to express will send them in as the noble Lord has asked.
I also acknowledge the assurances of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, that his committee is a wholly advisory one. Although technically he reports to the Prime Minister, his recommendations when they come are purely a matter for the House and not for the Prime Minister or the Government. I imagine, therefore, that in due course the recommendations will be subject to careful scrutiny by your Lordships--perhaps by a Select Committee established for the purpose.
I repeat that it would have been much better had the inquiry been conducted by a committee of the House. Such a committee could have been chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill; it could have included the noble Lords, Lord Shore and Lord Goodhart, and doubtless there would have been others. I repeat that I know of no noble Lord who has anything to hide, and I and my colleagues will, therefore, co-operate fully with the noble Lord's committee.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I speak as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Like the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, I must declare a direct pecuniary interest. I shall be paid for any day on which I sit as a member of the committee during the hearings on this matter. For that reason, if the matter comes to a vote, as I very much hope it will not, I shall not vote.
I believe that this issue has been blown up seriously out of proportion. I have a relatively short series of numbered points to make. First, the inquiry, as the noble Lord, Lord Neill, explained, is not proposed on the basis of any allegations of dishonourable conduct by any person in relation to the business of the House. Individual Members of the House have in the past acted dishonestly in matters of business or in their private life. Some, indeed, have gone to prison. No doubt that will happen again in the future. But there is no suggestion here of any institutional sleaze.
Secondly, it is absolutely clear that we are not acting on behalf of the Government or at the instigation of the Government. The member of the Labour Party who is its nominee on the Neill committee is the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney. I think it fair to say that, if anything, the noble Lord is rather more hostile to new Labour and the present Government than I am. Frankly, I resented the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, about the political views of our staff. I believe it was offensive to the staff to imply that they were unable to act in accordance with the traditions of political impartiality in the Civil Service. I believe that it is offensive also to members of the committee to suggest that we are liable to be hoodwinked by politically motivated staff.
Thirdly, there has been a change in the composition of this House which makes this an appropriate time to return to a review of the disclosure rules. All Members of the House are now here by choice--either by virtue of having accepted a nomination to a life peerage, or by virtue of having chosen to stand for election as a representative hereditary Peer. That raises the question: are the very wide distinctions between the
Fourthly, all members of the Neill committee are aware of the significant differences that still exist between this House and the other place. It is known to all of us that Members of this House are not paid a salary, and that younger Members--"younger" in this context is a relative term!--need to earn a living and can only attend part-time. Those factors are plainly relevant to any question of divestiture of interests by Front Bench spokesmen as well as to disclosure of interests.
The letter from Mr Kemp is not the only reason why this is an appropriate matter for investigation. Your Lordships may remember that at the beginning of February Mr Archie Norman, on his appointment as an Opposition Front Bench spokesman in the House of Commons, was required as a result of public pressure to resign from his directorships of Railtrack and Asda. This matter is not based simply on the issues raised by Mr Kemp.
Fifthly, the members of the Neill committee are also fully aware of the value of the expertise of Members of your Lordships' House in business, agriculture, science, medicine, law, the armed services and many other fields. It is clear, and accepted, that no rules should prevent those who know most about a subject from speaking on it.
I believe that the sixth point is an important one. All organisations benefit from being studied and reported on by an independent and objective external body. That is why we have Royal Commissions and inspectors of schools and prisons, although far be it from me to suggest that your Lordships' House has anything in common with either a school or prison. Internal reviews are not valueless, but undoubtedly external ones are much more useful. I do not believe that your Lordships' House should take a high and mighty line and say that any external audit of its rules is inappropriate.
Seventhly, the Neill committee is advisory only, as pointed out by both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, and the noble Lord, Lord Neill, himself. If we recommend changes it is entirely up to your Lordships' House whether to adopt, reject or amend them. In this context Bradlaugh v. Gossett is entirely irrelevant.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that your Lordships' House would be unable in practical terms to reject the advice of the Neill committee once it was given. That has not happened in the other place and I am not sure why it should happen here. It is illogical to say that your Lordships' House can reject the whole of this inquiry but cannot reject any one recommendation which results from it.
Eighthly, I do not believe that it is in the interests of your Lordships' House to refuse co-operation with the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We are, after all, one of the Houses of Parliament and are legislators. Our rules of conduct are a matter of legitimate public interest. We simply cannot say that
As a member of both your Lordships' House and the Neill committee I shall not support any proposal that I believe damages the role of this Chamber as one of the Houses of Parliament. I believe that all my colleagues on the Neill committee share that view. We are an independent and objective body in so far as any group of human beings can be objective.
Lord Rees-Mogg: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord as a member of the Neill committee whether he agrees with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, that the committee is neither a statutory nor prerogative body? If so, can he tell the House what he thinks the Neill committee is?
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, we are not a statutory body. That fact is well known. However, the costs are paid out of the Consolidated Fund and we are operating, it seems to me therefore, by virtue of a prerogative. But that does not mean that we are acting on behalf of the Government.
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I am one of those who believes that the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, has rendered a considerable service by raising this issue and by the important speech he made tonight. The noble Lord made clear that there are two issues, which should be kept separate. The first concerns the kind of regime we should have to control our conduct; the second is the constitutional issue which he described.
We have heard how, in 1994, the Prime Minister of the day, John Major, on his own initiative responded to a crisis created by a handful of individuals by setting up the Committee on Standards in Public Life. In the circumstances that prevailed at the time, it is not surprising that Parliament went along with the Prime Minister's decision. What is perhaps a little more surprising is that five and a half years later even those who feel deeply anxious that Parliament's control and scrutiny of the executive are so often feeble and ineffective should feel content that the committee should still be in existence and continually extending its activities, despite its lack of statutory authority.
In a letter to The Times on 12th April, the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen--unwisely in my view--dismissed the article by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, as "eccentric and essentially misguided" but failed to address effectively the central part of the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg. The noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, justifies the activities of his committee--he did so tonight--by referring to the terms of reference of the committee when it was set up in 1994. Those terms were established by the Prime Minister but not by Parliament. The fact that the other place, in the circumstances in which it found itself in 1994, accepted what the Prime Minister had decided does not provide a sound argument for this House casually to surrender its exclusive right to initiate procedures and impose discipline within these walls
I am not a lawyer and the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, is a very distinguished lawyer, but as a parliamentarian I find it strange--dare I say even eccentric--that he should think it whimsical for the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, to have cited what William Blackstone wrote in 1765,
Neither the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, nor anyone else could argue that there should be a ban on any public discussion of matters concerning either House of Parliament. There is, however, all the difference in the world between general public discussion about our affairs and the launching of a formal inquiry by this committee as a result of which we are to be questioned and proposals to be made about how we should conduct ourselves. It may be that the other place has, by the manner in which it reacted to John Major's initiative, given its consent for the committee to pursue its activities in that House; but this House has not given that consent. Instead, in 1994 it set up its own committee under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, to produce recommendations which it subsequently debated and substantially accepted.
It has been suggested tonight by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, that once the committee has functioned we would be able to choose what to do with the report. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, volunteered that we might be able to throw it into the Thames if we wished. That comment ignores the constitutional point that if we are to maintain control of our own affairs it should be this House and not any outside committee that decides whether a procedure should begin and the manner in which it should be conducted. It also ignores the reality referred to by my noble friend Lord Cranborne that our freedom to reject the committee's proposals would be severely circumscribed simply because the committee has a grand name and is believed to have a great authority, whatever its origins and however
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, argued that it was right to be better informed. That would be fine if we had initiated the actions which sought the wisdom and advice that he suggests we should have. But I do not see that it is necessarily a good thing that we should have to accept what is given to us uninvited.
In his letter to The Times, the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, having put on one side Blackstone, Coleridge, Ellenborough and a good deal of our constitutional history, was then rash enough to turn his attention to the Cecils and quoted words by my noble friend Lord Cranborne as giving proof of the authority his committee possessed. It seemed to me that my noble friend knocked that argument on its head pretty effectively in his letter to The Times on 13th April and indeed by his intervention in the House again tonight confirming that from the outset he had,
The noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, described the history in some detail tonight. I fully accept his account. The issue is not what has happened, but whether it should have happened. I do not believe that it should have happened in this way. What ought to happen now is that this House should decide itself to review the Griffiths arrangements and should set up an appropriate committee. The amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, if passed, would give the Neill committee some limited authority without dealing with the essential criticisms that have been made. Because those criticisms have such constitutional significance--because as the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, himself said, he is anxious that it ought not to be a party matter--I hope that the rumours I have heard that there is effectively, if not in terms of black lines on a piece of paper, a Whip on the other side and that Members of the executive are being marshalled to vote are untrue. It would be very unfortunate. I believe that this is an issue that should not be pushed through by the executive. If ever there was an issue that should be left to individual Members of this House, this is it. I hope that we shall hear from the Front Bench opposite before the end of this debate that my suspicions and the rumours I have heard are totally without foundation.
I turn now to the kind of regime that we might have. I believe that we need to learn some lessons from what has happened in the other place. I fear that, to an extent that has not yet been sufficiently recognised, any good that the committee has achieved as a consequence of its recommendations may have been exceeded by the harm that it has generated in accelerating a move towards a House in which knowledge and experience derived from outside occupations are in increasingly short supply.
I have served for about 30 years in Parliament and was for a time a Member of the Select Committee on Members' interests in the other place. During most of my time as an MP there were large numbers of Members who had occupations outside Parliament and whose contributions were all the more effective because of the experience that they brought to debates. I fear that the regime that is now in place discourages such membership and inhibits such contributions. Furthermore, it seems to me that niggling supervision by an appointed official, and the demand that details of the minutiae of fees for articles, lectures and invitations to sporting and other events should be all recorded, adds little to the integrity of the House, but detracts from its dignity and effectiveness. We need to avoid going down that road.
Even the Griffiths recommendations have thrown up some pretty strange anomalies. It seems odd that for 11 years, as a director of ABP, I was able to declare an interest and contribute to debates. The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, was kind enough generously to praise one of those speeches. But now, because I have a modest consultancy so that I can continue to give advice to the company on a range of issues, I could not make the speeches that I have made in the past. Oddly, the rule in the other place is less restrictive and would give me greater freedom.
I make the point only as an illustration of the difficulties that we are likely to get into if our proceedings are controlled with a legalistic framework. I am absolutely clear that by far the best way to proceed is on the basis that we declare interests and leave it to our colleagues to judge the value of our contribution in the light of that declaration. On the whole, this House is excessively punctilious about declaring interests, but that is a fault on the right side.
Whatever may have been true in the past, it cannot now be asserted that wealth, business interests and influence exerted through professional elites are confined to these Benches, a fact brilliantly brought out in the Channel 4 programme last Sunday.
I have no desire to probe the precise details of the earnings and business affairs of the rich and very successful noble Lords I see on the Benches opposite me. I am confident that they will declare interests when they are relevant and then I shall listen with even greater respect, reassured that they actually know what they are talking about.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life was set up for a particular purpose in the wake of a particular scandal at a particular moment in time. Like Frankenstein's monster, it has grown. It is now time seriously to consider whether it should be allowed to continue its activities. I say, "Halt", and let us rely on those well-tested conventions that have served us well in the past.
Lord Grabiner: My Lords, the resolution which is proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, reflects the piece that he wrote in The Times on 10th April. I want to refer to that article in the course of my remarks.
There are two limbs to the resolution. The primary limb is to the effect that the House asserts its responsibility for the conduct of its own affairs. This is an uncontroversial proposition. Indeed, it is a statement of the obvious. I do not believe that any Member of this House could possibly disagree with it. Nor do I believe that one needs recourse to Messrs Blackstone or Bradlaugh for that very basic proposition.
There is an explicit concession in the second limb that the time has come for the matter to be looked at. Again, I suspect that many noble Lords on all sides of the House would agree with that. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, certainly agreed with it earlier, although I gained the impression from the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that he would have no inquiry of any kind whatever.
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