HL Deb 26 March 1969 vol 300 cc1289-94

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I should like to repeat to your Lordships a Statement that has been made by the Prime Minister in another place. It is as follows:

"The House will recall that on 4th March I was asked by my honourable friend the Member for West Fife 'Whether in view of the increasing number of honourable Members being remunerated by outside bodies, he will re-examine the desirability of legislation to establish a public register of such interests.' I said that the Government were continuing to watch the position and in answers to Questions by the right honourable and learned gentleman the Member for East Hertfordshire referred to the disparity between the treatment, so far as this House is concerned, of honourable Members who are required by long-established practice to declare their interest, and others who are not so required.

"I should now like to tell the House the results of the Government's examination of the issues raised.

"As I have more than once suggested there are two separate issues here.

"The first is the position of Members of Parliament who by virtue of some paid connection with an outside interest, be it domestic or overseas, are involved in matters which are the concern of Parliament and of Government. As I indicated in reply to my honourable friend, it is important that the position of such Members should be made clear in all matters which affect their responsibilities to the House and to their Parliamentary colleagues.

"This is an issue for Parliament. After consultations with the Opposition Parties, the Government have therefore decided to recommend the House to set up a Select Committee to consider the rules and practices of the House in relation to the declaration of Members' interests and to report. The form of the Select Committee will be discussed through the usual channels. This relates only to the House of Commons, but I understand that my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal will be having discussions on parallel action that might be taken in another place.

"There is however a second issue about which there is considerable public concern, and concern in this House.

This relates to the operation of public relations and other organisations holding an account or a commission on behalf of an overseas Government, or an overseas political interest. The activities of some of these organisations have been mentioned in this House on a number of occasions, and there is concern about their activities, whether or not they employ on any basis individual Members of this House. What is important is that Parliament, and the public, should know when activities of this kind are being conducted. Many of these organisations do valuable work in informing Parliament and the public: the danger occurs when it is not done in an open way. There is increasing evidence that some of these organisations are concerned with operating outside Parliament as well as on Parliament and on the Government. Again the public has a right to know.

"Equally, it is right that the House should be aware of the problems associated with the administration of any scheme designed to bring these activities into the open. The House will be concerned to ensure that whatever is finally decided reflects a fair balance between protection of Parliament and the public, on the one hand, and free and legitimate expression of opinion, on the other.

"The Government have given urgent consideration to this question, including the possibility of legislation requiring registration. I now propose to initiate discussions with the Opposition Parties to see how far agreement can be reached on the best way of proceeding."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, much of which does not directly concern us in this House at all, although I thought it would be advantageous for the House to hear it. Since the Statement clearly bears on Parliament as a whole. I should like to add a few words in regard to your Lordships' House.

Clearly, if in another place they are going to give consideration to the question of declaration of interest—and this is the subject dealt with in the first part of the Prime Minister's Statement—it is for consideration whether we should mount a similar exercise. My impression is that we interpret the rules on declaration of interest somewhat more widely in this House than they do in another place, but it may well be that some further guidance would be helpful. I have already had a preliminary discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and I would now propose to have further discussions with them and other noble Lords. It is for consideration whether it would be desirable for us to set up a Select Committee of our own in this matter, though if we do decide to do so it may be thought better to defer the appointment of such a Committee until the Commons have got further with their own inquiry.

Although this is obviously, so far as this House is concerned, a matter for your Lordships, none the less it seems to be an area where it is obviously at least desirable for both Houses to keep broadly in step, though I emphasise again that our privileges are our responsibility. In any event, following the consultations I would certainly intend to report our views to the House; and, obviously, if it is decided to recommend the setting up of a Select Committee this will require the approval of the House, as of course would any Report made by such a Committee. I hope the House will approve the approach we have adopted and the way I have suggested that this matter should be handled.

So far as the second part of the Prime Minister's Statement, which deals with overseas interests, is concerned, I do not think we need take any initiatives ourselves at this stage pending the outcome of the further Government consideration and the discussions referred to in the main Statement, but I shall naturally be very ready to discuss this also in the course of the consultations that I am proposing to have with other noble Lords.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, I should have thought that the procedure outlined by the noble Lord the Leader of the House was perfectly satisfactory, and that your Lordships would agree. I must say I also agree with him that this is a matter entirely for your Lordships' House. It has nothing whatever to do with the House of Commons, nothing whatever to do with the Government and nothing whatever to do with the Opposition. It is for your Lordships to decide about your own privileges. But, my Lords, I should have thought that it might be wise to wait and see what the Select Committee of the House of Commons report before we do anything ourselves, because we could then read what they had said and decide among ourselves whether or not it was applicable to this House. I feel that to have two Select Committees sitting at once would not be very sensible, but no doubt these views will be taken into consideration, and the noble Lord the Leader of the House will let us know what has been decided.


My Lords, I too should like to endorse the proposals which have been made by the noble Lord the Leader of the House and to support what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has said. There are definitely two separate issues here. The question of a declaration of interest must be one for each House acting for itself; but when we come to the second part of the Statement, which is the operation of organisations holding a commission or a brief from overseas interests, this is surely a matter which affects Parliament as a whole—and, indeed, goes even wider. I wonder whether the noble Lord would perhaps consider this a fit subject for consideration by a Joint Committee of both Houses, rather than leaving it to one.


My Lords, perhaps I could comment on what the noble Lords have said, and I am grateful to them. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Lord, Lord Byers, in their general approach. I think it is for consideration whether we may not be wise to have a Select Committee actually in being. We do not quite know what may start developing in another place, and it may well be that there could be useful communication at some point. But certainly at the moment I am less inclined to set one up now, before the House of Commons Select Committee have reported, though I think this is a matter to which we could give some further consideration. As I have said, if it was felt that a Committee should be set up this House would obviously have to approve it, and there- fore would have an opportunity to debate it. It might well be that one might set up a Committee and have it in being, and that it might then choose to suspend any work it was doing until a later stage.

On the second point made by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, about whether there should be a Joint Select Committee, there is not, as I understand it, any proposal at the moment that the question of outside interest, foreign interest, should necessarily be dealt with by a Select Committee at all. It is a matter for general discussion, and in the end the Government will probably have to make tip their mind whether to introduce legislation or in what other way it is appropriate to proceed. It is not, as I made clear, primarily directed so much at Parliament as to those who are operating in these activities, and may be operating on the Press or on any other body. The suggestion is that it is desirable that when such operations are going on everybody should know that they are on. But, as I said, I would also be willing to discuss this aspect further with the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, though I do not think we can get very much further until the Government have carried their own consultations further on the second part.


My Lords, I very much hope that Her Majesty's Government will bear in mind the special tradition of this House in which noble Lords speak upon their honour.


My Lords, this has always been implicit in our operations in this House. I have no reason myself to think that any Member of your Lordships' House at any time speaks in any other way.