HL Deb 09 December 1999 vol 607 cc1383-5

3.13 p.m.

The Earl of Liverpool

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What purpose ministerial blind trusts serve.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the Ministerial Code makes it clear that Ministers must avoid any danger of an actual or apparent conflict of interest between their ministerial position and their private financial interests. Placing investments in a blind trust is one option available to Ministers to avoid any conflict of interest.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, I am grateful, as I am sure is the whole House, to the noble and learned Lord for answering this Question. But I confess to being slightly disappointed that the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal, who I am pleased to see is in her place today, does not feel able to answer it because, after all, she was one of the three trustees of the Prime Minister's Office blind trust.

Does the noble and learned Lord consider it appropriate or, indeed, desirable that a past trustee member of the Prime Minister's Office trust fund should be on the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee which, among other things, will play a large part in deciding who shall become a Member of this House and sit and vote here?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, first, I apologise for not being my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal. As the Question was first drafted, it related to the Ministerial Code, which is a matter for which the Cabinet Office has particular responsibility. Therefore, it seemed appropriate for the Cabinet Office rather than my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal to deal with it. There is nothing odd about the fact that I am answering the Question rather than my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal.

The noble Earl asked whether it is appropriate that a trustee of a blind trust should be on the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee. The person to whom the noble Earl refers is somebody of the highest integrity. There is nothing that that person knows that is not also known to every other member of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee because, as the noble Earl will know, when a name is put forward to that committee, it is incumbent on the Chief Whip of the relevant party to describe in detail any contributions which have been made by the individual to any political party, including any contribution to such a trust.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the general public has very little knowledge of trusts at all and even less knowledge of blind trusts which are part of quite a technical procedure. I cannot claim to be any authority on them myself. Will he tell the House how blind is a blind trust? I have read reports in the press that people can have their neighbours, close friends or family making decisions for them. How satisfied is the Minister that people putting their affairs into blind trusts are completely detached from those trusts?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the Question relates to ministerial blind trusts. They mean that a Minister's interests are placed in the hands of trustees. The trustees then deal with the portfolio as they see fit without the Minister being informed about what happens in relation to the assets in the blind trust. The intention is that the Minister then does not know what is happening to his assets. A blind trust set up in that way shields the Minister from what is happening in relation to his assets. If set up appropriately, the trust is completely blind.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if one is a Minister and one is going to set up a blind trust, can one have one's wife, mother or son as trustees?

Lord Falconer of Thornton

My Lords, as the noble Earl will know, the arrangements must be such that they genuinely blind you from what is going on in relation to the trust.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the Minister consider that his success with the Dome means that he may yet end up as Leader of the House? As he will know, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, as a trustee of the Labour Leader's Office fund, which was a blind trust, I gather, broke the confidentiality of the fund to make it clear that Mr Geoffrey Robinson was not a contributor. Will the Minister go further and say whether any Member of either House was a contributor to that or any of the other blind trusts which existed before the election? Indeed, would it not be in the interests of openness and freedom of information for the names of all those who have contributed to blind trusts now to be made public?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the reference which the noble Lord made is not to a ministerial blind trust but to the blind trust in relation to the then Leader of the Opposition's Office. The reason for the blind trust in that case is completely different from the reason which I identified previously; namely, that the contributors should not be known to the Leader of the Opposition. That has now been wound up. In exceptional circumstances, my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal identified one contributor. That seems to me entirely appropriate and it seems to me equally appropriate that any contributions which have been made to Conservative Party funds should be made fully and frankly available.