HL Deb 13 March 2000 vol 610 cc1285-7

3.7 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I wonder whether the Leader of the House can set my mind at rest about a matter which seems to me to reflect directly on the right of the House to regulate its own affairs. I caught the end of a news story this morning which seemed to indicate that the matter of a register of interests would be referred for investigation by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee on standards in public life. I also understand that this matter is the subject of a Written Answer today which I have not had the privilege of seeing. Can the Leader of the House reaffirm that whether a reference is made is a matter for a decision by the whole House? As I remember it, the agreement was that before that reference is made the matter should be referred to the Procedure Committee?

Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness, first, whether she believes that it is appropriate to refer to the matter by means of an announcement to the press. If it was not an announcement to the press, how did the matter come to be leaked? Secondly, does she believe that it was appropriate for the matter to be referred to by means of a Written Answer? Thirdly, has the matter been discussed at all by the Procedure Committee? Fourthly, does the noble Baroness intend to refer the matter to the Procedure Committee and then to refer any report that may result from its discussion to a decision of your Lordships' House before it is referred to the Committee on Standards in Public Life? I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the decision on how your Lordships' affairs should be addressed must rest unequivocally with your Lordships and with no one else.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it may be helpful if I speak to one or two matters at this stage. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cranborne for raising this matter. It is an issue of great importance which lies at the heart of the sovereignty of this House of Parliament. It is an issue which, I must admit, I missed. I received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, in the middle of last week informing me that he was to undertake an investigation of this House. I replied almost immediately pledging the co-operation of the official Opposition in any inquiry that he makes.

My noble friend has raised a far more important issue; namely, how it is that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, is conducting the inquiry without reference to this House. Has the noble Baroness the Leader of the House had discussions with either the Clerk of the Parliaments or the Chairman of Committees in order to ensure that the proper procedures have been followed? I have it in mind that when the issue was raised previously it was dealt with by another Member of this House, the distinguished noble and learned Lord, Lord Griffiths, who set up his inquiry on the advice of the Procedure Committee, which was approved by this House. The report was ultimately approved by the House and was put into effect.

I should also like to take up the matter of the Written Question. I understand that there is an article in today's Independent. I failed to see it; however, I did catch the tail-end of a news report on the radio this morning. I am sure that the Government had nothing to do with it. I suspect that this slipped out of the committee of inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, rather than this House. Is a written statement really the best way to proceed on this matter? Would it not have been much better for the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to come to the House to make an oral Statement so that it could be discussed and debated?

This provides me with an opportunity to ask the noble Baroness for a debate before this matter goes much further—or at least for the matter to be referred to the Chairman of Committees, who would no doubt decide which was the best committee to discuss the issue.

Will the noble Baroness also confirm—she may not know the answer now—that my noble friend Lord Cranborne is right in saying that, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Neill, reports on, it will be up to this House to decide how best to proceed?

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the points that they have raised. Like them, I was surprised by what I heard on the BBC this morning. I have not read the article in the Independent to which the noble Lord referred. I understand that it was indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, at a much earlier stage in his proceedings that he was planning to examine the arrangements in this House in much the same way as he had done in relation to another place. At that stage, it was agreed that the understanding was that that was appropriate.

Like the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, I received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Neill, indicating that this was the next stage of his inquiry into the affairs of Parliament. I replied, indicating the Government's ready acquiescence in such an inquiry. The practices that the noble Lord suggests should be followed are ones which we on these Benches have for some time encouraged Members of this House to follow voluntarily.

At that stage I also suggested, in replying to the noble Lord, Lord Neill, that it was obviously appropriate—and I am sure that he had already done so—to consult the noble Lord and other Members of this House about proceeding with this matter. If some more formal procedure should be undertaken based on precedent, as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, has indicated, I am willing to look into that and to take the matter further in any way that is appropriate. The activities of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee are completely independent of the Government. I thought that he had made the appropriate consultative arrangements with other leading Members of this House as he did with me. As I say, if the noble Viscount says that on the basis of precedent some other proceedings should be followed, I am extremely willing to look into that and to discuss it with both the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and other leading Members of the House.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as one who ought to know more about this than I do, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness to remind us whence spring the powers of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, to investigate this House. Assuming that they have been granted by this House already, it seems that the difficulty is a small one. If they have not, surely it is not appropriate for the noble Lord, Lord Neill, to approach either the Government or the Opposition; it is the House as a whole that has to be approached. That can be done only by one of the committees nominated for the purpose or by a Statement and debate in the House.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, my informal understanding is that the noble Lord's original proposition is correct. If on consultation with the House authorities I am proved wrong, I shall of course make sure that that procedure is followed, as I indicated in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.

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