HL Deb 04 May 2000 vol 612 cc1123-5

3.12 p.m.

Lord St John of Fawsley

asked the Leader of the House:

What action she has taken in relation to the proposed inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life into standards of conduct in the House of Lords.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will not regard the following Answer as a rather mundane list of activities.

Following an initial approach from the noble Lord, Lord Neill, about his plans to fulfil the long-standing commitment to undertake this inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, I welcomed that approach and the inquiry; a welcome, I am glad to say, that was echoed by the Leaders of the Opposition parties when the noble Lord, Lord Neill, approached them.

I have also consulted the House authorities on procedural matters, as I informed the House I would do on 13th March. The advice I have received has confirmed that there is no formal action that I could or should take at this stage. Informally, I have held discussions with colleagues on these Benches. I have also this week held a very useful meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Rodgers.

Lord St John of Fawsley

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal for that comprehensive reply. Can the noble Baroness allow herself to bring in the Procedure Committee in some way which is fully in accordance with precedent? Can she confirm that when these matters come to be decided the decision will be taken by the House as a whole, it is to be hoped free from the imposition of any whips, pressures from the noble Baroness, my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, or for that matter the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, and his Committee on Standards in Public Life?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am happy to confirm that once the Neill Committee has reported there will be responsibility to consider any report or recommendation that he and his committee may make and to act upon it in any way the House wishes. At that time I will do everything I can to facilitate the House's consideration of the committee's report, whatever form such consideration takes. Once that moment is reached, it will be a question for discussion in detail by the usual channels.

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords, what form will this discussion take? Shall we all be interviewed individually about our past? Some of us have held commissions in the Army. I believe that it could be a terrible waste of money and effort. If anyone is worthy of being interviewed—mine has been an ordinary life—I am among the first to be willing to be interviewed; but what is the purpose of it all?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the purpose of it all was well set out in the original work done in 1994 when the original committee was set up under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan. The noble Lord, Lord Neill, has now succeeded to chairmanship of that committee. I understand that some of the detailed questions would more properly be put to the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, and his colleagues. However, I am sure that the noble Duke is aware that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, has circulated already a programme of the way in which he intends to conduct the inquiry. He has invited every Member of your Lordships' House, if they so wish, to submit written evidence to him. I also understand from the informal discussions I have had with the noble Lord that he will invite some Members of your Lordships' House to give oral evidence if they wish to do so. There is no obligation on anyone to take part.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I speak as someone who is as sensitive as anyone to the rights and privileges of your Lordships' House. (I am still somewhat amazed that I am a Member of it, but that is by the way.) While asserting that we have the final say in the way in which we conduct our affairs, is it not wholly reasonable to ask the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee to be the body which considers these matters? That still leaves us able to choose what we do including, I assume, asking the Procedure Committee to consider the matter after the committee has reported.

It seems to me—am I not right?—that what we propose is the right way forward. We should not be fussing about the issue as long as we can decide what we want to do, as the Minister confirms.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am happy to confirm again what my noble friend says. It will be up to the House to decide what it wishes to do with any report or recommendations that the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, makes. I agree with my noble friend that that seems a sensible way to proceed.

I correct him marginally on one point. This is not done by invitation. It is a committee entirely independent of both Houses of Parliament. It was set up in precisely that way in the mid-1990s.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, is it not right that the House should not be too touchy about this matter? We pride ourselves on being one of the two Houses of Parliament. The House has had a certain measure of reform. Individual Members of the House can deal with the Neill Committee in the way they choose. As the Minister said, the House will decide. If we are too touchy about the matter will it not suggest that we have something to hide? Does the noble Baroness agree that if we have nothing to hide we should be as open as we possibly can?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, if the noble Lord invites me to make a political judgment, which is slightly different from my position as Leader of the House in attempting to facilitate, I hope, the sensible workings of this particular investigation, I wholly agree with him. Over the past year this House of Parliament has spent many hours asserting the importance of its role and, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is keen to remind us on occasions, its improved legitimacy. It is right that we should be as transparent as possible about the way in which we conduct our individual and collective business. I agree with the noble Lord if he asks me to make that judgment.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, does the noble Baroness now regret her failure to make an oral Statement to this House to announce the inquiry under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Neill? Would that not have dealt with a good number of concerns raised outside this Chamber? Further, does the Leader of the House agree that significant differences exist between this House and the other place and that any inquiry should recognise those from the very start?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am very happy to agree with the second point just made by the Leader of the Opposition. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, readily appreciates that the membership of the House of Lords is very different from that of the other place. As to the noble Lord's first question, I have no regrets. This committee operates independently. As the noble Lord knows full well, at the beginning we had some concern that the arrangement agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, that this procedure should be announced by way of Question for Written Answer was overtaken by a leak in a newspaper. I have no regrets that it was done in the way that it was, although I was unhappy that it was precipitated by outside intervention.