Labour donors in one visit to Lords since peerage

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Indy Politics

Three of the 12 Labour donors given peerages by Tony Blair have spoken in the House of Lords just once, attendance figures showed yesterday.

Meanwhile, Lord Neill of Bladen, the Government's standards watchdog, acknowledged concern about honours for party donors and supported calls for an inquiry into the honours system.

Lord Neill made his comments as he launched an inquiry into a new code of conduct and compulsory register of members' interests for the House of Lords. Responding to criticism over the granting of a peerage to the Tory treasurer, Michael Ashcroft, he said the honours system could be the subject of a future inquiry.

"I think there is an argument for having it on the agenda of possible topics we could look at one day," he said. "You could certainly have a level of public anxiety where this committee might be interested in looking at it."

Some of Tony Blair's most high-profile donors and fund-raisers were among the peers who had contributed only by making a maiden speech, new attendance figures showed.

Lord Levy, who ran the Prime Minister's blind trust before the 1997 election and who acts as his special envoy to the Middle East, made just one speech in the Lords in December 1997. Last year, he attended 60 daily sittings but voted in just 18.

Lord Haskins, the chairman of Northern Foods and a principal donor to Labour, was included in the Queen's birthday honours in June 1998 but did not speak until May 1999. Last year, he attended on nine occasions and voted four times. Lord Gavron, another important Labour donor ennobled in June 1999, has spoken just once and each attended four times before the end of the session in November 1999. Lord Gavron's assistant said he now attended daily.

Other Labour peers have attended more regularly. The film-maker Lord Puttnam attended 114 times and voted 51 times last year while the broadcaster Lord Bragg attended to vote 115 times but appeared in the chamber just 69 times. Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Science minister, contributed more than 500 times.

By contrast, the 11 former Labour MPs who became peers in August 1997 attended an average of 130 sessions each last year. They spoke or contributed 38 times on average while the donors and funders spoke eight times.

One former MP, Lord Hardy of Wath, attended 144 sittings out of 154 and spoke, intervened or questioned a minister 120 times.

Some former MPs admitted that there were differences between the two groups of peers. Lord Davies of Oldham, formerly Labour's education spokesman, said many new peers had careers elsewhere. "It is well nigh impossible to be serious in the Lords and full-time elsewhere. The Lords is a very demanding place," he said.

At the launch of his current inquiry yesterday, Lord Neill announced that he would be standing down as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life when his current three-year term expired in October. Several other members of the committee would also leave at the same time.

The House of Lords inquiry will look at the registration and declaration of interests, a code of conduct, parliamentary consultancies and lobbying, disciplinary procedures and penalties for breaking the rules.