Peers agree to set up register of interests

Lords debate: Move to head off more stringent proposals by Nolan
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The House of Lords last night acted to bolster its principle that peers should not "sell parliamentary influence" and agreed to set up a register of relevant interests.

Encapsulating the feeling in all parts of the House, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead said: "The place for practising paid advocacy is the court, not the legislature. Here members should speak according to their views and not according to their fees."

Though no leading peers spoke against a register, it was acknowledged that not all are happy with the idea and would prefer to rely solely on members' honour not to abuse their privileges.

Lord Jenkins, leader of the Liberal Democrat peers, however, observed that honour ought to be like conscience - a still small voice. "If it is talked about too much it becomes at once pretentious and suspect."

Pressing for a register to be in place more or less from the beginning of the new parliamentary session on 15 November, he added: "If there are lords who regard this as rather nasty medicine to swallow, on the whole nasty medicine is best swallowed fast."

Peers will have to register arrangements, such as consultancies, where they are paid or rewarded for providing parliamentary advice or services, and any financial interest in a business involved in parliamentary lobbying. Any failure to register would be considered by a sub-committee of the Lords Committee of Privileges. There are no powers to suspend or expel peers but it is reckoned a public report to the House would be shame enough.

Since it is essentially an "amateur" chamber - backbench peers are paid only an attendance allowance - there will be no requirement to list general sources of income. Nor would, say, a professional engineer be barred from speaking on engineering matters.

As Viscount Cranborne, Leader of the House, put it: "It would be absurd if the only members able to speak on a particular subject were those without any involvement in it." Many life peers are created precisely because of the expertise they bring to the House.

The register was the central recommendation of a sub-committee under Lord Griffiths, a retired law lord. Peers hope it will head off any more stringent proposal when Lord Nolan and his committee on standards in public life turn their gaze on the Upper House next year. Lord Nolan attended the debate but did not speak. Lord Griffiths said there was nothing to prevent a peer being a parliamentary adviser, giving helpful advice on the workings of the House and the best approach if it was considering something of interest to the client.

"But he ought not, if he accepts such a position, play any part in furthering the interests of that organisation. If he does, he will be perceived by the public outside as selling his voice and, worse still, selling his vote." Lord Cranborne waxed fondly about the House as a place with few rules which relied on courtesy. His instinct was to keep the simplicity of the status quo, where peers were expected to declare interests before speaking.

"However, in the present climate, this is simply no longer a sustainable option," he said, urging peers to accept the Griffiths recommendations.

"It is clear that Members of both Houses will increasingly be expected to demonstrate to the public at large that they are not abusing their positions."

Lord Richard, Leader of the Labour peers, said the public perception of politicians, particularly of MPs, seemed to be at an almost all-time low and he did not think it would be enhanced by Tories rejecting Lord Nolan's recommendation of disclosure of outside earnings.

Former Commons Speaker Lord Weatherill said the introduction of a register was regrettable but essential. However he did not detect the same cynicism about the Lords as there was about the Commons.

"My suspicion is that we are held in quite high esteem. This may be because we are not paid, but come to Parliament for motives of service," Lord Weatherill said. "We are able to speak from personal experience and are perceived by members of the public to be more in touch with the real world than the professional politicians in the Commons."

Lord Jenkins, airing his own distaste for politics becoming "a tight little occupation", said he believed MPs should be engaged in reputable outside activities. "The major danger is that of a further professionalism of politics," he said. The only skills learnt by those who climbed the ladder from research assistant tended to be political manipulation. "The products of the new system feel entitled to a standard of living higher than a parliamentary salary is ever likely to provide. But they have precious little to sell, except for their knowledge of the processes of Parliament."