Peers rebel over Neill's plan for code of conduct

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Indy Politics

Lord Neill of Bladen is facing a rebellion from fellow peers over plans to force them to abide by a strict code of conduct and register their business interests as MPs do.

The Government's standards watchdog has written to every member of the House of Lords to justify his position after senior figures from all parties objected to an inquiry, announced last month, into their affairs by his Committee on Standards in Public Life.

They say the committee has no constitutional right to dictate what happens in the Lords. Many also reject the idea of a new disciplinary system, which could see penalties imposed on peers who do not declare their outside jobs. At present peers have no code of conduct but are meant to "act always on their honour", and have only a voluntary register of interests.

Lord Cranborne, a Tory former leader of the Lords who is leading the opposition to Lord Neill's inquiry, said theLords should regulate itself without interference. "The Government will want to muddle the issues and try to make out that this is an attempt by fuddy duddy old Tory peers to try and prevent the forces of light from looking into murky corners," he said. "I don't think anybody is against re-examining this, but what people like me find difficult is the thought that a committee set up by Royal Prerogative should investigate a House of Parliament."

Peers from other parties backed Lord Cranborne's stance. Lord Stoddart of Swindon, a Labour peer and former frontbench energy spokesman, said he believed Lord Neill's inquiry was unconstitutional. "The Lords haven't asked for this to be done and I really don't see why Neill has decided to undertake an investigation," he said. "There are major differences between the House of Lords and the House of Commons and it is really a matter for the Lords to regulate itself."

Lord Richard, Labour leader of the Lords from 1992 to 1997, said he accepted the constitutional case for an inquiry but felt peers should have been consulted first. "At the moment the Lords have not had a say and they do not look like getting one," he said.

A senior Liberal Democrat peer, who did not want to be named, said there would also be divided views within his own party. "Some people will say the Commons is a totally different place. Many people here have to earn a living," he said.

In a letter to peers, Lord Neill said his remit was to examine concerns about the conduct of holders of public office, including members of Parliament. A written answer in 1995 from Lord Cranborne, then leader of the Lords, to Lord Richard, then his opposition counterpart, had conceded: "I have to conclude that your Lordships are indeed within the scope of the investigations of the committee."

Indeed, Lord Neill added, his predecessor Lord Nolan had intended to investigate the Lords in 1995 and had put off the inquiry only because a separate, internal discussion was taking place. "I should stress it will be entirely a matter for this House to decide whether to accept, reject or modify any of the recommendations. My committee has no legal powers of any sort and there is no question of challenging the sovereignty of the House to order its own affairs," Lord Neill wrote.