Now it is the Lords' turn to put their House in order

'Several named peers have failed not only to register interests but to declare them in debates'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It says something about the membership of the House of Lords that many of them believe quite passionately that Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life should never have embarked upon the report that it will publish on the conduct of the upper house today.

It says something about the membership of the House of Lords that many of them believe quite passionately that Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life should never have embarked upon the report that it will publish on the conduct of the upper house today.

The committee was summoned into being by John Major in 1994 at the high-water mark of parliamentary and ministerial sleaze under the last government. But since its first report, the Committee has widened its scope to cover local quangos, local councils and the funding of political parties. The idea that the House of Lords should somehow be protected from Lord Neill's attentions testifies to an extraordinary faith in the doctrine of noblesse oblige.

In fact, publication could hardly be more timely. For it's a long time since the Lords has mattered as much as it does just now. A total of nine bills have been backing up in the second chamber - to the intense frustration of government ministers trying to complete their programme by the end of the session. And because the Government does not command a majority in the Lords, the real-world effect of their lordships' deliberations are not in doubt. Not only has the Government been routinely defeated on amendments, but its Mode of Trial Bill has been lost, at least until after the election. If the Liberal Democrat peers can be persuaded to reverse their supine stance on the Freedom of Information Bill, ministers may yet have to accept a bill a little worthier of the name. And so on.

Partly, all this stems from a new robustness by the Tories, as the biggest single party in the Lords, bred directly from the abolition of the hereditary peers' right to vote. The Tory peers, very reasonably, have seized on the boasts made by the Government for its partial reforms to claim a new legitimacy. What the Tory peers have largely failed to see though, is that this modernisation of the Lords' role, however imperfect, confers with it a requirement to join the 21st century in other ways.

When Lord Neill publishes his sensible proposals for a more transparent regime covering peers' interests today, the Opposition will ritually welcome the report and agree to co-operate fully in the joint committee of the House that Baronness Jay, the Leader of the Lords, will duly announce. Deep down, however, there is no sign that the Opposition in the Lords has changed its mind since its leader, Lord Strathclyde, argued strongly in evidence to Neill that reform, other than in a few minor details, is unnecessary.

Lord Neill will propose substituting for the current, entirely voluntary - and therefore by many peers wholly ignored - register of interests, a mandatory one, which will cover "remunerated directorships, remunerated employment, shareholdings amounting to a controlling interest or other significant shareholdings, and substantial land holdings", together with "most offices held in voluntary organisations". It will cause more than a frisson through the judiciary by saying that the new register should cover all peers, including law lords and bishops.

It will not tamper with the existing self-regulatory machinery in the Lords by introducing an equivalent to the Commons Commissioner for Standards. It will deal elegantly with the fear that compulsory registration of interests might lead, as it arguably has in the Commons, to tit-for-tat accusations made for party advantage of malpractice - by proposing that a complainant should raise the issue privately with the putative offender before deciding whether to refer the complaint to the authorities.

But ignoring the complacent argument that the Lords' attachment to the concept of "honour" is so special that such regulation is unnecessary, Lord Neill makes it plain he believes that the Lords should be treated as other important public bodies. With masterly diplomacy, the report will say that it shares their lordships' respect for the principle of honour, but that it doubts that it is enough to maintain public confidence. "In our view," it will add, "it would be... highly desirable... if the House of Lords were to build on the foundation of honour."

The principal argument against change is that, as Lord Strathclyde put it in his evidence to Neill, that "a voluntary register, backed by expectation of declaration" (an expectation which covers non-pecuniary as well as pecuniary interests) is adequate. That this fails to do the intended job was demonstrated when more than two years ago, my colleague Fran Abrams reported that several named peers had failed not only to register interests, but to declare them in debates.

And it isn't that hard to find examples since then. In a debate on rural tourism in April this year, for example, Lord Mancroft, a Master of Foxhounds, and a director of the Countryside Alliance, who excuses his right not to register his interests, failed to declare an interest during a speech in which he dwelt at some length on the great importance of country sports to tourism. When I asked him about this yesterday, Lord Mancroft rather disarmingly said that he thought in retrospect he should have made a declaration. He pointed out that these interests were not pecuniary.

Baronness Byford, a Tory agriculture spokeswoman in the Lords, who scrupulously does voluntarily register her interests as a farmer and landowner, did not actually declare them during her Second Reading speech on the bill. But perhaps a more illustrative case was that of Lord Northbrook, who did not speak but tabled amendments to the bill. (Amendments do not carry an "expectation of declaration".) Entirely properly, he exercises his right not to register his interest as a substantial shareholder in Northbrook Farms.

These random examples do not remotely smack of malpractice, or even conflict with the rules, such as they are. Instead they illustrate, firstly, how easy it might be for less scrupulous peers than these to evade the current regime; and, secondly, that the Neill recommendations would at least allow the public, as well as their fellow peers, to know where the members of the Lords are coming from. Particularly, since it's well known that the Lords authorities do very little to encourage peers to use the voluntary register. Indeed, the Committee was told peers were not even told of the register when they were inducted.

One of the dottiest arguments against the careful regulatory proposals of Neill is that since the peers are not actually elected, their interests are none of the public's business. This argument is developed by senior Tories who say that any change to registration should await the creation of an elected element in the Lords - whenever that happens. If anything, the opposite is the case. The fact that peers, without even the mandate an election would give them, exercise a profound and growing influence on the body politic should make it even more necessary that their interests are transparent.

If, as is all too possible, his Tory peers dig in against the Neill Committee's proposals, it will be time, finally, for William Hague to take them on. A showdown with a backward-looking element of his party, wilfully insensitive to what is needed to rebuild trust in politicians, would do him nothing but good.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

Comments