A rare chance for House of Lords reform

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A rare chance for House of Lords reform

In return for the lavish privileges bestowed upon them, Richard Heller calls on all Members of the House of Lords to be subject to a stricter rulebook, which includes the mandatory public disclosure of all their outside interests business interests. 

I know that there are many more important things to worry about.

Why is Putin winning the new Cold War?

How will this country escape the plagues of frogs, boils and locusts after Brexit?

Has Joe Root’s captaincy affected his batting?

However, the House of Lords is about to take a long look at its rule book. About time too: it’s in a shocking state. I hope and believe that the House will hold a public consultation about it. But let’s not wait to be asked. We, the people, are given no say in the choice of the peers who rule over us. But we can now take the chance to say how we expect them to behave.

Members of that House are given extraordinary privileges, unknown to almost any other legislature in the world. They can influence the law and public policy without being elected: some exercise power as ministers. They are not accountable to the general public, and even if they are party peers they are barely accountable to the party which appointed them. They can do as much or as little work in the place as they wish.

In exchange, they should be ready to accept very strict rules of conduct, both inside and outside the House. Unfortunately, the present rule book is full of loopholes, or simple bad drafting, which give far too much wriggle room for sleazy peers. Yes, I mean sleazy. There are now well over 800 peers and in a crowd that size there will inevitably be some who slice bread with a corkscrew and cannot be trusted with a child’s piggy bank.

The first thing the House should do in a new rule book is to provide for sanctions, including suspension and sackings, for any peers who do not uphold the Principles of Public Life. It is hard to believe it, given the general downturn in the behaviour of our ruling class, but we have seven of them. They were established over twenty years ago, with a Committee of worthy people to define and promote them. The House would do well to ask its advice (as well as ours) in framing its new rules.

Anyway, the seven Principles deserve capitalizing: Selflessness; Integrity; Objectivity; Accountability; Openness; Honesty; Leadership (setting an example of the previous six.) I suggest that the House makes all seven of them directly enforceable against peers. A peer whose behaviour manifestly flouted any of these Principles – inside or outside the House – would face sanctions. I accept that it is conceptually hard to enforce Accountability against an unelected legislator, but peers should be under the same general obligations to explain themselves on demand as anyone else. In general, the House should be able to act against any of its members who would be judged to be scumbags in any other setting.

For this reason, the House should open up penalties for bad behaviour outside the House as well as inside. At present, peers face sanctions for such behaviour only if it earns them a term of imprisonment. I propose that sanctions should also be applicable to peers who get disqualified as company directors. If someone is not fit to run a company, why should he run the country? Likewise, the House should be able to act against members who are suspended or disqualified from their professions for misconduct or incompetence.

It would also be good to see the House punish peers who exploit their status, whether in securing a restaurant table or more seriously, in acting against a critic or complainant. That would set a great example to other public figures, especially those using the phrases “Do you know who I am?” or “I know your editor.”

We, the people, especially need and deserve to know all the outside interests that are paying our unelected legislators or doing them favours. There are enough MPs who accept money or gifts from dodgy sources and peers are much more likely to be tempted. They do not have to fear exposure of their behaviour to constituency activists or voters at large. They face less scrutiny from the media. With no constituency responsibilities, they have more time to serve outside interests. They are unpaid (apart from a generous expenses régime) and impecunious peers have more need than MPs of outside income.

Unfortunately, this bit of the rule book, on the registration of interests, is in the worst state of them all. I have told the House how to improve things and if you are phenomenally interested you can read all my proposals here. http://www.richardheller.co.uk/2018/09/politics/proper-rules-for-peers/

Two are especially important.

First, we, the people, have a right to know if any peer takes money or any other benefit from any foreign power.

Peers ought to be declaring this now on their Register of Interests, but there are loopholes, and the information is scattered among different categories on the Register. Without immense effort, we, the people, cannot discover all the peers who have benefitted from a particular country or government.

I have therefore suggested a new category in which peers would declare any money, jobs, hospitality, gifts or other favours they receive from any overseas government or public agency – and from what is now called any Politically Exposed Person overseas. This term is derived from international agreements to combat money laundering and corruption: essentially it means any past or present member of a foreign government, or a ruling dynasty, or a top military person, judge or administrator – anyone who has had the chance to steal something from the country concerned.

There is a good argument that peers should never sell themselves to foreign countries and their rulers, even those allied to us and with a strong rule of law. But if they do, we, the people, should certainly know about it.

Second, the House should remove a persistent anomaly which creates a privileged position for a handful of peers who run public affairs consultancies. Reputable public affairs practitioners and consultancies who are members of their representative body, the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) declare all their clients every quarter. Thanks to the anomaly, peers who run such consultancies do not have to do this, and it is ridiculously easy for them to hide any controversial clients, or indeed all of them.

If I say that the best-known beneficiary is Peter Mandelson, I will be accused of special pleading. But it has been a general rule of recent public life that anything Peter Mandelson wants to conceal is something which we, the people, deserve to know.

Regardless of the beneficiaries, the anomaly should be removed on principle. It is a blot on Parliament.

There is another good argument for saying that Parliamentarians should not be at all involved in public affairs advice or services. Interestingly, the APPC disqualifies them from membership. It evidently thinks that MPs and peers would let down the tone of the lobbying profession, and who can blame it?

All peers are summoned to the House by a writ from their sovereign. It is written in beautiful language, such as the first Queen Elizabeth might have used to ask her magnates to help her repel the Armada (although if she had had to rely on most of the recent crop of peers she would probably have surrendered to the Spanish.) The sovereign tells peers that he or she has summoned a Parliament “for certain arduous and urgent affairs concerning Us the state and defence of Our United Kingdom and the Church.” The sovereign then commands them “upon the faith and allegiance by which you are bound to Us that the weightiness of the said affairs and imminent perils considered (waiving all excuses) [to attend] to treat and give your counsel upon the affairs aforesaid And this as you regard Us and Our honour and the safety and defence of the said Kingdom and Church and despatch of the said affairs in nowise do you omit.”

If they take that beautiful language seriously, peers should give advice on public affairs only to their sovereign and her Parliament and people. If they take money from other people for such advice, they should leave the House.

But even if one rejects this purist view, it should be beyond challenge that peers should declare any outside interest which benefits from any public affairs advice or services to which they are party. I have suggested to the House how to achieve this. Again, if you are phenomenally interested, and would like to see my detailed analysis of the anomaly and its beneficiaries, here it is http://www.richardheller.co.uk/2018/09/politics/a-blot-on-parliament-the-slack-rules-on-peers-and-public-affairs-consultancies/

We, the people, have never been consulted over the Lords rule book. It has been made by peers, for peers. The same sub-committee has been responsible for drafting it for the last seven years. The chair is Lord (Simon) Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, a former Lord of Appeal. The other members are Lord Cope (Conservative), Lord Dholakia (Liberal Democrat), Lord Irvine of Lairg (Labour), and Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve (Crossbench). Lord Cope, a former MP (and Whip and Minister) is the only one to have held elective office.

It is good that they are reviewing the rule book, but if left on their own they will be marking their own homework.

Therefore I hope that others will join me in asking for a public consultation. Whether this happens or not, we, the people, have every right, at any time, to submit our own views on standards of conduct for peers, and ask the House of Lords to respond to them.

You can write to Lord Brown as Chairman of the sub-committee on Lords’ Conduct, House of Lords, London SW1A 0PW, or email him at lordsconduct@parliament.uk You might also care to write to the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler. Do feel free to say that my proposals would raise standards in the House to heights never before attempted, let alone achieved.  Please do not say that the Lords should be abolished and replaced by a democratic chamber. You may well be right, but this sub-committee will not consider it. Nor will they look at the expenses regime. But if you have any ideas for members to tell us more and to behave better – speak now.

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  • Richard Heller
    Richard Heller
    Richard Heller is an author and journalist. He was chief of staff to Denis Healey and to Gerald Kaufman. His latest book is White On Green celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket.
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