Since his article last year for Comment Central on opportunities to reform the House of Lords, Richard Heller argues little has changed and that in some respects the House has regressed.
In October last year Comment Central published this piece (click here) on reforming the rule book for peers in which I argued for fundamental changes not only in the rules themselves but in the way they are devised. To save you the effort of going through it all again, I asked the House of Lords to hold a public consultation on its Code of Conduct and involve the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I asked it to extend the potential for sanctions against peers’ misconduct outside the House, to ensure greater transparency about peers who take money or benefits from foreign powers and Politically Exposed Persons, and to correct a persistent anomaly which allowed peers to hide their public affairs clients behind the veil of a consultancy.
I invited readers to declare their support for all this to the relevant House of Lords Committee. Thank you to those who did. I would like to believe that the dusty corridors of that House were as jammed with letters as Santa Claus’s residence, North Pole, N1, in the run-up to Christmas.
What happened next?
Not a lot and in one vital respect the House took a step backwards.
In fairness, it was very pre-occupied with the fall-out from the allegations against Lord Lester. It remodelled its procedures for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment and bullying by peers. But it did not look at its rulebook as a whole.
However, it did replace the old sub-committee whose members had been tinkering with it for eight years, with a new Conduct Committee. The former Chairman, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood was replaced by another former Law Lord, Lord Mance, although he remained a member of the new Committee. It had new representatives of the parties: Baroness Anelay for the Conservatives, Baroness Donaghy for Labour, and Baroness Hussein-Ece for the Liberal Democrats. They have given much public service, but only one, Hussein-Ece, has ever held elective office, as a councillor for four years.
Even more exciting, the new Committee was to be joined by four lay members, an unprecedented step for any Lords Committee. They will be Tribunes of the People. The House was clearly seeking high-quality applicants: it offered them twice as much money per diem for turning up as the peers on the Committee.
Unfortunately, before the Tribunes had been appointed the new Committee decided to push through a package of “tidying-up” amendments to the rulebook bequeathed by their predecessors. At the fag end of the Parliamentary session, Lord Mance presented them to the House which agreed them without debate.
These supposedly minor amendments included the abolition of the special rules to make peers register the clients of their public affairs consultancies. Instead, they will have to declare such clients only if they take part on their behalf in proceedings of the House.
Declaration is a much weaker form of disclosure than registration, and the change makes it far too easy for peers to hire themselves out to serve the political interests of clients without telling anybody.
Take the imaginary case of Lord Hireling, founder and director of the Rentapeer consultancy. Through Rentapeer he builds up a lucrative client list, including the government of Repressia, the World Nerve Gas Association, and former President Ladrón who looted the state Treasury of Oblivia before his deserved overthrow.
Lord Hireling can do a lot for these clients in Parliament which is not recorded or subject to a declaration.
He can make contributions to party meetings and those of all-party subject groups and even casual conversations. He can brief other peers or MPs or create material for this purpose. He can identify other peers and MPs as potential “targets” for a free trip to Repressia, and other services from his clients. his buyer. He can organize events and social gatherings. He can pass on intelligence or gossip.
Lord Hireling is not supposed to do any of these things inside the House for a client. It would be a prima facie breach of the Code of Conduct. But precisely because they are not recorded, they will not be known to the House authorities or the media or the general public. He could conceal them for a long time and he would be discovered only haphazardly. In any complaint, Lord Hireling might be able to claim that he had taken no money directly from the clients. He performed these activities voluntarily as a sincere and principled believer in Repressia, nerve gas and the former President.
Worse still, the new rules mean that Lord Hireling can do what he likes for these clients outside the House, and get paid, without telling anyone about them.
On their behalf, Lord Hireling through Rentapeer could seek to influence decisions by a British political party, devolved assembly, or in local government, or in a referendum or general election at home or overseas, or by an independent regulator, or an organ of the EU, or an overseas legislature or government, or an international organization. He might be paid by these clients through Rentapeer for contributing to a campaign to influence media or public opinion in any country, including our own.
So long as Lord Hireling does these things outside Parliament he will not have to tell us about the clients. On the Register of Interests he will simply write “Founder and Director of Rentapeer (strategy advice).”
I can see no public interest in this change. It benefits at most 40 peers who appear from the present Registry of Interests to be involved in the public affairs business. Again, the best-known is Peter Mandelson, although it may not make any practical difference to him since he has managed to avoid declaring any clients of his shadowy consultancy, Global Counsel, since it was founded eight years ago.
The question is whether we, the people, want peers to be able to behave like Lord Hireling – sell themselves to serve outside Parliament the political interests of secret paymasters. If there are peers who have actually demanded this privilege I would be happy to see them flounce out of the House.
The new Conduct Committee has begun its work with a giant mistake. Again, I ask readers’ help in getting them to correct it. Please write to Lord Mance at the House of Lords. Ask the new Committee to review the entire rulebook from first principles, this time with the help of the four Tribunes of the People. Ask them to consider the powerful case for keeping peers out of the public affairs business altogether – as the industry itself recommends. Failing this, demand that peers who benefit in any way from public affairs work reveal all of the clients concerned. That means all those of any public affairs consultancy in which they are partners or directors. They are enriched by all of them and under a commercial and professional obligation to each of them.
Ask them to look at all the other changes I have recommended – and of course feel free to put in your own.
If the Committee refuses this request, it will confirm that its rulebook is drawn up by peers for peers. That can only increase the threat to the existence of the unelected House.