What is the latest scandal in the House of Lords?
Four Labour peers have been accused of entering into negotiations over amendments to legislation, contrary to the House of Lords code of conduct. In a sting operation these peers are said to have been offered fees of up to £120,000 by Sunday Times reporters posing as lobbyists for a fictitious Hong Kong businessman seeking to set up 30 retail outlets across Britain and worried that the business rates and supplements bill would impose extra costs on his business. All four have denied any wrongdoing. In addition, a Conservative peer has been accused by Spinwatch, a campaigning pressure group, of misusing parliamentary facilities to promote her own business. Other peers are also said to have tabled amendments to legislation that would benefit organizations they worked for, and lobbyists are said to have targeted the House of Lords as an arena in which to exert influence since tighter anti-sleaze rules were introduced for the House of Commons.
What are the current rules on peers working for outside organizations?
1) Peers are required to declare ‘relevant interests’ when speaking in the House, communicating with ministers, government departments or executive agencies, so that their audience may form a balanced judgment about their argument
2) Anyone given a parliamentary pass is required to declare “any employment, or any other financial interest, in business or organisations involved in parliamentary lobbying”.
3) The House of Lords code of conduct advises peers to “take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.” But these rules appear to allow peers who work for an outside organisation to table amendments that would benefit that organisation, provided they declare their interest, and in any case sanctions for breach of the code are relatively weak.
What action is the government taking?
Baroness Royall, the government’s leader of the Lords, is conducting an investigation. She has stated that the current rules need to be changed to allow “more forceful sanctions” to be brought against peers found to be in breach of the rules. She has proposed new powers for peers to be suspended immediately while an investigation is being carried out and for peers to be suspended for longer and “perhaps permanent exclusions in extreme cases.” In addition, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said he was planning to amend the forthcoming constitutional renewal bill to provide for peers being removed for breaking the law, serious misconduct, and not being resident in the UK for tax purposes.
What have the other parties proposed?
All three main parties have called for stronger sanctions to be able to be used against peers who break the rules. The Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, has filed complaints with the police and called for a police inquiry, as noted earlier.
A formal inquiry into the specific allegations raised by the Sunday Times is being conducted by the cross-party five-person Standards subcommittee of the House of Lords and the chairman of the House’s Privileges Committee is examining the misconduct rules more generally.
Are there any other necessary reforms that should be implemented?
1) Some follow Lady Royall in calling for a clarification and tightening of the current conflict of interest rules, while others say a ‘tick-box’ approach to the conduct of legislators merely leads to token compliance rather than a public service ethos.
2) Some say the rules should go much further, in forbidding members of either house of Parliament from undertaking any paid work at all for outside interests, while others say such a prohibition merely turns parliamentarians into bureaucrats with little experience of the world outside the parliamentary ‘bubble’.
3) Some say a democratically elected House of Lords would be more exposed to pressure from the electorate for higher standards of conduct, while others argue that the experience of the House of Commons hardly bears out such an assumption.
Of these three options, I would personally have more sympathy with the first and the third than the second.