HL Deb 24 July 1989 vol 510 cc1131-41

3.14 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Arran.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 18 [Members' interests]:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 104:

Page 24, line 14, at end insert— ("(1A) Before making any regulations under this section, the Secretary of State shall certify that the requirements contained therein are, in his opinion, not more onerous than those currently applicable to members of either House of Parliament.")

The noble Lord said: We resume at the place where we were most rudely interrupted on Thursday night, still on Part I and dealing with Clause 18 which is concerned with the register of members' pecuniary interests.

There are two different degrees of control of the propriety of the activities of Members of Parliament and local councillors. One is that they should themselves take steps to declare any interest which should be declared when any business is being considered by the council or any committee of which they are a member, or by another place, as the case may be. The second is the provision of a register of members' interests so that everyone may see, in accordance with regulations laid down by the Secretary of State, what interests individual councillors have. They can then be satisfied that they are not abusing any interests that they may have or their position as a councillor in favour of any interest that they have. It is also a check on whether they should be members of particular committees or should withdraw from certain kinds of business when their interests are affected by it.

We have never objected to either of those provisions. We have never felt that there should not be a control: first, of a declaration of interest; and, secondly, that there should not be a register of interests. The question must be asked, however, whether Clause 18, which sets out in some detail the regulations which the Secretary of State may make about members' interests, is properly to be applied by Parliament or, rather, by a Parliament which does not apply the rules to itself.

Another place has had for many years a register of Members' pecuniary interests. For a number of years, because of the reluctance of one Member of the other place to supply a list of interests, it was on a purely voluntary basis; but I believe that it is universal now, and there is no question but that the general public can see the register of interests of Members of another place.

Your Lordships have taken a different approach to our procedures. We have taken the approach in our rules of debate that it is undesirable that Members of the House should promote or oppose legislation in which they may be thought to have an interest or may think themselves to have an interest. It is left to the honour of noble Lords to assess whether that interest falls within the scope of the rules of debate and whether they should declare the interest or refrain from taking part in debate when they have a pecuniary interest.

On the whole, it is widely accepted that we declare interests when the need arises. I am not sure whether we all declare interests with the degree of detail that might be thought to be desirable; but the spirit of self-regulation which pervades the House has always meant that there has been no pressure to have a register of your Lordships' interests, and therefore we have been spared—if that is the right word—the legislation which is now proposed for local authorities.

However admirable our procedures may be in many ways, we should not impose rules on councillors which we would not be prepared to accept for ourselves. That is not in itself a criticism of the way in which our rules work. I have been describing the differences between them and those of another place and those of local authorities. However, it would be wrong for the House to command the Secretary of State to lay regulations which would put on the statute book (in this Bill) a detailed clause which not only sets out the regulations which govern the giving of notice of pecuniary interests, but sets out in great detail the punishment which is to be imposed for failing to comply with the regulations, or giving a notice, in compliance with requirements, which is false or misleading; or recklessly providing information which is false or misleading in a material particular.

This is a very severe clause, and maybe it is right for it to be severe. But we ought not to say this unless we are prepared to do the same for ourselves. I beg to move.

Lord Renton

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has raised a very interesting point and one which deserves our careful consideration. Although I have not been a member of another place for ten years, my own recollection—no doubt I shall be corrected if I am wrong; but I still think I am right—is that the register of Members' interests in another place was a register compiled by the voluntary action of Members. Indeed, a Member could refuse to submit his interests. I remember that one well-known Member did refuse.

With great respect to the noble Lord, I am not quite sure that the purpose of what is done in the House of Commons is the same or could have the same results as the declaration of pecuniary interests by members of local authorities. Of course we have to bear in mind that the power given to the Secretary of State in Clause 18(1) is limited merely to the making of regulations which affect the direct and indirect pecuniary interests of members of local authorities.

Perhaps my noble friend on the Front Bench can explain what he means by the difference between direct and indirect, because it is rather interesting. But in the nature of things as we know them, what we have to try to ensure in the case of local authority members is that they do not obtain contracts awarded by the local authority to businesses in which they have a pecuniary interest, unless at any rate those interests have been declared. With that background, I find it difficult to understand a distinction between direct and indirect pecuniary interests. Perhaps we should be told.

However, the same sort of situation does not arise with regard to Members of another place, or very rarely. I remember that there was a Member of another place who found, when he was appointed a junior Minister, that the large firm of which he was a member had very considerable contracts, not directly with the Government but with a quango. He did the honourable thing, which was to resign as a junior Minister, before he had to take such a decision. But that is a very unusual situation and I should have thought that, bearing in mind what we know and what, alas, has been experienced with regard to local authorities, we should not try to restrict the Secretary of State too much. I hope I am not being too long-winded.

Therefore, although I appreciate the purpose of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in raising the matter, I doubt whether it is necessary for us to make an amendment on the lines that he has proposed.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I noted that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that noble Lords on his side of the Committee were not against the declaration of pecuniary interests, direct and indirect, by members of local authorities. I am sure that he is absolutely right. The point he was making—and I think that he made it at Second Reading—was that perhaps we in this Chamber and those in another place should be looking at the matter for ourselves. But that is not part of the Bill and I do not think the noble Lord is really saying that it should be in the Bill until we have examined the proposal.

It is very important to realise why local authorities are quite different from Parliament in this respect. It is quite extraordinary that when one joins a local authority, as many Members of the Committee know very well one discovers the network of interests which interact with the interests of the local authority. Planning decisions—local planning decisions and strategic planning decisions—can affect the value of land and property, and the value of almost anything in the local countryside. One need only have an indirect interest in the value of property in a certain place or the value of land in a certain place to have an interest in the decision that is made.

It is only fair to councillors to have a register of interests. I do not think it is enough for it to be voluntary. As I said at Second Reading, the council on which I sat had a voluntary register, but I do not think that that was enough. One should be protected by a statutory register.

It is not only a case of planning decisions, decisions about housing. Planning decisions as they interact with the construction industry, if one has an interest in the construction industry, are very influential on prices and what happens locally. There is a whole range of decisions that can be taken, as many Members of the Committee know, which can affect one's own interests.

Without doubt I think that this subsection should stand. However, I go along with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in that, as is often the case as we are discussing matters in this Chamber and as I read debates in another place, perhaps we should go further on this point.

Lord Bellwin

I too have some sympathy with the point that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, makes. However, my noble friend touched oh the answer to it. One cannot draw an exact analogy. In this Chamber we do not do the same things at all as a local authority has to do. We do not have the job, the function, of placing contracts and making planning decisions and a whole host of activities which are everyday, routine matters in a local authority. We do not have to carry out those duties at all.

The noble Lord was fair enough to say that within the framework of what we have to do, by and large the system works well enough. I suspect that the same applies to another place, but perhaps that is not for me to say. However, there is such a great difference in what local authorities do that the clause and the legislation set out to try to improve the position as it now is. It really is not the same.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

In my view, noble Lords opposite are downgrading the worth of this Chamber in the decision-making process. There are Members of the Chamber who like myself have served on a local authority, who have served in another place and who now have the great privilege of serving in this Chamber. The amendment seeks to ensure that whatever the Government feel is good for local authorities is good for both Chambers. Whatever the Government feel is right for the Commons should also be standard and the benchmark for local government and for this place.

I know that Members of the Committee may say that there are different criteria and they do a different job. Those who have served on local authorities at a high level, like myself, are aware that there are very important decisions to be made. I can assure the Committee that I have never been lobbied more heavily on this issue than when I appeared in this Chamber—not in the local authority and not in another place. The number of people outside this Chamber who believe—I think rightly—that the decisions taken here can be material in the decision-making process is very great.

My experience of local government is from years past. There may be others with more recent experience. The situation has moved on in the past five or 10 years, and certainly in the past 20 years. This amendment points to the fact that there are measuring rods and standards of propriety and probity in public life that should be the same at all levels.

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, indicated that this Chamber will need to check its own standards in these matters. However, I hope that Members of the Committee will not say the decisions that are made in this Chamber are less important or are less subject to pressure than the decisions made in either another place or local government. I am not saying that this Chamber awards contracts, but we make decisions which are real, important and far-reaching. The purpose of this amendment is perfectly simple; it is that what is good for the goose of local government should be good for the gander of national government.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Renton

I hope the noble Lord will bear this point in mind. I speak from 44 years' experience of Parliament altogether. Never once, as a Member of Parliament, have I had to take part in a decision as to who should be awarded a government contract except when I was serving as a Minister, and even then it was a very rare thing indeed. Those decisions were nearly always taken by officials, although Ministers were responsible for them. But Private Members of either Chamber are simply not called upon to take those kinds of decisions.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I say with great respect that I made the point that we in this Chamber do not award contracts. However, what we do which is equally important or more important than that is to set the framework in which contracts have to be sought. We have just gone through a whole series of decisions which affect the ability of a local authority to contract out. All of those matters have wide repercussions. The Chamber does not need me to go into the detail of that. One reads regularly of the interlocking nature of business interests. That exists and is real.

We are proud of our system of government. Therefore, as my noble friend Lord McIntosh said, we should be able to devise a scheme whereby the public are made aware of Members' interests. I am not talking about simply declaring interests, as I have many times, but about publishing our interests so that there can be no confusion.

Lord Ross of Newport

While I have some sympathy with the amendment, I do not wish the regulations to be held up. I think it is right that there should be declaration of interest and that regulations should be drawn up for that purpose as regards local government. However, I was staggered both in another place and in this Chamber to find that Members are entitled to speak on subjects in which they have very large financial interests. They are never obliged to sit down and keep quiet. In local government, however, that does not and cannot happen.

When I had a small retained interest in a development scheme, I was not allowed to speak on that at all. A statement of my views was read by the clerk of the council. I had no pecuniary interest in that development at all, but I had been retained to advise on it. That certainly does not happen in this Chamber. Directors of companies which are very much involved in takeovers of other companies in which there are constituency interests in another place are perfectly free to make speeches in this Chamber and in another place without any restriction whatsoever.

However, having said that, while I have sympathy with the amendment I cannot support it because I believe it is right that these rules and regulations should be drawn up for local government. They should not be delayed. The problem is to some extent worse in another place. We should put our own house in order, but we do not have to do that before we draw up the regulations for local government as the amendment suggests.

Lord Trafford

Although I agree with the noble Lord's comments, I should point out to him that it is the convention both in another place and in this Chamber for Members to declare interests which reflect in some way on the matter under discussion. I agree with the noble Lord that the observance of this convention may have changed slightly, but I believe that if the noble Lord looks through the rule book he will find that that rule is applicable to this Chamber also.

I recognise that the noble Lord made a perfectly proper distinction between that which we should do by convention and that which we have to do by regulation. I accept that, and I share the view of the noble Lord of the difference in the directness of the spheres of influence which are exercised by Members of this Chamber and those exercised in another place and by members of local authorities. I think the noble Lord, Lord Graham, agreed with that too. In case anyone gets the wrong impression from what has been said here, I should put on the record that it is usually the custom for Members to declare their interest, even though in so doing they are not prevented from making comments on the matter. However, at least when they do make comments in either Chamber it should be known that they have a significant interest in the matter under discussion. That is what matters.

Lord Ross of Newport

As that was an intervention, perhaps I may reply to it. I accept that Members of this Chamber, as far as I know, always declare any interest when speaking on a subject, but they go on to address the Chamber on that subject. I was trying to say that that is not permitted in local government, or at least not in the local authority in which I served.

Lord Hesketh

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to certify that any regulations made under Clause 18 requiring members to provide details of their pecuniary interests are no more onerous than those which are applicable to the Members of either Chamber in the Houses of Parliament. That would indeed pose a major restriction on provisions as regards this Chamber because, as many Members of the Committee have pointed out, Members of this Chamber are under no obligation whatsover to register their interests.

We believe that comparisons between the kinds of interests which Members of another place are required to declare and those which should apply to councillors can also be misleading. It is wrong to draw comparisons. Local authorities are not legislative bodies and the issues and the conflicts of interests that arise are different, as my noble friend Lord Renton and others have pointed out to this Chamber.

If Members of another place are concerned that their rules are not sufficiently stringent, it is open to them to change them. Meanwhile, I do not believe that we should draw up rules for local authority members solely with an eye on those which apply to Parliament. We are currently consulting the local authority associations about the details of the register and the interests to be declared thereon. We do not expect this to be unduly intrusive.

The purpose of the register is to highlight the existence of major interests. It is not proposed that members should be required to provide details of the amount and extent of their interest. We would, for instance, expect members to declare the fact that they have shares in a company, but not how many. Likewise, we would not require members to declare interests that are so insignificant that they could hardly be expected to influence their conduct as councillors.

At present we envisage that the broad headings to be covered by the register will include land, property and company interests as well as paid employments. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, asked for a distinction between direct and indirect interests. As I understand it, a direct interest involves one's salary, whereas an indirect interest would concern shares in for instance a building firm that could be awarded a contract. However, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and other Members of the Committee will be pleased to hear there is a far better definition laid out in Section 95 of the Local Government Act 1972. With that, I hope that the Committee will be able to resist the blandishments of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and reject this amendment.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I did not think I had used blandishments. I thought I was putting a case for Members of this Chamber, with respect to the legislation we pass, to behave as though we were ourselves affected by it. That seems to me to be a totally responsible approach and not a blandishment.

I must first of all reply to the noble Lord, Lord Ross, who feared that the register of interests might be held up. There is no danger of that as the register of interests already exists under Sections 95 and 96 of the Local Government Act 1972. That provision could easily continue in force until the new legislation is ready, and until the Secretary of State is ready to make new regulations.

We are concerned here with a series of issues of practicality and with an issue of principle. On the practicalities, it has been argued that the nature of local government business is so different from the nature of parliamentary business that declarations of interest and registers of pecuniary interest should not be the same. I was chairman of the planning committee of a borough council for four years and chairman of the planning committee of the Greater London Council for four years. I am sorry to say that not once in those eight years was I offered a bribe. Similarly, not once in those eight years did I have any difficulty in declaring an interest on specific issues and in absenting myself from discussion or votes on those matters.

It is argued that the nature of local authority work is significantly different from that of Parliament. I cannot follow that argument. We deal with legislation which has an enormous effect on the finances of very large numbers of bodies, not just public bodies like local authorities but also private companies and, in many cases, private individuals. Evidence of that has already been given by a number of noble Lords. How many of your Lordships and how many Members of another place are approached by those who wish to influence us and do so presumably because they think that it is worth their while financially to seek to influence us and convince us of the rightness of their point of view?

Members of another place in particular, but also a number of Members of this House, are paid as consultants in order, presumably, not only to inform outside organisations about the activities of Parliament but also to influence the activities of Parliament. Indeed, recently a Member of another place went so far as to advertise his availability as a paid consultant for outside interests. There is plenty of scope for pecuniary interest and for it to be just as important in this House as it is in local authorities.

In our charming, quaint way we have rules of debate which state that: It is a long-standing custom of the House that Lords speak always on their personal honour. It follows from this that if a Lord decides that it is proper for him to take part in a debate on a subject in which he has a direct pecuniary interest, he should declare it. Subject to this, and to the guidance to Members or Employees of Public Boards (the Addison Rules), there is no reason why a Lord with an interest to declare should not take part in debate. That is the point to which my noble friend Lord Graham referred. It is however, considered undesirable for a Lord to advocate, promote or oppose in the House any Bill or subordinate legislation, in or for which he is or has been acting or concerned for any pecuniary fee or reward". A very large number of Members of the House declare interests—and then go on to advocate, promote or oppose legislation. Indeed, they go on to vote on, for or against legislation in which they have declared an interest. I believe that there is a good deal of scope for improvement in the rules of this House. The principle has been accepted in local authorities for many years that where there is a direct or indirect pecuniary interest the member of the local authority concerned should absent himself from the debate, not take part in it and not vote on it. Those are good rules which we could adopt in Parliament with considerable benefit to our own proceedings.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He must remember that the value of this House lies in the fact that its Members have experience in so many different aspects of the life of the country and can contribute to debate on those subjects. If the Members who understand, for example, the land, the environment, farming, and so on, never spoke about it in this House and always absented themselves and never affected the way the House decided on such matters, the nature of the House would change considerably. I believe that the noble Lord has overstated the case. That was not what I meant when I spoke earlier in the debate.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I am not convinced by that argument. There are perfectly good rules for distinguishing between general interests and particular pecuniary interests. In local government, for example, it has always been accepted that council house tenants can vote on council house rents. In many councils there would not have been anyone to vote except the council house tenants. Similarly, I do not think that there would be any difficulty in accepting that farmers could vote on matters affecting the regulation of farming. Those are general matters. However, there are specific matters in which noble Lords and Members of the other place have a specific interest. In many cases they are paid fees in order to affect the results of parliamentary proceedings. In those cases I think that the rules that govern us should be no less severe than those governing local authorities.

It is not out of any desire to weaken the controls on local government that I move the amendment. It is out of a desire to see—and this is where we come to the matter of principle—that we do not say to other people that they should do what we are not prepared to do ourselves. That is an issue of principle on which I cannot retract. This is not a probing amendment for negotiation which I could bring back at another stage. This is a matter on which we on this side of the Chamber say what we think—namely, that the rules should be the same for all in public life. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

3.46 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 104) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 55; Not-Contents, 152.

Birk, B. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Bottomley, L.
Briginshaw, L. Lockwood, B.
Broadbridge, L. Lovell-Davis, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Mclntosh of Haringey, L.
Buckmaster, V. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Molloy, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Mulley, L.
David, B. Nicol, B.
Davies of Penrhys, L. O'Neill of the Maine, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Peston, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Phillips, B.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Ennals, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.]
Ewart-Biggs, B.
Fisher of Rednal, B. Prys-Davies, L.
Gallacher, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Galpern, L. Serota, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.] Shepherd, L.
Stallard, L.
Greenhill of Harrow, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Strabolgi, L.
Hayter, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Hirshfield, L. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Jeger, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Underhill, L.
John-Mackie, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Leatherland, L. Wilson of Rievaulx, L.
Listowel, E.
Addington, L. Boyd-Carpenter, L.
Ailesbury, M. Brabazon of Tara, L.
Airey of Abingdon, B. Brougham and Vaux, L.
Amherst, E. Burton of Coventry, B.
Ampthill, L. Butterworth, L.
Annaly, L. Caithness, E.
Arran, E. Campbell of Alloway, L.
Attlee, E. Carnegy of Lour, B.
Auckland, L. Carnock, L.
Aylestone, L. Cawley, L.
Balfour, E. Cockfield, L.
Bauer, L. Coleraine, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Cox, B.
Bellwin, L. Craigavon, V.
Beloff, L. Cross, V.
Belstead, L. Cullen of Ashbourne, L.
Bessborough, E. Davidson, V. [Teller.]
Blatch, B. De Freyne, L.
Blyth, L. Denham, L, [Teller.]
Bonham-Carter, L. Dundee, E.
Borthwick, L. Eccles, V.
Eiffingham, E. Mowbray and Stourton, L
Elliot of Harwood, B. Munster, E.
Erroll of Hale, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Ezra, L. Nelson, E.
Falkland, V. Newall, L.
Ferrers, E. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Ogmore, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Orkney, E.
Glenarthur, L. Oxfuird, V.
Goold, L. Pender, L.
Gray of Contin, L. Penrhyn, L.
Grey, E. Platt of Writtle, B.
Gridley, L. Porritt, L.
Grimond, L. Rankeillour, L.
Haig, E. Reigate, L.
Halisham of Saint Marylebone, L. Renton, L.
Richardson, L.
Halsbury, E. Rippon of Hexham, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Rochester, L.
Harvey of Prestbury, L. Romney, E.
Havers, L. Ross of Newport, L.
Henley, L. Rugby, L.
Hesketh, L. Sainsbury, L.
Hives, L. St. Davids, V.
Hood, V. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Hooper, B. Seear, B.
Hooson, L. Shannon, E.
Hylton-Foster, B. Sharpies, B.
Ironside, L. Shaughnessy, L.
Johnston of Rockport, L. Sheffield, Bp.
Joseph, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Kennet, L. Stedman, B.
Keyes, L. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Kimball, L. Strange, B.
Kinloss, Ly. Strathcarron, L.
Kinnaird, L. Strathclyde, L.
Knights, L. Strathspey, L.
Lauderdale, E. Sudeley, L.
Lloyd of Hampstead, L. Swinfen, L.
Long, V. Terrington, L.
Lucas of Chilworth, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Lurgan, L. Tordoff, L.
Mackay of Clashfern, L. Torphichen, L.
Macleod of Borve, B. Trafford, L.
McNair, L. Trefgarne, L.
Mancroft, L. Trumpington, B.
Margadale, L. Ullswater, V.
Marley, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Mayhew, L. Walston, L.
Merrivale, L. Westbury, L.
Mersey, V. Whitelaw, V.
Middleton, L. Wilson of Langside, L.
Monk Bretton, L. Windlesham, L.
Monteagle of Brandon, L. Wise, L.
Morris, L. Wynfoid, L.
Mottistone, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

Clause 18 agreed to.

The Earl of Arran

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.