Parliamentary Democracy and Standards in Public Life

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Thursday 11th January 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord True Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to be here and listen to a most interesting debate, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for securing it and making this possible. I did not greet some of her sallies with the same rapture of the noble Baroness opposite, nor did I agree that they were justified—but we will leave it at that. It has been a most interesting debate, including the proposition from the noble Viscount. I draw attention early to his interesting suggestion that the Select Committee on the Constitution of this House might have a look at the effectiveness of the other Chamber. That is not something that I shall be proposing to my colleagues in government, but I shall be interested to see if he takes that forward, in the light of their activities.

Parliament is a human institution, and we are, as Parliament and as individuals, who we are, with all the frailties that come from the human condition—and all the genius, remarkable gifts, insights, passions and commitments that come from the human condition. We are not perfect. In Parliament, we are the duties we perform and how well we perform them. As your Lordships’ Leader, my judgment is that, in this place, we perform those duties well, to a high standard that deserves respect.

But there is a third thing we are. We are also seen by the outsider as who we ourselves say we are. While I think we should be extraordinarily conscious of our frailties—and I own to and condemn where people fall short of those high standards, of course, because I believe that high standards in public life are essential—sometimes in politics we throw so many stones at each other. I heard what my noble friend Lord Cookham said about expecting dirty campaigning; he can include me out on that one. There have been some in this debate who have thrown stones, and we contribute to a perception that Parliament is corrupt and that parliamentarians are interested only in themselves, are bad and not interested, et cetera. The more we contribute to that narrative—and you can make a case in a research paper for this, that and the other, and in footnotes—the more we contribute to the lowering of the esteem of Parliament, which includes this place.

In so much of this debate, with constructive suggestions, we have done that. I wish only that we would actually accentuate the positive about all that we do. I do not believe that the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party or the Conservative Party are corrupt—nor, indeed, do I believe that the Church of England is corrupt. There are bad apples, but I refer to what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said about helping people to understand civility, civics and citizenship. We need to help people to understand the good that Parliament does, as well as the follies that it may contain.

There were so many brilliant suggestions that came out in this debate. In saying that, I am not complacent or wanting to be Panglossian. There are changes that could and should be made. As my noble friend Lady Stowell said, it is true that we are seen as insiders by outsiders—we are seen sometimes as people “up there” who do not take an interest and do not do enough. We must always be mindful of our first and only duty if we are called to the high responsibility of being in Parliament, which is a duty to be public servants and to serve. I thought that my noble friend made a very powerful speech on that subject, as did others who spoke, as a matter of fact.

Having made those preliminary remarks, there are things that I do believe. I think that, really, in all our hearts, we do not believe we are as bad as we sometimes say we are, but we do believe that we could do and must do better. I believe also that we must not always privilege those who shout in the corner of the room. When I was a council leader and had young councillors come to ask me how you should address the business of service and the business of politics, I would say, think of public life and public service as a public meeting. You go into a great hall and start speaking—we have all experienced it; at least, those of us who have sought election or held public office—and someone in the corner of the room starts shouting out noisily, heckling and so on. You let him have one go—sometimes it is her, but usually him—and another go and then, finally, you say, “Look, Sir, we have heard what you think; I want to hear from all these other good people too”.

Sometimes in politics, with the ascendency of social media and the tribute we pay to it—a point made by a number of those who have spoken in this House—we privilege the shouters in the corner of the room. One great virtue of your Lordships’ House is that, in our careful scrutiny of legislation, we listen to the people who are not the noisy shouters on social media in the corner of the room. It is a vital part of parliamentary democracy that we should listen to that majority who are not always on social media, who are not always shouting and who bring their petitions humbly to the door of Parliament, as they have done for centuries.

The UK’s constitutional and parliamentary democracy is not in as bad a condition as some have said. Of course, it is flawed, like any other institution, and of course it needs consideration. I argued at the start of my remarks that its character is defined by the conduct of its actors, and that is true also of the Civil Service. The noble Baroness, Lady Stuart of Edgbaston, in an important intervention, spoke of the role and duties of the Civil Service. The system must have the capacity to evolve and adapt in order to enable political actors to respond flexibly to the events of the day. But within this system—this was one of the abiding themes of today’s debate—a common set of principles must always underpin the standards expected of public officeholders. It is incumbent on us all to protect the good and to improve things where possible.

There was a distinction in today’s debate between those who believe, as I do, that ultimately, this must come from within us and must be supervised by parliamentary accountability; and those on the other side who said—this was set out in forthright terms by His Majesty’s Opposition—that parliamentarians can never be good enough and must be protected from themselves, and that we must lend responsibility for policing who we are, how we behave and how we perform our duties to unelected outside panjandrums who are accountable to nobody and known to nobody. Most people in this country could probably name a few politicians. I wonder if any could name a single member of the various bodies that exercise enormous power over Parliament and can make and break parliamentary careers. There are real questions of accountability if you are arguing that we should go forward towards statutory oversight of the activities of Parliament.

We are a representative democracy, and the composition of the elected Chamber reflects the will of the people as most recently expressed at the ballot box. All of us in this House need to remember that, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, reminded us. I will come back to the position of the people; the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, spoke powerfully and importantly on that subject. It is germane and underlies the whole debate.

Our parliamentary democracy is effective. I was very struck by the remarks of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on this subject in his thoughtful speech. It is effective because it is grounded in a deep constitutionalism born of civil war, conflict, tremendous conflict between the two Houses, a honing of the constitution and a set of constitutional practice which is deep and profound. Anyone who, for example, witnessed the Coronation will have had that sense of the depth of Britain’s great national experience and what we can and have taught the world, and can still lend to the world, with humility. This system, this deep constitutional system, is flexible and adaptable to the circumstances of the day. It allows for the development of policy and the passage of legislation under the careful and proper scrutiny of Parliament. I therefore reject the proposition, put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that we should frame a written constitution. I am also not greatly attracted to his proportional representation proposition: I think I have heard that one before. Whenever I hear PR mentioned, I always translate it, perhaps from my frailty, as “permanent representation” for the Liberal Democrats, whoever is in office.

We must examine ourselves with humility, self-criticism and so on, but we should not throw away the great strengths of the system we have—certainly not on a coalition deal, I say to the party opposite. I might think, looking at history, that we gave rather too much away in 2010, much as I enjoyed working with my Liberal Democrat colleagues in those days. I single out the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, who was the only one, before the wind-up on the other side, to mention local government, which is such a fundamental part of the warp and woof of democracy: it is the limbs underneath Parliament and is so important. His remarks on audit were important and well taken, and I will certainly reflect on them.

The noble Lord, Lord Sahota, was a bit critical of my noble friend Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. For my part, I welcome the fact that my noble friend has come to this House. I think it redounds to the credit of this House: it was certainly the practice of the Labour Government after nineteen-ninety-whenever it was.

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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That terrible year; I remember it. It is good that there are senior Ministers in your Lordships’ House. We are part of Parliament and there is good accountability: my noble friend appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons only very recently. I hope other people share my view that having a statesman of such experience here is to the benefit of the House. There is parliamentary accountability.

The other great thread of the debate was questions of behaviour and standards. I am not going to go into the issues of the other place—that is effectively a matter for them. Obviously, in this House, noble Lords are required to sign up to the Code of Conduct, which ensures accountability to parliamentary standards and is enforced by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards. Members are required to comply with the behaviour code for Parliament. Sanctions can include suspension or expulsion from the House, and those procedures derive from resolutions of the House: they are subject to our judgment and our decisions, but they fall short of the kind of statutory approach the Opposition propose. By the way, I was interested to hear the noble Baroness commit the Labour Party to reform of your Lordships’ House in the first term; I am sure that will be examined quite widely.

Throughout this debate, noble Lords, beginning with the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, highlighted the important role that the Nolan principles, as articulated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, play in our political system. I agree that they are fundamental: they are what anybody who aspires to serve in any walk of life, not just politics, should live up to. The current Prime Minister stated in his first speech that his Government

“will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”,

and that “integrity in public life matters”—it does, my Lords.

The Ministerial Code details the Prime Minister’s expectations of his Ministers, setting out that they are expected to maintain high standards. Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the code, and must be mindful of it in discharging their duties. The code, however, is the Prime Minister’s document; he is the ultimate judge of the behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences for a breach of standards. Ministers will remain in place only as long as they retain the confidence the Prime Minister. Again, that is where accountability lies in parliamentary democracy. If, as is asserted by some, you give enforcement of that to an unelected, unaccountable, largely unknown body, you may arrive at a point where the judgments of whether somebody or other should be a Minister of the Crown would be decided in a court of law. This would be an unthinkable route to go down.

I am very grateful for the kind remarks of my noble friend Lord Pickles, and his outstanding, persistent and patient work in pushing forward reform of ACOBA will, I hope, be fully and finally recognised. Last July, the Government published Strengthening Ethics and Integrity in Central Government. It was a wide-ranging programme of reform which responded to various reports, including the Boardman report and those from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. It will mark the introduction of stricter enforcement of the business appointment rules, with a clearer pathway towards sanctions, potentially including financial sanctions, for breaches. As my noble friend knows, that is very much actively under way.

We are increasing transparency and accountability in public appointments. We will be improving the quality and accessibility of departmental transparency releases, including an integrated database which will be put on GOV.UK for the first time. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others that its implementation is under way and proceeding quickly. The revised guidance will apply to all data from January 2024 onwards. We are also tightening up on compliance processes under the existing accounting officer Permanent Secretary system—all to shine more light on some of the recesses of government.

I do not have time to take up the point which my noble friend made, but it is one which has been alluded to so often that it is something we have to think about a lot more: the relationship between government and arm’s-length bodies. The process of finding effective accountability there, which has been so brutally illumined in recent weeks and months, is something that we must address and come back to. I will reflect on requests for further opportunities to discuss these matters, although obviously the upcoming Post Office legislation will enable some reflections in that narrow area.

The changes to which I have alluded come in addition to those made in 2022 to strengthen the Ministerial Code, which increased the independence, powers and status of the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and introduced an enhanced process for the independent adviser to initiate investigations, and new details on proportionate sanctions.

There were so many other important speeches made. I alluded earlier to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, who was absolutely right when she picked up on what my noble friend Lady Stowell said: the people must never be allowed to feel that the system does not belong to them. The parliamentary system does not belong to any passing elite, or people who may think they are elite, who wander in here. It belongs to those whom we serve. I also agreed with what my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford said about the importance of Select Committees in your Lordships’ House. We must work to strengthen their effectiveness. Since I have been Leader, and my noble friend Lady Williams has been Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, we have worked much harder to bring committee debates to the Floor of your Lordships’ House and I hope very much that that will continue.

Nothing is perfect, not least my timing. I fear that I probably wandered too widely at the start of the debate, but I assure your Lordships that I will study it very carefully. I wanted to come to this debate and hear what noble Lords said. I cannot undertake to respond to documents which are sent to someone else and I will not, unfortunately, be able to accommodate the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. My father taught me never to sign a blank cheque, so I am giving no undertaking I have not seen. But I will have a look at whatever document those people care to send to me.

It has been such a pleasure to have the privilege of responding to your Lordships. I thank all those who have taken part and I can assure noble Lords that I will carefully study Hansard in the days ahead.