All 1 Debates between Baroness Flather and Lord Baker of Dorking

Tue 20th Dec 2011

House Committee

Debate between Baroness Flather and Lord Baker of Dorking
Tuesday 20th December 2011

(12 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking
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My Lords, I am grateful to be speaking after the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, because I was about to rise with some temerity to take on three distinguished lawyers in this House. However, having been a member of the House Committee for a number of years, particularly during the period of having to deal with this very shameful episode in our history—let us remember that some Members were claiming money fraudulently—I have to say to the noble and learned Baroness that this was all without precedent both for the Privileges Committee and for the House Committee. We were literally living from day to day without knowing what was going to happen as a result of investigative journalism.

The attitude of the House Committee was incredibly scrupulous during the investigations. We did not take into account the personal circumstances of any of the Members involved, or of their religious and political beliefs. We were indifferent in the old-fashioned use of the word in that we were not careless but we were impartial. As a result, it was very clear that the system had to be changed. We brought in the new system, which I hope will avoid these problems in the future. It was also difficult for us, in investigating these cases, soon to discover that we were not the only people conducting investigations. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service were also involved, so it was a complex procedure. As all noble Lords know, certain evidence was produced and conclusions reached, and certain cases became well known in the press. The Privileges Committee, being the committee that deals with matters of discipline, dealt with these, but again if I may say on a very ad hoc basis. There was little precedent for the decisions that the committee had to make and the amount of suspension that it was prepared to grant.

It fell to us, as the committee responsible for the allowances system in the House, to consider one particular case. It was indeed a difficult matter for us and it was debated at considerable length. The position we reached was that we should establish a principle. I believe that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, was saying that she rather agrees with our conclusion but that it should be applied only in the future and not to the past. That is the nub of her argument, which I think has been effectively answered by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The principle is simply this: that someone in this House who has fraudulently claimed money on an extensive scale should not be allowed to re-enter this House until that money has been repaid. It is not a question of insolvency, and since there is no insolvency in this matter, insolvency law does not come into it at all. Further, we have to be aware not only of our own reputation in this House and in our debates here but of the wider public interest in this matter.

Let us think about what would happen in the private sector in a similar case. If a senior executive in a large company was discovered to have been fraudulently claiming massive expenses on a regular and practical basis, thus taking money out of the company, he would almost certainly be subject to instant dismissal. If he were not, he would be suspended and the board would examine the case. I am sure that it would then say that the executive could come back to the company but only if he repaid the money first. That is the principle that we are trying to establish, and I must say that it is entirely fair. We have tried to establish this principle irrespective of how it affects individual people. That is a very important point about a principle. A principle must be just that. I think it is a principle that is widely understood by the country, and I commend it to the House.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, I have heard the arguments and I think that I have understood them. As a lay person, it seems to me that if you have no means to pay back money that you have taken fraudulently, it does not excuse you. It does not excuse you in normal life and it should not excuse you in your Lordships’ House. A large amount of money, £125,000, has been taken. It takes a long time to take that much money out of expenses in your Lordships' House. We cannot just overlook that and say, “It’s all right”, because the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, cannot repay. Well, she can borrow; she can get a loan; she can see where she has money—she has money in Bangladesh; and she should pay back the money to Parliament and then discharge whatever borrowing she has made. You cannot be excused because you are too poor. I am sorry, but I cannot agree with that idea.