3 Lord Bishop of Manchester debates involving the Cabinet Office

Elected officials ought to be obligated to say where they stand on these issues. If they would have liked to have done something—not that they are going to do it or threaten to do it but had that been their wish—they should be obliged to say that. They should be free to say that. The fact that the Government are asking us to pass a Bill that would prevent the First Minister of Scotland saying what they think is dangerous, unnecessary and not something that we on these Benches would ever support. I do not understand why the Government need to do this and I genuinely urge the Minister to reconsider. I beg to move.
Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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My Lords, I support this amendment and the stand part notice, to which I have added my name. I declare again my interest that as a bishop I can, in certain circumstances, be deemed to be a public body in my own right. I can also assure your Lordships that I have no acquisitive designs on any noble Baroness’s handbag this evening.

Clause 4 represents an attack on free speech. It prohibits even statements that suggest a person would have acted differently had it been legal to do so, even if they make it clear that they are going to act within the confines of the law. It is hard—as the noble Baroness just said—to see this as anything other than a sizeable infringement on that basic right to free speech, which is a cornerstone of our democracy.

Your Lordships will not be surprised that I oppose that restriction as a matter of principle. Free speech should be limited only when it is absolutely essential in order to prevent some very grave harm. I have heard nothing to date to suggest that such grave harm is likely to arise. If the Minister or her colleague has an example—perhaps in the aforementioned handbag— I plead with her to share it with us tonight.

Having taken a matter of principle, let me now set out why I believe the clause also contains important practical challenges. The Local Government Association has labelled this clause as particularly problematic. The Government say in the Explanatory Notes that councillors are not prohibited from expressing support—including in minutes—but if that is so, why is it not clearly in the Bill? Why not just remove this problematic clause?

Aside from the moral qualms that we might have about limits on freedom of speech, it is difficult to see how this clause could be enforced. It makes councillors particularly vulnerable to challenge when we elect them to give their opinions; they have to be free to do so. I also know, from having served for a good number of years as the independent chair of a local authority standards committee, that it is not always clear when the elected member is acting on behalf of a council or on their own behalf. Noble Lords may well remember one famous case where this distinction lay at the heart of it, involving the person who was at that time the Mayor of London. Mayors are of course public bodies in their own right, and that entire case, at the various levels it went through, hung on whether at that time he was acting as the Mayor of London or simply as a private individual going about his own business.

We heard at Second Reading the concerns that this will create a culture in which difficult ethical discussions do not take place, because of fears that this clause might be brought into action. Later this year, we are going to have a general election, I believe. Many candidates in that election may also serve on local government bodies. It would be invidious to our democracy for a candidate not to be able to answer honestly a question raised at a hustings, or by a journalist, out of fear that action might somehow then follow under this clause.

I have focused on local authority members, but we have spent many hours already in Committee discussing the uncertainty as to who exactly constitutes a public authority or a public body, or even whether those two terms mean the same thing. If we end up with university authorities being so classified, do we really wish to fetter the free speech that lies at the heart of healthy academic institutions—in fact, the free speech of which, on just about every other occasion we have discussed it in this House, I have always felt this Government to be a strong supporter? The only way to avoid such a culture of intimidation, which I am sure we all agree would be detrimental to local democracy, and potentially to wider civic and public life, is to remove this clause altogether.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, I have been trying to think of the right reverend Prelate as a public body. He is certainly a public authority, but he is at most a hybrid public body. I am not quite sure what sort of hybrid he is in this respect.

My name is on Amendment 33 and the clause stand part notice. I make it clear that this entire clause should go. The exact phrase in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2019 was:

“We will ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries”.

There was nothing about what they say there, although I note that the department’s memorandum for us says:

“It is intended that the measures will be widely construed”.

This is widely construed to the degree of being ambiguous and imprecise, as so much of this badly drafted Bill clearly is.

Yesterday I ran into the noble Lord, Lord Frost, in the corridor and commented on his rather good article, which was in the Telegraph on Friday, on freedom of speech as fundamental to the Conservative Party. I then asked him what he thought about Clause 4 of this Bill. He looked at me in some confusion and said, “I thought that had been withdrawn already”. I wish that that thought was a precursor of the change.

I have found it difficult to find arguments in support of the clause. I looked through the Commons Public Bill Committee stage, where evidence was taken from the legal adviser to the Free Speech Union, who said:

“My position is that clause 4 really needs to go in its entirety … there is no need—I think it is not necessary either politically or perhaps even legally—to prohibit statements. The mischief that is to be prohibited is the threatened act … This Bill very clearly targets expressions of political and moral conscience, which is to say the form of expression that is most highly protected by article 10””.—[Official Report, Commons, Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Committee, 5/9/23; cols. 38-39.]

of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is not just the European Convention; we go back to the Atlantic charter, the fundamental basis on which the post-war international order rested, drafted by British diplomats, and in which the four freedoms include freedom of speech and freedom of belief.

I note that, in the Commons stages, one Conservative MP, David Jones, said:

“This is a Conservative Government. Conservatives believe in and value free speech … This is a deeply un-Conservative measure and I believe that the amendment”—

to Clause 4—

“is right and that the provision should go”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/10/23; col. 915.]

The Committee should take that seriously. In the Commons debates, another Conservative MP referred to this clause and the ones that follow as introducing the concept of “thought crime”.

The Constitution Committee of this House’s very critical report says:

“The protection of free speech is a fundamental right. In our view, clauses 4(1)(a) and 4(1)(b) unduly limit freedom of speech … The House may wish to consider whether clause 4 should be removed from the Bill”.

I dare to suggest to the Minister that this House will reject this clause and that, when the Bill returns to the Commons, it is quite possible that a number of Conservative MPs who do believe in conservative values of free speech will find it convenient not to be there when the Commons vote again. Therefore, it would be wise for the Government to consider their position and, I suggest, withdraw this clause.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I will take the noble Lord’s example away. I have given him a clear statement and he makes a reasonable point. I think there is an answer to it, but I will not just make it up; I want to give him a clear answer on that. Perhaps I can move on and deal with one or two other concerns.

Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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I am sorry to delay things yet further. We have had a lot of discussion about theoretical examples of what might happen. I tried to give your Lordships’ Committee a particular example of a case against the then Mayor of London. It was a notorious case and it took months in the courts to decide whether he was acting as a public authority or in his private capacity. Therefore, how can the Minister seem to think it so simple to decide when somebody is acting in a private capacity and when they are acting as a public authority, given that the one case that really got the public attention spent months in the courts before it was eventually determined that on that occasion he had been acting in a private capacity? I am sure that everybody can remember the case.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I am afraid that I am not familiar with that case, but I take the right reverend Prelate’s point. The way I have described this shows that in fact this is limited in intent; free speech is possible in a personal capacity. I will come on to say a little more about that and about decision-makers, because I know that we need to clear up those points and I am conscious of time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, highlighted that Ministers in the Scottish Government would be captured by this provision. As I have explained, as Ministers in the Scottish Government are public authorities for the purpose of human rights, they do not have ECHR protections in their public functions. It is clearly right that this provision should apply to Scottish Ministers to ensure that communities in Scotland are protected from these divisive statements, and foreign policy is a reserved matter. Additionally, Clause 1 applies only in relation to procurement and investment decisions in the exercise of public functions. Therefore, Clause 4 would not apply to statements made by Scottish Ministers about how they tend to act in their private lives.

Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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My Lords, I shall speak in favour of Amendment 54, to which I have added my name. I also support the other amendments in this group. I listened carefully to the previous debate. As other noble Lords have noted, there is a strong overlap between this and the previous group.

Again as others have said, my concern is that, before we pass this Bill, we get clarity on who it covers. I declare a particular interest in that those of us on these Benches, along with other diocesan bishops of the Church of England, do carry out public functions. From time to time, these might bring an individual, in our corporate capacity as bishop of a diocese, within whatever definition of a public body or authority we might eventually land on.

In responding to an earlier group debated before the Recess, the Minister referred to the fact that mayors, police and crime commissioners—and, indeed, Government Ministers—also exercise public functions and hence fall under the scope of the Bill. However, since what these officeholders have in common is that they are elected or appointed primarily to exercise political functions, I can see the logic that maybe they should not use their investment and procurement functions in order to pursue a foreign policy in contrast to that of His Majesty’s Government. Notwithstanding the fact that some diocesan bishops are members of your Lordships’ House, is it really intended that we, along with the small charitable funds for which we are responsible in our corporate personality, should fall under the scope of the Bill? If we place those modest charitable funds with an external investment body, do we have constantly to ensure that that entity does not at any point seek to make restrictions in contravention of the Bill, by investing our money where it should not be—or not investing it where it ought to be?

Other Church institutions are at potentially greater risk of being inadvertently caught up in the scope of the Bill. Noble Lords will be familiar with the Church Commissioners, the body that manages the historic endowments of the Church of England, for the furtherance of the mission and ministry of the Church in perpetuity. It was my great privilege to chair the commissioners’ board, until the end of last year, as the delegated deputy of my most reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury. During my tenure, we grew our reputation, alongside our sister pensions board, as being among the world’s leading ethical and responsible investors.

As noble Lords well know, the commissioners require parliamentary approval to spend capital. Indeed, I spoke before the Easter Recess when we brought just such a measure before your Lordships’ House. What noble Lords may not know is that six state officeholders, including the Prime Minister and the Lord Speaker, are ex officio Church Commissioners, notwithstanding that the Government make no contribution to the commissioners’ coffers. Noble Lords will have noted a plea there. The ability of the commissioners’ investment team to deploy assets in furtherance of our mission objectives is not a case of anyone taking taxpayers’ money and using it to pursue their own independent foreign policy, yet, on some readings, these Church bodies may be seen as being within the scope of the Bill. Can the Minister clarify whether such bodies are indeed in scope?

Beyond the Church of England, there are many religious, charitable and other foundations—across a variety of faiths and of no faith—which perform functions in areas such as education. We have heard that referred to before. I am a grammar school boy. I benefited from a scholarship. My widowed mother could never have paid school fees. Such bodies raise and hold endowment funds for such purposes in order to enable students and pupils from less well-off backgrounds, like mine, to fully access and benefit from their services. I know that goes on because I am regularly invited to donate.

What is true of schools is even more true of the endowment funds of universities and colleges. Let us suppose that such an institution receives an offer of funds from a private philanthropist in the UK or beyond who wishes to make some stipulation as to where the endowment may or may not be invested. This is private money. Would this Bill mean that the foundation has to refuse the money, not because the country that it wishes to boycott is already on the list but because it may come on to a subsequent list at some future date?

The simplest way out of this confusion is for the Bill to contain either a schedule of the types of bodies to which it applies, as in the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, to which I have added my name, or to use a definition that points to a well-defined list in existing legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, offered that earlier today in the previous group. The advantage of requests under the Freedom of Information Act is that they are ubiquitous and long-standing. I know because I get them all the time and turn them down because they do not apply to me. As we have already heard, this means that most institutions are now very clear as to whether FoI applies to them. The same cannot be said for other definitions, even those contained in the Human Rights Act. So, in responding to this debate, can the Minister let us know how His Majesty’s Government are going to provide the clarity over scope that will be essential for this Bill to become a workable Act?

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I declare an interest in the sense that my wife is a trustee of a major public orchestra. It does not receive public money, but I just make the point: if you do not receive public money, are you one of these public bodies? If you do, do you become one, and does that mean that you make a choice, which is quite a serious choice?

I also declare an interest because in my business we advise people on procurement and sustainability of procurement. I say to my noble friend that procurement is a very difficult issue on which to advise, because it is very widespread. What does it mean? It means almost everything from what might be called lavatory rolls at one end to procuring very large numbers of services or products. It can also cover the issue of the orchestra that procures another orchestra from abroad. As the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, said, it might have intended to bring an orchestra from, let us say, Russia to this country; if it then decides not to do so, is that the kind of decision that comes under the Bill?

I also have a concern, as the noble Baroness put forward, that the Secretary of State has an ability to remove from the exceptions things that for most of us are really important. If we are not to be allowed to procure on the basis of sustainability or climate change—things that really are existential issues—we have a serious problem, because on any definition of public bodies, the very bodies we are talking about are the ones that ought to be procuring and investing on those bases. The idea that this is only temporary, that it is in the Bill but can be removed by the arbitrary decision of the Secretary of State—and it could be arbitrary, because there is nothing in the Bill to say it is other than arbitrary—worries me considerably.

I rose not just to say that to my noble friend. I am afraid that the Government have a record of producing Bills that do not appear to have been carefully thought through. If the Bill had been produced to me as Secretary of State for the Environment, I would have sent it back and said, “There are too many questions in this, and I don’t want to have to present it to either House of Parliament because I can’t answer a number of the questions”. I do not blame my noble friend for not being able to answer some of these questions, but they are pretty fundamental, are they not? I just wonder what the Secretary of State responsible for the Bill said when it was brought in front of him. Did he ask what the definition of public body is or what a public function is? If he asked those questions, did he get answers? If he got answers, were they satisfactory, and why do we not have those answers when the questions are asked on the Floor of the House?

My worry is this. Out there large numbers of bodies, some of them very small, are worried that this will affect them. I do not believe that kind of legislation does us any good at all. Precision is absolutely crucial here, and we need to restrict this to a very clear, relatively small number of bodies and have a very clear understanding as to what it means.

If we take sporting bodies receiving government money—I cannot claim to be a sportsman and I declare no interests whatever on this front—it seems to me that if individual sportsmen wish to boycott something, the sporting body probably has to discuss that. If a body discusses that, it seems to me that under this Bill it can easily get itself into a position in which that is improper, if not illegal. Again, I do not see why people should have to ask themselves this question.

We are, at the moment, seeing a very inelegant discussion about individuals’ decisions on tax matters, pretty unfairly in most cases I have heard. It is difficult to understand quite a lot of the detailed tax legislation, but producing this legislation will ask a whole lot of other people to understand very detailed and extremely difficult concepts. I say to my noble friend that all I want is to feel that I could vote for something that I understand, and that other people can understand, which does not reach beyond the necessary areas and actually achieves some good. Those are three perfectly reasonable requests, but I am not sure that the Bill meets any of them so far.

Ministerial Code: Investigation of Potential Breach

Lord Bishop of Manchester Excerpts
Thursday 25th May 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I will not speculate on what might happen under a different Government. I remind the noble Lord that there have been a number of reports on ethics and integrity, including from Nigel Boardman and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and, as I said recently, we will lay our responses in Parliament in due course. However, I draw the House’s attention again to Sir Laurence Magnus, who has been appointed and has set off in a robust way. His report, which I promised would come out in May, is due to be published today—it may already have been or will be any minute.

I also draw attention to the fact that we strengthened the remit of the independent adviser in 2022. Slightly contrary to what the noble Lord was saying, the adviser now has the ability to initiate an investigation under the Ministerial Code after consulting with the Prime Minister, and the normal expectation is that the Prime Minister would agree to such an investigation. We have also updated the code to include more specific references to the duty on Ministers to provide the independent adviser with information reasonably necessary for carrying out the role. As I said before, we have also strengthened the arrangements for the office of the independent adviser, providing him with a dedicated secretariat of civil servants. However, I come back to the point I made before to the noble Baroness: this must be elective—it has to be democratic. That is why the Prime Minister decides on these matters.

Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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My Lords, I am struggling here. It seems to be a basic principle that justice should not only be done but seen to be done. These processes seem so arcane and opaque that I wonder whether the noble Baroness can assure us how this process passes that test—or does it not apply to the Ministerial Code?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I simply do not agree with the right reverend Prelate. The Prime Minister has been clear that professionalism, integrity and accountability are core values of the Government. A number of inquiries have been set up by the Prime Minister. He has moved quickly to set them up and to take steps when they have been completed. Most recently, he moved very quickly on the matter of the Home Secretary, which was causing a distraction earlier in the week. He consulted the independent adviser, who advised that on this occasion further investigation was not necessary, and the Prime Minister accepted that advice. As I said before, we need to be very careful to ensure that the Prime Minister has ultimate responsibility for the Ministerial Code. He reissued it in December when he came to power and he has made it clear that it is important that it is followed.