Saturday 15 January 2011

Are Standards Slipping in the Lords?

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein asked the Leader of the House this week "what assessment he has made of the importance of behavioural and procedural conventions in the Chamber."

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, self-regulation works only when Members act to support it. It puts the responsibility on us all as individual Members, in our political groups and on the Cross Benches, to ensure that the rules set out in the Companion and the conventions of the House are adhered to in spirit as well as in letter.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, that is a very helpful reply, but does the noble Lord not agree that too many bad habits have been brought from the other place and are causing a problem, such as interrupting in timed debates and not giving way at Question Time? In a self-regulating House, these are extremely important and valuable parts of our procedure.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Viscount is the living embodiment of courtesy and good practice in this House and many of us would do well to emulate his behaviour. He is quite right that refusing to give way at Question Time is at odds with the usual courtesies extended in this House and that repeated interruptions are an aspect of behaviour that some argue have infiltrated from another place, which we should not be seeking to emulate. However, I think that there is general good will across the House to maintain some of the very good behaviour in the House when it is at its best. The best way of doing that is to follow the example of those who emulate that practice.

Lord Barnett: Is not the bigger problem ministerial behaviour? Is the noble Lord aware that some Ministers do not seem to understand government policy on transparency? I give one small example. I asked a very simple Question recently on whether the Treasury would supply information on what its representative on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England had said about interest rates and quantitative easing. The Answer that I got was that it was a matter for the Monetary Policy Committee to publish, but Ministers know that it never does. Will the noble Lord perhaps issue guidance to Ministers-some of them, not all-on government policy on transparency?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I do not agree that that is a bigger problem than concerns about the conventions and rules of this House. Ministers in the House of Lords have standing instructions to treat Back-Benchers from all sides of the House with utmost courtesy and to be as transparent as possible. If the noble Lord received an Answer from one of our Ministers that he did not like, that was still the right Answer to give.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the noble Viscount makes the important point that since the introduction of a number of colleagues from the other place the behaviour pattern of this House has changed. In light of that, will the noble Lord consider the role of the Lord Speaker to ensure that such rules and regulations are not flouted?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I know that some in this House would wish to see a greater role for the Chair, notably at Question Time, and no doubt they will have made representations to the Leader's Group, chaired by my noble friend Lord Goodlad. My view is that our existing practice, whereby it is the responsibility of the whole House and all Members present to draw attention to breaches of order and failures to observe custom, continues to serve us well, as the Question asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, today illustrates.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House remember that about 30 years ago, when he and I first became Members of this House, Baroness Hylton-Foster was Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers. If any new boy or girl in her flock transgressed, she took them aside later and came down on them like a ton of bricks. Would it not be a good idea if the leaders of the various parties were to do that today?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lady. I am sure that the current Convenor is as firm with her flock as was the noble Baroness 20 or 30 years ago. I point out that in 1998 the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, wrote a report that is worth rereading. I have suggested to the Clerk of the Parliaments that he should consider whether aspects of it should be republished and given to all noble Lords in an as easy-to-follow format as possible.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, like all noble Lords, I recognise the importance of behavioural and procedural conventions and, like the noble Lord, I believe that there is good will on all sides of the House. If any noble Lords sitting on my Benches have occasionally not adhered to behavioural conventions in the Chamber, the responsibility must lie with me as leader of the Labour group. Mea culpa-I will try to do better. Does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that one reason why we adhere to certain behavioural and procedural conventions is precisely to maintain the difference between this House and the other place? We are one Parliament with two Houses and we celebrate the distinctive characteristics of this House.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I very much welcome what the Leader of the Opposition has said. The whole House should recognise what she has said and the support that she has given to the current conventions and the rules as laid out in the Companion.