A depleted House of Lords has a tied vote on the Banking Bill

The weather problems have made it difficult for many members of the House of Lords to get in today – those travelling long distances have not been able to find trains or – even if there were trains – get to their stations in some rural areas.  As a result, attendance is sparse and we are at a critical stage in consideration of the Banking Bill:  the Bill is in Report – the stage when traditionally most of the key votes on amendments take place.

The Bill provides a statutory framework for Government intervention in failing banks and changes the objectives of the Bank of England so as to place an obligation on it to promote financial stability.   it is clearly a vital piece of his year’s legistative programme for the Government.

There have been two votes so far today: the first was won by the Government with a margin of twenty; and the second has just resulted in a tied vote (84 content; 84 not content) so the Tory amendment was not passed and in effect the Government won.  So as the temperature drops below freezing outside, the Whips are rushing round trying to make sure that no Labour Peer who has made it in tries to go home early.

Meanwhile, the pathway in front of the House of Lords entrance is an ice-rink because of – I am told – a dispute between Westminster City Council and Parliamentary authorities as to who is responsible for gritting it.

So was The Sunday Times acting in the public interest?

I’ve already made my views known about the tactics employed by The Sunday Times in pursuing their House of Lords story.  They did deceive: they purported to be from a fictitious public affairs company with a fictitious website and they said they were acting for a fictitious client.  They did try to entrap by coaxing those they saw to offer to do things that clearly should not be done.

But is the story itself in the public interest?  Well the answer has to be “Yes”.  It should not be possible for commercial (or any other) interests covertly to purchase changes to legislation.  As Leader of the House, Jan Royall, said this morning:

“the standards, probity and conduct of members of the House of Lords must be of the highest level”.

She has pledged that the investigations into the actions of individuals must be searching and fair.  This is right – all those named must have a full opportunity to defend themselves against the accusations against them.  It would be wrong to pre-judge the outcome of those investigations.

She has also initiated a full review by the Privileges Committee (not a Labour-dominated body incidentally – it has sixteen members: four Labour, five Conservative, two LibDems and five Cross-benchers) of the House’s rules governing external interests.  Again she made clear her position this morning:

“In the review of the rules of the House in this area – including the place of consultancy work, and whether we should have much more forceful sanctions against peers found to be in breach of the rules – I believe we do need to make changes. The House is a more modern and professional place in a very different world: we need to make sure our rules and structures reflect that.”

The outcome of this review will, I hope, be much clearer rules and guidelines as to what members of the House can and cannot do (with appropriate – and significant – sanctions available against anyone who goes outside those rules).

If that is the consequence of The Sunday Times story, then that result is in the public interest.

If it also helps bring about a proper debate about the role of the Second Chamber and the purpose people want it to fulfil in our system of government within our unwritten constitution, then that too is unequivocally something to be welcomed.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like the journalistic tactics to which I personally was subjected …….

So what is it like to be the subject of an under-cover journalist sting?

The answer is unpleasant. 

About three weeks ago out of the blue I received a phone call from a woman calling herself Claire Taylor, purporting to be from a Brussels-based public affairs company, called MJ Associates.  She said they were working with a client that wanted to understand the workings of Parliament better and could she discuss it further with me.  After an exchange of emails, I met her and the colleague she brought with her.  They asked about the consultancy and advisory work I do.  They told me they represented a Chinese retail company that wanted to expand its High Street presence but were concerned about the draft legislation on supplementary business rates.

They must have been disappointed that I specifically said I would not move amendments to a bill or ask Parliamentary Questions on behalf of any client, that I would not arrange introductions for them or their clients, nor would I make any representations on their behalf. 

However, they persisted and I told them I was happy to explain to people how the Parliamentary and political processes worked and the backgound to policies being supported by the major political parties, that I offered strategic (non-Parliamentary) advice to a number of organisations including to one or two overseas companies.   

I did not agree to do any work with them and said, if they wanted to pursue it further, they would have to put something in writing, so I could look at in detail and decide whether it was appropriate.  To be honest, I was slightly suspicious: they seemed rather naive and kept pushing me to offer to do things that, if they were genuinely who they said they were, they should have known were improper. 

I didn’t hear any more from them.  Finally, ten days later – last Friday morning, I got a call from The Sunday Times, saying that the people from MJ Associates were actually undercover reporters: the whole thing had been an attempt at entrapment.  And, of course, while I had made it clear, I would not do those things that would have been improper, a clever journalist can write a story full of hints and innuendo, taking what was said out of context and by only using selected parts of what was said create a sensational and damaging story. 

In the event, I was not named in yesterday’s Sunday Times story, but as I was one of those approached by the under-cover journalists in question, I have asked to appear before the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Privileges that will be looking into the issues raised by the Sunday Times story.  I am confident that I did not breach any of the House’s rules, nor did I offer to do so.  Nevertheless, as I was one of the subjects of the journalists’ deception and attempted entrapment, it is clearly important that the Sub-Committee have the opportunity to question me.

Even in the House of Lords emotions run high as Barack Obama is sworn in as US President

More than fifty Labour Peers packed into the office of the Leader of the House of Lords to listen to the swearing in and inaugural address of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States.  This couldn’t happen in the House of Commons – just as President Obama stepped forward to begin his address, their division bells rang so MPs had to go and vote.  No divisions in the Lords (none so far this Session – they will come later), so no interruptions and even Labour Peers fell silent to listen (apart from one wit pointing out that even the most articulate American President in over fifty years still stumbled over the oath of office).  And yes, it was an emotional moment as those present listened to those words of hope and repositioning of the United States.  The hard work begins now ….

Vauxhall Labour Party comes to the House of Lords

I have just hosted a meeting of Vauxhall Labour Party members in a House of Lords Committee Room.  This followed a request months ago from the Party Secretary, saying that it would be good to have a members’ meeting to discuss the work of the House of Lords and the proposals for Lords’ reform.  Despite the time of year and the flu/cough that seems to be afflicting a high proportion of Londoners at the moment, the meeting was reasonably attended with more than twenty making the pilgrimage across the river.  The discussion was enlivened by the presence of not only the current MP, Kate Hoey, but also of two former MPs (for other constituencies).  As a result, my remarks about the House of Lords being the end of the Palace of Westminster where most of the work is done, in terms of Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, did not go unchallenged!

Interestingly, the members present were not convinced by the current proposals for House of Lords reform ….

Gerald Kaufman gets it right: MPs’ self-importance does not resonate with the public

Gerald Kaufman MP has it right in a Guardian article today.  First, there is a bit of Kaufman-esque rhetoric:

“People confined in closed institutions can tend, if circumstances provoke, to become self-absorbed to the point of the irrational. Such a state of mind can arise in an army camp, a prison, a boarding school, or a parliamentary building.”

followed by the key point:

“We are called the House of Commons for a very good reason. We do our best to represent our constituents but we, rightly, have no status that inflates us above our constituents. We, rightly, unlike MPs from some other countries, have no immunity from arrest.”

The simple fact is that MPs (and for that matter members of the House of Lords) are not above the law.  We may play a part in making laws but that does not make us exempt from them.

As far as the public are concerned, MPs are hardly highly regarded and they already think that MPs are paid too much and award themselves too many perks.  For some MPs to try and take on a new privilege – that MPs should be exempt from the criminal law – is hardly going to improve public confidence.