House votes to suspend two peers

Lord Norton

_42544443_lords_bbc203The House this evening agreed to suspend two peers, Lords Truscott and Taylor of Blackburn.  After a very good debate, the House agreed, without a vote, to accept the first report of the Privileges Committee (thus agreeing that we had the power to suspend members) as well as the second (with its findings in respect of the four peers considered by the committee).  The House then, again without a vote, agreed to two motions, the first to suspend Lord Truscott for the rest of the session and the second to suspend Lord Taylor of Blackburn for the rest of the session.

In addition to the party leaders, and the convenor of the cross-bench peers, there was  heavyweight support from leading legal figures in the House, including those who have held office as Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Lord Mackay of Clashfern), Attorney General (Lord Morris of Aberavon, Lord Goldsmith) and Law Lord (Lord Lloyd of Berwick).  Only Baroness Mallaleui, a barrister, spoke against, but her argument (that the procedures may be against the provisions of the Human Rights Act) were immediately and authoritatively countered by Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the leading human rights lawyer. 

One could take the view that the penalty was severe, given that no member has been suspended since 1642, and on the other that it was not severe enough, given that the period to the end of the session (especially if counted in sitting months) is a short one.  It does, though, demonstrate that the House is now willing to use the power to suspend peers who contravene the rules of the House.

There is also the recognition that this not the end of the process.  We need also to review how we regulate our conduct as well as our system of allowances.  The House Committee last night agreed to have an external review.

UPDATE: The debate can be read here.

10 comments for “House votes to suspend two peers

  1. Joe Z
    21/05/2009 at 8:41 am

    What does it mean for the house to accept something without a vote?

  2. lordnorton
    21/05/2009 at 9:04 am

    Joe Z: Strictly speaking, I should have said division rather than vote, since technically the motions were agreed on what would be termed a voice vote.

    When a motion is put, those wishing to support it are invited to say ‘Content’ and those opposing it are then invited to say ‘Not Content’. If some members say ‘Content’ and no one says ‘Not Content’, the occupant on the Woolsack announces ‘The Contents have it’ and the motion is agreed. However, if some members say ‘Not Content’, then a division ensues. Yesterday, when each of the motions was put, peers shouted ‘Content’. No one shouted ‘Not Content’. The motions were thus agreed without us having to vote in the division lobbies.

  3. Tony Woolf
    21/05/2009 at 9:04 am

    I’ve spoken to a few people about this and all of them think that this punishment is completely inadequate. It seems to me that making the law is even more important than interpreting the law. If a judge took a backhander for altering their interpretation of the law, I don’t think they’d get away with a short suspension.

  4. lordnorton
    21/05/2009 at 11:06 am

    Tony Woolf: Thanks for the comment. The important distinction is that if a judge took a backhander, he or she could clearly determine the judgement that is made. Individual peers, or MPs, cannot simply change the law. Here, two peers indicated they would be willing to have a financial arrangement to help get an amendment tabled. No money changed hands and no contracts signed. It is not a case of ‘money to change law’ as some media claim, but rather offers of payment for amendments to be tabled. A peer, or an MP, cannot simply get the law changed. The Government has to be persuaded of the merits of the amendment and both Houses have to be persuaded of the merits of the amendment. Offering to pay someone to table an amendment is as stupid as any parliamentarian accepting money to table an amendment. If someone has a suggestion for an amendment – one that clearly has merit and is worth considering – a member will be willing to pursue it and to do so on its merits.

    For indicating a willingness to behave in the way that they did, the two peers have suffered the ignomy of being the first for nearly four centuries to be suspended. The length of the suspension is less important than the fact of it.

    • Tony Woolf
      22/05/2009 at 5:29 pm

      I do understand the difference between tabling an amendment and changing the law. However anyone tabling an amendment would be expected to vote for it and to try to persuade others to do so. So potentially they could influence the law. It is a vital point of principle.
      The fact that no harm was done in this case is just as well. What a mess we would be in if we found that law might actually have been influenced by rewards of any sort given to peers. I hope that is something I never see in Britain.
      As for the punishment, you say “the two peers have suffered the ignomy of being the first for nearly four centuries to be suspended. The length of the suspension is less important than the fact of it.” To which I would reply, I dare say that other peers have deserved to be suspended or worse in the past few hundred years. Precedent is a good guide but must not be the ultimate authority.
      The peers in question appear on the face of it to be completely unsuitable to have the privileges of peers, and they should not have them unless they can positively show that this has changed.

  5. Senex
    21/05/2009 at 4:45 pm

    In the debate Letters Patent were said to be issued by the Crown.

    As the Crown in Parliamentary speak is normally the government one assumes that in this case it means the Monarchy?

    As the house has the power to imprison peers what stopped it from doing so in this case? I believe contradictions are involved?

  6. lordnorton
    21/05/2009 at 5:46 pm

    Senex:The Crown in this respect does indeed refer to the monarch. The House is deemed to hold the power to fine or imprison, but Lord Mackay referred to these powers existing in theory but constituting “options which are now unworkable in practice” (para.53 of his memorandum).

  7. ladytizzy
    21/05/2009 at 8:51 pm

    I can understand the ignomy, but it would be better if there was true contrition – did they receive money and, if so, should they return it to the sender or the taxpayer?

  8. lordnorton
    21/05/2009 at 11:31 pm

    ladytizzy: No money changed hands. The actions consisted of indicating a willingness to accept payment.

  9. lordnorton
    22/05/2009 at 6:52 pm

    Tony Woolf: The essential point is that the amendments would not get anywhere if they lacked merit. If they had merit, an organisation would not need to offer any inducements for someone to table them. However, no peer should accept any inducement for pursuing an amendment, or indeed undertaking any other parliamentary activity. In this case, no amendments were tabled. What we were dealing with were peers who had indicated a willingness to try to influence legislative outcomes in return for some financial reward. It cannot be proved that they would have actually done so. ‘The Sunday Times’ went to print rather than waiting to see if anything more substantive could be produced.

    You are quite right that there are peers who in the past couple of hundred years probably deserved suspension or expulsion. (In those days, social pressure may have been sufficient to achieve such outcomes.) It is anticipated that stronger disciplinary powers for the House will be included in the forthcoming Constitutional Renewal Bill.

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