The House of Lords today agreed two new, stronger sanctions to deal with future behaviour that breaches the Code of Conduct. The previous difficulty of only being able to suspend a Member until the end of a Parliament has been overcome. Suspension is now available as a sanction for any length of time that the House considers appropriate. Furthermore, for the first time the House now has the power to expel permanently.
The number of Members who break the House's rules is small. Most work hard and provide a valuable service in inviting the Government to "think again" about big issues, scrutinising legislation and informing public policy debates. But the actions of a few damage our reputation.
Scandals make good headlines. Preventive measures seldom do. It is not surprising that more column inches are devoted to scandals than to measures taken by the House to prevent wrongdoing by its Members. It has not been widely reported that the House of Lords has taken major steps in the past five years to protect its reputation and punish misconduct by its Members, although the improvements we have made were recognised recently in a Transparency International report in which the House of Lords came second out of all the UK parliaments and assemblies for transparency and integrity systems.
In recent years, the House has strengthened the rules themselves (contained in the Code of Conduct). All Members now sign a declaration to obey the code and the seven principles of public life. They undertake always to put the public interest first. The requirement that Members must always act on their personal honour has been reinforced. An indication of willingness to breach the code is now itself a breach of the code, even if nothing more has been done. For this reason Members caught in sting operations by journalists have been found guilty of breaking the code even though nothing happened beyond a discussion about what they might do for future (bogus) employers.
Members are strictly forbidden to lobby government ministers or officials in return for payment or other reward.
All relevant financial and non-financial interests held by Members must be disclosed in the register of interests, which is publicly available at parliament.uk. There is a comprehensive system in place to advise Members on their obligations to disclose and to follow up complaints that they have failed to do so.
All gifts and hospitality which are worth more than £140 and relate to membership of the House must be declared in the register of interests. This sum is cumulative over the course of a year. In addition, new guidance on lobbying advises Members not to accept any but the most trifling of gifts from lobbyists, even if below the threshold for disclosure in the register.
Members' staff are also now subject to a code of conduct. This requires them to disclose in a published register all their other employers, and forbids them from using their access to Parliament to lobby on behalf of third parties. This provides reassurance that Members' staff cannot abuse their privileged access to the parliamentary estate.
All allegations of breaches of the members' code or the staff code are investigated by the independent House of Lords Commissioner for Standards. In addition to receiving complaints from the public, the Commissioner can himself launch an investigation into a Member's conduct. The parliamentary website gives information about his work.
The House has actively used its available penalties: ten Members have been suspended since 2009; and the new power to expel Members will make the disciplinary process even more robust.
No system of regulation can be perfect, but the House of Lords has come a long way since 2010 in improving its regulation of its Members and punishing the small number who misbehave. Today's new sanctions strengthen the regime further.
Lord Sewel is a life peer and chairman of committees in the House of Lords
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