Public office, private conduct

73285The allegations against Lord Sewel have generated significant media interest in the House of Lords.  This has encompassed exploring the role and functions of the House.  Much of the coverage reveals notable ignorance about the House and, in the case of Lord Sewel, the position he held.  (I don’t think I have come across any media coverage that has clearly understood the role of the Chairman of Committees.)  Greater knowledge is a good thing, but is overshadowed by the fact that it has brought out the usual brigade, not least on Twitter, who generalise from an N of 1 (‘tip of an iceberg’ and the like) and has led to various media making a link between the allegations and debate about reform of the House.  But what link?  The allegations relate to private conduct.  As far as I am aware, there was no attempt to induce him to take a particular stance of some issue of public policy.  He was not being offered financial inducements to pursue a particular cause.  The allegations as to conduct (drugs, prostitutes) are remarkably similar to those levelled against junior minister and MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, Anthony Lambton, in 1973.  No one on that occasion, as I recall, made any link between his conduct and calls for reform of the House of Commons.

There have been various calls for the House to take action.  It now has powers it previously lacked.  Thanks to the work of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, we have on the statute book the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 (enabling peers to resign) and House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 (giving the House the power to expel members and extending its power to suspend members).  Whether the powers under the latter Act are utilised depends on whether there has been a breach of the code of conduct.  The code is concerned primarily with actions taken as a parliamentarian, not as a private person, but behaviour as a private person engages the code if it involves breaking the law and results in a conviction and sentence.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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10 Responses to Public office, private conduct

  1. Mark Shephard says:

    Good point + very informative

  2. Jennie says:

    Allegations HAVE. Not has.

    Personally I think what he does on his own time is his business and bears no reflection on his conduct in the house at all; of course the Lords are desperately in need of reform, but as you say, not because someone had a Keith Richards experience outside of working hours.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Well spotted – corrected.

    • maude elwes says:

      From my point of view, this is a naive response. Collective responsibility is what we all have one way or another. And pretending otherwise is foolish.

      I had given a full response to this suggestion on LOTB, it has yet to be moderated.

      • tizres says:

        Maude, there appears to be an issue with LotB’s comments, likely, in part, to be connected to Beccy Allen’s departure (all hail The Beccy). I have also noted that the usual screen refresh after posting – one’s comment with a ‘waiting to be moderated’ addition – has gone walkies, leaving me to wonder if there is a separate underlying problem.

        The valedictory email from Beccy auto-responsed me to virginia@hansardsociety.org.uk, which then auto-responsed to contact@hansardsociety.org.uk . Nothing back from Mr/Ms Contact yet…

      • maude elwes says:

        @ Tizres,

        Many thanks for the information update. I had wondered what had happened there as it used to be kept extremely well up to date. I’m sad to hear of Beccy’s departure. She was so good at what she did. At least I thought so. She kept me quickly informed on any decision she made whilst moderating my input. Which was sometimes difficult.

        No chance of her returning I suppose? Perhaps a salary increase or a very pretty please? Better hours? Whatever the obstacle of her leaving surely can be sorted?

        If not, I wish her well in her new position, she is missed.

        Maude

  3. tizres says:

    The nub of the matter is within Lord Sewel’s resignation statement:

    “The question of whether my behaviour breached the Code of Conduct is important, but essentially technical. The bigger questions are whether my behaviour is compatible with membership of the House of Lords and whether my continued membership would damage and undermine public confidence in the House of Lords. I believe the answer to both these questions means that I can best serve the House by leaving it.”

    The House of Lords Code of Conduct, para 3, makes clear that:
    “…save for paragraphs 16 and 17, the Code does not extend to Members’ performance of duties unrelated to parliamentary proceedings, or to their private lives”

    Thus, Lord Sewel believes the Code of Conduct is deficient. Lord Soley agrees, as revealed in his recent letter to Baroness D’Souza, suggesting that a new clause should be added to the rules (he says rules, the Code says guidelines, I say…well, you know).

    To date, then: a peer resigns, as expected to, given the latest reforms. The press continue to publish re-creations of events starring men caught in various states of weakness.

    Next.

    * I’ve posted this three times in LotB ( http://lordsoftheblog.net/2015/07/29/creating-a-link-that-doesnt-exist/ ) and all have failed. I have emailed three times to LotB, but no reply and, obviously, no action taken.

    Whatevs.

    • Lord Norton says:

      tizres: Paragraphs16 and 17 cover criminal activity where a peer is convicted and sentenced to 12 months or fewer (including a suspended sentence); anything over 12 months triggers expulsion under the 2014 Act. It is thus a question as to whether the Code should cover activity in private that is not contrary to law. There are very serious issues raised by Lord Soley’s suggestion. Who decides where the dividing line is, or should a peer be immediately suspended whatever allegation is made?

      • tizres says:

        Exactly so. Thanks to Lord Soley’s party, it takes employers weeks/months to dismiss for gross misconduct, and at great cost in terms of both money and reputation (something Mr Balls surprisingly forgot when, live on TV, he effectively sacked Ms Shoesmith).

        As part of the collective House of Lords, Lord Soley has had opportunities to amend [sic] the Code of Conduct. As the Code stands, and as indulgently fond as I am of Lord Soley, the timing of his letter was lousy.

      • tizres says:

        Oh, and I notice my comment on LotB to B Deech went through without a hitch, including the screen refresh. Very odd.

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