Monday, April 07, 2008

Declaration of interests - 1

Some readers of this blog may know that among the various hats I wear there is one that says Researcher, House of Lords. This accounts for my various postings full of praise or, sometimes, sorrow about the Upper House, the only part of the British Constitution (oh yes, we do have one, quite separately from the Consolidated Treaties) that still functions, more or less.

Before anybody jumps in, demanding to know what sort of emoluments I receive for this periodic work, let me assure all those who hold our honour (my colleague’s and mine) so dear, that being a researcher in the House of Lords has various advantages but does not pay the bills. So that’s that out of the way.

My sponsor is a cross-bench peer and, like all backbenchers, receives only daily expenses when he decides to come into the Chamber.

I am putting all this down to make it clear that we are not talking about vast sums or, indeed, any sums from the taxpayer coming my way or being used by the peer who sponsors my researcher’s pass. The work I do tends to be for various peers.

On Saturday I received a very courteous letter from the Registrar of Lords’ Interests, which explained that they were compiling a new Register of Members’ Secretaries and Research Assistants. Would I, therefore, fill in a form about my income outside the House of Lords (which, for most people in my position, means their income) and another form about any gifts or hospitality I may have received.

The second form is very easy. The answer is a big fat zero. Alas, I have to pay my way wherever I go. Actually, the first form is relatively simple, though my main employment is likely to come to an end in a couple of months’ time. I presume, it is the present situation they want to know about.

I presume what this is all about is whether research assistants can exercise improper influence on the peers who sponsor them or ask them to do any work. Clearly, they do not know my sponsoring peer or the others I may work for. One and all, they have strong and well-founded opinions, making no secret of them.

Still, there is nothing wrong with declaration of interests. I imagine those research assistants who do not do so, will manage to get away with it but the rest of us will comply. This means that anyone can check up how I earn money and what sort of gifts or hospitality I have received. And much good may it do them.

There is nothing wrong with declaring interests in the Chamber either. The Lords police themselves and tend to be quite strict on these matters.

As Lord Pearson of Rannoch mentioned in his speech to the Bruges Group, because one of his children is disabled, he has to mention this fact and his involvement with charities and organizations that help disabled children and their carers and teachers every time he speaks in a debate that is somehow related to the subject.

Whenever the Countess of Mar stands up to speak on matters to do with agriculture and animal welfare she declares the small farm she and her husband run, the goats and other livestock they keep, the milk, eggs and meat they sell in their farm shop. (Sadly, she has stopped making the world’s best goat’s cheese.)

A recent Report from the House of Lords Sub-Committee on Privleges reminded all members of the following points in the House of Lords Code of Conduct:
What is a relevant interest?

9. The test of relevant interest is whether the interest might reasonably be thought by the public to affect the way in which a Member of the House of Lords discharges his or her parliamentary duties.

10. The test of relevant interest is therefore not whether a Member's actions in Parliament will be influenced by the interest, but whether the public might reasonably think that this might be the case.

11. Relevant interests include both financial and non-financial interests.
All quite as it should be, you might say. However, there remains one exception to this rule. We have written about this before and numerous peers have spoken about it before.

Recipients of extremely handsome pensions from the EU, that is former Commissioners and MEPs, do not have to declare their pecuniary or any other interests when speaking in praise of the European project. It is worth recalling that the EU has the right to withdraw that pension, should any recipient make a statement that could be deemed to be against the interests of that organization. I don’t suppose they have ever done that to a former high official, not even when Lord Dahrendorf, a former Commissioner, spoke his many words of criticism.

For all of that, if a research assistant has to declare his or her employment outside the House of Lords, handsome pensions from the EU cannot be seen as irrelevant to the matter in hand.

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