We now come to the debate on the code of conduct and on all-party groups. Motion 5 relates to the report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges on the revised code of conduct, which will be debated together with motion 6, which relates to all-party groups. Mr Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of Mr Charles Walker—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you rightly say, there are two motions on the Order Paper in my name. The first is the more important: it invites the House to approve a revised code of conduct. The House of Commons has long had resolutions covering conduct, but the idea of a code of conduct is relatively recent. It was not until 1995 that the House endorsed the principle of such a code. Since then, the code has been revised, in 2002 and in 2005. This is only the fourth version of the code since the first version was approved in 1996.
In approving the code of conduct today, the House will be setting the framework for the rules that will, I hope, last for the remainder of this Parliament and into the next. It is important to be clear about what the code is for. It is not a rule book that sets out precise instructions about what is and is not permissible in each case. As the commissioner has set out in a memorandum attached to our report, it is a document that establishes
“broad high-level principles in relation to the main areas of a Member’s conduct”
“provides a high-level statement of the specific rules to which Members will be held to account”.
All those who responded to the commissioner’s consultation supported this approach. Relying on detailed rules designed to meet every eventuality creates the risk that people will be encouraged to game the system. We have only to look at the creativity of tax avoidance schemes to see that. The code has a broader function: it helps us to ensure that we behave in a way that is consistent with the seven principles of public life—the Nolan principles, which are part of the code and which underpin its provisions. Where appropriate, the code is supplemented by more detailed statements of some of the rules, such as the guide to the rules, and the rules on the use of House facilities, but Members have ultimate responsibility for ensuring that they abide by the principles of the code.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has the task of reviewing the code and making recommendations to the Committee. In 2002, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that this should be done once in each Parliament. Following the expenses scandal, we judged it better to defer a review of the code in the last Parliament, in order to give Members of the new Parliament an opportunity to review it in the light of experience.
The commissioner’s memorandum to the Committee sets out all the changes to the code clearly, and explains the reasoning behind each of them. Our report focuses on all the provisions that we consider most significant. Broadly speaking, the commissioner’s proposals have the effect of making the code clearer and removing some repetitions and infelicities. The most significant proposed change is in paragraph 2 of the code. The current code
“does not seek to regulate what Members do in their purely private and personal lives”,
but it does extend to their wider public lives. Our proposal is that the code will no longer apply to Members’ wider public lives. As the commissioner points out, Members’ behaviour in their wider public life will be policed by other regulatory bodies, and there will be no need for the House to intervene.
There is an important proviso to the exclusion from the code of private and personal lives or wider public life. Those areas should be excluded unless
“such conduct significantly damages the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole or of its Members generally.”
That is not an entirely new provision. Paragraph 15 of the present code stipulates that Members should
“never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute.”
Personal life is currently excluded from the code, but a Member’s wider public life is not. The code will extend only to conduct which
“significantly damages the reputation and integrity of the Commons as a whole or of its Members generally”.
That is a very high hurdle indeed.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the amendment, which also stands in my name would prevent the commissioner from becoming involved in issues that were entirely private, while leaving scope for the investigation of breaches in which a personal matter crossed over into a political matter?
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. I was about to move on to talk about the amendment, and we can look at that question in a moment.
The amendment is also in the name of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), and I am sure that he will explain it later in the debate. It raises significant questions. As I understand it, the amendment would mean that matters relating to a Member’s private and personal life which damaged the reputation and integrity of the House or of Members generally would remain within the scope of the code, but that the commissioner would be precluded from investigating complaints about such matters.
That raises a number of difficult questions. How would the boundaries of private and personal lives be defined? Would a matter remain private and personal if, for example, it had led to criminal behaviour or a failure to comply with civil obligations? Does something remain purely private and personal when it has been running all over the press and the internet for six or seven days? What is an investigation? Would the commissioner be precluded from giving a Member the chance to put his or her side of the story in private, rather than before the Committee as a whole? If the commissioner were unable to investigate extreme cases involving a Member’s personal and private life, would the Committee be expected to investigate them? If so, the Member’s safeguards would be reduced, as the Committee would investigate and pronounce sentence. I would feel uncomfortable about that. We are an adjudication Committee; we do not carry out investigations. The amendment seems to suggest that we might do so, however.
I understand colleagues’ fears that complaints could flood in about private lives, and that the commissioner might have to investigate matters that were properly no one’s business but that of the Member concerned. That is not what is intended. The House should have trust in the commissioner, in the Committee and in itself. Serious cases of a fall in standards should be decided on the Floor of the House, and not by the commissioner or by the Committee.
I am confident that the commissioner will not investigate purely private matters. If some future commissioner did so, I am confident that the Committee would take a robust approach, and that any serious sanction recommended by the Committee would come to the House, which would decide whether it was merited. I ask Members to have faith that all those involved, including the House, would use common sense if these measures were ever applied. I, for one, hope that they never will be.
The new provision is intended only for extreme circumstances, described by the commissioner as those in which a Member’s conduct in certain extremely limited circumstances is so serious and so blatant that it causes significant damage to the reputation of the House. In my judgment, it would be even more damaging to the reputation of the House and to the public’s confidence in the code of conduct—which is one of its key purposes—if the House were unable to take action to express its disapproval and uphold its standards in such circumstances.
This is a hypothetical example, but let me carry on with it. Let us say that a Member committed fraud, not against the public purse but against a family member, and it was argued that this was a purely personal matter. Let us say that this Member was sentenced in a criminal court for six months; would that not be a matter for this House?
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He has answered my question in one sense, in that the only example he has adduced is one that is patently not “purely private and personal”, but criminal. By definition, then, it would not fall within the scope of the amendment.
I have to say that I am not too sure about that, as I do not know the intent behind the amendment, which does not make things as clear as the change in the code does. It could be argued on a point of law that the action taken was not a matter for Parliament because it was a personal action. It might be a criminal action—
Wait. Under the circumstances I described, when someone was sentenced to six months in jail, according to the law and according to the current rules of this House, that individual concerned—obviously, I hope this never happens—would remain a Member because we do not have the legal provisions to get rid of him at present. That is something that we need to consider.
We are looking at paragraph 15 of the current code of conduct and paragraph 16 of the amended code of conduct. It is curious that the wording has been changed. Paragraph 15, which is where we are at the moment and seems to me to be sensible, says:
“Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust”—
that is good—
“and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute.”
The key is “into disrepute”, and it is well known; everyone understands it. Now, for some reason—I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would be good enough to explain it—paragraph 16 says simply:
“Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally”,
but leaves out the whole question of disrepute. What is the difference and why the change?
I will come back to that, if I may, but I want to carry on citing what the commissioner said in the memorandum, which the Committee accepted. He continued:
“But the conduct would need to be so serious and so blatant as to make it imperative that the House be given the opportunity to consider the damage done to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole or of its Members generally.”
The code does not seek to judge the behaviour as right or wrong—only the effect it has on the reputation and standing of the House. In my view, that is a hugely important thing to defend in our democracy, particularly after the events of the last four years.
Let me deal with other issues that we need to look at. The Government are currently consulting on proposals to allow the House to decide whether or not to permit the opening of a recall petition in cases where the House considers a Member’s conduct warrants it. Does that mean purely in respect of their public life, or does it mean in their private or personal life as well? I think that we stray into these issues with the amendment, which is why I think the House would be better to stand back from it and have a look at things in the round at a later stage. Without a provision such as the one I am proposing, the House risks being either ineffectual, because the code does not allow it to deal with behaviour that everyone agrees is reprehensible, or arbitrary because it takes action even though such behaviour is not covered by the code. That seems to be the intention. The alternative is that we end up relying on legal semantics to decide whether something is still “purely personal and private”, which is absolutely not how the code should operate.
As our report says, this is a provision for extreme circumstances. It does not invite the Committee or the House to judge a Member’s purely private and personal relationships and will not be used to do so. This is not to turn the House into a moral arbiter, but to allow it to protect the integrity of Parliament. It is a judgment on the effect of a Member’s conduct on that vital objective, not a judgment on the Member’s morals.
I cannot support the amendment, but I can suggest an alternative, more appropriate, way forward. The commissioner consults the Committee on certain matters. For example, if someone is referred to the police because the commissioner is concerned about a police investigation that might have implications for the criminal law, the commissioner comes to the Committee and provides evidence to show why the referral should take place. We are then asked either to agree it or reject it. Paragraph 104 of the guide to the rules also makes it clear that the Committee expects to be consulted before accepting an investigation of a complaint against a former Member, a complaint that goes back more than seven years, or one where a member has asked the commissioner to investigate allegations without being the subject of a specific complaint. With a self-referral, the commissioner has to come before the Committee and ask our permission for this to take place. The commissioner is currently consulting on revisions to the guide to the rules.
Let me say to the House and to those who tabled the amendment that I would be happy to ask the Committee to consider adding consideration of complaints relating to a Member’s private and personal life to the category of matters for which the commissioner should not accept investigation without first consulting the Committee.
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would want to point out that the commissioner has tried in the new version to separate what are aspirations for us all to behave well from things that we really should not do. If my hon. Friend were to look at page 42 of the review of the code, he would see that paragraph 15 is now different because of the separation in part 2 of certain aspirational requirements of the code from those things that we really must not do, which appear in the later parts of the code. It is largely a stylistic matter. I wondered whether the right hon. Gentleman might want to make that point.
I apologise for not being in my place for the start of the debate; I was rather taken aback by the speed of previous proceedings. Let me try to put it this way. Building on what the right hon. Gentleman said a few moments ago, would he accept that the purpose of paragraph 16A is to create a presumption against investigation of private life unless the Committee determines in its judgment that such an investigation should take place?
Yes, I understand that point, but I fear that the intention could be misinterpreted. I fully understand the issue that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises, and I hope that the hon. Member for Broxbourne will tell us about the amendment in more detail. If it is withdrawn, it will be perfectly possible to return to the issue when the revised guide to the rules comes before us in the not-too-distant future. That revision to the guide will be more detailed than what appears in the current three-page code of conduct, which is out for consultation. If the Committee itself has not proposed that the commission should consult before opening an inquiry into personal and private matters, the House could insert such a provision, but I feel that the provision would be more helpful in the guidance than in a code of conduct that tends to contradict elements of it.
The other important clarification is the introduction of a new paragraph 15 making it clear that Members are personally responsible for the extent to which their use of expenses and allowances accords with the rules. Clearly there is nothing new in that. The current Members’ handbook warns Members that the facilities and services of the House are provided to assist Members in their parliamentary work and should be used appropriately.
Defining parliamentary purposes is, of course, not easy. Members’ roles are various, and we are, with very rare exceptions, elected as party candidates and uphold our parties in Parliament. That is very different from using public funding for party campaigning, or to support party organisations. Having considered the definition extremely carefully, the Committee recommends that the rules make it clear that public money should not be used to
“confer undue advantage on a political organisation”.
Most of the other changes consist of clarifications and re-ordering to make the code more coherent. One change that has attracted some comment is the proposal to remove paragraph 12 of the code, which refers to the need to be open and frank with Ministers, Members and officials. We suggest that it should be included in a new paragraph 13, which would also cover the declaration and registration of interests in the House. That would make it clear that Members should
“always be open and frank in drawing attention to any relevant interest in any proceeding of the House or its House or its Committees, and in any communications with Ministers, Members, public officials or public office holders.”
That is a clarification rather than a substantive change. Its roots lie in one of the more painful cases that the Committee has had to consider: the so-called Lobbygate, in which Members were drawn into discussing jobs that they might undertake after they had left the House. One of the cases arising from that involved the failure of my good friend Mr Richard Caborn to declare an interest in a meeting with the chairman of a health authority. At the time, it was argued that the rules governing declaration did not cover such cases, as the person concerned was not a Minister or a civil servant. Our judgment was that the spirit of the rules was clear: their purpose was to ensure that Members were transparent in their dealings with people who might be in a position to influence public policy or the spending of public money. However, we believed that the rules could be better expressed, and these changes achieve that.
One of the great sadnesses involved in dealing with standards cases is that we must deal with what comes before us. The Committee cannot simply refuse to look into a matter because it was a case of entrapment or a single transgression in a distinguished career, and there are a limited number of sanctions that it can recommend to the House. It is a mark of the respect and affection in which Richard Caborn is held that extremely senior people have asked the Committee to reconsider his case. We have considered the matter carefully on more than one occasion, but ultimately we decided that we had considered the rules carefully at the time of our original finding.
It may help, however, if I discuss some of the matters that were set out clearly in the original report and debate. The commissioner and the Committee agreed that the breach of the rules was inadvertent. As I said at the time, the penalty that we proposed was
“intended to be light, because we recognised that Mr Caborn did not intend to breach the rules or to bring the House or its Members generally into disrepute.”
An inadvertent slip should not obscure Mr Caborn’s long record of distinguished public service, and I hope that it does not do so.
As one of those who made representations to my right hon. Friend on behalf of my former colleague the then Member of Parliament for Sheffield, Central, I welcome the tenor and nature of his speech. Does he agree that in future, and specifically in the guidance that is to be offered, there should be absolute transparency about the operation of the Committee and about basic rules of fairness? For instance, should the guidance not make clear what is a constituency matter and what is not? Richard Caborn has rightly argued that that was a problem in the interpretation of the previous rule.
I do not want to go into any great detail, but the changes in the code are intended to do precisely that. They are intended to clarify areas so that they are not open to interpretation—or, some would argue, misinterpretation—in years to come.
The code does not need radical revision, but it does need to evolve to meet the changing expectations and circumstances of not just the House of Commons but the public outside, and, as I have said, it needs to be as clear as possible. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the commissioner for his thorough consideration of the code and the work that he has done to produce a clearer, more coherent document, which I commend to the House. I hope that those who tabled the amendment will reconsider their position, but we will be able to revisit it. The guidance will reassure the House that no commissioner will be able to forage into areas that would be unfair on Members of Parliament, and I hope that that will be acknowledged.
I also hope that the second motion will prove entirely uncontroversial. It introduces an additional register to record the interests of those who provide secretariats for all-party groups. It will deal with an anomaly between the registration requirements for staff of all-party groups and those for Members’ staff. It will make the arrangements easier to administer, and will reduce the risk that, owing purely to inadvertence, interests will not be registered. The proposal is the result of a paper from the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests, and the Committee is grateful to her for it. The staff of all-party groups are currently required to register only income from employment, whereas secretaries and research assistants are also required to register gifts, benefits and hospitality. The motion proposes that the registration requirements should be the same for both groups.
The motion also proposes the transferring of the requirement to register to the staff member from the Member who is the registered contact for the all-party group, who may not be closely involved in the group’s administration. That would make it easier to ensure that the registration requirements are complied with, as the relevant forms can be issued with pass applications, and it will not be necessary for an officer of the group to take such action. As Members may know, the Speakers of the two Houses have set up a bicameral working group to consider all-party groups. I am a member of it, as are others who are in the Chamber this evening. There may be more changes to come, but there is no need for us to delay this change.
I trust that the House will approve my modest proposal to streamline and tighten the registration requirements for staff of all-party groups. Indeed, I hope that it will agree to both motions. I look forward to ending any misgivings relating to one of the reports at a later stage in our proceedings.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron). Let me begin by paying tribute to the work of his Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. A great deal of thought has gone into their review, and much of what is suggested makes perfect sense. However, my amendment seeks to address and limit the no doubt well-intentioned recommendation that will allow the commissioner to broaden his remit into investigating and adjudicating on Members’ conduct in their wider private and personal lives. I believe that that proposed intrusion into Members’ private and personal lives is a step too far, and I am worried about where it may lead the commissioner and the House if left unamended.
Justifying an extension of the commissioner’s powers, the Committee states on page 11 of its report, paragraph 2, that
“The Code does not seek to regulate the conduct of Members in their purely private and personal lives or in the wider conduct of their public lives unless such conduct significantly damages the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole or of its Members generally.”
If deconstructed, however, that statement, far from limiting the new powers of the commissioner in the area of Members’ private and personal lives, gives him almost unlimited scope to investigate any action committed in this space on the basis that it is potentially damaging to the reputation of Parliament and its Members. A less generous, but accurate, interpretation of paragraph 2, page 11, would read as follows: “The code will seek to regulate the conduct of Members of Parliament in their purely private and personal lives, if it is the view of the commissioner and the Committee that their actions could be deemed significantly to damage the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally.”
I worry about where this new activism by the commissioner might lead. Over the weekend, I racked my brain to try and imagine scenarios in Members’ private lives that would trigger the interest of the commissioner, and I could only come up with two topics: the bedroom and the bottle. In common with most people, these are the two weaknesses that seem most likely to compromise Members of Parliament in their private lives.
On page 24 of the report, the commissioner argues that his interest is warranted on the basis that
“a Member of Parliament is never off duty. Once elected, a serving Member is likely always to be seen as a Member of Parliament, with the duties and obligations that go with that position, wherever they are and whatever they are doing.”
I dispute that view. Despite living in his constituency full-time, the Member of Parliament for Broxbourne—namely, myself—is, on occasion, most certainly off duty, and be assured, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I were not off duty on occasions, I would slowly, but surely, go mad. Perhaps that point has already been reached.
May we think about a recent case that the Committee considered? A Member might have had a private meeting, perhaps with another family member who was a businessman, and in which there was a discussion about funding and payment. During that meeting, the Member might have utilised his position as a Member, and that might have become public knowledge, although the meeting was private. I am sympathetic to where my hon. Friend wants to go, but I am bothered that we have not looked at this issue properly and I would like him to consider putting his point but—as the Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), said—then allowing us to look at it carefully later, to ensure that we do not err.
May I return to the theme I was developing earlier, in what was described as a very long intervention? I shall try to be briefer this time. The commissioner suggests that some of the new rules might be split. We used to have rule 2, stating that the rules do not
“seek to regulate what Members do in their purely private and personal lives”,
whereas rule 16 said Members must not bring the House into disrepute, which was, in a sense, a mop-up rule. Matters are set out in a more coherent way now, but there is no real change.
I disagree with my hon. Friend about that. The commissioner is clearly trying to give himself powers to investigate Members’ private and personal lives, which is why this amendment has been tabled.
The commissioner’s interpretation of a Member’s status is at odds with that of another regulatory body, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which states in its consultations and press releases that a fundamental principle of its scheme is that MPs
“should be treated…as far as possible like other citizens.”
The various regulatory bodies that oversee and adjudicate on our activities cannot reasonably expect to have it both ways. The public now rightly demand that Members of Parliament should face the same rigours that they do in their daily lives. The flip-side of that must be that parliamentarians, “like other citizens”, also have the right to a private life and private space—and in this private space people will, on occasions, make mistakes.
It is in the nature of our job—this vocation—that if these mistakes are large enough, they will be picked up and reported by the press, with all the opprobrium, shame and upset that goes with having our private calamities played out on a national stage. I look back at the personal agonies that the former hon. Members for Croydon Central and Winchester went through in the last Parliament, and I shudder to think how much worse things would have been for them if the parliamentary commissioner, however well intentioned, had been conducting his own forensic investigation into their actions, dragging in family, friends and perhaps other aggravating parties. There would have been months and months of investigation, all in the name of protecting the notional honour of the House.
The Committee does not dismiss the possibility of such investigations. It offers a well-meaning but vague assurance on page 6 of its report that
“like the Commissioner, we do not think the Committee or the House should be drawn into judging a Member's purely private and personal relationships.”
Why is that sentence not worded more forcefully? Why does it equivocate when it could say that “the commissioner and the Committee will not allow the House to be drawn into judging a Member’s purely private and personal relationships”? Why is that assurance not given by the commissioner and the Committee? The reason, I believe, is that it cannot be given because the commissioner knows full well that, almost exclusively, personal scandals and misfortunes are where the action lies.
Does my hon. Friend’s amendment not create the same problem? If the matter in question were not only to relate to a Member’s conduct, but also affected their ability to be an MP—rank dishonesty falling short of crime, for example—the commissioner would be able to investigate. Does my hon. Friend’s amendment make any difference, therefore?
In his usual helpful way, the broad-minded Leader of the House made it clear in his response to the consultation that he was not aware of any recent cases where a Member’s conduct in their purely private and personal life had been so outrageous that the House or the general public would have wanted action to be taken against the Member. Those pushing this proposal cannot come up with any sensible examples.
The Leader of the House has been in this place for almost 40 years, but while it seems he cannot think of anything worth investigating, the commissioner clearly can. That is why he is promoting this change to the current code of conduct.
This issue boils down to how the provisions are drafted. No one has any serious doubt about the intentions and the parameters, but problems do arise. The code states that it does not
“seek to regulate what Members do in their purely”—
I emphasise that word—“private and personal lives”, or in the conduct of their wider lives. Rule 16, however, says:
“Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage.”
Therefore, on the one hand we are told the code does not seek to “regulate”, yet on the other hand we are told Members shall “never” undertake certain actions. I do not think there is any real doubt about what is intended, but I am worried about the interpretation that might be drawn if this proposal is passed. That is the problem. This is more an issue of drafting than of intention.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
I appreciate that the Committee and the commissioner are at pains to point out that it is not their intention to create a “red top” charter. I accept that that may not be their intention, but the fact remains that real reputational threat to this place is contained in this flawed proposal.
The example given was fraud, and it was also extraordinarily tortuous.
The Leader of the House, whom I do not often pray in aid of my arguments—as he knows—has been here for 40 years and he cannot think of anything in that time that would have required this power to have been exercised. We in this place are brilliant at inventing new misdemeanours and crimes as sticks with which to beat ourselves.
My hon. Friend talked about bed and the bottle. I have never been asked to go on a billionaire’s yacht, although it is something that one would perhaps look forward to, but some Members of this House do stay with important people when on holiday. Does he think that this proposal will give another hand to those who want MPs to have to declare where they are going on holiday?
My hon. Friend leads me into the final part of my speech. Let us be clear that however well intentioned the power the commissioner is seeking, it will mean that Members’ private and personal lives will be in the ambit of investigation. Their actions will be scrutinised by the commissioner and a subjective view will be taken of whether or not those actions could cause significant damage to the reputation of the House. Every sexual peccadillo, domestic dispute or unguarded cross word would lead to tabloid calls for the commissioner to take action—“Something must be done”, the headlines will cry. The commissioner argues that in the event of an undefined personal scandal, the House’s status would be diminished if it
“were unable to take action to express its disapproval and uphold its standards in such circumstances.”
In a sense, that sounds like a return, after 17 years, to “back to basics”. We know what a disaster that was; we had all these moral judgments applied to the activities of Members. The one example that my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) did provide would be covered by criminal law in any case, so it is not relevant to this debate.
In conclusion, I am fully aware that Members of Parliament can do bad and unethical things in their capacity as Members of Parliament, which is why these standards and the code of conduct are so important. As importantly, I am also aware that people can do silly and stupid things regardless of who they are, because none of us was born an angel or a saint. So I strongly believe that the House should confine itself to worrying about the matters that directly pertain to the job of being an elected representative, and not those that relate to general human weakness or stupidity. For that reason, I urge the House, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley, for whom I have a huge amount of time, and my hon. Friends the Members for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald) and for Mole Valley, of whom I am extraordinarily fond, despite our little spat this evening, to support my amendment. On this occasion, it is time that the House recognised that the Member of Parliament for Broxbourne is arguing for the virtuous and should carry the day.
We welcome the review of the code of conduct by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the report by the Committee on Standards and Privileges commenting on the draft code and the changes that the commissioner has suggested. May I also say at the outset that Labour supports the changes that he has suggested for all-party groups?
As the Committee notes, the code was last revised in 2005 and several areas of it could be usefully clarified, so there is much that we welcome in the review. It is sensible that the code of conduct has remained one of high-level principles, rather than detailed rules. As the chairman of Standards for England noted in his consultation response, there is a danger that having a set of rules
“which is too tightly defined can lead to a complexity which makes understanding of the rules too difficult to grasp which is therefore counter-productive”.
We welcome the fact the commissioner has rejected such an overly prescriptive rules-based approach. There is much that we can welcome in the report, so rather than go into great detail about that, I wish to concentrate on areas where we have some concerns, one of which has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).
Labour Members believe that the existing code of conduct is working well. That is not only a tribute to the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) and his Committee, but it is reflected in the responses to the consultation, which did not throw up any major concerns with the status quo. Therefore, any suggestion that the code should be extended into areas not currently covered would need to be backed up by a convincing argument.
In his consultation, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards asked:
“Should the scope of the Code extend to some aspects of a Member’s private and personal life? If so, how should that be expressed in the Code?”
The parliamentary Labour party’s response to the consultation said no to that, as we feared that it would turn the code of conduct into a code of morals. That remains our view, and we are puzzled by the commissioner’s recommendation on this point. The proposed revision to the code states:
“the Code does not seek to regulate the conduct of Members in their purely private and personal lives”.
We agree with that approach, because the code should not seek to do that. However, the proposed new code would go on to state:
“unless such conduct significantly damages the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole or of its Members generally.”
That is the point that we have all been wrestling with in the debate.
That extension appears to suggest that we, as Members of this House, are entitled to a private life—we are all human, so we are entitled to one under article 8 and the Human Rights Act 1998—unless the commissioner rules that we are not. As the Leader of the House pointed out in his response to the consultation,
“extending the scope of the Code explicitly to cover Members’ private and personal lives could, as you note in the consultation paper, lead to their human rights being infringed.”
What threshold would result in the code coming into action? We are not told. The commissioner’s response to the consultation says that it would be “extremely limited circumstances” that are
“so serious and so blatant”.
However, he gives no further indication of what those might be. Such comments cause further confusion, rather than illuminate what the new situation might be. He gives no clues as to what he thinks those circumstances should be.
So what are these “extremely limited circumstances”? Some attempts have been made in the debate to define them, but those have been unsatisfactory. I am sure if we stood on Westminster bridge and canvassed the views of those who passed by, we would find as many views on what those circumstances should be as people we spoke to. The current commissioner may take a narrow view of what constitute his “extremely limited circumstances”, but his successor may take a more or less narrow view. This is an unsatisfactory situation. The Leader of the House noted in his response to the consultation that we should be
“wary of extending the Code to deal with a purely hypothetical eventuality.”
I agree with that.
As I said at the outset, the existing code is working well. What was needed was tweaking and clarification, not mission creep. Most of the proposed changes to the code are sensible and can easily be supported.
I rather agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) was saying earlier. I do not think there is any intention to extend the scope of the code here. The existing code, before the amendments, did not apply to private conduct, but there was a general provision that no Member must act in a way that brought the House into disrepute. This is about clarifying what those two provisions mean in the amended code. I would have thought that that was something that should happen, even if the hon. Lady is not happy with the exact wording.
The hon. Gentleman makes a particular point, but I do not think that what the commissioner has suggested is clear either and that is what we are struggling with at the moment. I may be alone in this, but I did not think that we faced a problem that needed the kind of revision that has got us into the confusing situation we are now in.
Members of Parliament are rightly accountable in the courts of law and under the code, as are people in other walks of life. But unlike lawyers, general practitioners or people in any of the other professions, Members of Parliament are accountable at the ballot box for their actions and they are accountable to their political party. The electorate are entitled to make a judgment about a Member’s private life, and about how effectively they pursue their constituency duty and how they treat their constituents—that is how democracy works—but I trust the common sense of the British people to make such judgments; we should leave judgments about morals to them.
I welcome the chance to intervene briefly in this interesting debate, and I commend the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) for his speech in moving the motion and for his work on the Committee on Standards and Privileges during his time as Chair, including his work in producing the two reports we are considering today. The House will have noted what he said in response to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).
I also commend the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, John Lyon, for his work as commissioner. His term of office concludes at the end of this year, and it is possible that this will be the last debate on the work of his office, in general terms, during it. He has faced a work load that neither he nor anyone else could have foreseen when he was first appointed, he has discharged his responsibilities conscientiously and effectively and been a source of wisdom and good sense for the Committee on Standards and Privileges and its successive Chairs. I say that with added conviction as the Chair at the time of his appointment.
The review of the code that the commissioner has carried out reflects the experience he has gathered during his term. The overwhelming majority of the changes he has proposed represent sensible changes, improving the clarity and structure of the code without affecting its overall scope and meaning. In particular, the changes help to distinguish the aspirational parts of the code from the adjudicable part.
I want briefly to touch on four areas that have attracted particular interest, namely the application of the code to hon. Members’ private lives, the code in relation to constituency responsibilities, personal responsibility for the use of resources, and the principle of equal application to all hon. Members.
On the first matter, the commissioner, the Committee and the House have wrestled, and are wrestling, with the vexed issue of how far the code applies to hon. Members’ private lives, which is the subject of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne and others. In my submission to the review, which has already been quoted, I said that the distinction between private and public lives was
“important, even if it is not always clear”.
I noted that an extension to private lives might lead to an infringement of human rights, a point also made in the submission by the chair of Standards for England.
I further pointed out that any such extension
“could also be used to justify intrusive and prurient media interest in Members’ private lives, on the basis that if the House chooses to concern itself with Members’ personal lives—however sparingly—then there should be no limits to the media doing likewise”.
As my right hon. Friend will know, the code must be read as a whole. Has he had time to look at paragraph 18, which provides:
“The Commissioner may investigate a specific matter relating to a Member’s adherence to the rules of conduct under the Code”
and the following sentence, which states:
“Members shall cooperate, at all stages, with any such investigation by or under the authority of the House”?
If the investigation is into private life, that necessarily means that if a Member refused to answer a question on his or her private life, he or she could be regarded as breaching that part of the code.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right. Once an inquiry has been started by the commissioner, Members are obliged to co-operate and if they do not, they will face consequences from the Committee on Standards. That paragraph would then kick in.
The commissioner has concluded that being an hon. Member is a way of life. As he put it, an hon. Member
“is never off duty. Once elected, a serving Member is likely always to be seen as a Member of Parliament, with the duties and obligations that go with that position, wherever they are and whatever they are doing.”
I personally paused at the assertion that I am never off duty, and I think my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne and other colleagues might have had the same reaction. I think that there are times when I am off duty. The commissioner’s conclusion is that an hon. Member’s conduct in both their private and wider public lives is excluded from the provisions of the code
“unless such conduct significantly damages the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole or of its Members generally”.
This is a very high hurdle for investigation, and that approach was endorsed by the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
The amendment, if the subject of a complaint related only to the conduct of a Member in his or her private and personal life, would have the effect of providing that it could not be investigated. I am confident that the Members who have proposed the amendment have no wish to argue that Members should be subject to special treatment that is not available to others. The issue at stake is simply whether there would ever be circumstances in which it would be appropriate for the commissioner to undertake an investigation into a matter that did not intersect at all with an hon. Member’s conduct in his or her public capacity. That is a matter for the House and each hon. Member to consider and it is not an issue on which it is appropriate for the Government to take a collective view, although I am personally sympathetic to the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne.
The House will also want to reflect on the offer made by the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee to take the House’s concern and address it in the revised guide, which, as I understand it, would leave the code unamended and insert an additional step in the process, in that the Committee would have to agree to the commissioner conducting an inquiry in this particular domain. I am sure that the House will welcome those offers and will want to reflect on them.
Another potential matter of contention is the application of the code to constituency matters. In his memorandum, the commissioner makes it clear that the way an hon. Member handles constituency business should not be adjudicable by the commissioner, and I agree. He suggests that the House would only wish to consider an instance that was
“so serious and blatant as to cause significant damage to the reputation of the House”.
I agree that it is very hard indeed to envisage these criteria being met.
On the third issue, in my submission to the review I supported proposals for redrafting the code in line with recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life
“so that the House has a clear basis to take action against any Member who has abused the IPSA scheme”.
The commissioner proposed to do that by means of a provision that stated that the use of public resources may not confer a political benefit. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has suggested a change, arising from its observation that it is unrealistic to expect that parliamentary activities legitimately funded from the political purse might never confer an indirect political benefit. The new code rightly makes it clear that Members should be clear that the use of public resources must always be in support of their parliamentary duties and should not confer any undue personal or financial benefit on themselves or anyone else or confer undue advantage on a political organisation. I agree that that formulation is in line with the original proposals of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which used the phrase “undue advantage”.
Finally, the commissioner considered and rejected a number of proposals that would involve separate rules for hon. Members who were former Ministers or who were Opposition Front Benchers. He did so on the basis of the principle that
“the Code should apply equally to all Members”.
That is a principle that I wholeheartedly support.
The second motion, as the right hon. Member for Rother Valley said, is more straightforward. It seeks the approval of the twenty-first report from the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which recommends extending the scope of registration to individual staff of all-party groups who hold passes and to transfer the onus of registration from the registered contact of the group to the staff member him or herself. As my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House stated in the debate on all-party groups on 7 February last year, all-party groups can play a valuable role provided they are transparent. That measure seems sensible and does not represent an abdication of responsibility by hon. Members who are officers of all-party groups. Instead, it reflects the proper situation whereby individuals who have the benefits of being a pass holder in this place should personally accept the responsibilities that flow from that.
I look forward to the rest of the debate and to the House coming to a decision on these vexed matters.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, before the amendment is pressed, I ask Members to remember my offer to look at the code of conduct and ensure that any commissioner—this current one or any in the future—would have to come to the House before considering any of the issues referred to in the amendment.
The current code states in paragraph 15:
“Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute.”
There is no mention in that paragraph of personal and private lives, or, indeed, of public lives, although they are mentioned in other parts of the code. The provision has never been enacted in such a way and I fear that if the House goes down the route of accepting that people’s personal and private lives are not covered by the code of conduct, that will be a step back. It seems to me that the House would be better advised to consider the genuine proposals that anybody wanting to look into someone’s private and personal life would have to come to the Committee to do so. This House should have confidence in its Members who sit on Committees and in the fact that we have an independent commissioner whom we appoint, whose terms and conditions we set and who is independent of us. It should have confidence in a Select Committee on Standards and Privileges that operates in a non-party political way that was unanimous in saying we should accept the paper before us. We certainly are not unanimous in accepting the amendment. The House should have confidence in itself that if the commissioner or the Committee ever did something wholly wrong, the House could reject that.
Let me finish by saying to hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) on the Front Bench, who mentioned morals, that this is not about morals. I can tell the House, as the Chairman of the Committee, that if the commissioner came to me with a report about morals I would go around the Committee first before I would discuss the memorandum before us. It is not something we should do or that would be acceptable to Parliament or the general public. However, there are circumstances and occasions on which Members have gone overboard but have not been covered by the code. I genuinely think it would be wrong for us to agree to the amendment today. We can look at the guidance and these issues more widely if need be, but what is proposed would be a backward step. If the amendment is accepted the code will be weaker than the code I have in my hand. I genuinely think we should not do that.
I do: one’s personal and private life is one’s personal and private life.
Amendment made: (a), at end, add
‘, subject to the following amendment: After paragraph 16 of the Code, there shall be inserted the following new paragraph:
“16A. The Commissioner may not investigate a specific matter under paragraph 16 which relates only to the conduct of a Member in their private and personal lives.”.’.—(Mr Charles Walker.)
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Nineteenth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (HC 1579), and approves the revised Code of Conduct set out in the Annex to the Report, subject to the following amendment:
After paragraph 16 of the Code, there shall be inserted the following new paragraph:
“16A. The Commissioner may not investigate a specific matter under paragraph 16 which relates only to the conduct of a Member in their private and personal lives.”.’.
(1) this House agrees with the recommendations in the Twenty-first Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, on Registration of Staff All-Party Groups (HC 1689); and
(2) accordingly the Resolution of the House of 17 December 1985, as amended on 10 March 1989, 29 July 1998 and 7 February 2011, relating to the registration of interests be further amended by:
(a) leaving out paragraph 3 (f); and
(b) inserting a new paragraph 4:
“Holders of permanent passes as staff of All-Party Groups be required to register:
i. any paid employment for which they receive more than 0.5 per cent. of the parliamentary salary; and
ii. any gift, benefit or hospitality they receive, if the gift, benefit or hospitality in any way relates to or arises from their work in Parliament and its value is over 0.5 per cent. of the parliamentary salary in the course of a calendar year.”.—(Mr Barron.)