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Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

Volume 550: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2012

I beg to move,

That Ms Kathryn Hudson be appointed Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on the terms of the Report of the House of Commons Commission, HC 539, dated 17 July 2012.

The motion is in my name and that of other House of Commons commissioners and of the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee.

In 2003, the House decided that the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should be held for a non-renewable term of five years. The appointment of the current commissioner, John Lyon, comes to an end on 31 December, and the House therefore needs to appoint a new commissioner.

It is appropriate to begin by expressing the House of Commons Commission’s appreciation of the work undertaken by John Lyon since his appointment. He inquired into an unprecedented number of allegations against Members at a time when the reputation of the House was being called into question. He helped to restore confidence in Members and in the institutions of the House. He will also be remembered for bringing up to date the procedures for the commissioner’s inquiries and, in particular, for the greater transparency he introduced, with the House’s agreement, by publishing information about inquiries that were not reported formally to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I am sure the House will wish to join me in expressing our gratitude for all the work he did in this role.

There has been a thorough and rigorous recruitment process using standards equivalent to those of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. This has involved the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and the right hon. Member for Rother Valley, the Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, as well as members of the House of Commons Commission and an independent adviser. All the details are in the report that sets out the Commission’s nomination. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who took part in the selection process, particularly Judith Alderton, who acted as the independent assessor. It is therefore with confidence that I commend this nomination to the House.

Kathryn Hudson is currently the deputy parliamentary and health ombudsman and was previously the national director of social care at the Department of Health. The House of Commons Commission is confident that she has the necessary experience, clear thinking and personal authority for the role, and that she will bring to it the independence, discretion, and strength of character required to ensure that the system of parliamentary self-regulation continues to work effectively.

Should the House approve the nomination, Ms Hudson’s appointment will commence at the beginning of 2013. The work load of the commissioner has already declined somewhat with the transfer of responsibility for Members’ pay and expenses elsewhere, and it is anticipated that Ms Hudson will generally work on a half-time basis—rather less than the basis on which John Lyon was originally appointed. I stress that the new commissioner will be able to increase her commitment if the work demands it. She will, I am sure, fulfil the high standards set by her predecessors, so I commend this nomination to the House.

I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for the way in which he began our debate, and I echo the sentiment and reinforce the content of his comments. Like him, I want to pay tribute to the outgoing Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, John Lyon, who was the fourth commissioner in post since January 2008. He sought to bring greater transparency to the role to help improve public confidence in this House. He has served the House with distinction for the past five years, during what was—as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has disclosed—a difficult period.

The role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards was created following the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It has existed for more than 16 years, and is important in retaining public confidence in the House. As well as maintaining and monitoring the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, the commissioner advises Members on the registration of financial interests and investigates complaints from other Members and the public about failures to register or otherwise abide by the code of conduct—an important and challenging role.

As we were told by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, there was a rigorous process of selection for John Lyons’s successor. Labour Members are confident that that process has been thorough and exhaustive. A number of excellent candidates were interviewed by a board of selectors made up of distinguished Members, Officers of the House and external experts. The board brought two candidates back for a final interview, and then recommended Kathryn Hudson to the House of Commons Commission. Although the current Leader of the House was not involved in the process, I know that he will have full confidence in the judgment of his predecessor, who I see is present and who, of course, was involved. It seems likely that he will try to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that he will have something to say to the House.

I am sure the former Leader of the House would agree that the newly proposed commissioner has extensive experience across the public and charitable sectors, and is currently the deputy Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. I suspect that the current Leader of the House came across her when he was in his previous job, The Commission is confident that she will carry out her proposed new role with energy, integrity and understanding, and in doing so she will have the Opposition’s full support.

I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for presenting the motion, which I too support.

As we heard from the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), since 1995 the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has played an important role in the work of the House, advising Members on the code and the rules of conduct, guiding new Members on their responsibilities and conduct, investigating and reporting on complaints, and ensuring transparency through the operation of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the other registers. As the shadow Leader predicted, I am happy to add my support to the recommendation that the House should agree to the motion providing for the appointment of Kathryn Hudson to this role, and I wish her well.

Ms Hudson comes to the role with valuable experience of investigative processes, the capacity to make careful judgments in sensitive cases, and an ability to provide advice and support for Members. As the shadow Leader said, I know and appreciate only too well the way in which the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has performed similar functions in relation to equally sensitive processes.

As the shadow Leader also said, I became a member of the House of Commons Commission only a week ago, and therefore played no direct part in the recommendation before the House today. I thank the selection board, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) and his colleagues, and the Commission for their work.

I am pleased to note that, in line with other new public appointments, the Commission has been able to set a shorter working week and a salary that reflects that. However, it has done so with the understanding that the work load will vary from time to time, and it will not impose a restriction on the days per week that the commissioner considers necessary.

Let me take this opportunity to thank the outgoing commissioner, John Lyon, who inquired into many allegations, and—as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross—did so in the circumstances of an unprecedented level of focus on the House of Commons as a result of the expenses scandal. Mr Lyon undertook that difficult role with a robust but fair approach, making a very important contribution to the work of restoring confidence in the House and its Members. These cases are not the sole marker of his tenure. He led a review of the code of conduct and rules, and oversaw the introduction of greater transparency on inquiries that were not formally reported to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I would also like to put on record my thanks to the staff of the House who continue to support the commissioner in delivering standards, and to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee for his work.

I reiterate my thanks to Mr Lyon for his work during what was undoubtedly a challenging time. We should always be appreciative of those who give time and service to the House. I hope that the House will endorse the motion. On that basis, I look forward to welcoming Kathryn Hudson to her new role from January 2013.

I also support the motion to appoint Kathryn Hudson as the next Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. As Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I was involved in the appointment process both at interview stage and in briefing the Commission. We were extremely fortunate in having two highly able and suitable candidates, of whom Kathryn Hudson was one. I believe her career gives her the investigative skills and, perhaps even more importantly, the sense of perspective required. I am therefore delighted to put my name to the motion approving her appointment.

I also want to pay tribute to the outgoing commissioner, John Lyon. When a similar motion was moved on 15 November 2007, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) paid tribute to the then outgoing commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, and it was noted that

“John Lyon will inherit a standards system that is in much finer fettle than that which awaited his predecessor in February 2002.”—[Official Report, 15 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 862.]

As we all know, that improvement was not enough to stop the expenses scandal, which will shape our memories of the previous Parliament. As John Lyon noted in the introduction to his most recent annual report, it has been a “tumultuous five years”.

Over that time, John produced about 60 complaints-related memoranda for the Committee and rectified about 50 cases. The House’s reputation may have taken a battering in the press, but the commissioner’s fairness and integrity meant he never became part of that story.

John also worked hard to improve the system, both in making recommendations for a new code and in smaller changes, such as revising and consolidating information on the procedure for investigations, to make it more useful. His judgment has been very sound. There was some concern that making more information available about complaints under investigation would lead to a media feeding frenzy; in fact, doing that has stopped damaging speculation when people were known to be under investigation.

Investigations into allegations of misconduct are only part of the commissioner’s role. The Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests is part of his office, and the commissioner and the registrar consider matters relating to journalists, Members’ secretaries and research assistants, and all-party groups. They have done a great deal to raise awareness of registration requirements and to keep the way in which the rules work under review.

Over the last five years, the commissioner has had to deal with many investigations, which have been thorough and impartial. While there has been criticism of the Committee and the House for their decisions in some of the cases, I am not aware of any case where the investigation has been plausibly criticised because the commissioner was biased or missed obvious lines of inquiry.

Colleagues have sometimes complained about the length of time particular investigations take, but the commissioner’s willingness to take as long as necessary to investigate a complaint is one of the strengths of the system. Complaints are properly investigated by a truly independent figure, whose conclusions command respect.

Some complaints may well be politically motivated. That is not a reason for dismissing them, however, if they meet the conditions required for investigation. If the commissioner considers there may be grounds for a complaint, it is far better for the Member complained of, and for Parliament as a whole, to have the matter properly investigated than to have to deal with allegations of a whitewash or claims that a complaint was dismissed for political reasons.

The commissioner’s most recent annual report suggests that a corner has been turned. He stated:

“Of the 12 complaints I resolved this year, almost 60% were about conduct in previous Parliaments. All of those concerning conduct in this Parliament related to parliamentary matters such as registration, declaration and the use of stationery, none of which suggested that those Members had exploited the House for any private or personal benefit.

Nevertheless, the reputation of the House remains at risk. Trust once lost will take time and a consistent and continued record of maintaining high standards of conduct before it can be restored. That is true of any national institution. It is particularly true of the House. As the expenses crisis showed, unless apparently minor breaches of the rules of conduct are challenged and remedied, they can all too easily become endemic and inflamed and so seriously damage the reputation of the House”.

When we come here, as elected Members, we want to concentrate on what we were elected to do: serve our constituents and work in the national interest. We do not stand for election so that we can fill in forms about registration or respond to the commissioner’s letters. I acknowledge that all that can appear an irritating distraction from more urgent duties or even a diversion of effort into unnecessary bureaucracy. However, the last Parliament should have taught us that we cannot afford to get this wrong, individually or collectively. The rules in the code of conduct are not arbitrary. We agree them as Members of this House, and we should uphold them and be seen to uphold them. For the system to be effective, we need a strong, fair commissioner, whose own integrity is beyond doubt. We have been fortunate to have that in the previous commissioners, and I look forward to the new commissioner continuing that tradition.

May I add a brief footnote to these exchanges and, in so doing, speak for the first time for 22 years from the Government Back Benches? May I place on the record my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and his Deputy for getting the two best jobs in the Government? They have the necessary qualities of respect and affection for the House to enable them to discharge their duties, and they will be assisted by an outstanding private office and the best Parliamentary Private Secretary in the business. I wish them well in navigating the Government’s legislative programme through the House.

Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the report refer to John Lyon. I worked with John Lyon for his first two years in the post, when I chaired the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I endorse every word in paragraph 5. I pay tribute to his discretion, and one of his predecessors had difficulties on that front. He was meticulous in his dealings with the press, and I commend his integrity and thoroughness, and the clarity with which he wrote his reports. As we have heard, he was commissioner at a time of unparalleled difficulties for the House, but he never faltered. I know that he will want to clear his in- tray to the extent that he can before he departs from office, and we wish him well in his retirement. We are all grateful to the selection board for sifting the candidates. I was very impressed by Kathryn Hudson’s quiet authority when she was interviewed by the Commission. She has absolutely the right background and I wish her well.

Finally, paragraph 12 deals with the number of days. This job is demand-led, in that the in-tray is determined by the propensity of Members of Parliament to misbehave and the propensity of members of the public to complain about it. Neither of those things can be forecast. I think it is right to start where we have started and then raise the work load if necessary. I know that the incoming commissioner will be reassured by the commitment from the Commission to give the resources that are necessary should the work load, for whatever reason, increase. With those remarks, I join others in commending the motion.

I shall be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the appointment of the new commissioner. As the last person to be investigated by John Lyon, I am more than willing to meet the new commissioner to share that experience. I hope that she will bring proportionality, pragmatism, expediency, common sense, and a rationale of fairness and natural justice. I hope that she will consider the impact that the inquiries have on MPs, their families and their staff. Lastly, motivation has to be part of that inquiry, as it is an important part of it; in my case, the investigation stemmed from a complaint from my Tory opponent’s lodger.

Question put and agreed to.