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Committee on Standards (Lay Members)

Volume 555: debated on Thursday 13 December 2012

[Relevant document: the Report from the House of Commons Commission, HC 709]

I beg to move,

That, in accordance with Standing Order No. 149A, Mr Peter Jinman, Mr Walter Rader and Ms Sharon Darcy be appointed lay members of the Committee on Standards.

In December 2012, the House endorsed a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the Committee on Standards and Privileges should include at least two lay members who have never been parliamentarians. The proposal was supported by the Committee on Standards and Privileges, whose then Chair, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), suggested it to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The Procedure Committee was asked to consider how that recommendation might be best implemented. It recommended that the Committee on Standards and Privileges should be divided into two, and that the lay members should sit only on the Committee responsible for standards. If the House accepts the nominations today, the two new Committees will come into existence on the first sitting day in January, following on from Kathryn Hudson taking up her appointment as the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on 1 January.

The lay members will not be co-opted as full voting members of the Select Committee. There was some doubt over whether a committee partly composed of non-members with equal voting rights would in law be a parliamentary Committee and thus entitled to the normal protections of parliamentary privilege. Draft legislation to permit the House to give lay members of the Committee on Standards the power to vote is included in the Government’s Green Paper on Parliamentary Privilege, which has been referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses and is due to report in April next year.

The lay members will participate fully in evidence taking and the consideration of draft reports, although they will not be able formally to move amendments or take part in any votes. There will be two specific protections for their position. The first is that the Committee cannot conduct any business unless at least one lay member is present. The second is the requirement that any written opinion of a lay member present at the relevant meeting on a report agreed by the Committee must be published as part of that report.

The process of recruiting the lay members fell to the House of Commons Commission. The posts were advertised on the parliamentary website through the outreach service, with a search by recruitment consultants and through Twitter. There were 86 applicants for the post, reduced through sifts and interviews to a short list of 12 for interview. The interviews were undertaken in September 2012 by a board that included the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, John Horam, who is now a member of the Electoral Commission, an external assessor and senior officials.

That board put forward six candidates for final interview in October 2012 by three members of the Commission: the Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and me. On the basis of our assessment, the Commission agreed to make the following three nominations to the House this afternoon: Sharon Darcy, who is a member of the national board of Consumer Focus and a board member of the National Employment Savings Trust; Peter Jinman OBE, who is a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons; and Walter Rader OBE, who is independent chair of the Youth Council for Northern Ireland appeals panel.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making a clear statement. However, will he tell the House what sort of hours those people will be expected to work and what their remuneration will be?

My hon. Friend anticipates my next two points. Let me deal with them in order, and if he is not satisfied, he can have another go.

Brief CVs of the candidates are set out in the paper that is available in the Vote Office. The Commission believes that, together, the three candidates represent a combination of experience and qualities that should increase public confidence in the robustness and independence of the House’s disciplinary process. The appointments will initially run until the dissolution of Parliament at the next general election, but they can be extended for up to two years in the new Parliament. Once appointed, a lay member could be dismissed only following a resolution of the House.

The Committee’s work load is variable and it is not yet known what exactly it will be. The lay members will therefore be remunerated on a daily rate for each day worked. That rate is to be £300 per day plus any modest travelling expenses.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the work load. Surely that depends on the behaviour of the House rather than on what the Committee wishes to do?

Absolutely. That is the point that I was trying to make, albeit not very succinctly. The work load is variable, consequent on our behaviour. We therefore hope that the lay members will be very modestly rewarded. However, we will have to see.

The Commission has recognised that the role will be challenging and has asked officials to provide a comprehensive induction programme to familiarise the lay members with the culture, roles and key players across Parliament, as well as the procedures and working practices of the Committee on Standards.

I commend the nominees to the House.

I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for the terms in which he moved the motion. I am looking forward to the contributions to what I think will be a short and uncontroversial debate from fellow members of the House of the Commons Commission, including the Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) and the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). I look forward to what will probably be variations on a similar theme.

On behalf of the Opposition and, I believe, of all Members who intend to speak, I support the principle of the changes. Appointing lay members to the Committee on Standards was a suggestion of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2009 in the aftermath of the expenses issues and scandals in the previous Parliament. The recommendation was aimed at further improving public confidence in the House’s ability to regulate itself, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said.

The subsequent Third Special Report on Standards and Privileges accepted the proposals and, on 12 March, the now Patronage Secretary and I, as shadow Leader of the House, took part in the debate that effected them by creating Standing Orders Nos. 148A and 149A, and modifying Standing Order No. 149. Since that time, the process of appointment has been thorough, as is usual with such procedures, and I have no doubt that the candidates for inclusion as lay members of the Committee, which, once we have made the decision, will split into two, are more than worthy of the roles. I am sure that, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, Sharon Darcy, Peter Jinman OBE and Walter Rader OBE will bring a breadth of knowledge and experience that will be of benefit to the Committee.

The Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, of which I am a member, also contains lay members, and their contribution is of great value. I look forward to having my suspicions confirmed that the work of the newly appointed members of the Committee on Standards will also be of great value.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley will want to say something about how he sees the new arrangement working when the Committee splits at the beginning of next year, as he will be at the forefront of that work. I look forward to hearing the comments of other hon. Members too. The Opposition endorse the principle of the change, and look forward to the development of the Committee in its new form.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has set out the rules that will apply, and a few technicalities have been added by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) from the Opposition Front Bench.

I rise briefly to support the motion more as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee than of the House of Commons Commission. As motions 4 and 5 on the Order Paper indicate, subject to the motion being agreed we will have a new standards Committee, a separate privileges Committee, and at least two new members starting in the new year. This is interesting timing, as the new Commissioner and the three new lay members will be commencing in their roles. There will be an interesting learning curve for the lay members and for the Commissioner.

As hon. Members are aware, the Committee will meet in private to consider reports from the Commissioner following her investigation of complaints that are felt to be appropriate to the Committee. I hope that having lay members will bring some reassurance to those outside our peculiar bubble, and that it might even calm the odd strident reporter from the odd strident newspaper. It will be interesting for the new lay members to learn what life as an MP entails and the various and considerable pressures under which MPs work.

The rules on standards have been reviewed in the light of the Committee’s recent experiences. We have had more such experiences than we should. The report has been published and will be considered by the House in due course. In some areas the rules have been tightened, but efforts have been made to clarify the rules so that hon. Members understand them more easily. Complicated rules and an ignorance of them have been a source of minor apparent transgressions. The new lay members will need to appreciate the combination of the rules and the pressures faced by hon. Members. The Commissioner receives a steady trickle of complaints. Fortunately, most relate to matters that are not relevant, and, sadly, there are sometimes personal or political attacks. Now that a spate of cases from the expenses scandal have been through the mill, I hope that the work of the Committee on Standards will become minuscule.

Compared with the scandals of most other countries, I believe that with rare exceptions, the UK and the House do not have a real problem. Having our robust system certainly helps us to keep it that way and the rules will tighten that even more. I expect and sincerely hope that this will continue, and be supplemented by our new lay members.

I am delighted to add my support to the motion and have no hesitation in commending the three names before the House—Sharon Darcy, Peter Jinman and Walter Rader.

The procedure to appoint lay members was modelled on that for the independent external members of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. As the Procedure Committee recommended, I took part in the appointment process to ensure access to the experience of the Speaker’s Committee, although the final decision was a matter for the House of Commons Commission. We had a strong field and were able to put forward several names for the Commission to choose from, and as Members will see from the Commission’s report, the three candidates bring a range of valuable experience. I am confident in their sound judgment.

I welcome the fact that we are at last appointing lay members. Indeed, the previous Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, now the Government Chief Whip, commended the idea to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is one of the manifestations of his incomparable good judgement that his recent return to the Back Benches must have been one of the shortest on record; the Front Bench simply could not do without him. It is a pleasure to implement a recommendation in the House with such a history of Committee support.

I am particularly pleased that we are appointing three lay members. As we all know, parliamentary business can be unpredictable and in the past the Committee on Standards and Privileges has had to meet at short notice. The Committee on Standards will be able to meet only if a lay member is present, and appointing three lay members from the outset will reduce the danger of Committee business being disrupted. I have been a lay member myself. As colleagues will know, it was a role I played on the General Medical Council for several years. It is all too easy for any expert group to look inward and to lose a sense of perspective, which is why many professional disciplinary bodies, not just the GMC, contain lay members.

Even when professional judgements are perfect, there is a case for an independent element to ensure that all angles are considered and, most importantly, to provide as much reassurance as possible that regulation is conducted in the public interest. It will never be possible to convince everyone, but if an independent element in regulation works for doctors and solicitors, it should work for us as well. I hope that the lay members will not operate as outsiders riding shotgun to ensure the Committee behaves. I would like them to be an integral part of the Committee, and every one of those whose name is before the House has had experience of this sort of collective working. With the help of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Committee on Standards and Privileges has done its utmost to act rigorously, fairly and impartially. I hope that the participation of lay members will make it easier for the new Committee on Standards to demonstrate that it operates in such a way.

As I have said in previous debates, I regret that the lay members will not have a vote at this stage, although there is at least a mechanism that allows them to place their views formally on the record if they feel it necessary to do so. Although I look forward to legislation allowing lay members voting rights, we must remember that the current Committee on Standards and Privileges does not normally decide matters on division. In my time on the Committee, I can recollect only one vote, but even then the Committee went on to agree a unanimous report. If the new Committee follows that pattern, which I hope it will, any difference between lay members and others will be minimal, if not non-existent. In agreeing the motion, the House will take a step that should improve public perception of our disciplinary processes. I am confident that it will do more than that and will produce a better, fairer system. I am happy to support the motion.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for moving the motion and for how he explained the process of appointment, the merits of the candidates and their future responsibilities. It was very helpful and clear.

I also pay tribute to the work of the Procedure Committee in shaping the proposals that have brought us to this point. I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for their contributions. I say to my hon. Friend that, although some might think this will modify the behaviour of the press, I am not expecting it to achieve that. We can be confident, however, that it will assist us not only in setting and enforcing high standards of conduct in this place, but in ensuring that we are seen to do so. It is the public we want to focus on. We want them to understand and appreciate that.

What we are doing today is further to the House agreeing on 2 December 2010 to the principle of lay members on the Committee on Standards. The House invited the Procedure Committee to make proposals to implement that. Those proposals, with minor modifications, were given effect by the House on 12 March 2012, when Standing Order Nos. 148A and 149A were made and Standing Order No. 149 was amended. I am sure that Members do not need to be reminded of the detailed background; suffice it to say that having lay members on the Committee on Standards was a recommendation in the 2009 report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It therefore represents part of a wider package of rebuilding trust following the expenses scandal. In practice as well as in perception, robust independent scrutiny and regulation have come to the determination and administration of our expenses, pay and pensions. They will now also play an important part in our internal disciplinary processes.

With that in mind, the Government, and I am sure the whole House, support the appointment of lay members to the Committee on Standards. Their participation in our standards processes will provide a most valuable addition to the work of the Committee on Standards and, if necessary, a challenge to its work—I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Rother Valley for illustrating how that might be possible in practice. That will increase public confidence in the work of the Committee.

As someone who participated in the selection process, which my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross described, may I also say that I can recommend the candidates to the House? I was impressed by the evident time and trouble they had taken in preparing for and participating in the selection process. I believe the House will find in them the right balance of experience, judgment and integrity. The candidates were also clear about their need and wish to undertake necessary training and induction in preparation for their role. I know that the Committee and House service will want to ensure that that is available.

Members will also be aware from the Order Paper that there are two motions to be considered later today that seek to implement the previous decisions of the House—of 2 December 2011 and 12 March 2012—to split the Standards and Privileges Committee into two Committees: one on standards, the other on privileges. Should the House agree to the motion before us now and the further two motions on the Order Paper, then according to the Standing Order changes agreed on 12 March this year and with effect from 7 January 2013, as described by the shadow Leader of the House, the Standards and Privileges Committee will divide and lay members will play the role on the Committee on Standards that my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross set out earlier.

On behalf of the Government and as Leader of the House, I support the motion, and I look forward to welcoming the lay members to their new and important role in the new year.

Question put and agreed to.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This morning we had the First Reading of the Succession to the Crown Bill. It is my understanding that this is a constitutional Bill, so I was wondering whether there was any way of asking the Leader of the House to confirm whether it would be taken on the Floor of the House.

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, that is not a point of order, although I am sure that the Leader of the House has picked up his question.