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Parliamentary Standards

Volume 579: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2014

(Urgent Question): Will the Leader of the House make a statement outlining in greater detail the possible changes, suggested by the Prime Minister on television, to the role of two Committees in regulating complaints about fellow MPs?

The House will be aware that complaints concerning the conduct of hon. Members, including that they have breached the Members code of conduct, are subject to investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and then considered by the Standards Committee. Additionally, since May 2010 issues relating to Members’ pay and expenses from that date onwards, including consideration of complaints, are undertaken by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

So two bodies are engaged with the issue of regulating the conduct of Members. As of now and for the future, in relation to expenses, IPSA is a wholly independent authority. Any issue would be considered by its compliance officer. The officer has powers to order repayment and to impose fines. Appeals may be made to a lower tier tribunal. Of course, IPSA is not responsible for considering issues relating to the expenses system prior to the last general election, nor other matters of conduct.

In January 2013, the Standards Committee was reconstituted following the decision of this House of 12 March 2012, reflected in Standing Order No. 149. This brought in three lay members. They participate in all the deliberations of the Committee. The Chair of the Standards Committee, by convention, seeks consensus amongst all the members of the Committee. The lay members, additionally, have a specific right to submit an opinion on any report to the House, and to have it published, under Standing Order No. 149. It is the job of this House, where necessary, to enforce the decisions of the Standards Committee.

The regulation of the conduct of Members is the responsibility of this House. For a wholly external body to consider complaints relating to the conduct of Members in this House, for example, on participation in debates and the registration of financial interests, risks undermining parliamentary privilege. That is why the reports of the Parliamentary Commissioner and the role of lay members are incorporated within the work of a Select Committee of this House.

We have a relatively new system in place for the regulation both of parliamentary expenses and for independent input to the Standards Committee. Both should give the public greater confidence in the system. We must, however, seek to make these regulatory processes more widely understood and more transparent. If we can strengthen the independent input whilst respecting the exclusive cognisance of Parliament, we should do so. As the Prime Minister said, whilst these are matters for the House and not for the Government alone, we are open and willing to consider approaches which would further strengthen our regulatory system.

I suspect that the Leader of the House has not had the opportunity to spend time on the doorstep in recent days. If he had, he would have found that there is virtual unanimity out there among the British people that Members of Parliament should not sit in judgment on Members of Parliament and that there should be no self-regulation by MPs of MPs. There are other issues about which the public are angry, but on this issue the Leader of the House has the power to initiate and to do something. Why will he not come forward with proposals immediately to end self-regulation in this House and in doing so, in the interests of transparency, ensure that the recordings of the Committee are made public so that people can see on what basis the Committee overturns the views of the independent Commissioner for Standards?

The hon. Gentleman underestimates me. From my conversations with members of the public, it is very clear that many members of the public are not aware—even now—that, from May 2010 onwards and for the future, the expenses of Members of this House, including any complaints relating to expenses, are considered wholly independently by IPSA, which would, in the event of there being any overpayment or incorrect claim, have the power both to require repayment and to levy fines. That is wholly independent.

We must be aware—it is also clear—that were we to seek, for example, to make the Standards Committee or the Commissioner wholly independent, we would end up with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards no longer having access to parliamentary privilege in relation to her investigations, which presently she does by virtue of her investigation being part of the proceedings of the Standards Committee of the House. It would be much more difficult for her to fulfil her role in the way in which she currently fulfils it.

As for the relationship between the Commissioner and the Committee, in my experience the Committee is wholly transparent about its decision-making process—about the arguments that it has examined and the decisions that it has reached—but that is a matter for the Committee, not for me.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that there should be some parliamentary input, for the reasons that he has set out so clearly. Surely this is not so much a failure of the system as a complete and abject failure of the media to report these matters objectively. As a result of that, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) observed, many of our constituents have failed to understand exactly what was stated in a recent report. Is it not time that the media paid proper attention to parliamentary reports rather than seeking to engage in witch hunts?

I do not think that I am seeking particularly to ascribe blame anywhere. If—as may be the case—there is a misunderstanding about the nature and effectiveness of the regulatory system relating to complaints against Members, and if that is not well understood by our constituents, I think that we should take it on our own shoulders to do all that we can to make it clear that a robust system is in place.

Over the last few days, we have seen a recalcitrant Cabinet Minister unwilling to show remorse for obstructing an inquiry by the Standards Commissioner, and a growing public perception that a Committee of MPs has let her get away with it. That has thrown doubt on her conduct, and also on the judgment of the Prime Minister, who seems unwilling to act.

Does the Leader of the House agree that the present system does not command public support, and that we urgently need reform to restore public trust? I accept that we need time to develop a more radical reform, but will he consider, as a matter of urgency, removing the Government majority on the Standards Committee, and creating a more prominent role for its lay members? Will he also tell us what sanctions he considers appropriate for a Member who has breached the parliamentary code of conduct through his or her attitude to an inquiry?

In the foreword to the Ministerial Code, the Prime Minister wrote:

“Though the British people have been disappointed in their politicians, they still expect the highest standards of conduct. We must not let them down.”

Is the Leader of the House satisfied that the Prime Minister has kept his promise?

I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House should consider this an opportunity to express criticism of an individual Member. I did not understand that it was proper to do that, Mr Speaker, but I am in your hands.

The decisions made by the Standards Committee are a matter for the Standards Committee. Let me at this point speak entirely personally, and not on behalf of the Government. I read the report that was published last Thursday very carefully, and, having done so, I felt that I understood and, as it happens—again, I am speaking entirely personally—agreed with the way in which the Standards Committee had gone about its task.

I am very surprised that the shadow Leader of the House should seek to obtrude a partisan element. The Standards Committee has never operated on a partisan basis, and I have no reason to believe that the party affiliation of its members has had any direct bearing on their views of the cases that they consider. On the contrary, they consider cases on their merits, and seek to reach a consensus.

The fact that the Committee has lay members—[Interruption.] Perhaps the shadow Leader of the House will listen to my answer, rather than simply interrupting from a sedentary position. She asked about the position of lay members. Regardless of the position taken by MPs who are members of the Standards Committee, if the lay members had expressed a dissenting view, that would have been more powerful than their having votes. Indeed, given that the Committee did not take any votes, the question of votes was really neither here nor there. The point is that the lay members have what is effectively a casting vote at the end—do they agree or do they not? If the lay members did not agree with MPs on the Standards Committee about what was published in the report and published a dissenting opinion, it would be a very serious matter. I think that that suggests that the power of the lay members is stronger than it would be if they simply had a vote, and I think that we should understand that and reflect it in our discussions.

Order. Before we proceed further, I simply remind the House of what I stated yesterday, namely that page 396 of “Erskine May” makes it clear that there cannot be debate on the conduct of an individual hon. or right hon. Member other than on a substantive motion. There is not a substantive motion on the Order Paper today and therefore I invite hon. and right hon. Members to conduct themselves accordingly.

I serve on the Standards Committee and had not realised until the controversy of the last few days that the lay members did not have a vote. The reason for that is simply, as the Leader of the House has just said, that it is not the practice of the Committee to take votes. We talk about things at length—sometimes at inordinate length—to achieve a consensus and the lay members participate very fully and vocally. They bring to bear a great deal of experience gained in other walks of life in regulating other professions and they are listened to with great interest by the Members of this House who serve on the Committee. They have been a very useful addition and, as the Leader of the House just said, they are given the opportunity, if they wish to, to issue a dissenting note at any point in time. They have not chosen to do that either in the matter that has just been published or in any other matter. I think the system is working well. They have brought a great deal of extra expertise and we should continue with this and see how it goes.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who expresses that point very straightforwardly and well. I think the House will know that if at any point the lay members of the Standards Committee were to present an opinion to the House which had the effect of dissenting from the decisions of the Committee as a whole, the House would take that very seriously indeed.

The Select Committee on Standards adjudicates on individual cases but also has a duty under Standing Order No. 149 to consider any matters relating to the conduct of Members. On 22 March, before any of the current controversy arose, the Committee received a thoughtful paper from lay members on their impressions of their first year on the Committee from January 2013 to January 2014, which was also sent to you, Mr Speaker, and was placed in the Committee’s programme for future discussion. The Committee has already decided to examine the current system for consideration of complaints about Members of Parliament, to consider improvements as required. We will be drawing up detailed terms of reference over the next few weeks, drawing on the lay members’ reflections. The lay members will continue to play a leading role in this work.

The Committee has reported the lay members’ paper to the House and it is available on our website. As the lay members say, it is a matter of regret that the Committee on Standards and Privileges’ recommendations on standards issues have not yet come before the House but the Committee is determined to lead on these issues in the interests of maintaining the integrity of this House.

The Committee does not think it is appropriate to keep a running commentary on its decisions in individual cases, but at our meeting today the Committee authorised me to say that it continues to believe that its individual adjudications are impartial, fair and non-partisan. It is extremely important that those who express opinions on these cases both within the House and outside it should have read closely the careful reasons and evidence-based conclusions set out in each report. The Committee will continue to work closely and co-operatively with the commissioner to reach objective, fair and non-partisan adjudications.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Standards Committee. What he illustrates is, as I said at the conclusion of my response to the urgent question, that this is a matter for this House, and the House does look to the Standards Committee, not least to advise the House on how our system of regulation of Members’ conduct can be as robust as possible. I hope that, in consultation with the Standards Committee and in discussion among the parties, we can ensure that any views that come forward, not least from the lay members, are reflected in changes if necessary.

May I first pay tribute to Andrew McDonald, who is retiring as the chief executive of IPSA? I send him my best wishes. I resigned from the Standards Committee when the House authorities and at least one party trashed Elizabeth Filkin, when she was the Commissioner for Standards. According to paragraph 156 of the recent report, the present Commissioner said that the Committee might not agree with one of her conclusions. That should not be a big surprise to anyone. Also, I hope that those who comment on the way in which we run our affairs will recognise that an hon. Member has, in two days, raised questions about what fellow MPs have done while saying that we should not have a running commentary on what we are doing, which is an odd thing for that hon. Member to do. Finally, it would be worth while for the media to read paragraph 14 of the recent report, which contains the accusation, along with paragraphs 28, 29, 32, 39, 49, 56 and 61, so that their reports can reflect what the Committee did, what Members of Parliament did and what the Commissioner actually said. That would help all our discussions.

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw the House’s attention to paragraph 156, in which, contrary to the impression that might have been received, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said that the Committee might not reach the same view as her on what she described as a “finely balanced” issue. I encourage Members, the press and others more widely to read the whole report. Only by reading the Commissioner’s report, the appendices and the Committee’s report does one gain a balanced view.

As a former Leader of the House of Commons, I yield to no one in wanting to protect parliamentary privilege and the independence of the House from external interference, but the truth is that the public think there is one rule for them and another for us. That is an intolerable position for us to find ourselves in, and we have to do something about it. There must be a solution that protects parliamentary privilege and the continuing integrity of the work of the Standards Committee while allowing external regulation of this sort of complaint. Otherwise, frankly, we are not going to be in a credible position.

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that, while it is clear from past court cases that the expenses system does not constitute parliamentary proceedings, and that parliamentary privilege does not extend to them, other aspects of the regulation of Members’ conduct clearly do. An important practical consideration is that, if the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards did not report to the Standards Committee as a Select Committee of the House and was instead established as an entirely separate and independent entity, parliamentary privilege would not extend to her investigations. That would make it much more difficult to proceed with those investigations and to get them completed, because they would be subject to legal and procedural challenge. The Commissioner has the power to undertake all the investigations required.

It is enormously important that the House should maintain its right to regulate itself, because we do so on behalf of the British people, to whom we are democratically accountable in a way in which no bureaucrat can be. It is therefore for the British people that we maintain our rights. May we therefore do one of two things? Either we should have a proper, direct system of recall to allow the electorate to determine these matters, or we should use our powers, as set out on Page 855 of “Erskine May”, that would allow the whole House to come to a decision by returning a decision of the Standards Committee to that Committee and making our own recommendations, which might be more robust.

My hon. Friend is right to make that point. In a debate on 12 March 2012, the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), agreed with the proposal for the appointment of lay members to the Standards Committee, which was happily approved by consensus. She recognised that the Committee would

“be a Committee of the House, and the Members of Parliament who serve on it will be able to do so first and foremost because they successfully stood for election. Therefore, they are ultimately accountable to their constituents for their actions”.—[Official Report, 12 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 79.]

Indeed, it is an important aspect of this House that we are accountable in that way. It is from that that our fundamental authority here is derived. My hon. Friend has also raised the point about recall. I cannot anticipate the contents of the Queen’s Speech and the future legislative programme, but the House will know that, as indicated in the coalition programme, the Government remain committed to the implementation of a system of recall, and we continue to look forward to introducing proposals in that respect.

No one is going to buy the idea that this was all got up by the media. We must recognise the mistakes that have occurred and we must be less complacent. I have noticed that the House of Commons has been far too complacent on previous occasions before putting reforms in place. Does the Leader of the House accept that we need a system of examining our conduct that will satisfy not only ourselves but the public? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) has pointed out, the public are not satisfied at the moment. They believe that there are double standards, and we should take that fact on board as soon as possible.

I do not think that I am in any way complacent about this. It is important for us to be clear—and, as a consequence, for the public to be clear—that any expenses cases that have arisen since May 2010 are dealt with under a wholly independent system. That should be understood, because I fear that the current public debate is relating to the expenses system that existed before that date, rather than taking into account the creation of the independent system that has been in place since then. On the conduct of Members, the Standards Committee has to deal with complaints on a case-by-case basis, and we have to continue to make a judgment as to whether the investigations are robust and the recommended sanctions are proportionate to the nature of the offence. We in this House have a collective responsibility for that. When it comes to the exercise of those sanctions, I find it difficult to contemplate how suspension from the service of the House, for example, could be the responsibility of an external body. It should be the responsibility of the House to impose such sanctions.

The current episode is a product of the old expenses system and would not arise now. Nevertheless, it has increased public concern and there is no doubt that the House needs to respond to that. Does the Leader of the House agree that getting the recall Bill into the Queen’s Speech and pushed forward rapidly will form an important component of the solution?

My right hon. Friend will understand that I cannot anticipate the contents of the Queen’s Speech at this stage. I simply repeat that we are committed to the introduction of proposals for a recall Bill.

I thought that we had got rid of self-regulation after the expenses scandal, and not before time. Given the doubts about the strength of the recall proposals and in the light of the current saga, what can the Leader of the House say to reassure the public that the reform process, which must be a process without a full stop, has not stalled under this Government?

I would reassure the public by saying that, yes, there is a small number of legacy cases, but we now have a fully independent system that has all the powers it needs to take the necessary steps when anything goes wrong, now and in the future. Echoing the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) about the retiring chief executive of IPSA, Andrew McDonald, objectively speaking, IPSA has come a long way in creating a situation that should command greater confidence about expenses.

So far as the regulation of Members’ other conduct is concerned, the public have to look at individual cases—for example, those relating to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and conflicts of interest, or to a Member behaving in a way that brings the House into disrepute—and decide whether the independent Commissioner for Standards has pursued the matter robustly. It is certainly her job to do so, and I hope that Members and the public will agree that she does. When we read the reports following her investigations, they are often very detailed and thorough. The public also have to decide whether the decisions are proportionate. That is a matter of judgment, but I believe that the Standards Committee has put in place robust sanctions in recent cases involving that kind of poor behaviour.

Two years ago, the Government introduced a Green Paper on parliamentary privilege, which was considered at length. It led to the introduction of lay members, and a lengthy discussion on whether or not voting rights should be granted to them. The Leader of the House has already explained the situation in that regard, but will he also recognise that it was the Standards Committee that reopened the investigation into a former Member, which led to that Member eventually being charged and sent to jail, therefore showing that the Standards Committee will, without fear or favour, continue to try to uphold the integrity of this House?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right on that latter point. The issue relating to the question of whether lay members should have voting rights on a Select Committee was recently considered and reported on by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. We agreed with it when it said that to do that

“could have unintended consequences: principally that, by explicitly confirming that privilege extends to the Committee on Standards, it could be interpreted to mean that the same extension did not necessarily apply to other committees that include lay members.”

There is a risk that including lay members with voting rights on Select Committees could be held in the courts to have removed from that Committee its access to the exclusive cognisance and parliamentary privilege. That is a risk we do not need to run. The lay members on the Standards Committee have the power they need, but if they have any doubt about that, they should tell us and we should consider and perhaps strengthen their power. If, by offering a dissenting opinion, they have the power to act effectively as a veto on decisions made by the Standards Committee, then they have the power they require.

The great screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal has been churned up again. The public will not read the appendices. They have a powerful impression of sleaze in this House, which is damaging, and it will continue until we get rid of this very wasteful, cumbersome and bureaucratic system of expenses and replace it with a simplified system of allowances. That would save £10 million a year, be popular with Members, save a great deal of time and virtually eliminate the chances of fraud. Is it not the case that the time for IPSA has already gone?

I think the hon. Gentleman illustrates the nature of the misunderstanding. There is nothing in recent reported cases that implies directly a criticism of IPSA, as they do not relate to expenses since May 2010. If there are issues relating to IPSA, we should look at them in that context, and not judge IPSA by reference to cases that occurred before May 2010.

In considering an alternative system, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is necessary to take proper account of what parliamentary privilege amounts to? Essentially, it is to the effect that nothing said or done in this House can be relied on in any court outside this House. A report by a commissioner to a Committee is part of the proceedings of the House and is therefore covered by privilege. If, on the other hand, it is decided to establish an alternative form, which involves a statute and the creation of a statutory body, that body would be susceptible to any legal action and probably—we can imagine that many cases would be—subject to judicial review, thereby bringing an issue of this kind not only into the public domain but into the responsibility of the civil courts of this country.

I am not a lawyer and I bow to the knowledge of my right hon. and learned Friend. I think he is absolutely right about that. From my point of view, it is a very practical question. Let me repeat: if we were in a position in which the commissioner, constituted not as part of the role of the Select Committee and under the Standing Orders of this House but separately, were trying to effect investigations in a similar way while being open to legal and procedural challenges, as described by my right hon. and learned Friend, his job would be made much harder.

I have complained many times about the media and the way in which it has operated over the years in relation to Parliament, but I say to Members that there is no point in railing against it on this particular issue. The truth is that the parliamentary system of self-regulation and semi-self-regulation has been on trial in the court of public opinion for a considerable period, and for most of our constituents it has been found wanting. I do not want us suddenly to change all the rules and chase popularity—that would be as foolish as staying put—but surely we must keep under review the operation of the system not only in this House but in the other House, because this is about the whole political system, and, frankly, there is as much dodginess down the other end of the corridor as there might be down this one.

I am not sure whether I should pursue questions relating to the other House. That is a matter for the Lords rather than for us. The hon. Gentleman makes a point. I do not think I was seeking to blame the media. I think I was saying quite openly that we take it on our own shoulders. If we cannot communicate the facts to our constituents through the media and otherwise, we should take it on our own shoulders that we have failed in that respect. What I do say is that we should be frank and honest with ourselves. We are in transition between scrutiny of expenses as occurred before May 2010, where there are continuing legacy cases, and the new system from May 2010 onwards. The sooner we can resolve any remaining legacy cases, of which I hope there are very few, and move to a system that is based on the legislation brought into effect in May 2010, the better it will be.

I went doorstep canvassing on Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon, and I was telephone canvassing last night. There was one issue of huge concern, which was immigration from the European Union. What we are talking about now did not come up once. May I ask the Leader of the House to give his personal opinion on whether recall would in fact end the matter that we are talking about today? Ultimately, if recall were in place, the British people would decide, and could it be pure recall?

As I have said, these are issues that are debated by the public, and understandably so. In my experience, the public often want to have a conversation, not least when their Member of Parliament is available, to understand what is going on and why something is happening. We need to explain more effectively the transition through which we are going and the nature of the systems that should give the public greater confidence. As far as a recall Bill is concerned, I fear the House will have to await the publication of the Government’s proposals on that.

When I was a member of a local council, we were always told, when dealing with issues of standards, that it was not what we thought or how we perceived our actions, but how our actions would be perceived by others. In this situation, is there not a danger that all the good work that has been done, particularly on the expenses issue since May 2010, is at risk of being undermined? Is the Leader of the House really not prepared to investigate and look at a different way of doing things?

On the contrary, as I said in my first response and indeed in response to the shadow Leader of the House and the Chair of the Standards Committee, I am perfectly willing to look at proposals. We must be clear about what the facts are and the situation we are in. When the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) says that these things risk undermining the system, she should reflect that the decisions that the Standards Committee has been required to make relate to a legacy case from before May 2010. It should not be interpreted as something that can be used to undermine the system of expenses, scrutiny and regulation that has applied since May 2010. To throw that into the argument and say that things must change would be misplaced. That should be judged in its own terms. If there are other ways in which we can further improve the regulation of Members’ conduct more generally, then of course I am willing to discuss it with Members.

I entered this House on a platform for change. No doubt I was assisted by my predecessor’s outrageous expenses. I know that that was under a different system, but knocking on doors in my constituency this weekend, people did raise the expenses issue with me, and they believe that nothing has changed. May I ask the Leader of the House to take the mood not only in this place but in the wider country to make the change that we need?

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying but we all—not least my hon. Friend and the other Members who came to this House in May 2010—have a responsibility to explain to the public that things have changed. The system is independently regulated, and under the expenses system that we have had for the past four years and will have in the future there is no sense in which Members of this House are directly engaged in the process of judging other Members. The process is independent. We do not have any say in it; IPSA does.

Do the Leader of the House and the Government not realise that we are living in an austerity-riddled Britain where there have been more than 40% cuts in local government and where more than 1 million people have lost their benefits in the last few years? That is the climate for the people outside and Governments of all kinds should realise that set against that backcloth they cannot keep saying from that Dispatch Box, “We’re going to carry on regardless.” Listen to the tune and the noise outside.

I and other members of the Government are clear about the nature of the austerity required in public expenditure and across the country because the income of this country reduced by more than 7%, equivalent to £3,000 per household, under the previous Government, so yes, everything has changed. In this Parliament, in relation to the expenses system for Members of Parliament, things have changed. It is more rigorous; it is controlled; it is controlled independently; any complaints or failures are investigated independently; and any enforcement is done independently. This is not about Members of this House or me being complacent because for now and for the future the system has changed.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on how many legacy cases from before 2010 remain? The system has changed—I was one of those elected to see fundamental change—but we want the House to be cleaned up and cleared up and to know that those cases are at an end.

I wish that I could say that they are, but I cannot. The answer may well not be “None” and that such legacy cases remain. I do not know; new issues may be raised, but I hope that they are relatively few. Following the Legg inquiry and others, they ought to have been thoroughly considered and the public should have confidence that the issues that were brought out have been dealt with. I hope that that is the case, but I cannot say that there are no such cases. I think that might be over-optimistic.

Can the Leader of the House explain why the Prime Minister still believes in self-regulation of politicians when he has ended self-regulation of the press?

The Prime Minister believes in effective regulation. I hope that I have explained to the House that the issues relating to self-regulation are very straightforward. In the debate on 12 March 2012, my predecessor as Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House argued by analogy that we were creating something like the General Medical Council or the Bar Council by involving lay members to try to ensure that we did not have self-regulation in the way we had it in the past. We must bear in mind specific issues about the relationship between the regulatory system and the exercise of parliamentary privilege and, in particular, the question of how sanctions that were to be applied in this House can be applied by anybody other than the House itself.