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Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

Volume 686: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2020

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Helen Jones to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority with effect from 1 January 2021 for the period ending on 31 December 2025; and that Her Majesty will re-appoint Sir Robert Owen to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority with effect from 1 January 2021 for the period ending on 31 December 2023.

The Speaker’s Committee has produced a report—its first report of 2020— in relation to this motion. It may help if I set out the key points for the record. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority board members are appointed under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. Under the Act, the Speaker is responsible for overseeing the selection of candidates for appointment to the IPSA. The names of any candidates to be members of the IPSA must be approved by the Speaker’s Committee for the IPSA. The Act also states:

“At least one of the members of the IPSA must be a person who has held (but no longer holds) high judicial office (within the meaning of Part 3 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005…At least one of the members of the IPSA must be a person who is qualified under Schedule 3 to the National Audit Act 1983…to be an auditor for the National Audit Office...One of the members of the IPSA…must be a person who has been (but is no longer) a member of the House of Commons.”

On this occasion, the vacancies are for a former Member of the House of Commons and a former holder of high judicial office.

The terms of office of the current incumbents come to an end on 31 December this year. Jenny Willott, the former MP currently serving on the IPSA board, is stepping down at the end of her term. I would like to put on record our thanks to her for her service. As is normal for these appointments, Mr Speaker appointed a panel who conducted the shortlisting and interviewing of candidates. The panel was chaired by former civil service commissioner, Mark Addison. The other members of the panel were Cindy Butts, a lay member of the Speaker’s Committee for the IPSA, and Richard Lloyd, the interim chairman of the IPSA. The panel reported back to the Speaker’s Committee with a list of candidates that it assessed as being appointable to each role. The Speaker’s Committee considered the report at its meeting last week. It agreed with Mr Speaker that Helen Jones should be appointed to the former Member of the House of Commons position, and that Sir Robert Owen should be reappointed to the former holder of high judicial office position.

Helen Jones, who will be familiar to many Members, was the popular Member for Warrington North from 1997 to 2019. She chaired the Petitions Committee with distinction from 2015 to 2019. [Interruption.] Somebody has a telephone call coming in; I hope it is important. Helen Jones previously served as an Opposition spokesman, senior Government Whip and Parliamentary Private Secretary. Prior to entering the House, she worked as a solicitor, a teacher and a justice and peace officer in the Liverpool archdiocese. Sir Robert Owen is the current incumbent and has served as an IPSA board member since 2016. He was a judge in the Queen’s bench division of the High Court, a nominated judge of the administrative court and the presiding judge of the western circuit. He also chaired the Litvinenko inquiry in 2014-15.

If the appointments are made, Helen Jones will serve on IPSA for five years and Sir Robert Owen will serve a further three-year term. I hope that the House will support these appointments, and we wish the candidates well in these important roles. I commend the motion to the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for setting out in full the background to these appointments. The Opposition support the motion, but I want to say a couple of words about Sir Robert Owen. I am pleased that a person of his stature has agreed to be reappointed. Helen Jones has served in this House, as the Leader of the House has outlined, as Chair of the Petitions Committee. I know that both will bring their expertise on this important body. Her Majesty’s Opposition support everything that the Leader of the House has said and support the motion.

I thank the Leader of the House for moving the motion in our proceedings this evening, and of course we support both candidates and we wish them both well. I think we are all familiar with Helen Jones, who has such a distinguished record of service to the House, and wish her well in her deliberations. I think we can all trust that our interests will be looked after by the IPSA.

This process has followed the best possible practice in the House and is an exemplar for how we do these things. What we did was select from a wide range of people who came forward with the necessary experience. What was required was a practical engagement with the House, and the way the process was handled was a credit to the House. We can only compare that with what happened a couple of weeks ago, which was an absolute and utter disgrace and an embarrassment to this House, when this House turned down what the Commission had decided for lay members of the Standards Committee.

We should look at both examples: one, a best-practice exemplar of how we do things; the other, a disgrace that will do nothing but discourage good people from coming forward and offering their services to this House. We should be doing everything possible to get people such as Helen Jones and Robert Owen, not turning them away by changing the criteria halfway through the process, when it had been agreed by the Commission. I hope we never, ever get into such a situation again, that what we are doing today is the gold standard for how we make such appointments to the House, and that we never, ever revisit the shambles of a couple of weeks ago, with the lay members of the Standards Committee.

I thought we were going to achieve a degree of pre-Christmas consensus. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), the shadow Leader of the House. I think the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was unfair to the House of Commons. In any process where this House is the final decision maker, it must not be deemed, thought or considered to be a mere rubber stamp. Any process that ends in this House must always do so with the House being free to choose as it sees fit. That is why under statute there is provision for this debate. It is therefore limited to 90 minutes—although that seems to be more time than will be taken on this occasion—but this House should never view itself as a cipher or a rubber stamp.

These issues are important, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have two very fine candidates on this occasion. To have a former judge of the stature of Sir Robert Owen is exactly what we need and gives confidence to Members that matters will be handled fairly. I also think it was important to have Helen Jones—somebody who had served in the House for a long time and thoroughly understood the ways of the House, and who, as Chairman of the Petitions Committee, showed how effectively she can work on a cross-party basis—because we want this committee to achieve consensus and to work well for the interests of the House, while also defending taxpayers’ interests in the use of their money. I am therefore grateful for the broad support, but it is important to remember that this House, when it is the final arbiter, is an uninhibited arbiter.

Question put and agreed to.