Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the consequences of the decision of the House on 3 November relating to Standards.
First, I want to place on the record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for facilitating this debate. I also want to record my thanks for the work done by all members of staff in this place.
I must agree with you, Mr Speaker: I was horrified to learn that the Commissioner for Standards had received death threats. That is appalling. No one should receive death threats for doing their job.
The role of Commissioner for Standards provided one of the key ways in which we moved beyond previous scandals which had rocked the House. The role is not political The Commissioner was appointed by the House to do a job, and that is what she has done and continues to do.
The actions of the Government last week have tarnished this House’s reputation. Last week was UK Parliament Week, a time focused on engaging citizens in the work that we do here. Well, Mr Speaker, if I had been tuning into Parliament last week for the first time, I would probably have turned the television right off again.
I have been a Member of this place for less than two years, and most of the time I am proud to have been chosen to represent North East Fife to be able to act for my constituents and to fight their corner. I was proud to do the right thing last week by opposing the Government and voting to uphold the standards procedure. It is hard to be proud to be a Member of Parliament when, as a body, we are all tarnished with the Government’s brush and when in the eyes of the public we are tainted by allegations of sleaze.
The Government’s actions last Wednesday have rightly been condemned across the board. Sir John Major said that
“the way the government handled that was shameful, wrong and unworthy of this or indeed any government.”
Lord Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that the proposed reforms to the Standards Committee were
“deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy.”
My inbox and, I am sure, those of others are full. One example of the many questions I have been asked is:
“What gives the Government the right to have a vote to change the process just because it has adversely affected one of their own? This is an appalling message to the wider public.”
My constituent was right: what gives this Government the right to think that they can change the rules when a decision does not suit them, that they can ignore judgments that are not in their favour and that they can whip their own MPs to achieve the outcome they wanted, in violation of the conventions of this House?
Does my hon. Friend agree that this has been a distraction from one of the most important sets of debates going on at the moment, at COP26? When our constituents were tuning in to this place, that is where the focus of Parliament should have been. Instead, the focus was on the shenanigans of this Government, and that is the real tragedy here.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. COP is the last-chance saloon for this country and for the planet, and to have such distractions in this place is reprehensible.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for securing today’s debate on standards. When I was first elected to this House, the mother of all Parliaments, I was incredibly proud because I thought that Members conducted themselves with honour and integrity, and that we were not ruled by a Prime Minister who was a tinpot dictator and who is himself now mired in sleaze—
Order. We have just said that we want to show the House at its best. I do not think that the term “tinpot dictator” aimed at an individual is going to bring unity. I want to see us at our best, to show that we take this seriously. We want to show the House in the best way possible, so please, let us moderate our language and moderate our thoughts. Let us do this right.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I think there is a point here: this is the kind of behaviour we would expect to see in the Duma in Moscow or the National People’s Congress in Beijing, not in the House of Commons. Previous Prime Ministers and previous Governments have all had their failings, but it is a long time since we have seen issues such as these and an absolute lack of resolve to do anything about them. They say that a fish rots from the head down, and I am disappointed to see that the Prime Minister has chosen not to turn up today to answer our questions, given that the Leader of the Opposition is in his place. I cannot help but feel that he thinks the rules do not apply to him.
The Government have recently failed to properly investigate allegations, failed to declare relevant meetings and, arguably, attempted to rig the system to cover their own back. This is the Prime Minister who flew to Afghanistan to escape a vote on Heathrow when he was Foreign Secretary, and he has driven to the north-east to escape questions today.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. As one of those who defied the three-line Whip of their Government last week on this issue, I think she will agree that it was patently wrong to try to reform the system at this point. We have had years to reform it, but does she agree that we need cross-party support for this, and that, given that the Committee on Standards is already looking at the issue, we should wait for its findings before making any further decisions?
I am sure that the hon. Member was present at the debate last week, and he will know that that is exactly what those of us on this side of the House were calling for. We were calling for consensus and for the goalposts not to be moved. We were also proposing that we look at our processes and procedures on an ongoing basis, as we should be doing, and hold ourselves to account as our voters would expect us to do. I have had correspondence from lifelong Conservative voters who have been appalled, not just by last week’s actions but, sadly, by this Government’s actions over the past two years and the alarming frequency with which scandals befall them.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government have been playing a ridiculous game with the public’s trust, not only through the foul play in last week’s vote, but through a string of corrupt dealings over the past two years?
I will go on to detail some of the things the hon. Lady is referring to. Back in May 2020, it was Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle, in flagrant breach of covid regulations; then it was the Home Secretary, found to have breached the ministerial code, but let off; and then it was the then Health Secretary breaching covid guidance he had been instructing others to follow. That is just the tip of the iceberg.
It has been said in the media that some MPs are now walking through the corridors of Westminster feeling invincible. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are accountable to our constituents and that they are our boss?
I agree, and that is one of the challenges. This is not an ordinary job. We are not in a line management structure; we are accountable only to our constituents.
As the longest-serving Member on the Opposition Benches, may I say to the House that I was appalled at what happened last week? However, as a long-serving Member, I must also say that that behaviour is not typical. I have worked with people in this House of all parties for a very long time, and most of their behaviour is good. It is excellent—it is cross-party. This case has done something to damage our reputation, but please let none of us undermine the fact that normally, most hon. Members on all sides act honourably and work together, and I am proud to be a Member working with them.
As an MP elected in 2019, one of the great losses as a result of covid has been the lack of opportunity to meet people in real life and engage across the House and across parties. As we move through covid, I hope there will be more opportunity to do that, so that we can see the good behaviour on all sides.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. She is absolutely right. In recent weeks, we have mourned the loss of two great men, who served their communities well in this House and were decent people. We have talked about how important it is that we conduct ourselves with grace and forgiveness on all sides and that our tone is different from that which the public expect. Does she agree, though, that being gracious does not mean ignoring the reality when one side behaves especially badly? We do not need to be soppily neutral. The reality is that the Government made a decision last week to do something that undermined trust in democracy at every level, locally and here in Westminster. That is why her debate is so important.
We on these Benches are the Opposition. It is our job to oppose the Government unless they can behave otherwise. I will try to make some progress.
Over the past 20 months, my constituents have had to follow more rules than they have ever had to deal with before, while sadly we are governed by Ministers who seem to care far less about the rules than any predecessors in living memory. That is why we are here today. It has been reported over the weekend that Ministers are focused on pleasing their boss, not on doing what is right for this country. We have seen story after story break, including cash for honours and undeclared interests.
On that point about cash for honours, does my hon. Friend agree that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be put on a statutory footing, to ensure that any recommendations made to the Prime Minister cannot be ignored in the same way that the Prime Minister ignored advice given to him by the previous independent adviser on ministerial interests, recommending that the Home Secretary be sacked for bullying?
These are all things that need to be looked at on an ongoing basis, and there are potentially areas where the different processes are in conflict. However, I will now make some progress.
Who is influencing our politics? How is taxpayers’ money being spent, and what is being done to hold those in power to account? Those questions are why we argue that we need a public inquiry, with the powers and resources to get to the depths of the situation we are in. People around the country who play by the rules deserve answers, but instead they are being let down by this Government and by a Prime Minister who will not take even the most basic of steps to turn up to this debate.
It is a great shame that the Prime Minister has not graced us with his presence this afternoon, because there is still a huge amount that we do not know about the events of last week. There are many questions that demand answers, many of them involving the Prime Minister’s personal role in this affair. This is a Prime Minister, after all, who has been under investigation more times than any other Member in recent years. The question is: who stands to benefit from getting the current standards processes out of the way? Members of the public will have to draw their own conclusions on that, with the Prime Minister not being here today.
However, the questions do not stop at the Prime Minister; they extend to all those involved in the whipping operation last week. First, why was there a whipping operation in the first place? This was House business and it should not have been whipped. The Government tried to change our procedures without our consent; and then they U-turned and tried to walk it back. But they cannot walk back the events of last week—that is why we are here, looking forward.
We have heard serious, concerning allegations today that Members breaking the whip were threatened with a removal of funding for projects in their constituencies. I ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office to address that point and whether it is this true, as the matter deserves further investigation. The idea that communities should suffer because their representative did the right thing is, frankly, abhorrent. Despite all those alleged threats, the whipping operation was only a partial success. I thank those Members on the Conservative Benches who stood up for what was right and those Members, including the Father of the House, who last week supported my application for this debate.
I just wish to make it clear that at no stage were any threats of that nature made to me when I broke the whip last week.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for providing us with that clarity—it is unfortunate that the Prime Minister is not here to do that.
The final set of questions is for us, in this place, to answer; they are not for Ministers and the Government, but for Members of this House. How do we go about rebuilding trust and confidence in what we do here?
I will not give way, as I am going to make progress. I hope that we will be able to discuss that issue further today.
No system is perfect. There is always room for improvement. Whatever I previously thought of our process for investigating complaints against Members, what I saw last week made it abundantly clear that changes need to be made. I find it hard to believe that Owen Paterson was able to vote on his own suspension last week, while the votes of Members currently under investigation were critical in the passage of the amendment that saved him. That looks like the equivalent of the defendants in a court case also taking part in the jury. It is wrong, and if we are to make changes, that must be top of the list of reforms.
There has been much discussion of a right to appeal—this is something we have heard a lot from the Government as they try to justify their actions. I would point out that, through the Nationality and Borders Bill currently going through Parliament, the Government are attempting to take the rights of appeal away from asylum seekers. No matter what changes are proposed, one thing is clear: those with a vested interest in tearing up Parliament’s anti-sleaze rules should not be given the power to do so, and any amendment to these rules must be done fairly and with the proper amount of time taken and consideration given by this House. It is this House that invests the authority in the Committee on Standards to act on its behalf in considering the Commissioner’s reports, and considering whether or not to uphold those reports and the sanctions attached to them. I am sure that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is Chair of the Committee, will use time today to speak about the steps that the Committee is taking, to which you referred earlier, Mr Speaker.
As a new MP elected in 2019, I did not vote on the current rules, but I accept them, because they are the rules in place. I am a member of a smaller party. We do not have representation on the Standards Committee, but those are the rules and we accept them. If the processes are to be changed, that needs to be done properly and with consensus across the House. That is what the Leader of the House should have been looking to do last Wednesday: to act on behalf of the House, instead of his own party. That is what he should be doing today: listening to Members’ contributions and responding to them—I understand that he is not doing so. Instead, we have the Minister for the Cabinet Office responding to us. Can he let us know what exact involvement the Cabinet Office has in this House’s standards procedures? Certainly, wherever we go from here, without a cross-party consensus, reforms will simply have no legitimacy.
Like you, Mr Speaker, I hope for positive and constructive contributions from those in all parts of the House this afternoon, as we work out how to move forward from this scandal. I hope that the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister will engage with this process. One of my constituents wrote to me saying:
“Mr Paterson’s resignation is not the end. It must be the beginning of an uncompromising campaign to end the corruption of our politics.”
I hope that we can begin that campaign, in this place, today.
Where is the Prime Minister?
Order. To those who are shouting, “Where is the Prime Minister?” I say that the Prime Minister phoned me this morning, as did the leader of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), and they told me that neither of them could be with us. They have given their reasons and whether they are right, wrong or indifferent, I do not make judgments. I can only say on the behalf of the two people concerned—both leaders—that one is at COP26 and the other is visiting hospitals in the north-east. That is where the Prime Minister is, so I do not need to hear “Where is he?” all the way through the debate. I have explained it and Members can make their own decisions.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing and opening this debate. The Government have been listening carefully to the legitimate concerns raised by right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House, both during and since last Wednesday’s debate. These matters are vitally important to you, Mr Speaker, and to the whole House.
Before I set out the Government’s position, I would like, first, to express my regret and that of my ministerial colleagues over the mistake made last week. We recognise that there are concerns throughout the House about the standards system and the process by which possible breaches of the code of conduct are investigated.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
I will in a moment.
Although sincerely held concerns clearly warrant further attention, the manner in which the Government approached last week’s debate conflated them with the response to an individual case. This House shares a collective interest in ensuring that the code of conduct reflects and fosters the highest standards of public life. The Government fully recognise that the Standards Committee is critical to that, including in respect of the important role performed by its Chairman, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
The Minister has already offered one apology; will he give another to residents who live in constituencies with MPs whom his Front-Bench team and Whips threatened with the withdrawal of spending in their communities to punish them for thinking about not voting for the amendment last week? Will he apologise to those residents, who are innocent bystanders? It is not their fault that money can be taken out of their communities simply because of something their MP does on a matter of conscience.
I think the hon. Gentleman prepared that intervention before he heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), who said that, despite his voting against the Government, that was a misrepresentation of the conversations he had.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he is speaking in this debate rather than the Leader of the House, whose job it is to deal with the standards decision? Is this not adding insult to injury and showing that the Government really do not understand the issue?
With due respect, first, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is in the Chamber with me and, secondly, the right hon. and learned Lady well knows, not least as the Mother of the House, that the Cabinet Office overseas the Government response across Departments, including on a number of the issues covered by this issue.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s apology on the behalf of the Government and am sure that other Members will, too, but will he commit to the House that future disciplinary matters are matters for the House, not for the Government?
As has been set out by the Prime Minister and other colleagues in the Government, we are committed to working on a cross-party basis, including with the Chair of the Standards Committee, which is why I recognise the important role he performs and had just picked that out in my remarks. We thank him and, indeed, the Committee’s lay members for their service, as we do the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I reiterate that the Government have previously taken and will continue to take a cross-party approach to issues around standards in this House.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), I received no pressure whatsoever in terms of the way I voted last week.
My right hon. Friend has set out a gracious apology for what happened last week, but will he concede that one thing that was not right with the amendment the Government supported was that the members of the proposed Committee were hand-picked? If the standards of this House are to be reformed, would it not be better for such a Committee to be chaired by somebody who is elected by this whole House and for the Committee members also to be elected in the normal way for Select Committee members?
As I just set out, we are committed to working on a cross-party basis and we regret that many hon. Members did not feel that they had been sufficiently consulted on the proposals last week. I simply refer to the article in The Times by the Chair of the Standards Committee, who said:
“I’m sure we need to review both the code of conduct and the way it operates.”
He went on to say that
“there are good arguments in favour of a more formal additional process, whereby a member could appeal against the sanction either to an outside body or to a sub-committee of the standards committee”.
It was to that that the debate turned last week.
I give way to the hon. Lady.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Last week was UK Parliament Week, but it was not our finest hour. Does he agree that, at the very least, a message from this debate must be that we work in our constituents’ interests and in the public interest, and that the use of this House to work in the private interest to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds will not be tolerated?
I did not see that the Chair of the Standards Committee was seeking to grab my attention. We are committed to working on a cross-party basis and, with that in mind, of course I will give way to him.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and acknowledge the apology that he has given on behalf of the Government. None the less, the whole of Parliament is still in a bit of a hole. We still have a motion that was carried last week, which leaves the question of Mr Paterson’s conduct hanging in the air. Earlier today, I gave a draft of a motion that, were the Government to table it tonight, could be considered by the House tomorrow. I think that it would have the support of the whole House in clearing up the fact that, as you referred to, Mr Speaker, we have not actually decided whether Mr Paterson’s behaviour was inappropriate. I think the whole House now accepts that it was. Secondly, we have created a Committee which, I think, even the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is meant to be chairing it, does not want to be on any more.
It would be quite a good idea if we could clear this up tomorrow before we go into recess. I hope the Minister will say now that he will table that motion later on today.
I have been very clear that we will listen to the House and listen to the debate. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) just let me address the point made by the Chair of the Committee on Standards? Mr Paterson has now resigned, so it would not be possible for the House to endorse a sanction of suspension. I simply remind the House that he has suffered a serious personal tragedy. He has now resigned. In his statement, he said that he wants to continue his politics outside public life, and we should respect that. I hope, through your office, Mr Speaker, that there will be a way for us to engage on a cross-party basis, and that is what the Government will now redouble their efforts to engage on in the days ahead.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. There is not anybody in this House who does not have the utmost sympathy for Mr Paterson’s plight, but we do have to remember that he said he would do exactly the same if the opportunity presented itself. I am grateful that the Minister has rendered his apology, but does he not think it more appropriate that the Prime Minister attends and gives his apology rather than being in the north-east of England defending the conduct of his police and crime commissioners, one of whom has had to resign over inappropriate remarks and another of whom is under investigation?
With respect, Mr Speaker dealt with that at the opening of this debate and made it clear that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the SNP had discussed with him the debate today.
I abstained last week, so I thank the Government absolutely for the apology; it is completely the right thing to do. I want to put on record that, despite the fact that I abstained and I occasionally have the misfortune to vote against this Government, they continue to be nothing but supportive of both myself and the people of the Isle of Wight.
It is helpful to get that on the record.
The Government will now redouble our efforts to engage on a cross-party basis—and, indeed with you, Mr Speaker—in the days ahead, because we know what we can achieve when we do so. For example, in collaboration with others, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) worked hard when she was Leader of the House to establish the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. The scheme, to which the Government are wholly committed, is a model with many strengths. It includes an appeals process and an ability to adjudicate complex cases by virtue of its independent expert panel that is led by a High Court judge. Overall, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme brings with it the expectation of rigour, impartiality and fairness for both the complainant and respondent.
It would be of enormous help to the House if we could understand the Government’s thinking on the issue to which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) alluded. The amended motion last week was passed; I voted against it, but it was passed. What is its status now? There seems to be a general consensus that the rules that we deploy with regards to standards should be reviewed. Are they to be reviewed under the current auspices, or under the auspices of the amended motion last week, with some shadow or secondary standards Committee looking at them? I think the House would find it helpful to know that we are going to work through the procedures in existence today and effectively expunge the amended motion from the record of last week.
It is clear that the Committee agreed by the House last week will not be able to develop proposals without cross-party participation, which is why we are continuing discussions and listening to views from across the House about the best way forward.
Let me attempt to help the Government. Is not the root cause of all this MPs trying to get paid even more than the £82,000 a year that they already get? I should not have to remind the Government that 95% of the public get paid less than MPs, nor that being an MP is a full-time job. Chasing corporate cash is, quite simply, short-changing the public. Will the Minister agree to help to clean up politics by backing my Bill to ban second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh jobs for Members of Parliament?
I am not sure whether all Members on the Opposition Benches would support that proposal, because there is value in MPs having a continued connection with the world outside of politics. Banning all second jobs would have captured some in this House who work, for example, as doctors or nurses, and have supported the NHS through the pandemic. It makes sense to build on the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire and the procedure that she developed when she was Leader of the House.
We share a commitment to a system that encourages and communicates the right values, attitudes and behaviour, and that makes it clear to Members that in performing their parliamentary duties, they are expected always to act in the public interest, with courtesy, professionalism and respect.
I am grateful to the Minister for his apology, as far as it went. Last week, it was quite clear that the Government did not agree with the recommendations in the Standards Committee’s report, so I am not clear today: are the Government saying that they now agree that Owen Paterson behaved badly and incorrectly, or are they just apologising for the process that they imposed on us last week?
What I am saying is that Mr Paterson has left Parliament; he has resigned, and therefore suspending him from the House would no longer be applicable.
It is the work of every Member to safeguard Parliament’s reputation by upholding its principles and abiding by its rules. Moving ahead, our shared responsibility is to identify and seize opportunities to improve the system—to ensure that it is robust and fair, that is commands the confidence of Members and our constituents, and that it is aligned with the fundamental principles of natural justice. To that end, I welcome forthcoming contributions from colleagues. I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that the Government will be listening carefully to the insights and views of Members from across the House.
I see that the Leader of the House is in the House, so it is a surprise to see the Minister for the Cabinet Office at the Dispatch Box today. He and I have faced each other across the Dispatch Box many times, and it is always a pleasure, but I am sure he, like me, wishes that his days as the nightwatchman were a thing of the past. Defending valiantly against hostile bowling on a sticky wicket of his Prime Minister’s creation—it is as if 2019 never ended.
That is because last week the Prime Minister damaged himself, and, despite the bravery of some Conservative Members, he damaged his party; but most importantly, he damaged our democracy. We are fortunate in this country: voters may not always agree with politicians—they often do not—but they do trust that disagreements are sincere, that their representatives are acting in the way that they think is in the public interest, and that we can resolve our disagreements in debate and at the ballot box. But when the Prime Minister gives the green light to corruption, he corrodes that trust; when he says that the rules to stop vested interests do not apply to his friends, he corrodes that trust; and when he deliberately undermines those charged with stopping corruption, he corrodes that trust—and that is exactly what the Prime Minister did last week.
Now, today, the Prime Minister does not even have the decency to come here either to defend what he did or to apologise for his action. Rather than repairing the damage that he has done, the Prime Minister is running scared. When required to lead, he has chosen to hide. His concern, as always, is self-preservation, not the national interest. It is time for everyone in this House, whatever their party, to draw a line and to send a message to the Prime Minister: enough is enough; we will not stand by while he trashes our democracy.
The case of the former Member for North Shropshire is simple. Everyone in this House has enormous sympathy for the tragic circumstances in which he lost his wife. His pain and his anguish are unimaginable. I wish to express my condolences to him, as I did at the time. The Committee on Standards rightly took those awful circumstances into account when considering his conduct. There was a serious and robust process. He had prior notice of the charges against him. He had legal advisers with him. He was invited to appeal against the commissioner’s findings in writing and in person, and he did so. The findings were clear—
“an egregious case of paid advocacy.”
He took money to lobby Ministers. That is against the rules, as it is in any functioning democracy, and it is corrupt. The Prime Minister should have told the former Member for North Shropshire that the right thing to do was to accept his punishment. His duty of care demanded that he do that. His duty to defend standards demanded that he do that. Basic decency demanded that he do that. Instead, the British people were let down, and the former Member for North Shropshire was let down, used as a pawn in an extraordinary attack on our commissioner for standards. We had threats to have money taken away from schools, hospitals and high streets unless Members voted to undermine the commissioner; Ministers sent out on the airwaves the morning after the vote to call for her to consider her position; and a sham committee proposed so that the Government could set the judge and jury for future cases. This was a deliberate course of action, but the Government were caught off guard by the public outcry and they have climbed down.
This was not a tactical mistake or an innocent misjudgment swiftly corrected by a U-turn—it was the Prime Minister’s way of doing business, a pattern of behaviour. When the Prime Minister’s adviser on the ministerial code found against the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister kept the Home Secretary and forced out the adviser. When the Electoral Commission investigated the Conservative party, the Prime Minister threatened to shut it down. When the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards looked into the Prime Minister’s donations, the Prime Minister tried to take her down. Government corruption—there is no other word for it.
Will the Leader of the Opposition give way?
I will in just a moment. It is said that the Prime Minister does not believe that the rules apply to him, but it is worse than that. He absolutely knows that the rules do apply to him; his strategy is to devalue the rules so that they do not matter to anyone any more and to go after those charged with enforcing the rules so that breaking the rules has less consequence. That way, politics becomes contaminated. Cynicism replaces confidence and trust. The taunt that politicians are all in it for themselves becomes accepted wisdom and, with that, the Prime Minister hopes to drag us all into the gutter with him. No way. It only serves to convince people that things cannot get better, that Government cannot improve people’s lives, and that progress is not possible because politics does not work.
In the right hands, used in the right way and for the right reasons, politics can work, because politics can be a noble cause to build a better country and a better world. For some, it is also a great personal sacrifice. The plaques in this House to Airey Neave and Jo Cox, and the empty seat where just weeks ago Sir David Amess sat, are testament to that price. If we are to honour their memory, we have to defeat the politics of cynicism propagated by this Prime Minister.
I thank the Leader of the Opposition for giving way. One of the rules we have always observed in this place is that we do not whip House business. Just about everything that has happened since last week can be traced back to the determination of the Government to whip that. Does he share my concern that we have heard nothing from those on the Treasury Bench today to say that, if we on this side of the House participate in future exploration of the rules, there will be no repetition of whipping the votes either for or against when those measures return to this House? Indeed, without that undertaking, it would be very difficult for anyone on this side to accept that what we hear from those on the Treasury Bench is a good faith exercise.
I do share that concern. That would be a very easy thing for the Government to say today, and we have another two hours to run in this debate, so there is plenty of time to say it.
I could not agree more with the Leader of the Opposition that House business should never be whipped. Can he say whether he whipped his Members last week?
No. Our Members did not need whipping to know what the right decision was.
There are good ideas across the House about how we can improve standards to restore the trust that the Prime Minister has broken. There has been talk about cross-party working this afternoon. We are willing to work cross party and with the expertise of the Standards Committee to make that happen, but let me be loud and clear: we are not willing to work with the Government on their plans to weaken standards. There will be no cross-party agreement on weakening standards.
There are other ideas. The Labour party has long called for the MPs’ code of conduct to ban paid directorships and consultancy roles. The current code of conduct recognises that those roles are a potential conflict of interest but does not ban them. We voted to fix that in 2015, but we were blocked by the Government. A change along those lines has been recommended by the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, but there has been no action by the Government. It is time to put that right.
In addition, the revolving door between ministerial office and the private sector is still in full swing. Ministers can regulate a company one minute and work for it the next. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is too weak to provide the check and balance. It is time to shut the revolving door by banning those job swaps. This weekend, we were reminded of the appalling inevitable pattern: a large donation to the Conservative party, a stint as party treasurer, then an appointment to the House of Lords. The regulator has been ignored by the Prime Minister and broken in the process. There is no doubt that the House of Lords needs fundamental democratic reform, but we can act now to toughen the rules over appointments.
The Leader of the Opposition is a former Director of Public Prosecutions. In 2003, under a Labour Government, the Committee on Standards set up the investigatory panel that contained rules of natural justice if it were to be implemented, which it was not in this case. As a former Director of Public Prosecutions, would he agree that the rules of natural justice could be avoided where an investigatory panel could have been set up but was not?
I understand the point, but let us remind ourselves of the process. The independent commissioner examines the complaint and comes to a finding. The charge is known and the individual can be legally represented and advised; I understand that the former Member for North Shropshire was legally advised throughout the process. The finding of the commissioner can then be appealed to the Committee, which can agree or disagree with the commissioner. I will be corrected if I am wrong, but on occasion, I think the Committee has disagreed, and therefore the appeal has been allowed and the individual has not faced a sanction.
Before that Committee, the individual can be legally advised, and I think the former Member for North Shropshire had two legal teams in the process. He was able to make a statement setting out his case and his defence. Every point that was made in his defence last Wednesday had been made by him to the Committee, as anybody who has read the report will know. It was rejected by the Committee. He was then questioned for a number of hours by Committee members. That is an appeal. That is due process. That is a much stronger position than millions of working people up and down the country face if they are disciplined in their workplace. We owe it to them to recommend it.
I will make some progress.
On all the areas where we can improve, we can work together to restore trust and strengthen standards, but instead we have been invited into a sham process that is designed to force out the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. We are told that the main problem is that there was not a right of appeal, when there clearly is. That is why we have no interest in talking to the Government about how to weaken the current system.
The lack of common ground is fundamental. The Government want to weaken the system because the system keeps investigating and finding against them. The best solution is the simple one: they should change their behaviour. The Prime Minister should show some leadership. He should send a clear message that the rules apply to everyone, and that those enforcing the rules to prevent corruption will be supported by the Government, rather than forced out.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend not think that the sham is continuing even today? Not only is the Prime Minister not here, despite the importance of this issue, but the Leader of the House—who is here, which is right, because it is a House issue—is completely silent and the Minister who is in the place where the Leader of the House or the Prime Minister should be cannot even answer the basic question, from either side of the House, about how we proceed now and whether the Government will accept the recommendation from the Chair of the Standards Committee.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The Prime Minister should be here. Leadership is about taking responsibility, and if there is an apology to be made, that apology should come from the top, just as the direction came from the top last week to engage in this business in the first place.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I will just make some progress, and then I will give way.
The Prime Minister could start by making three simple commitments. First, he should work with us to ensure that the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) faces a recall petition. It is completely unacceptable for a Member to be found guilty of sexually harassing junior staff, yet avoid the judgment of the electorate on the basis of a loophole. The Government have hidden behind that loophole. It is now time to come out of hiding.
Secondly, the Prime Minister needs to agree that no Member found guilty of egregious breaches of the MPs’ code of conduct can be recommended for a peerage. The Government cannot reward bad behaviour and corruption with a job for life making the laws of the land.
Thirdly, the Prime Minister must commit to a full and transparent investigation into Randox and the Government contracts. What do we know? We know that Randox has been awarded Government contracts worth over £600 million, without competition or tender. We know that the former Member for North Shropshire lobbied for Randox. We also know that he sat in on a call between Randox and the Minister responsible for handling the health contracts. Against that backdrop, there is obviously a concern that the use of taxpayers’ money and the effectiveness of our pandemic response may have been influenced by paid advocacy from the former Member for North Shropshire. If the Prime Minister is interested in rooting out corruption, he needs to launch a full investigation. If the Prime Minister is interested in restoring trust, we need full transparency, with all the relevant correspondence published—no ifs and no buts.
Last week, the Prime Minister damaged himself, he damaged his party and he damaged our democracy. He led his party through the sewers, and the stench lingers. This week, he had the chance to clean up, apologise to the country and finally accept that the rules apply to him and his friends, but instead of stepping up, he has hidden away. Instead of clearing up his mess, he has left his side knee-deep in it. Instead of leading from the front, he has cowered away. He is not a serious leader, and the joke is not funny any more.
It would be tempting for each of us on all sides of the House to get into a mud bath and start throwing things at each other. We could go back in time—I have got a little list as well—but I do not think this is the right time. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on requesting this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for saying last week that he thought we ought to have it. I think there is cross-party support for what we are doing now. The only positive thing I can say to the Government on this is that if they think they are going to make a mistake in future, they should talk to me first and we can make it together.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on acknowledging on Thursday that things had been done wrong and need putting right. I am sorry to speak in advance of the Chair of the Committee on Standards because I would like to know what are the terms of his motion that could restore the consequences of the vote that we ought to have taken, and the way we ought to have taken it, on Wednesday. It is clear that the House should have backed the Committee, and we need to find a way of showing that. We ought to acknowledge that in future, those who resign from Parliament, whether they are a Government or an Opposition Member, should not leave without making a decision on a firm recommendation from the Committee on Standards, with Members of Parliament and with independent members. We must find a way of making that plain. My right hon. Friends the Leader of the House and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say that there is widespread support for reforming the system. I am not part of that support. I believe the system does work, can work, and should work. I would be interested to know what the Committee on Standards wants to recommend, and I will look at that with an open mind. Just because it was right for me 18 years ago when I sat on the Committee with Martin Bell, does not mean it cannot be improved.
As well as responding to what we ought to have done on Wednesday—that is the point of this debate—I would like to hear how the Government will respond to Lord Evans’s report that came out this week. It has four and a half pages of recommendations. This afternoon is not the time to go through those, but we ought to have a coherent approach that helps to ratchet up our observance and recognition of standards. Some have introduced the question of whether MPs should have outside jobs, besides being Members of Parliament. We have 100 or so who are Ministers, so they have an extra job as well as being a Member of Parliament. One example I often use is Peter Thurnham, who when made redundant set up his own business and became a successful engineering business owner. Should he have had to give that up? Should Michael Foot have given up his writing or his royalties when he was here? I think we should take great care about that.
I believe that any Member of Parliament who declares outside earnings should do so not just in writing, but face to face with the registrar. They should explain what they are doing, and could be reminded what the limits are of what they do. The one thing I would say to the face of my former colleague, Owen Paterson, is that if we take on a consultancy with a business, the one thing we know is that we cannot do anything that could be interpreted as lobbying or in the interests of that business.
I declare a small earning as a musician outside this House—[Interruption.] It is very small. Should an additional point about public appointments perhaps be part of this debate—we could add it to the excellent list put forward by the Leader of the Opposition? Is there real concern that the Government’s attitude towards public appointments is straying away from the rules as overseen by the Commissioner for Public Appointments? In particular, with the forthcoming appointment for the chair of Ofcom, the whole process is being run, rerun, truncated and, frankly, there are suspicions that it is being tricked up to favour a particular candidate.
I am biased in favour of Paul Dacre because he and I were working to get the killers of Stephen Lawrence charged and convicted. If I was asked whether he is the right person to chair Ofcom I would say no, but I have not been asked.
Many will want to speak in this debate, Mr Speaker, so I will try not to repeat myself. I believe that the present system can work if we make it work. Those of us who find that others have taken a different view to the propriety of what we have done ought to trust their judgment more than we trust our own, and not just go on saying, “I thought I was right at the time.” We can each do things that are wrong. If we do we should say so, say sorry, and try to let the House move on. That way we can ratchet up the standards of our achievements, as well as of our behaviour.
As always, it is a privilege and a pleasure to follow the Father of the House. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this important debate. She introduced it in a means and a manner significantly different from what we had last week, and I welcome her comments.
What a few days this has been. What a week we have had to endure as politicians who serve in this House. Our politics has been taken to a very dark place indeed, with the sense that rules have been torn up and the feeling that we have returned to the worst days of Tory sleaze—sleaze that we thought had been buried and was gone, never to return. There is a sense of outrage among the public that I have never seen in the 20 years that I have been in this place. That is palpable and tangible in our bulging email boxes, with angry constituents demanding to know what an earth is going on, and demanding that we put it right and sort this mess out.
One has to ask, what on earth were the Government thinking of? What were they trying to achieve? What did they want to do? What did they think was going to happen, introducing that motion the way they did? I almost feel sorry for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. If there was a short straw for turning up to try to defend this Government’s action, he most certainly picked it today. It should be his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House leading this debate. It was him that brought that grubby motion to the House last Wednesday, it was him that defended it to the hilt, and it was him that took up nearly half the time that we were allowed to have that debate. He should be standing at the Dispatch Box today defending the Government’s action and telling us what he is going to do. He always likes to remind me of battles past; today, he is like the brave Sir Robin from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, bravely running away from doing his duty at the Dispatch Box.
We know that this was a plot hatched between the Leader of the House and his right hon. Friend the Government Chief Whip, designed, approved and orchestrated through No. 10, with the weight of the whipping operation that we saw last Wednesday. This goes all the way to the very top. What the two of them did was open the Tory Pandora’s box marked “sleaze”—and what a grubby, rotten receptacle it has turned out to be. They are a Government prepared to reinvent the rules if they do not like them—a Government so arrogant and entitled that they believe they can get away with whatever they want.
My hon. Friend mentions the Pandora’s box of sleaze. He will be familiar with the corruption allegations that appeared in The Sunday Times yesterday following an investigation by openDemocracy. Does he not believe, as I do, that that is a matter not just for this House and for Parliament but for the police?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I want to get round to that particular case. I did note that yesterday. I was here for cash for honours mark 1; this is cash for honours mark 2.0, and I will refer to that specifically.
As the hon. Member is on the topic, does he not agree that another aspect that has created great anger and concern in our communities is the funding of political parties? Let us look particularly at the Russians and how they are funding the Conservative party: Lubov Chernukhin has given £2.1 million; Alexander Temerko—a part-owner of a company that is trying to build an underwater cable—has given £1.3 million; and Viktor Fedotov, who also owns that company, has given money to the Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), the Minister for corporate social responsibility, the Secretary of State for International Trade and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Is this right?
That was a long intervention but a necessary one. The right hon. Lady is spot on. The way that donations have been going into the Tory party needs to be properly investigated, and I am going to suggest a way that that should be done.
We are on day six of this. For six days, it has dominated political discourse in our media, in the public and in our communities and our constituencies. Nobody—no Minister who has presided over something that goes on day after day—usually survives that. It shows no sign of abating or going away.
I do not know whether the public will accept the apology made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; I suspect not. I do not think that was what the public wanted to hear. I do not think they were saying, “Yes, we want to hear this Government standing there saying, ‘Sorry, we’ve got this totally wrong.’” I think the public want to hear this Government being just that little bit more contrite and just that little bit more accommodating with the feeling and the sentiment out there in our constituencies. Our constituents are angry. Our constituents are fed up. I think the right hon. Gentleman has to do a little bit better than that.
We have established that the corrupt and bad behaviour of some MPs damages all of us, so does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is needed now is the commitment of every single Member to strengthen, rather than weaken, the standards process and the rules around it?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right and spot on. That is exactly what is required. When I hear Conservative Members talking about reforming some of the rules and regulations to replace what we have in place, I am not hearing an attempt to strengthen them to make them better and more accountable. What I am hearing from them is, “Let’s weaken them. Let’s make sure that people can get off and get away with things. If we don’t like them, let’s rewrite them and do them all again.” That is what we are hearing from them.
I feel sorry for Conservative Back Benchers. The way they have been treated by the Government Front Bench almost approaches cruelty. They have been marched all the way to the top of the hill by the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset—the grand old Duke of York—and marched all the way down again. They have not just been marched all the way down, however. They have been met with a barrage, a volley of bad constituents’ emails and the consternation of the people they represent. I feel sorry for the Conservative hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen here today for having to take that. I hope they know who is to blame for what they have to endure.
Of course, this is not the first time we have seen this Prime Minister do things that have shocked our constituents. The last time I had a mailbag similar to this weekend’s was for the illegal Prorogation of Parliament a couple of years’ ago, which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) took to the Supreme Court and exposed. The level of outrage over that incident is similar to the level of outrage over this issue. The Government have learned nothing.
Absolutely. There are spikes of interest from our constituents about the business of this place and my hon. Friend is right to mention that one. That was a busy, busy week for Members of Parliament. The other one, of course, was Barnard Castle. I do not think we have quite reached the heights of Barnard Castle yet in terms of the response from the public, but we are getting very close. As this matter goes on and we find it unresolved, we will start to get into that territory.
I listened very carefully to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire. I sense he is not listening very carefully to me, but I listened very carefully to him and I still do not know the Government’s position. Maybe he could help us. I do not know if there is summing up today, but we need to hear from the Government about what they are going to do now. What I think I heard was that they are sorry for this mess. Fair enough, they are sorry for this mess. That’s great, we will accept their apology. But now tell us what you are going to do.
The motion setting up the kangaroo court committee of corruption is still in place. That is the policy of this House. We need to hear the Government say clearly that they are removing it, and are finding some means and method to ensure it is no longer a part of the business of the House. We need to hear them say that they are prepared to accept independent investigation and that they will support the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the Chair of the Committee on Standards, and his Committee in doing its work. We need to hear them say that. We also need to hear them say that they are going back to that moment just before the Division Bell rang last Wednesday and back to the position we were in before any of this nonsense started.
I have a concern about my hon. Friend’s proposition. Last week, regardless of whether one agreed with the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), the Government utilised it as a motion of confidence in themselves. I therefore have no confidence, and I am sure my hon. Friend has no confidence, that any of this is going to change.
Absolutely. That is why we need clarity and we have to hear it today. The suggestion, I think from the Chair of the Committee, was that we need a motion to be tabled for tomorrow so that we can deal effectively with the former Member for North Shropshire. We have to have that before the House, so we are able to ensure our judgment is passed on what we believe are the consequences of his actions.
Another issue is the disgraceful attacks on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. They were co-ordinated—there is absolutely no way we can get around that. They came from the top. They were directed. You do not attack the credibility of the Standards Commissioner by saying disrespectful things about her if you do not have the permission to do that and say that. What they had in mind was a softening-up exercise, because they know that the Prime Minister is going to be investigated again. They know that a number of issues still have to be resolved about his personal behaviour and conduct. I think the undermining and neutering of the Standards Committee was a deliberate process and it has to stop—it has to end.
For the Prime Minister, it is almost like a revolving door of investigation, whether it is for breaking the ministerial code, acting unlawfully or soliciting dodgy donations for luxury holidays and home refurbishments. One thing we can commit to today is saying that this House has full faith and trust in our Standards Commissioner and that we will allow her to do her job. The undermining and disgraceful attacks must now end.
But the true shocker of the past couple of days is cash for honours 2.0. I really did not think, following Tony Blair being questioned under caution by the Metropolitan police 15 years ago, that we would be back to this place so quickly. It was only a couple of Parliaments ago that Tony Blair had to face questions about donations and the House of Lords. The only difference that I have seen in the course of the past couple of decades is that the price to get into the House of Lords has gone up from £1 million under new Labour to £3 million under the Conservatives. There is Tory inflation for you.
It now seems that nearly all the past treasurers of the Conservative party of later years are in that place, wearing their ermine and taking part in the legislative decisions of this country. The only characteristic they seem to have—the only defining feature that seems to get them a place in that House—is that they are able to give several million pounds to the Government. The Environment Secretary said yesterday that they were in the Lords for their philanthropy. I think the public will probably assess that the accounts of the Conservative party are just about the worst and least deserving good cause that there is in this land.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point. Does he think that it is a coincidence that the 22 largest donors to the Conservative party now hold peerages and sit in the House of Lords?
I do not, I have to say, because I think that place is just so corrupted. It is a receptacle in this place for donors to either of the big parties, and I have to include the Liberals in that, too, because some of their activities around the House of Lords are just as bad as those of the two main parties.
What I have done today is ask the Metropolitan police to investigate these appointments under the provisions of section 1(2) of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925. That Act states:
“If any person gives, or agrees or proposes to give, or offers to any person any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour”.
I have now asked the Metropolitan police to investigate the activities of the Conservative party and the awarding of places in the House of Lords.
I will say ever so gently to my friends in the Labour party: stop putting people in that place. Stop giving it legitimacy and credibility. We do not need a Gordon Brown commission. We just need you guys as the Opposition party to say that you will abolish it. It is a corrupt circus, and it is the high point of deference in the class system. To think that a Labour party would defend that place and put people in it is beyond ridiculous. Grow up, get a sense of this and help us get rid of that appalling circus down the corridor.
Last week, the Tories royally cocked up and have had to beat an embarrassing, hasty retreat. Their next move might now define the rest of their parliamentary term. Accept this. They have to do more than apologise. They have to show contrition. They have to show that they really mean this. That is the task and job for this Conservative Government. They have to take us back to the point before the Division bell rang last Wednesday. We do not want to “reform” the standards process; we want it to continue its work, but nothing will happen until we get back to that point. They must stop rewarding donors with places in the House of Lords. It is now up to them to show the contrition that the public want, show that they are really sorry, and get us back to where we were.
It is always a pleasure to follow the amusements of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who I am sure would be delighted to have the title of Lord of Perthshire. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate; I work with her on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and have a great deal of respect for her.
I am one of the longest-serving Members of Parliament on the Committee on Standards. Probably very few hon. Members know that, because I very rarely raise any issue in this Chamber about standards matters, but I frequently raise my concerns with the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who will speak very shortly. He will no doubt inform the House that I have consistently and regularly made known, at every opportunity and every Committee meeting, my deep concerns about the process by which the Committee operates. As the only lawyer member of the Committee until very recently, I would like to share with the House where the problems lie.
There are two principal issues at fault, both caused by the House of Commons and its Standing Orders. First, the principal duty of the Committee on Standards, as outlined in Standing Order No. 149, is
“to oversee the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner”.
That is my primary duty as a member of the Committee, but a few pages along, Standing Order No. 150 states that one of the
“principal duties of the Commissioner shall be…to advise the Committee”.
We are in the odd position where the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, acting with the utmost integrity, presents her findings to the Committee; we listen to her findings; we then invite Members to give their submissions; and at the end, during our deliberations, we have the commissioner back in without the MP in the room who has been complained of.
The commissioner is put in that unenviable conflicting role because of us, and she attends the Committee as the principal adviser to it. There am I, sitting in the Committee, having heard her submissions and then heard the other side—the MP’s submissions—only to have the commissioner back in the room ready and willing to answer, wearing that second hat that we have given her. That puts the commissioner in an unfair position, and it is where I have long argued that there is the potential for a breach of natural justice.
Let me go further. The Leader of the Opposition said that many of our constituents would be envious if they had the process that we have for adjudicating complaints, but let me say this very clearly: our Committee is a Committee of 14 people. There are seven excellent laypeople, who are of the utmost integrity, and seven MPs, who I would also like to say are of the utmost integrity, but none of us, myself included, has any judicial experience—none. I cannot think of any private or public body that adjudicates on, regulates or disciplines its members that has a committee of 14 people.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Not just now.
In the real world, where I used to advise as a lawyer, it is common for the HR process to have a panel of three. It is so common that only last year, this House approved setting up the independent expert panel by which all claims of bullying or sexual harassment against any of us are adjudicated. They are adjudicated not by me and my 13 colleagues on the Committee on Standards, but by former High Court judges and others with the highest level of legal experience, in—guess what?—a panel of three, not a panel of 14.
Sir Stephen Irwin, who set up the Independent Expert Panel on our behalf, has created, as one would expect a judge to create, a very simple set of appeal rules. For Members who come before that sub-panel and feel that they have not been treated in a manner that they think is in accordance with natural justice, and have a ground, Sir Stephen has set up a system of appeal to a further body of three, a body that he chairs. Why is it good enough for claims of bullying or sexual harassment against MPs, but not for claims of paid consultancies against MPs? It is inconsistent that we have this split system of adjudicating on MPs.
Is it that novel a concept to be judged by a jury of one’s peers—or by seven lay people, for that matter?
I will tell the House what is most certainly not novel. Let us imagine that in any normal court of law, whether civil or criminal, there are two parties, a claimant and a respondent, and at the end of the trial the judge and the jury invite one of those parties into the room to deliberate with them. That is the system that we currently have, and it caused by us—by our allowing this conflicting, unenviable role of the commissioner, in which she is the investigator and presenter of the case to the Committee, and then comes in wearing a second, adviser’s hat. That is unfair on her, and we need to change the system.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case, and wrote an excellent article in The Times today. Could he let me know whether, at any stage in this inquiry, he expressed to the Chairman of the Committee on Standards his view that the procedure being followed in the Committee failed the test of natural justice, and what, if he did, was the Chairman’s response?
Yes. I consistently argue across the Chamber to the hon. Member for Rhondda that our current system must be improved. I will go further, and repeat a phrase that I used during one of the Committee’s meetings earlier this year. I said that the way in which we were dealing with this—the process, not the integrity of any of the parties involved—was, in my opinion, repugnant to the principles of natural justice. I later received a call from the hon. Gentleman, explaining to me that members of the Committee were uncomfortable with the comments that I had made. Let me say to the House again that it is imperative that in the interests of all our constituents—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for a member of any Select Committee to make a lengthy public statement about proceedings of that Committee which have been conducted entirely in private? I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker.
I have listened to the hon. Member because I want to call the Chair of the Committee next, and I am sure that he will also inform the House of his views on what has gone on.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The reason I am saying this—and I understand why the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) has made that comment—is that I have tried my very best, for almost two years, to consistently raise problems not with any individual case but with the process that we have in this system, and it is the process that needs to change.
I want to move on, as other Members want to speak.
I believe that there is an important role for the Committee on Standards, in particular with its lay people. I think that it ought to be a Committee that drafts and amends the code of conduct and the associated rules. I do not think that the Committee on Standards is the appropriate body for me or my 13 colleagues to adjudicate on Members against whom a complaint has been brought. But I would go further: I think that the commissioner needs to be empowered and that the rules need to be clarified. The commissioner should have the same role as she does with the independent expert panel, which is that she investigates and presents her case to the panel, but importantly, she does not advise the judges on that panel. Also, we need to amalgamate the IEP and bring in more former High Court judges to help us in this process, to ensure that Members of the highest governing body of the United Kingdom—this House of Commons—are disciplined by people who have the requisite judicial experience when it comes to regulatory and disciplinary matters.
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the independent complaints and grievance procedures. Does he now think, with the benefit of hindsight, that he was wrong to vote against them?
I want this process to move forward. I have a great deal of respect for the right hon. Gentleman; we have worked together on a cross-party basis on a number of things. I am trying to give the House the benefit of my experience. I was the only lawyer on that Committee until recently. If Members do not want a system that is adjudicated upon by the best people in our land, they are not just doing themselves ill service; they are doing their constituents ill service as well.
I want to wrap up, because I know that many Members want to speak. I say once again that the lay people on the Committee on Standards and the commissioner are people of the utmost integrity, but being of the utmost integrity does not mean that they are suitable for adjudicating on disciplinary matters affecting Members of the House of Commons. Mr Speaker, I invite you to assist this House in coming together and moving towards the process that we rightly adopted for the IEP, in amalgamating the IEP and in having a panel of very senior people with judicial experience, so that we never again have the situation that we had last week, when a Member felt that he did not receive the proper system that he felt entitled to receive. I stand by the comments I made in the report—my name was on that report—and I look forward to coming back to the House with a draft of an amended code of conduct and a new process. I also look forward to hearing the Chairman of the Standards Committee finally confirming to this House that, at almost every Committee meeting, he has listened to my concerns about process.
I now call the Chair of the Standards Committee, Chris Bryant.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this debate. Secondly, I want to thank all the members of the Standards Committee. As the House can tell, we do not always agree on everything in the Committee. The hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) is absolutely right to say that he has often raised process issues. I think he would also confirm that, quite often, the legal advice that is provided to the Committee by the House has disagreed with him very strongly. There are legitimate issues that we have to address, and that is why we are engaged in a code of conduct review. I take his points very seriously, and I have spoken to him many times on the phone, as he has said. He sounded a bit angrier with me in the debate just now than I think he really means. I am grateful to everyone on the Committee.
Let me start with a very simple point. I do not think we do ourselves any favours if we say that voters do not care about standards in public life. I do not know whether they care or not; I suspect that they do, but I do not know for certain and the opinion polls vary on this. We have always prided ourselves as a country on not being corrupt, unlike some other countries in the world, but that is not really the point. The question is not whether Mrs Jones at No. 32 cares about standards in Parliament; it is about whether we care about standards in public life and in Parliament. Every time we say that this does not really matter or that voters do not care about it, we give another excuse for bad behaviour.
I might also say that those of us who are MPs at any one time only hold our place here on trust. Sorry, this is going to sound a bit pious, but I think it is true none the less: we have a duty, not just to our constituents, but to the nation, and not just to this generation of voters, but to future generations of voters, to protect the reputation of Parliament rather than undermine it. Parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage has not been around all that long; it has not even managed 100 years yet. It is a precious thing, and we need to defend it.
My second point is that independence is central to any standards system for the House. Anyone involved in a disciplinary process, either as a defendant or a complainant—we must remember that quite often there are complainants, many of whom are victims—needs to be completely assured that those involved in adjudicating the matter will always approach the decision with a fair and open mind, without fear or favour. That is what all 14 members of the Standards Committee seek to do.
That is why it is a breach of the code for any Member of the House to seek to lobby a member of the Standards Committee. We must be allowed to do our work without any interference. Sadly, as I have told you before, Mr Speaker, over the past 12 months I have been lobbied repeatedly by a significant number of hon. Members about their own or other Members’ cases. I have always sought to be polite, but extremely robust in response. I apologise if I have seemed rude, but this is an important part of maintaining the independence of the House and of the system.
The same applies to Whips. Some of my best friends are Whips—to get the confession in early—but I gently urge Whips to exercise a self-denying ordinance when it comes to Standards Committee reports, as has always been the case in every single instance in the past. Of course there are matters on which the Government have an understandable interest—matters of policy and finance—but it is inappropriate for anyone to whip House disciplinary matters. By definition, that turns our decision into a political one rather than a quasi-judicial one. Government should serve the House in standards matters, not the other way around.
The independence of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is also vital. She must be able to get on with her work without being repeatedly attacked, briefed against, lied about, shouted at, bullied, threatened or generally undermined. I think I am quoting a former Government Chief Whip when I say that the recent campaign against her has been very unedifying. It has been worse than that—it has been cowardly and unfair.
I honestly think the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster should have apologised not just for last week, but to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. That would be the right, gentlemanly thing to do. May I, on behalf of, I think, the whole House, apologise to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for what she has been put through in recent days?
I want to address the question of due process and ensuring a fair hearing. It is an important distinction that we on the Standards Committee are not a court of law. Indeed, there would be dangers if we were to become a court of law that we would all have to be legally represented. That might lead to a process that benefited the wealthy, who could afford lawyers, over those who could not. We are a Select Committee of the House, and sometimes we deal with matters that are really rather minor and that we would not want to bother a judge with, such as the use of parliamentary stationery.
I want to make it absolutely clear, however, as Speaker’s Counsel did repeatedly as we went through both this investigation and every other investigation since I have been Chair of the Committee, that we have bent over backwards to ensure that any hon. Member gets a fair hearing. Due notice of the charges has always been ensured, as has a full opportunity to put one’s case in writing and/or in person, a chance to make arguments in defence or in mitigation and the right to appeal the commissioner’s findings to the Committee. There is a right of appeal—it is an appeal to the Committee. Every lawyer I have seen comment on our process who has read the report has said that it was an entirely fair one, and of course we have taken legal advice throughout. Let me just quote from one—
I will give way, but before I do, let me say that the hon. Gentleman made a speech last week, and he has repeated this point today, about the additional measures available to us in the Standing Orders, but he should understand that those panels are there only where there are disputed facts. In this case, there were no disputed facts at all. So the point that I suspect he is about to make is completely otiose.
First, I would refer the hon. Gentleman to appendix 2, set out before the Committee by Mr Paterson. Secondly, let me make the simple point that when the Committee in 2003, which was composed of only three Conservatives, six Labour and two Liberal Democrats, decided on the investigatory panel, this was what was said:
“The proposal for an Investigatory Panel—
which is for serious, contested cases, as this one clearly is—
“is designed to deal with cases (expected to arise only infrequently) which…meet both the following criteria:
proof of the complaint would be likely to lead to the imposition of a serious penalty on the Member; and
there appeared to be significant contested issues of fact which would not properly be decided unless the Member was given the opportunity to call witnesses and/or to cross-examine witnesses supporting the complaint.”
The hon. Gentleman obviously does not agree with me on that, but the facts speak for themselves; there are seriously contested facts and they are disputed.
I make two points. The first is that the hon. Gentleman basically just agreed with me wholeheartedly, because the whole point of these panels is that they are there only where there are disputed facts and there were no disputed facts in this case. The second point, where I would wholeheartedly agree with him, is that the facts speak for themselves—they certainly did in this case. Mr Paterson at no stage denied that he had engaged in the various different meetings with Government Ministers and officials. So I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s argument falls on both counts.
Let me just read the words of Thomas de la Mare, a highly respected lawyer at Blackstone Chambers, who reviewed this matter. He did not do so for the Committee; he has published this himself. He says:
“If the decision-maker has had the 17 witness statements, read them and rightly found them to be irrelevant there is no conceivable breach of natural justice in not calling them in…The idea that this pretty exhaustively conducted 2 stage case of inquiry by the commissioner and then full review by the Committee evinces a broken system or justifies the egregious step of changing the rules mid game is absurd.. All in all the Cmtee decision looks pretty bomb proof: balanced, fair once you understand how relevance of material works, carefully reasoned (and probably carefully lawyered) and the very appeal/review of the Commissioner OP”—
“wanted. Given this what has happened next is tawdry”.
So what next? In the end, the Standards Committee exists only to serve the House and to try to protect the reputation of the House. First, we are already reviewing the code of conduct. There are perfectly legitimate arguments to be made about how we should change various different elements. MPs are now regulated by so many different bodies that it is sometimes difficult for right hon. and hon. Members to understand exactly what the rules are that affect them. I hate the idea that a right hon. or hon. Member will be tripped up by a rule that they simply did not understand through some inadvertent action. So I do want to make sure that we have greater clarity in the way that the whole of our code of conduct and guide to the rules is available to Members.
The hon. Gentleman speaks with his customary eloquence, and he knows how much his speech was impactful last week. Are there specific issues that he would like to see improved or does he think that the current process is fundamentally sound?
I think we gave Owen Paterson a fair hearing; in all honesty, it is very difficult to argue that we did not. I have wracked my brain as to measures that we might evince, but I am only the Chair of the Committee and want to allow the Committee to come to a view on reforms that we might suggest, although I have suggested in the newspapers over the past few days a few things that I personally would like to see.
The important point is that we are reviewing the code of conduct, as we are required to do in every Parliament. We did not manage to do it in the 2015 or 2017 Parliaments because we kept on having general elections, so it would be great if we did not have a general election for a while so that we could finish our work on the code. It is worth saying that we published the terms of reference for our code of conduct review on 22 September 2020 and have been engaged in the review since then. We took evidence from the Leader of the House earlier this year.
There is an argument for improvements to some of the process. As the hon. Member for South Leicestershire knows, I personally favour clarifying what we do about appeals. There is currently an appeal, and a Member can appeal to the Committee on any basis whatsoever, whereas if we were to have a de jure appeal instead of a de facto appeal process, we would need a set of criteria against which a Member could appeal, which might actually restrict Members’ rights of appeal rather than enhance them. That is a difficulty that we have to deal with.
There is an issue in respect of whether a Member should be able to appeal against the sanction rather than the findings, and I am quite happy to listen to what the Committee eventually decides on that, as I am sure the House will want to do as well.
I think the hon. Member came into the Chamber only recently, but if he has been present, I am happy to listen to him.
I have just been outside the Bar of the House.
The hon. Member is making a point about sanctions; I wonder whether this might be helpful. I am interested to hear that there is progress on a new code of conduct. If we put the specific case aside, does he appreciate that there is a world of difference between a sanction of nine days and a sanction of 11 days, for obvious reasons? Therein might be the reason for an appeal, because of the changes and outcomes that could flow from it that my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) so ably put forward.
I am not inimical to that view—there is a perfectly decent argument that perhaps there should be an appeal against sanctions—but in the Committee we try to stand by precedence, because otherwise we would be unfair. We list all the mitigating and aggravating factors in each of our reports and, at the end, come to a conclusion based on the precedents we have met. My suspicion is that any appeal body would do exactly the same, so I am not sure that it would necessarily change things, but there is an argument for bringing in such a thing. I note that the hon. Member referred to leaving this case aside, which is the most important thing for me: in the words of the Leader of the House, we cannot conflate one case with change of the system. In the end, that is the precise, polar opposite of justice: that is injustice and has brought the House into disrepute.
I have only a couple more points to make—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way? [Hon. Members: “No.”]
Well, I like the hon. Gentleman, so yes, I will.
I am grateful to the hon. Member, who is speaking with great eloquence, as usual, on this subject. I suggest to him that reform is a natural, evolving process—of course it is; no system is perfect—but, by and large, the system works quite well, so whatever the hon. Member does, will he make sure that it is transparent, as far as he is able to, and that it progresses as speedily as possible? What I take away from this debate and from last week’s vote is that the right thing to do is to let the Committee produce its recommendations and for the House to consider them in full debate.
I am grateful for that point. It is true that the right way for the House to progress, on a cross-party basis and with the advice of independent members of the public, is for us to complete our job of work, which we will have done by Christmas, I am sure, and perhaps even by the end of this month—I do not want to prejudge what the Committee will decide—and to publish that. There will then be an opportunity for the whole House to consider the matter. We would probably want then to produce a further report, which would be our final report on the draft code and its operation.
Incidentally, the current system has not been in place for very long. The mixture of the independent expert panel for ICGS cases and the Standards Committee has been in place, arguably, only since 7 January 2019 when the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) introduced really important changes to the House, which were much valued by staff and Members across the House and by the public. In fact, the independent expert panel started its work only in January of this year, There is this idea that we should suddenly tear it all up and start all over again, but if I had only one thing to say to the House, it would be: let us just slow down. Let us consider this properly in the round, taking all the different issues together.
None the less, we do still need to tidy up what happened last week. I can see a lot of Conservative Members agreeing with that. I gently say to the ministerial team here that, if we want it, there is an opportunity for us tomorrow. We have two outstanding issues: one is the creation of the Committee, which the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) does not want to serve on, even though he is meant to be the Chair. I certainly hope that he is better from his covid.
Secondly, of course, we all accept that Mr Paterson has left the House; he is no longer a Member. We cannot impose a sanction on him, as you said yourself, Mr Speaker, but, unfortunately, the House took a view on the report last week, which was basically to suspend it in mid-air. The motion, I suggest, would be a very simple one that we could consider tomorrow. It will be in all of our interests—the whole of the House —to get this sorted tomorrow. It would say that notwithstanding the practice of this House relating to questions already decided in the same Session, this House, first, rescinds the resolution and order of 3 November 2021 relating to the third report of the Committee on Standards (HC 797) and the appointment of a new Select Committee; secondly, approves the third report of the Committee on Standards; and, thirdly, notes that Mr Owen Paterson has been disqualified as a Member of this House. I think that would be in the best interests of the whole of the House, and then we could move forward.
One final point: we really struggled to create the ICGS and the independent expert panel. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire did a magnificent piece of work in trying to get cross-party support for all of that. We promised that the standards system would be independent, because that was the guarantor for the staff who felt that they had been bullied or sexually harassed. We cannot do anything that undermines that. Independence, fairness and justice should be the bywords not just of the Standards Committee, but of the whole of the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Committee on Standards. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this debate.
I hope that, as a member of the Committee, I can contribute to this discussion with the benefit of knowing both the details of the specific case that we discussed last week and the wider issues about the rules that are enforced for MPs.
This debate today is not another case of parliamentarians arguing among themselves. This is about the integrity of this House, which is one reason why the Standards Committee has such an important role to play in ensuring that the rules are clear, that the processes are fair and that decisions are made in a way that make sense to those in this House and to those who elect us to serve here.
It is important that we recognise that the overwhelming majority of Members who serve in this House—in all parts of this House—are hard-working and will do their best to uphold the highest of standards. Indeed, Members of all parties have fallen foul of the rules, so it is important that all parties contribute to these debates.
I will come on to discuss how some of the current processes could be improved, but before that, following on from some of the comments made by the Chair of the Select Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), I would like to address a couple of matters raised last week when we debated the amendment, when I could not speak, and in some of the subsequent commentary that I have seen in the newspapers. I feel that there is some misunderstanding around the work of the Committee and how it reached the decisions that it did.
Having spent many years sitting in court as a magistrate, and in Crown courts listening to appeals, I can say that it is rare for anyone to agree with every decision that is made by a member of the judiciary. 1 try to apply the same approach to my role on the Standards Committee as I do as a judicial office holder—making decisions without fear or favour, affection or ill will, and treating everyone the same regardless of their position or party.
First, I read that the decision reached in relation to Mr Paterson lacked legal supervision. I can tell hon. and right hon. Members that, all through the hearings and when Committee members were discussing the specific case, Speaker’s Counsel was present and gave legal advice on a number of matters, including the application of human rights legislation. Some Members have commented that witnesses were not called to provide testimony. As Members will know, 17 witness statements were provided by Mr Paterson. I read them all, as I believe every member of the Committee did. Indeed, the Committee discussed numerous aspects included within them. However, I do not believe that the Committee would have gained any additional insight from hearing directly from those witnesses, and I do not believe that the Committee would have reached a different decision.
I am sure that my hon. Friend knows of the six criteria of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which are the minimum requirements for the maintenance of natural justice in relation to the examination of witnesses. Without that and without the investigatory panel, does he not agree that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to know what the outcome would be until such a panel is heard with a legal assessor, and with the legal assessor himself deciding whether the rules of natural justice had been complied with?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will go on to discuss more about natural justice in a moment, so if I may, I will continue.
In no previous case that I have seen on this Committee have witnesses been called to give verbal evidence. The Committee was right to maintain a consistent approach in its process. Had we not, very quickly people would have been asking, “Why are you changing the rules?” There is also a route for questioning individuals such as witnesses in writing should the Committee feel that that is necessary, and we have done so recently.
Thirdly, I have heard some say that the commissioner is prosecutor, judge and jury, but I am afraid that that is not quite the case. The Standards Committee makes the final determination on all of the evidence and only the Committee decides on the sanction—the commissioner makes no decision on the sanction. Should the Committee feel that, on balance, the commissioner has not satisfactorily made the case that a Member has breached the code, as was recently the case with my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), the Committee can reject the commissioner’s findings.
In early 2020, the House charged the Standards Committee with conducting a review of the code of conduct and how the code should be upheld through sanctions. Without going into the detail of the Committee’s findings—because they are not yet ready to be published—I can tell the House that we have held numerous evidence sessions, including with the Leader of the House and with the Chief Whips from both the Government and the Opposition. We have also received evidence from similar bodies who regulate professions, and from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and senior members of the judiciary. All of that is feeding into our report, which will be made public later this year.
I would, though, like to share one or two of my personal views on a number of issues that have been raised. Having served on the Committee for some time now, I have concerns that the current set of rules and codes is complicated, although, I am afraid, not the system related to paid advocacy—that is very straightforward. As the Chair of the Standards Committee has just mentioned, a number of different bodies are involved in giving advice and investigating breaches. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority makes decisions on spending and can take action if claims are made incorrectly. The independent expert panel deals with bullying and harassment. Advice on using the portcullis and letterheads comes from the House authorities. The registrar gives advice on what can and should be recorded. The Standards Committee deals with some sanctions, but not others. It is confusing. I am a Member of the Standards Committee and I get confused. I touched earlier on the role of the commissioner as investigator and adviser. I do think that the system would benefit from some changes to separate those roles, with the commissioner investigating and legal counsel advising, so that we are absolutely certain that we are following the right legal roles.
I worry that good behaviour and time served in this House may work against someone if they are found to have breached the rules. We need to look carefully at that. I also worry that Members are prevented from speaking to anyone about cases raised against them. Indeed, they are specifically warned not to discuss their cases. Now, there is value in not having a war in the press, but it does not stop reporting. Being able to discuss cases would help to ensure that MPs are given the right support that they may need, particularly when dealing with vexatious claims.
Finally, I worry that Members do not recognise the value that lay members bring to the current Standards Committee. Those seven individuals provide a vital check on the Committee. The mix of both elected members and lay members with no political involvement ensures very robust challenge. The current mix of members brings genuine expertise, and I welcome their involvement and input.
I do believe that there is a need to look at the appeals process in order to check that process is being followed and that a Member has had a fair hearing, and that could be achieved within the current standards system, with some small changes to Standing Orders.
The hon. Gentleman is making a most interesting contribution. His point about the involvement of the laity seems to me, as a former justice of the peace, to be very important. When it comes to the workings of the justices, the fact that the general public see an ordinary person like them involved gives them more faith in the judicial process. However, if we go down the wrong road—where the Committee on which he serves does not protect the reputation of Members—the faith of the public in those Members decreases, the turnout in elections drops because they will say, “It is simply not worth it”—and that is bad for democracy.
I absolutely agree. This is about the integrity of this House and preserving democracy; it is really important.
As Members of Parliament, we are expected to uphold the values, principles and rules of the code of conduct that we all sign up to and that we should all act on, in accordance with the public trust that is placed in us. There will be times when it is right to make changes to the code and to update the Standing Orders. We should do so as one House, once we have considered all the options, to ensure that we protect the democracy and reputation of all who serve in this House.
There are quite a lot of Members who wish to speak and we have an hour and seven minutes remaining. Jess Phillips is going to set a great example.
I shall start with an apology to you, Mr Speaker. As I have already mentioned to you, I have to leave the debate straight after my comments because I am due in Westminster Hall to talk about people spiking drinks, which I am sure concerns the whole House. After I have made that apology—I am aware that this might sound slightly backward—let me say that I tell my children when they apologise that “sorry” is just a word, and changing our behaviour is the way that we prove that we are sorry. I ask my children not to say sorry to me very often, although they are called on to do it quite a lot; I wish to see changed behaviour.
It is an absolute pleasure, actually, to follow the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter). He is not a Member who I have had much interaction with, but I can see that he is going to be an interesting and independent voice on the issue of standards in this House. He might not recognise some of the fanfare that we have had today, because there are normally only about 10 or 15 people in debates about how we are going to look at the code of conduct, but this one seems to have piqued considerably more interest.
There are changes that might need to be made; I do not think that the system is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. On appeals, the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) was insistent about the ICGS and how it works. I hope that Members are aware that such a system means that both parties can appeal a decision, so if that system were in place and on one occasion it went the way of a Member, that would mean that the complainant, who may very well be vexatious, could keep on appealing. A system like that of the ICGS is not necessarily a perfect one.
The point is that the former member of the judiciary, Sir Stephen Irwin, has created a set of appeal rules that are very clear in outlining when a complainant or an MP can appeal from the sub-panel to his own panel, and they are broadly the same grounds that we might use in judicial review, where the matter is either being dealt with improperly or unlawfully, or it is manifestly unreasonable.
I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman defending judicial review. I absolutely love a bit of judicial review. I have taken the Government to court on a number of occasions—for example, when they sort of stopped victims of domestic violence being able to move across councils. I have always welcomed a judicial review.
I very much welcome the considerable efforts that people here are now going to make, as they advocate for themselves, to advocate for the kind of people in my constituency who have no legal representation in any way, whether as domestic violence victims in the family court, or in employment tribunals. I am also interested to hear that Members really want us to have employment rights in this place. I remember when disabled Members in this building were saying that it would be against the Equality Act 2010 for them to come in during covid, and we were told that the Equality Act does not apply to us because we are not employees. It is an interesting turn of events that we have seen in the last few days.
I care deeply about the standards in this building, not because I am actually that interested in Standing Orders—I know that some hon. Gentlemen here love them, but I am not all that bothered by getting bogged down in the numbers, and this and that—but because I am interested in politics mattering to people in this country and those people feeling they can change it. If I could thank the Ministers on the Treasury Bench for anything, it would be that this week the people in our country felt they could change something that they did not like, when the Government had to undo their deeply unpopular decision.
The more that we degrade this place—for some of us, that is considerably more dangerous than it is for others. For some of us, it every day screams in our faces that democracy has been undermined. It is dangerous if we do not get the standards in this place right and if we do not do it together collegiately, through the proper process, which has, up until last week, largely been my experience. It is a shame that on this occasion, that was not the case.
I have to go and talk about other things in another part of the House, but I will finish by mentioning one more issue. On the point about there being one rule for the people outside this building and different rules for the people inside this building, it has been phenomenal for me this week to see the different contracts that organisations such as Randox have been given without a tender process. I speak as somebody who has spent hours and hours of my time working in charities, filling in tender process after tender process for amounts of money like £25,000 for a children’s sexual exploitation service that would last for a whole year. I had to include information on what sort of locks were going to be on the doors in the office and how we would lock the filing cabinets.
Hour by hour is accounted for. I have worked on Home Office contracts where the staffing hour is literally given out in 15-minute blocks, and I am monitored on that and it is accounted for—and I find that what I needed was hundreds of thousands of pounds to pay somebody in here to make that a little bit simpler. We can blame covid all we like, but I sat and filled in the Government paperwork for grants for organisations that were offering refuge accommodation during the covid-19 pandemic, and there were pages and pages where they had to reply to multiple different organisations and Departments. I helped lots of charities to do it and I did not charge anyone a single bean.
I will finish by saying that there is one rule for the people in our country, and seemingly another for enormous, friendly companies who are willing to pay the people in here.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this debate and very much welcome it. I, too, am a member of the Standards Committee. Usually, by precedent, we do not comment on the cases that we deal with: we put everything into our report and allow the report to speak for itself. However, last week left us in slightly unusual circumstances where we felt the need to try to clarify some things around our work, our processes and our motivations.
I have served on the Committee since February of last year. It is usually senior Members of the House who serve on the Committee, but I have had the great privilege of doing so. With respect to the Chairman of the Committee, it is, in many ways, a horrible Committee to sit on, because there is a huge amount of work to do and very little link back to the constituency, and we sit judgment on colleagues, some of whom we have tremendous respect for. I joined the Committee at a time when there was great change within the processes around the ICGS and the new things that we were creating, but also questions around the rules that we were upholding, oversight of the commissioner, and the processes that we were trying to apply as a Committee. Yet I joined up willingly, because perhaps the greatest threat to our democracy is when people outside this building point to us all and say, “They are all the same—they are all on the take.” It is true that anyone in this House can make a mistake, but the vast majority of colleagues in all parts of the House are desperate to stay within the rules and are well-intentioned. But for those who do break the rules, the punishment must be fitting. I had no problem voting for the report that was discussed last week; I would do the same again today.
I have only three points that I wish to place on the record. The first is around process. Many hon. and right hon. Members have said that the process of standards cases needs improving. I agree. I think every member of the Standards Committee would say they agreed. They would probably disagree over which parts of the process should be improved, but nevertheless there is a commitment among all members of the Committee to try to improve the process and ensure that it is as good as possible. The process under which we currently operate was agreed before I became a Member of this House. The Committee had been set the homework of trying to uphold the existing process and make a success of it. If the assignment is now to come up with a different and improved process, I am sure we will undertake that as happily as possible. I do, however, caution that I think that Mr Paterson would have been found to have broken the rules under any process that we create, and we should not kid ourselves on that front. I appreciate that he has many friends in this House, and the tragic events that have impacted him and his family deserve all our sympathy, but this is a separate point to his conduct. Equally, I caution some colleagues on their desire to rush towards a pseudo-legal adversarial process to replace the current system: be careful what you wish for. I think that path will lead to more antagonistic cases and, as the Chairman of the Committee set out, a greater role for external counsel, which I fear will create inequality among Members in terms of those who have particular private wealth, and potentially create a significant loss of parliamentary privilege.
Secondly, it has been suggested by some senior colleagues on the Conservative Back Benches that as I have only been here for two years, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), I, and we, do not know how this place really works. I say with the greatest of respect to those colleagues that I think that two years here is more than enough to know the difference between right and wrong. Many senior colleagues have made comments and suggestions regarding the Committee’s work. If any of those colleagues wish to replace me on the Committee tomorrow, I will happily stand down.
Thirdly, I wish to strongly defend the lay members of the Standards Committee. I know that very few Members have interacted with them or had the experience of sitting on a Committee with lay members. Those I have served with on the Standards Committee are conscientious, hard-working and fair. I have learnt a tremendous amount from them, and I hope that they would say the same in return.
I have been a Member of the House for 20 years, and the maturity and the balance of the speech that the hon. Gentleman is giving makes we want to intervene on him to thank him for serving as a member of the Committee, because I can certainly say that it is something that I have never been willing to do. I thank him, the Chair and other members of the Committee for the service that they give to this House.
I welcome that, but we do need to push on.
If ever an intervention killed a career, Mr Speaker!
It is the untold story of last week’s situation that absolutely none of the points raised by Mr Paterson and his various supporters were not discussed by the Committee at length. The report that was produced contained many of the responses and corrections. Everyone is entitled to disagree with what the Committee decided, but it is desperately unfair to suggest that it did anything other than forensically examine all the evidence presented to it and reach the appropriate decision. The Committee so often has diverse starting points, but we work incredibly hard to reach a consensus, which I think is the very definition of fairness for Members whose cases appear in front of us. If we change the process to remove the lay members, our standards system will be all the poorer for their loss.
It was only a matter of weeks ago that this House was united in grief for the loss of a great colleague. That was us at our very best. Today’s debate, with the mistakes that have been made, the opportunism of some Opposition Members—I hate to point it out—and the rush to create a new system without full consideration is us at our very worst. I am a proud member of the 2019 intake that came to this House determined to deliver a better politics for my constituents. I want a free and fair standards process that allows me to look my constituents in the eye and say, “No, we are not all the same.” Improvements can be made, but rushing things through risks creating a bigger mess. Let cooler heads prevail. Our duties as Members of this House are wide ranging. We represent our constituents, we create laws, we hold the Government to account, and we work to further many issues, but we are also role models held to high standards. When we fall short of those standards, as any Member can do, we should remember our duties to this House, to our colleagues and to our democratic system.
I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this debate.
It saddens me that we find ourselves here today having to debate the consequences of the decision that the majority of those on the Government Benches took last week regarding the former Member for North Shropshire. Such a debate should be unnecessary, but sadly, due to the actions of last week, the consequences beyond this place are very clear: further erosion of public trust in our politics and its representatives, a real anger that it is one rule for the hard-working majority and another for politicians, and a growing sense of apathy that weakens our democracy and our institutions and makes us all poorer.
I have since wondered what my own constituents would think—indeed, do think, because many have contacted me—such as those facing fire and rehire, those struggling to make ends meet on universal credit, and those waiting on access to decent social care. The adage that yesterday’s news will be today’s chip paper will not hold true. So long as this Prime Minister remains in place, I fear that we will return to this dark place again and again. The substantial majority that the Government won at the last general election does not make them beyond reproach, it does not make the Prime Minister beyond reproach, and it does not make any hon. or right hon. Member in this place beyond reproach. The younger, newer intake on the Government Benches probably understand that. Like me, they probably thought they had entered a 1990s-time warp last week. When it came to the crunch, the old boys’ network reigned supreme. Frankly, I am fed up with this place lurching from one scandal to another. So too are my constituents, who expect better. Now is the time to draw a line in the sand.
In my opinion, we should prioritise two things, along with those outlined by the Leader of the Opposition. First, we should make corruption in public office a criminal offence that applies to any MP who falls short of the standards expected of them. Secondly, we should ban any MP from having a second job, unless that is required to maintain professional accreditations.
From where I come from and for the people I represent, an MP’s salary is more than enough to live on and, frankly, it is a full-time job if we are doing it properly. If the salary is not enough for the privileged class of MPs such as the likes of the former Member for North Shropshire—on any of the Benches but particularly the Government Benches—then to quote Lord Tebbit, “Get on your bike,” find another job and leave, because no one is forcing you to stay. If we do not all act, I fear that public hostility towards all Members will only get worse. After all, it only takes a few rotten apples to spoil the whole barrel. In the public’s eyes, everyone in this place is in the barrel.
May I commend you, Mr Speaker, for the statement you made before this debate started? I agreed with every word. I also commend the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing the debate.
Usually I start by saying, “It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate…”, but on this occasion, it is not, really. I regret that we are here today, and it is most unfortunate. Let me say a brief word about the specific case of Mr Owen Paterson. I read the Standards Committee report in full and I listened to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) last week. The report was clear and unambiguous, and I fully support what he said. I hope that those on the Treasury Bench can resolve the matter tomorrow in the way that he set out. That would be helpful for the reputation of the House and for Mr Paterson to put this matter to bed, rather than its remaining an issue of continuing controversy. I also note speculation in the press about a peerage for Mr Paterson, and I hope Ministers can rule that out. That would be a mistake and most regrettable.
On the process, I commend the members of the Committee who have spoken. They spoke very well. A lay member of the Committee, Tammy Banks, did an interview at the weekend in some detail. If it were listened to by members of the public, it would reassure them that there is a robust and independent process to hold Members of this House to a high standard. I thank the commissioner and the Committee—the Members of the House who are members and the lay members—for the work they do, generally un-thanked and unappreciated, but which I think is very important.
Personally, I think that the process that the Committee follows is pretty fair. I am sure there could be improvements, and I look forward to the Committee’s investigation into the code of conduct and any suggestions it may have. I hope those can be taken forward in a cross-party way.
As a former Government Chief Whip, I may be permitted, I hope, a couple of points about whipping. The decision we took last week was on a House matter, and in my view House business should not be whipped—it should be a free vote. I made that position clear privately. It is how I conducted myself in the vote last week. I voted against the amendment because I thought it important to uphold the standards of this House for everyone in it.
My second point on whipping is that politics is a team game; it is essential to work with one’s colleagues to deliver anything. If the team captain is to expect loyalty and Back Benchers and Ministers to listen to the direction of the team captain, they deserve decisions that are well thought through and soundly based. If on occasion, as on this occasion—the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster set it out very well, and he was a very valued member of my Whips Office, and he did apologise on behalf of the Government—the team captain gets it wrong, he should come and apologise to the public and to this House. That is the right thing to do to demonstrate leadership.
Finally, it is important, when this House debates standards in public life, that every Member remembers that we are judged on the decisions we make. I was elected in 2005, so I was in this House when we had to live through the expenses scandal, which enveloped Members on both sides. Despite the fact that I was never caught up in that and had a completely clean bill of health, it is the only time in my 16 years as a Member of Parliament that when I was at a social function and someone asked me what I did, I was ashamed to say I am a Member of Parliament. I am not going to do anything or allow anyone to do anything that takes us back to those dark times. I will do everything I can to avoid us getting there. No one is going to stop me conducting myself in a way that keeps us free of that reputation-damaging era. We have to have high standards and improve them. That is what every Member of the House wants to achieve.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this important debate. I have been a Member of the House for only six and a half years. I do not have an in-built affection for this place, its traditions or anything to do with it, but I do have an in-built sense of justice, fairness and how things should be done correctly.
It was an appalling day in the House last week and, unfortunately, I was acting Chief Whip of my party. I had to handle what was happening with the old boys’ network in this place and try to think on my feet—I do not think I acquitted myself terribly well. I do not want to go on about everything that has already been mentioned, but I have to say that one of my children was present in this House when the expenses scandal was on. I never thought I would be standing here speaking in any case, but certainly not about corruption, the old boys’ network and double dealing. I find it appalling.
What I have found even more appalling since last Wednesday is the attack on the commissioner for standards. It is absolutely egregious. Now, “egregious” was the word used of Owen Paterson, the former MP, because of what he did. It pains me that I am seen as a Member of this place when people think it is right to ride roughshod over the rules, to take part in bringing this place into disrepute and then to have their Government say, “Right, everybody on our Benches, vote for a new commission that we will make up and run.” That is not how any Parliament should be run. I find the Leader of the House to be a polite, affable gentleman, but I think he is squirming in his place today. He brought forward the motion last week, and he should be standing answering questions about why he did that and why it was in such ridiculous terms.
I said at the start I have been here only six and a half years. I do not want to be here much longer; I want to move to an independent Scotland. This kind of behaviour is not allowed in the Scottish Parliament. I do not want—[Interruption.] I do not want people in Scotland to think that because I am a Member of this Parliament, I would back such things.
To be fair, it is not allowed here either.
My hon. Friend clearly made quite a comment. Does she agree that it would bring many things forward if this place came into line with the Scottish Parliament where that sort of behaviour is a criminal offence?
Of course I agree with my hon. Friend; yes, it would.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) rightly pointed out that that is not allowed here. What would not be allowed and would not happen in an independent Scotland are the kind of shenanigans that took place last week to protect one of the Government’s own and increase the old boys’ network, which they then sent a junior Minister to defend.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate, which has been a necessary corrective to what happened last week.
I will talk about friendship, which is a key part of this place. We spend so much time together here, and it would be intolerable if everything were about politics. Our friendships are vital for mutual support and relaxation, and to remind us what truly matters in life. Although we refer to Members on our own sides of the Chamber as our hon. Friends, many friendships are forged across the Chamber. I will come back to that later.
Loyalty to one’s friends in times of great difficulty is among the most admirable of traits, but I fear that it was an overzealous application of that principle that helped to lead the House to its extremely unfortunate decision last Wednesday. Mr Paterson’s friends understandably wished to stand by him and protect him, especially given the tragedy that had struck his family—of course, our sympathies are still with him. As he is no longer in this place, I do not wish to dwell too long on the findings of the report from the Committee on Standards, but I share the hope expressed by its Chair that we will get a say on that report.
I studied the report carefully, both its conclusions and source material, particularly Mr Paterson’s emails contained in it. In the light of its contents, and particularly what has happened since last Wednesday, I gently wonder whether his friends took the wisest course of action in trying to protect him. Sometimes, friendship means counselling somebody out of a fixed position, rather than reinforcing it. There is kindness in giving friends advice that they may not want, but need, to hear.
I am proud to be part of the 2019 Conservative intake of MPs, often called “the 109”, and I have made many new and firm friendships within that group since I arrived in this place. There is nothing like a shared experience to bond people together, and we have all been through quite the experience in the last two years. Many of my friends within that group have endured a miserable time since last Wednesday’s vote. Many wish that they had chosen to vote differently and are beating themselves up about it. I say to them that loyalty to one’s party is also an admirable trait—this place, indeed our entire political system, could not function without that—but the reality is that they should not have been put in such an invidious position.
The 109 subsequently acquired an additional member, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer). I hope that she will not mind me quoting her WhatsApp message to our group, given that it subsequently leaked to the press:
“This was a colossal misjudgement, it should not have been whipped. You should have been allowed to vote with your conscience on this.”
I could not agree more and I hope that Treasury Ministers are listening. Let us return to the convention that House business is not whipped. I praise her courage in voting against the motion last Wednesday, having only been in this place for six months. I am proud to call her my friend.
I praise my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter), who are also from the 2019 intake. They sit on the Committee for Standards and gave splendid speeches earlier. They have handled themselves with the utmost dignity and integrity in the face of some totally unacceptable briefings, and I am proud to call them my friends as well.
I thank friends from both sides of the House who took the time to check on me last Wednesday. Breaking the Whip is not straightforward: it churned me up beforehand and left me a little shellshocked afterwards —perhaps it will be easier next time. I was deeply touched by the number of Members—friends—who stopped to simply ask whether I was all right. I see some of them here today, but there were many more besides, including some outside this Chamber.
Friendship, especially cross party, is needed more than ever in this place, particularly in the light of the terrible murder of our colleague Sir David Amess. I recognise that cross-party trust on standards was badly broken last Wednesday, but I hope for all our sakes that the damage can be repaired as soon as possible.
The catalyst for today’s debate is the case of the former MP for North Shropshire, but it is not just about that. It is about the relevance of ethics to how the Government conduct the duty of governance. It is about cash for contracts, cash for honours, allegations of bullying by Ministers being swept under the carpet, and a former Prime Minister privately texting Ministers to further his financial interests.
In 2007, the then Member of Parliament for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, now leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price, tabled a private Member’s Bill to make lying in politics illegal by making it an offence to knowingly mislead the public. His proposal was an attempt to restore faith in an age on the cusp of fake news, fake views and fake figures. We manipulate the truth at our peril. Now more than ever, such radical ideas are needed.
Last week, Conservative MPs made much of the argument that MPs should be treated like other employees. I put it to them that if a doctor wilfully misleads a patient, if a company wilfully misleads its customers or if a teacher wilfully misleads a pupil, there are consequences enshrined in law. Yet although it shows blatant disrespect to Parliament, and more importantly to our constituents, a Minister can break the ministerial code, give contracts worth billions of pounds to friends and mislead the House without consequences.
Faith in Westminster politics is at an all-time low thanks to this Government. Major reforms are needed to regain trust. We need to have independent oversight of the ministerial code; to ban MPs from having second jobs, except for public service for which we are paid; to force Ministers to correct the record after giving misleading information in the Chamber; and to scrap the House of Lords and replace it with an elected upper Chamber. In the meantime, Adam Price and I are writing to the Metropolitan police to ask it to conduct an investigation to determine whether offences have been committed by the Conservative party under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925.
If the system cannot be reformed to stop corruption, perhaps the system is the problem. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) spoke very well, fluently and capably about the process.
At the end of such a debate, we tend to get drawn into a conversation among ourselves and forget how it appears to people outside. The people of Wales will have their representation here reduced from 40 to 32 Members; they see a Government with a robust majority able to ride roughshod over perfectly normal, accepted ethical standards; and they will ask whether this is the system that serves them best or whether they could do it better themselves.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to what the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), the former Government Chief Whip, said earlier, I understand that the Prime Minister arrived back in London, to King’s Cross, at 5 pm. Would it be in order for him to come to the House before the end of the debate or, if that is not possible, to make a statement to the House to personally apologise as the former Chief Whip advised he should?
To be quite honest, that is not a point of order.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). The former Member for North Shropshire, the right hon. Owen Paterson, served his constituency for 24 years and held some of the highest offices in Government. By any standards, what happened to him is a tragedy: he lost his career but, much worse, he lost his wife in the most distressing circumstances. On a human level, there cannot be a Member of this House who does not feel at least some degree of sympathy for him.
I have heard the proposal of the Chair of the Committee on Standards on how to deal with Mr Paterson’s case, but in reality, the specific issue of his personal conduct is closed as a consequence of his resignation last week. However, his case has highlighted issues that deserve the continued attention of this House. In retrospect, everyone agrees that it was wrong of the Government to conflate the specific issue of Owen Paterson’s conduct with the important wider issue of the regulation and enforcement of standards in this House, and I was glad to see the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster issuing what I thought was a very full apology for that.
What the case has thrown into focus are questions of natural justice that are not adequately addressed in Standing Orders Nos. 149 and 150. For example, Mr Paterson wanted to call no fewer than 17 witnesses to give evidence in support of his case, and he was not afforded the opportunity to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) has expressed his concerns on the issue of natural justice. For my own part, I find it hard to see how the denial of a right to call witnesses and for those witnesses to be examined and cross-examined—a right that is taken for granted in civil and criminal proceedings in this country—can be compatible with natural justice.
I do want to correct this point. We did hear the witnesses in writing. Their witness statements are all available online. We considered the matter. As happens in every single court in the land, we considered the matter, as judges would and as many tribunals would.
I would just say to the right hon. Member that he voted for a motion that, I am afraid, did not close the matter on Mr Paterson. It left it completely and utterly open—deliberately so—and, indeed, Mr Paterson still asserts that he is innocent and that, if he were a Member, he would do the whole thing all over again, so I am afraid we will have to tidy this up.
I hear what the Chairman of the Committee has to say, but, frankly, it is one thing to read written evidence, and it is another thing for that evidence to be tested in examination and cross-examination, and that was not allowed.
Furthermore, there is no provision for an independent appeals process under Standing Order No 150. I do not believe that that can be right either. Provision should be made for a proper appeals procedure under the Standing Order No. 150 process, as indeed there is under the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, where an appeal panel is chaired by a High Court judge.
There should also be greater legal input into the entire process. Standing Order No. 150 does provide for the establishment of an investigatory panel, with a legally qualified assessor and counsel, but only at the behest of either the commissioner herself or the Committee. That, of course, was not done in Mr Paterson’s case. Indeed, ever since the procedure was first put in place, no such panel has ever been established. That is a matter of regret because the legal assessor has a duty under Standing Order No. 150(10) to
“report to the Committee…his opinion as to the extent to which its proceedings have been consistent with the principles of natural justice”.
That is the only occasion in which the words “natural justice” appear anywhere in Standing Orders Nos. 149 and 150, which, I suggest, is also a matter that needs to be rectified.
In the debate last week, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), whom I am delighted to see in his place, made the important point that, while he was sympathetic to the proposition that the rules do need reform, this could only be done with consensus. I believe that Mr Paterson’s case, despite its wholly regrettable outcome and, frankly, the way it was handled last week, has highlighted deficiencies in the process that do need to be addressed by the House. I very much hope that, now that the sting caused by the conflation of the individual case with the wider issue of the need for reform has been removed, the House can proceed on the basis of consensus and seek to make improvements to a system that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Paterson case, is so clearly in need of reform.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this very important debate.
Never in my short time in Parliament have I witnessed such naked corruption as I did last week in the botched attempt by the Tories to save their mate from being held to account for his serious misconduct. That the Prime Minister has not even showed up today shows once again that he thinks he can duck the consequences of his actions, particularly as we have just found out that he is sitting down the road having a cuppa. He is making an absolute mockery of his office and of our democracy.
Three Conservative Members who are currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards voted in favour of ripping up the rules. We have heard reports that the Prime Minister threatened his MPs with losing funding for their constituencies if they did not back his plans on Wednesday. Blackmail to cover up corruption—what an utter disgrace! We should call it what it is: the Government’s attempt to rewrite the rules was unashamedly corrupt. That it was done in an attempt to cover up the kind of corruption we have seen throughout this pandemic tells us everything we need to know about the depth of contempt the Tories have for the constituents and the country they are supposed to serve.
The Member in question was found guilty of breaking cash-for-access rules after he received £100,000 from two firms that then went on to win hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of covid contracts, despite evidence they were not up to the job. How many more crony contracts have this Government allocated? Over the last year, we have seen the previous Health Secretary agree a covid test contract with his pub landlord via WhatsApp; we have seen revelations that a fifth of UK covid contracts raised red flags for corruption; and £2.1 billion for 27 PPE or testing contracts was paid by the taxpayer to firms with connections to the Tory party. Enough is enough.
Eye-watering amounts of public money have been funnelled into the pockets of Tory donors and their rich mates under the guise of the pandemic, while our public services have been systematically defunded for over a decade. It is beyond parody that this Government are trying to reposition themselves as the party of public services when that is the reality. We need a full and transparent investigation into how these crony contracts were awarded and their outcomes.
Not only do the Tories think it is okay for MPs to take on lucrative second jobs, which clearly creates conflicts of interest between the constituents they serve and their paymasters in big business who buy influence through the back door, but—
Will the hon. Member give way?
No, thank you. I will not give way. I am going to carry on.
The Tories also clearly think it is okay to give a green light to cash for access, a practice that places the interests of MPs squarely with those of the highest bidder and obliterates their obligations towards those they were elected to serve. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to take this opportunity, right here and now, to commit to going back to the Government and appealing to them to take action to ban second jobs for MPs, unless they need to retain professional recognition.
I should start by declaring my interest as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The only other Member of this House who is also a member of that committee, the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), is not able to speak in this debate, but having spoken to her, I know she would agree with the criticisms I am about to make.
The amendment passed last week that we have been discussing sought to do a number of things that were wholly wrong. It sought to link the determination of an individual case to proposals for reform of our disciplinary system more broadly. It sought to establish a Committee of the House that did not and would not have cross-party support to consider reforms that could succeed only with cross-party support. It sought to do all that by whipping Government Back Benchers on House business that should not have been whipped at all, with some unfair and gratuitous attacks on the competence and integrity of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who, as you pointed out, Mr Speaker, has no right of reply.
For all those reasons, I could not support that amendment, but it seems to me that this debate should not focus on rehashing last week, but instead consider what we do now. On that, I speak for myself, not for my Committee or for any member of it. For all that some objectives of the amendment were illegitimate, not all of them were illegitimate. For example, I do think it is right to consider a clear and effective appeal mechanism for those initially found to have committed misconduct.
One frustrating aspect of last week is that the noise created by the rest of the amendment has made serious conversations about reform in that respect harder. I also think that the understandable public reaction to the events of last week means that we will have to think more extensively about reform to our disciplinary processes. Perhaps we should do that anyway.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
I want to ask my right hon. and learned Friend, who was the Attorney General, the simple question that I put to the Leader of the Opposition: if the investigatory panel could have been set up, but was not set up, it was impossible for the rules of natural justice, as applied by Standing Order 150, to be brought into effect. Does he accept that that puts the Member in question at a severe disadvantage?
I regret that I do not think there is a simple answer to that question, but I disagree that the problem is a breach of the rules of natural justice. I do not think that is our issue. I will come on to what I think the issue is, but I do not think it is that. My view is that last week reminded the public that they do not trust this House to discipline its own Members. I say “reminded” because not only have we been sent that message before, but we have acted on it before. The expenses scandal led to an independent body to determine our expenses claims, and only last year, as others have pointed out, we agreed an independent expert panel to determine claims of bullying and harassment. We now need to follow through on the logic for independent determination of other forms of serious misconduct.
Although I accept as a matter of democratic principle that it is necessary for Members of Parliament to authorise a sanction involving suspension or expulsion from this House, it does not follow from that that it is either necessary or desirable for Members of Parliament to judge the merits of disciplinary proceedings against other Members of Parliament. If we needed a demonstration of how that can cause problems and undermine confidence in our rules, we surely had it last week. We must have reform, but reform must be undertaken with a clear head and in a balanced way.
There is a strong case for a clear appeal procedure. I have heard the argument, made particularly forcefully and well by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), that consideration of a case by the Committee on Standards is, in effect, an appeal from the commissioner. However, with great respect to the hon. Gentleman—I generally agree with what he says—I do not think that is quite right. An appeal is a means of challenging a decision. The commissioner makes a recommendation, not a decision. The decision is made by the Committee on Standards, and it is that decision that would be subject to any appeal that we added to the current architecture. Again with great respect to the hon. Gentleman and his Committee—I think he and they do a good job—we will have to face the need for a greater independent element in deciding cases of serious alleged misconduct by other Members of the House.
To return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), I do not entirely go along with the view set out by my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) that what we have is a fundamental breach of the rules of natural justice. That does not appear to be what is happening. Instead, we have a failure to meet the test of public confidence. That is a different test, but one we must take seriously. As a result of that—again, I take the points by the Chair of the Committee on Standards that we are engaged in a process of reform, and about the pace of such reform—we must expect and establish due process, and these cases should be largely determined independently of us. If we do not do that, I fear confidence in us will continue to fall, with consequences for Parliament and the acceptance of the laws we pass. The pandemic has shown us how much that can matter. The lesson of last week is not to back away from reform of our disciplinary process; it is rather that we have to get on with it and go further in it, and do so in a wholly different way to the way we approached it last week.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for accepting the application for today’s debate from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). It is, unfortunately, very timely and necessary, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing it, and on the manner in which she introduced it.
I listened to your statement before the debate, Mr Speaker, when you spoke about the best traditions of the House, and my mind went back to a conversation that I had with a colleague not long after I was elected to this House. It was basically to the effect that the day anybody found me standing here making a speech about the best traditions of the House, they could take me out and shoot me because my useful life would be over at that point. The House will therefore appreciate, I hope, that I have picked my words and what I am about to say with extreme caution.
I do not think that the convention of not whipping House business is the best tradition of the House, but it is certainly a very important one. I do not know whose decision it was to whip the motion and amendment last week, but it was a seriously colossal error of judgment. They have damaged the authority of the Prime Minister, they have damaged the credibility of the Leader of the House, and they have seriously undermined the ability of the Government Whips Office to do the job with which it is charged. Some might say that that is a silver lining, but the cloud, which is the damage to Parliament as a whole, is otherwise impenetrably dark.
As others have said, we now need to move on and look at what we do to go ahead. I take the point of the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) that we need to consider questions of process. I remain to be convinced about the need for an appeal, but given that this is a committee and not a court, and the process is not informed by legal practitioners, I see the argument for there being a fresh pair of eyes on such matters. If, however, all we do in the process about which the Leader of the House was speaking last week is tinker around with a few procedural matters, we might as well not bother. That is simply not equal to the task before us of restoring public confidence in the House’s ability to deal with its own standards and discipline.
On those right hon. and hon. Members who have outside interests or second incomes, I do not favour an outright ban on second jobs, as that would have the unintended consequence of making more people see this as an occupation from which there would never be any departure. The idea that people can come here for a term or two and then return to whatever profession or occupation they had beforehand is good and sensible, but this weekend I saw reports about the time given by some right hon. and hon. Members, and the money they received in return, which I think is simple indefensible. As we look to what we do in future, we must consider that, and at very least we must have a cap on such matters.
Let me return to the point that I made in my intervention on the Leader of the Opposition. If the Government are approaching this as a good faith exercise, we should hear a commitment from the Treasury Bench that not only will there be no repetition of whipping House business, but that when any proposals are brought forward they will give us a cast-iron guarantee that Members will not be whipped. When you are in a hole, stop digging. The Government look as if they have stopped digging, but I still get the sense that somehow they cast rather envious and wistful glances in the direction of the shovel.
Order. Before I bring in Sir William Cash, I remind the House that I have to bring in Wendy Chamberlain at four minutes past 7.
I have still not had an answer to the question I asked at the beginning of the debate, which is at the heart of this issue: why did the Committee not convene—it had the power to do so—and require the commissioner to hold an investigative panel? No answer is given to that. It is no good people saying, “Oh, it doesn’t matter”, because only by having the rules of natural justice applied, as set out in that part of the Standing Orders, is it possible to achieve the examination of witnesses and the fairness and criteria of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.
Someone did give my hon. Friend an answer to that. It was the Chair of the Standards Committee, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who said that the facts were not in dispute, which is one of the conditions of setting up such a panel.
That is a very interesting response, because it still does not answer the question. The reality is—[Interruption.] No, with great respect, if we look at appendix 2 of the Committee’s report, there were 17 witness statements on Mr Paterson’s behalf set out in rigorous detail. In relation to milk and food safety, there was witness evidence from the chief vet, National Milk Laboratories and the former chair of the Food Standards Agency. That confirmed that within the framework of exemptions for Members’ actions in the public interest, the former Member’s actions made milk safer. On the question of the contamination of a ham product, Professor Chris Elliott, in unchallenged evidence, made it clear that what the former Member revealed was the worst case that that professor had seen in 35 years. On both matters, those witnesses’ genuinely expert opinions were not followed in establishing the facts and in justification of the former Member’s defence.
On the question of natural justice and of witness statements and evidence, it has been established over and again in the courts that every court or tribunal is obliged to accept and follow unchallenged witness evidence.
Will the hon. Member give way?
No, I do not have time and we need to move on.
It is established in the recent Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme that a judge must be—and now will be, as far as I can judge—embedded in the procedure. An investigatory panel would be set up only infrequently, in cases of serious contested issues of fact that would not and could not be properly decided, and where the test of natural justice would be failed unless the Member was given the opportunity to call witnesses and/or to cross-examine witnesses supporting the complaint.
That is made abundantly clear by the 2003 Committee report that I have already referred to—that Committee actually had eight Lib Dem and Labour members and only three Conservatives—so why a panel was never set up is a complete mystery. I heard the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) say that he was a stickler for parliamentary procedure and due process in Parliament, so why did he decline to invoke the natural justice provisions, including examination of witnesses, under his own Standing Orders and, furthermore, consistent with the tests of fairness set out by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege?
Not only does every disciplinary committee in the land and other courts of justice and tribunals of every kind have rules of natural justice, but they have the right to appeal to the courts for judicial review. Members of Parliament cannot do so because of article 9 of the Bill of Rights, which includes things such as equality of arms, examination of witnesses and no delay. The reality is that in this instance—in this serious, contested case—there has been a failure of natural justice.
I do not know, and now nobody will ever know, what the investigatory panel would have discovered, because it was never invoked. It is most regrettable and a deep contribution to this tragedy—it is the centre of gravity of this problem—that the rules of natural justice, which are prescribed under the Standing Orders, were not applied. I stand by that, because it is evident on the face of the facts and the law.
I thank all Members for their presence today and all those who made contributions. Mr Speaker, I hope the tenor of the debate met your expectations. Let me be clear that my intention in applying for the debate was simply what it says in the motion: to make an initial assessment of the consequences, far beyond the case of the former Member for North Shropshire. I was also compelled to act by the comments made in relation to the future of the current independent standards commissioner. I reiterate many of the comments made from throughout the House in support of her.
There are obviously a number of things already under way, including the review of the code of conduct that the Chair of the Standards Committee referred to, but the variety of standards and codes that have been raised in today’s debate suggests that they need to be aligned and streamlined. A number of issues have been raised, such as the work of the Committee, the commissioner and appeals, as well as issues outside the direct scope of the debate, such as cash for honours, the awarding of contracts and ministerial codes of conduct. All those things need to be looked at.
Last week’s vote had direct consequences that need to be addressed. I note the suggestion by the Chair of the Standards Committee, which seems to fit the suggestions of both the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). I agree that we should take them forward.
Last week’s actions by the Government were a clear Executive overreach, and the Prime Minister has serious questions to answer. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster suggested that there was regret on the Government side and among ministerial colleagues, so I am disappointed that the Prime Minister is not here. However, when he has had the opportunity to apologise, such as in comments he made to the press today, he has chosen not to do so.
This is about trust. It is about trust in the Government that they will represent the House and not the Government in House business, and it is about trust in us as our constituents’ representatives. That trust, once eroded, is very difficult to regain. Trust in our politics has been eroded in this past week. That includes all of us here in this House. On behalf of all our constituents, we must do all in our power to do our best to rebuild that trust as we take the next steps on standards.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I was just going to put the Question, but yes—John Whittingdale.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I of course understand why it was not possible for you to call me in the debate. However, I am left in something of a dilemma. As I understand it, the House has still passed a motion that establishes a new Committee, which I am supposed to chair. I agreed to chair it on the basis that it would be a cross-party Committee that would have support from both sides of the House. It appears that that is not possible. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) indicated, I would not wish to chair a Committee that had support from only one side, but I am not clear what is the status of the Committee, given that the motion that the House passed last week, as I understand it, is still in place.
I am going to have to put the Question, but my quick answer is that we do need to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. No Committee can go forward—everyone has accepted that—but we need to draw a line under it, because at the moment there are too many questions that need to be answered. It is in the Government’s hands to resolve that, and I am sure that they will want to do it as quickly as possible, in which case this House can then begin to move on.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the consequences of the decision of the House of 3 November relating to Standards.