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Committee on Standards

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2021

I beg to move,

That, notwithstanding the practice of this House relating to questions already decided in the same Session, this House:

(1) 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;

(2) approves the Third Report of the Committee on Standards (HC 797); and

(3) notes that Mr Owen Paterson is no longer a Member of this House.

I have listened carefully to the views expressed since the debate and decision on 3 November, and I make it clear that Members of Parliament must uphold the highest standards in public life. We expect all Members to abide by the prevailing rules of conduct. Paid lobbying is wrong and Members found guilty of it should pay the necessary penalties. Our standards system must function robustly and fairly to support this so that it commands the confidence of Members and the general public.

The Government support the principle of an additional right to appeal in the standards system in the House of Commons and for that potential reform to be explored on a cross-party basis.

What happened a couple of weeks ago was an extraordinary failure of moral leadership and, for the first time, it has given rise in the minds of many to serious questions about the character of this Government. With hindsight, why did the Leader of the House and his right hon. Friends not recognise the brazen wrongdoing of their colleague?

I think the simple answer—[Interruption.] No, I think the heckle from the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) is unfair and unkind. It was simply that the tragedy that afflicted Mr Paterson coloured and clouded our judgment, and my judgment, incorrectly. It is as simple and as sad as that.

The Back-Bench amendment that we supported was intended to facilitate the exploration, on a cross-party basis, of the standards system, with a time-limited, ad hoc Committee. However, I regret that the amendment conflated an individual case with more general concerns. That was a mistake. Crucially, the amendment did not carry cross-party support, which is why we have changed our approach.

The Government fully recognise the role of the Committee on Standards in ensuring that the code of conduct reflects and fosters the highest standards of public life. I would like to thank all the Committee members and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for their service. We await the Committee’s report on the code of conduct with interest. The Committee performs an important role in identifying opportunities to improve the standards system, and I note that the Chairman, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), has made a recent, and helpful, commitment to commission a senior judicial figure to advise on possible changes to the process.

I assure all right hon. and hon. Members that I am always willing to discuss this matter further, and I hope to work with Opposition Members constructively on this issue. We all have the best interests of the House at heart and I hope that, setting aside the previous debate, we will work well together in the weeks ahead.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for facilitating this debate. [Laughter.] On 3 November, he said that the concerns expressed about the individual case in question included:

“the lack of examination of witnesses”—

of whom there were 17—

“the interpretation of the rules relating to whistleblowing…the application of aggravating factors; and the absence of the right of appeal.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2021; Vol. 702, c. 939.]

With regard to the first three of those, what is my right hon. Friend’s current view in relation to that particular case?

First, the House will always have a debate when it wants to have a debate; that is how our procedures work. They are extremely straightforward and ensure that right hon. and hon. Members can come to this House and make objections, if they so wish, to have subjects debated on the Floor of the House—

I will not give way, because I am trying to answer my hon. Friend. I have already covered his point about last week’s debate: we made the mistake of conflating the two issues of the individual case with the general system, and that did not have cross-party support. That is why the Government have committed to working on a cross-party basis to find and grasp opportunities to improve the system. I will be listening carefully to the insights of Members during this debate. I commend the motion to the House.

Where to start, Mr Speaker? There must be many a Government MP scratching their head today and asking—with reference to the greatest popstar and songwriter of all time after Schubert—“How did I get here?” I am afraid the Leader of the House still seems to have no answer to David Byrne’s eternal question; allow me to assist. I could suggest a few good books on parliamentary process, or maybe a trip to the Table Office—the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister and perhaps even the Government Chief Whip could do with a bit of revision. I could point them towards some party planners in Bristol who could perhaps help them to learn the basics of how to turn some beer and some crisps into a festivity in a brewery.

When the Leader of the House opened the debate some 13 days ago on what should have been a straightforward motion to approve a Standards Committee report, like the one we now have before us, he used his lengthy speech from the Dispatch Box not really to move the motion but instead to propose a Back-Bench amendment that tore through his own motion and, more importantly, tore through the standards process right in the middle of a live case. The Leader of the House talks of conflation; as he sat down, was he fatigued? Were his fingers in his ears? I do not think so. Had he mastered the art of dozing off while appearing conscious? What explanation can there be for his plaintive lament the very next day, in the days after, and even today in his podcast, that it was a pity that the issues of changing the standards process and the live case had become conflated? It was literally him doing the conflating.

I understand that the Leader of the House might not hang on my every word, but why did he not heed the wise counsel of the Chair of the Standards Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); of his own former Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper); of the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley); and of any number of others? We all warned the Leader of the House against the dangers of conflation. He was warned, yet conflate he did. He heeded none of the warnings as he led the Prime Minister’s men and women up to the top of the hill and then left them there.

Then came the Government’s screeching U-turn, which the Leader of the House announced the next day at business questions. What followed was yet more chaos. The amended motion is still in place. The motion before us today should have gone through last night but was blocked by a single voice, for reasons that remain a mystery to me but that we may hear shortly. Now, here we are, debating this motion.

When the Leader of the House was asked at business questions how the sham Committee that was included in the messed-up motion, with a named Chair—quite inappropriate—would operate with no funding or cross-party support, I seem to recall that he waved his hands at me and tried to imply that we had not been listening to his words. But we had, and answer came there none.

Absurdly, the Government then resisted the motion suggested by my hon. Friend the Chair of the Standards Committee, as they resisted the urging from me and, no doubt, from others. They could have laid that motion there and then, last Monday, to rectify the mess that they had not just made but quite improperly whipped for, given that this is a House matter.

The motion finally appeared among the remaining orders last night, on a “nod or nothing” basis. I confess, Mr Speaker, that even I was surprised by the chaos last night, as it descended into Chamber farce. I really thought that the Government, having admitted their mistake and squirrelled away the remedy in a late-night, no-debate motion, would surely have made sure that no one was going to mess it up for them again. But oh how wrong I was. To continue the Talking Heads references, this is not my beautiful House. This Government cannot sweep this under the rug. The Leader of the House has now apologised in his podcast, but will he also apologise to the House for the damage that has been done to the reputation of Parliament by this sorry affair?

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy rightly sent an apology to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards—the independent standards commissioner—for his outrageous comments when sent out on the morning media round to be the Government apologist for bad behaviour. Which hapless Minister are they going to send out next time? Will it once again be the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who was also sent out to describe all this as a

“Westminster storm in a teacup”?

If it is a Westminster storm in a teacup, it must be a very big teacup, because here we are—

Yes, 13 days.

Mr Speaker, standards matter. Scrutiny matters. An independent system to hold everyone in public life to account matters. Standards should not be seen or treated as an irksome bother that you get your mates to change when you are found out. Standards should not be seen as something to be feared, or something to be treated with such distain, incompetence and total absence of leadership, as we have seen from this sorry Government over this sorry affair. To anyone who really loves democracy, standards are the bedrock of everything we do—everything. Once more, it seems I have to remind the Leader of the House that the Nolan principles are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and, finally, leadership.

For democracy to work—for it to be trusted—those values have to be not only integrated into our political system but celebrated and welcomed. No MP must be for hire—not one. Standards should be the guiding light of every day in this place; a frame around what we do; a filter to sift out what must not be done from what must be done; something we demand from ourselves and each other; and something we expect our staff to work to and to hold us to. When our constituents challenge us to live up to these standards, we should be proud that our democracy is working so well that they can do that. How have we got to the point where the Prime Minister has to clarify that the UK is not a corrupt country? How did we get here? How did we get here?!

Let us keep the upward trajectory, started in 1695—I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman might have appreciated that, or that he did appreciate that—making our standards stronger, our systems of accountability more effective, not weakening them as the Government tried to do with, I am afraid to say, the assistance of the Leader of the House. I am glad that the Leader of the House recognises that it was a mistake, but I ask him again if he will apologise to this House.

I also ask the Leader of the House: when will the Government bring forward, or respond to, the 2018 recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on MPs’ outside interests? If he has read that report, which I am sure he has, will he be backing Labour’s motion tomorrow? That motion is based on the part of the standards report on banning MPs from taking political strategy, analyst and consultancy jobs—I got the wording slightly wrong there, but, basically, we are talking about paid directorships and lobbying jobs that MPs should not be doing. The Government must accept the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was set up after a different Tory scandal, to strengthen the system. They must support the current inquiry into the MPs’ code of conduct, which our Standards Committee is in the middle of and, in fact, shortly to report on. The Government should only ever be in the business of updating and strengthening our system. We should never be content for the public to look at us wearily and conclude, thanks to the cynical actions of a very few, that we do not have standards, when we do.

Finally, we should never have been put in this position, but we were by those on the Government Benches, and now they cannot even clear up after themselves. We can now, today—and I hope that we do—end this particular sorry mess of a motion and take it off the books by voting through the one in front of us, mercifully unamended, as it should have been 13 days ago, if only the Leader of the House had been listening.

I hope that this will be the last opportunity for this House to do the right thing and accept the report of the Committee on Standards on Owen Paterson. I trust that no Member of this House is thinking of doing anything other than supporting the motion that has been moved by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Passing this motion will be a step in the right direction, but it will not undo the damage that has been done by the vote of 3 November. Let us be clear: this is not a party political issue. Damage has been done to all Members of Parliament and to Parliament as a whole.

I read the report of the Committee on Standards into Owen Paterson. I believe that the conclusion was clear and fair: Owen Paterson broke the rules on paid advocacy. The attempt by right hon. and hon. Members of this House, aided and abetted by the Government under cover of reform of the process, effectively to clear his name was misplaced, ill-judged and just plain wrong.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I take no interventions. I wish to make my limited points.

In this place, we set rules for people through the laws that we pass. We expect people to obey those rules. We also set rules for our own behaviour as Members of Parliament and we have a right to expect that each and every one of us obey those rules. Sometimes mistakes will be made inadvertently, but the process of independent investigation and a Committee set up by this House with lay members should be able to differentiate those cases and to deal with them.

It has been suggested that, as a result of what happened on 3 November, the rules need to change. I do hope that the Government will be looking urgently and seriously at the 2018 proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I do not think that they quite reflect the motion that the Opposition are putting to the House tomorrow, but they do suggest a clarification and a tightening up of the rules on MPs’ outside interests. It would be a mistake to think that, because someone broke the rules, the rules were wrong. The rule on paid advocacy is a long-standing one. The problem came because there was an attempt to effectively let off a then Member of the House, and that flew in the face of the rules on paid advocacy and in the face of the processes established by this House.

It has also been suggested, as a result of what happened on 3 November, that there are questions about the role of MPs. We should not conflate or confuse those two issues. The first is about ensuring that no company or individual can gain an unfair advantage by paying a Member of Parliament to advocate on their behalf. That is a matter for the code of conduct of Members of this House and the rules of this House. The second is an issue of the service that MPs give to their constituents, and that is a matter for their electorate. Damage has been done to this House. We can start to repair that damage by accepting the report of the Committee on Standards, and I urge every Member of this House to support that motion.

Well, that worked out well, didn’t it? What an absolute and utter disaster. We have seen the Leader of the House standing there, with no apology, no contrition, and no ability to let it sink in just how bad things are. The last place that he wanted to be today was at the Dispatch Box doing exactly the opposite of what he did two weeks ago and saying everything that he did not say when he presented that motion. The Government were doing everything possible yesterday to get to 10 o’clock so that this debate would not be had, only to be holed by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) with the word “object”—best laid plans and all that. What we have is another day of this, another day of headlines, and another day of examining Tory sleaze.

What has happened in those 13 days since the Leader of the House was last at the Dispatch Box? We know that public trust in this Government is now at an all-time low. Their inboxes have been swamped by messages from furious constituents demanding to know what they are going to do about all of this. Day after day, we have been waking up to endless Tory sleaze stories in the national newspapers. Companies are now dispensing with the services of Tory MPs in these lucrative second jobs because of the stink that has been created by all of this, and the Tories have lost their lead in the opinion polls. Things could not actually be worse for them. They would face losing their seats if a general election were called tomorrow, and they have the Leader of the House to thank for their current sorry predicament.

This little plan to save their pal was hatched between the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip, and backed enthusiastically by the Prime Minister. The Leader of the House is supposed to be the clever one. It is he who has the Eton education and the millions in the Cayman Islands. This is all on him, and he is responsible for this mess. Let us remind ourselves of what he said 13 days ago. He was so passionate in his defence of his good friend Owen Paterson that he even invoked one of his favourite Latin phrases. “Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” he extolled in this House in an almost Atticus Finch-like defence of his good friend—his good friend unfairly maligned and maltreated by this House—who had just pocketed a cool half a million pounds and been found to have broken our rules in a consistent and egregious manner. Now the Leader of the House is here doing the exact opposite. If he had even any sense of dignity, if he had a smidgeon of self-respect, he would be long gone. People do not usually survive something like this. They do not survive a story lasting 13 days. He has defied the laws of political science and it is amazing that we find him at the Dispatch Box today.

Let us remind ourselves what we are actually doing today. We are rescinding a Committee that the Government whipped in order to achieve a kangaroo court Committee of corruption that had a Tory majority and a Tory Chair. They did not like the result of our existing Standards Committee, so not only did they set aside its finding, they actually decided to replace the Committee itself. They are so arrogant and have such a sense of entitlement that they thought they would get away with it, and they would have got away with it if it was not for those pesky constituents.

The public have made very clear over the last two weeks their demands for high standards. To be consistent with the new, more respectable position of the Government, does the hon. Member agree that they must revisit and resile from clauses in the Elections Bill that would allow them, through strategic policy statements, to impose their will on the Electoral Commission and to block outcomes from it that they do not like? Does he also agree that proceeding with those aspects of the Elections Bill would make it clear that they have not learnt the lesson that messing with the independent oversight of politicians—in this case, over donations and spending—is really off limits?

I utterly agree. I would have thought that today might just be a watershed moment for the Government—that they would look at the whole package of measures that they have proposed to decrease the legitimacy of this House and electoral processes, and that they would then do the right thing on the back of that. But knowing them the way that I do, I doubt whether that will happen.

The hon. Member is being gracious in giving way. I extend my sympathies to the Leader of the House for having been sent out to bat on this very sticky wicket. Does the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) agree that rather than the highly respected independent Commissioner for Standards resigning—as was mooted by Ministers when they felt invincible—it should be the Prime Minister who is considering his position, given that he forced his Conservative MPs to vote to protect his paid lobbyist friend, rather than doing what was right; and that, in doing so, the Prime Minister has egregiously eroded our democracy?

Absolutely. The hon. Member brings me to the malicious, malign and utterly disgraceful attempt to undermine and smear our Standards Commissioner. We heard the Business Secretary say last week that the commissioner should consider her position. She should not be considering her position. The Leader of the House should be considering his position, as should the Prime Minister. They needed to undermine the Standards Commissioner in order for their silly, stupid plan to work for them—and, of course, it has not worked at all. So what now? The Government have failed properly to apologise or recognise what they have to done, or to show any sort of contrition—

Or shame, as the hon. Member says. That failure means that this issue will not go away; it is going to go on. We are now in the 13th day, but I suspect that this is going to rumble through until just about Christmas. I am afraid that, until the Government get up and show the House and the country that they are truly sorry about what they have done, and will make every effort to ensure that this House is cleaned up, it is not going to get any better for the Leader of the House and his colleagues.

Even the most loyal of Conservative Back Benchers are actually talking about replacing the Prime Minister, ensuring that these out-of-touch Brexiteers who seem to be running the Conservative party get no place near making decisions like this again. There is a new generation of Conservatives. Some of them are actually quite good! I say to them: take control of this away from the Government. The Government cannot do it; they do not know what they are doing. They have got you into this mess, and it is up to you to clean them out and make sure that they are replaced—because, can I tell you something? They are not working in your interests and they are doing everything possible to ensure that you do not get elected. I believe that the days of faux buffoonery are coming to an end on the back of all this.

Let me turn to the position of the Leader of the House. I say to him—somebody who I respect very dearly—that his position is totally and utterly untenable. He cannot come to this House and say one thing passionately and with great concern, and take up nearly all the time to do so, and then come back nearly two weeks later and say the exact opposite. That just does not happen in politics. Even to think that he would get away with it is beyond reason, and certainly nothing like I have ever seen in my 20 years in this House. What he has done defies political gravity. He has opened a Pandora’s box of Tory sleaze; it was he who took the lid off and we can all see what is inside. They think this is all over, but it is not over yet; it has barely just begun.

The motion before the House should be viewed, as I have said in several debates over the last few days, from a fundamental perspective that affects all Members from all parts of the House. It is essential to review the workings of the fair trial system—the investigatory panel—created under the Labour Government in 2003 on the recommendation of the Committee on Standards itself, which consisted of six Labour members, two Liberal Democrats and only three Conservatives. This was to ensure fairness for MPs accused of misconduct in serious cases, as insisted upon by a series of high-level reports, which the House then accepted.

All those high-level reports—including the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1999, the Wicks report, and the 2003 Committee on Standards report, especially paragraphs 39 to 42, which set up the fair trial investigatory panel—made it clear that the fair trial requirements would only be applied in seriously contested cases, where the facts were in dispute in relation to alleged misconduct by a Member.

Appendix 2 of the third report shows that the particular case of the former Member for North Shropshire fell squarely within Standing Order No. 150(5). The Standing Order clearly states:

“The Commissioner may at any time in the course of investigating a complaint, and if so requested by the Committee on Standards shall”—

I repeat “shall”—

“appoint an Investigatory Panel to assist”

the Commissioner “in establishing the facts”.

This was not done. I am astonished by how few people seem either to have read or understood this point, but it lies at the heart of the issue. No one in this House or elsewhere could say that a person was guilty or innocent, unless that panel had been set up, completed its work and reported, and that was not done in this case. Not to request, and thereby to require, the setting up of such a panel in seriously contested cases seriously impairs the principles of natural justice specifically referred to in Standing Order No. 150, affecting MPs accused of serious misconduct.

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend. Will he set out for the House perhaps just one example of a fact that is contested? Mr Paterson contested the interpretation of his behaviour, but I read the report in full and I did not find a single contested fact. Will he set one out for the House, please?

I will give my right hon. Friend one example: the question raised by Professor Elliott on the matter of public safety in relation to carcinogenic elements in ham or bacon. As I said in the previous debate on this matter, Professor Elliott recognised that in 35 years, he had never come across such a case. That is one example, but there are others.

Not to request the setting up of a panel also impairs the fundamental rules laid down by article 6—known as the fair trial provisions—of the European convention on human rights, drafted in accordance with British principles of justice in all civil and criminal cases. The failure to implement the requirement of the panel under Standing Order No. 150(5) impairs the report. The door to fairness is opened by the setting up of the panel, and for the sake of all Members of the House it was a mistake not to have done so in this case.

The failure to adhere to the clearly defined six principles of fairness for accused MPs as set out by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1999 and article 6 of the European convention—including the examination of witnesses and the cross-examination of other witnesses—has adverse consequences as a precedent for Parliament itself. Not a single citizen in the land, even terrorists and criminals, is denied a fair trial under these principles of natural justice, and has the right of appeal in every court and every disciplinary tribunal. The Member in question should have been afforded the procedures under the fair trial arrangements laid down by Standing Orders because we, as Members, are exceptionally excluded from judicial review by article 9 of the Bill of Rights.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), who is a member of the Committee, argued convincingly that the Standing Orders must be reviewed to avoid conflicts of interest. The procedural reforms that will inevitably now have to be made need proper and full examination by the whole House, not only by the Committee on Standards, but it will be tragically too late for the former Member for North Shropshire when new reforms are properly introduced in the near future.

They say that a week is a long time in politics, but, as others have pointed out, it has been almost two weeks and it is hard to believe it has taken this long for the Government to sort this out. Something deeply serious has now, frankly, become a farce. First, the Government whipped on the amendment, then they U-turned, then they refused to apologise, then they took a week to decide what to do to sort out what was their own creation, and last night that was toppled by one of their own Members.

It is obviously right that the motion be rescinded. I see a lot of agreement across this House on that— I think the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is in a minority of one—but that does not solve many of the issues that we have seen in the past two weeks. The Government have not yet properly explained why they chose to whip the first vote and whether they plan to intervene in House business again. I have already said, as have many colleagues, that standards proceedings belong to this House. The Government have authority through their majority, but they do not have the power to make changes to our rules. At the end of the day, members of the Government, like it or not, are Members of this House, equal to those of us who sit on the Back Benches in that regard.

The Government have not yet apologised or explained why they wanted rule changes. Vague regrets for conflating proceedings against an individual and the process more generally are not an apology. I know, as does any parent, that my children often regret doing something wrong when they get in trouble, but that is not the same as an apology for the action itself. As for why members of this Government want to make our standards processes less independent—well, without a full explanation, and with the media stories of wrongdoing over the past week, I think we can leave it to the public to draw their own conclusions.

The Government have not explained why Members with an interest in changes to the voting system, and indeed Mr Paterson himself, were able to vote in the first process. I would argue that this is not due process. That is why I have tabled an early-day motion asking the Government to bring forward a motion for consideration by this House to amend the Standing Orders to prevent it from happening in the future. I ask the Leader of the House whether he supports bringing in such a motion, and if he does not, to explain why.

We only maintain our authority in this House, and reject accusations of corruption, by upholding our democratic ideals. Rescinding the order from 3 November is a vital start, but we need more, and the public need more.

Rescinding a motion of the House when it has already been passed earlier in the Session—and particularly in this case when it was passed fewer than two weeks earlier—is a major constitutional decision for this House, and it is absolutely right that we should be having this debate today, rather than the motion going through on the nod yesterday. I am delighted that the hon. Members for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) have enjoyed participating in this debate, having resisted the opportunity last night to insist on there being such a debate. They would have been quite happy for this issue to be swept under the carpet, but I think it is important for this House’s democracy to debate it openly. That is why last night I used the power, as an individual Back Bencher, to ensure that we had this debate today, and I have no regrets about that whatsoever.

I recognise that my hon. Friend is keen to make sure that Parliament has time to have its say, but we have had almost four and a half hours of debate on this issue already. Our constituents deserve a focus on delivering the promises we made to them on things that matter to them, rather than our spending time here trying to deny things, which would have the same outcome no matter what. How much time does he want to give—10 hours, five hours, 15 hours? When will it be enough?

Should I express shock or outrage at what my hon. Friend has said, because clearly, in the time to which she refers, she did not apply her mind to the principal issue, which is that the Government encouraged everybody—including her, probably—to vote for a motion on 3 November, the motion was passed by resolution of this House, and the rescinding or changing of that motion is a matter for this House, rather than for the Executive and the Government? What happened on 4 November was that the Government used their power to usurp this House and basically said to it, “What you decided yesterday is no longer valid and of good effect.” This motion is so important because we cannot pass motions and then rescind them without proper debate, and that is what I am trying to concentrate on today. The process is absolutely fundamental to the issue of natural justice.

When I intervened on the Leader of the House, I referred to three of the issues that he had talked about in his introductory remarks on 3 November. He expressed concerns that had been raised with him about the lack of examination of witnesses in this case—and there were 17 such witnesses available to be examined. He also said that he was concerned about the interpretation of the rules relating to whistleblowing, which have been reinterpreted retrospectively and much more narrowly than many people would think was justified on the basis of the actual wording of those rules. Then there was the issue of the penalty that was recommended, because the Committee decided that it was an aggravating factor for our then right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire to have raised with it in evidence the impact that the inquiry and the commissioner’s behaviour had had on himself and his family. That was—

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to give way, he will give way. I think his slight indication was that he does not wish to give way to Mr Harper. [Interruption.] Well, whether he is right or wrong is totally different to the rules of the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I understand that some people find this rather an issue of sensitivity.

I raised a related aspect of this with the Leader of the House because a previous report of the Committee on Standards had decided, where colleagues had disputed the decision of the Commissioner for Standards, that that was, in itself, an aggravating factor in their penalty. That is completely at odds with the principles of natural justice in our country. In our country you can defend yourself in a forum—a court of law or an inquiry—and that cannot be regarded as an aggravating factor. If you admit your guilt, that can be a mitigating factor, but to defend yourself against charges cannot be regarded as an aggravating factor. The former right hon. Member for North Shropshire referred in his evidence to the Committee to the impact of the inquiry upon himself and his family. I cannot see how that could have been, in itself, an aggravating factor when it came to sentence. The Leader of the House referred to that issue on 3 November and I think it struck a chord with many of us.

It is so important that natural justice should be allowed to take its course and be applied in our proceedings, and that we should not allow ourselves to be pushed into positions of almost being subject to mob rule and mob justice. That is why I welcome this debate and the opportunity to hear people’s views about the—

No. My right hon. Friend has plenty of time in which to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, and make his own points in his own way. I know that he has a different view from that which I have about these proceedings. He is entitled to that view; each of us is entitled to our own views. What we should be doing in this democracy is actually enabling those views to be heard, and I am delighted that this debate is facilitating just that.

I normally have to say that thing—there are all these things we have to say—“It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope)”. I am actually going to defend his position, and critique what he has said. My first critique is that I found the tone in which he spoke to one of his colleagues to be slightly unacceptable as a woman in these proceedings. However, as a woman in these proceedings, I have had call to find some of his tone problematic in the past, so nothing new there.

I love to turn up to these debates and have it out once again, but where I am going to defend the hon. Gentleman is that he is standing in this Chamber defending a position and being barracked for that position—I can understand why; I get it: people want this to go away and I can see why people in this House would want that—when it was the Government’s position 13 days ago. So it is slightly unusual, notwithstanding the fact that he would not take an intervention from the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) while saying that he liked debate. To be fair, it would never have been his position. It is all well and good barracking him and saying we should not be talking about it, but this was the Government’s position just weeks ago, and I think that is important to remember.

I want to go over a couple of things. The idea of natural justice seems to be incredibly in the eye of the beholder. As somebody who has worked in the justice sector for nearly two decades now, I find it something that is never ever said about victims. Victims are never asking for natural justice, one notes. Natural justice is terminology that always gets pulled out when people do not like the result of something that has happened, I find.

I feel that what happened in this case absolutely was natural justice. The right hon. Gentleman—sorry, Owen Paterson—was entitled all the way through to defend his case. The Leader of the House spoke earlier about his mind being clouded by the tragedy that had occurred. I have some sympathy for that, except that is not a mitigation ever offered to any of my constituents in immigration tribunals or welfare tribunals. Dreadful things that have happened to them would never be taken into account. It is difficult when the Government’s policy is to mitigate against only some people and to cloud their minds against only some people.

In this case, all the way through the Member was entitled to defend himself, and defend himself he did, considerably better than lots of Members in this House who do not have £100,000 contracts would have been able to do. Let’s not even get started on access to justice outside this House—welcome to almost every family court in the land, where people are defending themselves—but he was able to access legal representation all the way through. That is undeniable, and it was not just legal access. Let’s face it, Owen Paterson will have had considerably better access to law, silks and fancier lawyers than most people in this House, so let us not pretend that he was completely and utterly blindsided by this process and that it was not handled fairly, because it absolutely was.

I have some sympathy with the argument about appeals, and I am more than happy to take part in any debate about how that appeal system might work. My personal view is that the system used by the sexual harassment process that we set up, with judges sitting over it, is one that I would not mind seeing in place, although I have to say that people should be wary: the judges are very robust, they are very detailed and they cross-examine the evidence. In those cases, I have never once seen it come down on the side of the Member. In fact, there are former Members of the House who are no longer sitting here because of what the appeal said. Unfortunately, following the appeal in one of the cases, the Member still sits in here, regardless of the loss of members of staff from this place—that is the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts).

I want to say a tiny thing for the public about transparency and how these things work. I feel a little bit for the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom). The way that these things work in this House usually is that the Government find a Back Bencher who has credibility and make her take a measure through—it is often a “her”—on behalf of the Executive, and that is what happened last time. She has been totally sold down the river and her credibility, which was good on these issues, has unfortunately been damaged by the Executive.

I had not intended to speak in this debate, but since I did not get the opportunity to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), I will make a couple of very brief points. First, I fear he read a different report from the one I read. I read it in detail, and the Committee absolutely gave Mr Paterson the opportunity to present the evidence of his witnesses. That evidence was examined by the Committee and was in the report. The Committee decided for itself that it did not need to interview the witnesses, but it put their evidence transparently in the report.

The bit I really wanted to challenge my hon. Friend on was the personal tragedy and the impact on Mr Paterson, for which we all have sympathy. It is absolutely not true that the Committee did not consider it; it absolutely did. It is clearly in the report, and it was considered not as an aggravating factor, but as a mitigating factor when the Committee dealt with the punishment. The Chairman of the Committee has set out clearly the precedent for paid advocacy and the punishments meted out to former Members of this House. It was fairly clear to me, from what he set out, that Mr Paterson got a significant degree of leniency in the proposed penalty because of the personal tragedy. The Committee rightly reflected that in its deliberations. It tempered its punishment with mercy, which is a proper thing to do. I think this House would have accepted that, had Mr Paterson not taken the decision of his own accord to leave the House. That is all I wanted to say to put the record straight. I had not intended to do so, and I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye.

I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I was prompted by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), because it became incredibly apparent to me and, I suspect, to Members from all parts of the House that had she been in charge, this chaos would never have happened. This chaos is the making entirely of one person: the Prime Minister. When the Leader of the House comes to the Dispatch Box and says, “The reason we made this mistake was because we had sympathy for Mr Paterson”, it is not credible, because what happened the very next day is that Cabinet Ministers were instructed by the Chief Whip or the Prime Minister to go out on the TV and defend it. It would never have happened under the previous Prime Minister. It need not be said, but it became apparent to me that both the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip were struggling to look at the right hon. Member for Maidenhead or my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire).

It is three weeks since the Standards Committee produced our report on the conduct of Owen Paterson. It detailed a catalogue of bad behaviour. The evidence was stark and compelling. He repeatedly engaged in paid lobbying. He peddled influence for his paying clients. He repeatedly used his parliamentary office to run a commercial enterprise. Every single MP I have spoken to who has read the report tells me he was guilty, yet here we are. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.

I confess I am still mystified why the Prime Minister decided to move heaven and earth to prevent Owen Paterson from being sanctioned. Today’s motion, however, is in precisely the words that I gave the Leader of the House last Monday, as I think he will confirm, and it is necessary, I am afraid, for two reasons. First, the motion carried on Wednesday 3 November set up an alternative standards Committee, to be chaired by the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). I am told that the Prime Minister told Conservative Members at the time that this had been “squared off” with the Opposition. That was not true. Since not even the right hon. Member for Maldon wants to sit on the Committee, we probably ought to get rid of it.

Secondly, the motion of 3 November parked the question of whether Mr Paterson was guilty, which suggests that the House is uncertain what it thinks about paid lobbying. I hope that that is not the case, and I hope, if we have a unanimous decision this afternoon without a Division, that will prove to be the case. In effect, without this motion, both the Committee and the report are in limbo. I am not an expert on the theology of the Catholic Church, but I understand that the Catholic Church now believes that limbo does not exist, so we really ought to put these two issues beyond doubt.

I wish this could have been otherwise. Mr Paterson and his family must have been through hell over the past year since Rose Paterson took her own life. It is a matter of deep regret to me that the parliamentary shenanigans of the past three weeks can only have added to that misery. This House has done Mr Paterson and his family no favours. We should be ashamed of what has happened here.

Sadly, Mr Paterson’s was not the only catalogue of bad behaviour. As countless Conservative MPs have said to me—incidentally, I praise a lot of the new Conservative MPs, who have shown far greater insight over the past three weeks than some of their more long-standing colleagues—the way the Government and the Prime Minister have handled this matter has been shameful and has brought the House into disrepute. It was just wrong to delay the original motion, wrong to change the rules at the last minute of a disciplinary process for a named individual, wrong to whip Members on a standards report, wrong to call for the commissioner to resign, wrong to refuse to table this motion last week, wrong to try to get away with just taking this motion last night without debate—just plain wrong, wrong, wrong, and the Government know it.

I will respond to one point from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope). The real aggravating point was not anything he has mentioned, but the fact that Mr Paterson endlessly and repeatedly said he would do the same again tomorrow. That was bound to keep on bringing the House into further disrepute, and of course we had to bear that in mind as an aggravating factor.

I hope it will be helpful if I say a few words about appeals. We on the Committee have been grappling with this for some time, and I expect we will be able to say more when we report formally to the House before Christmas. We are in the process of appointing a senior judicial figure to help us to think through all these issues, as I told the House last week.

It is wrong, however, to say, as several hon. Members have, that there is no appeal process now. There is. A Member can appeal the commissioner’s decision that there has been a breach of the rules. The Committee on Standards hears that appeal, with seven independent lay members and seven Members of this House. Unlike most appeal bodies, we are remarkably generous. We do not specify grounds for appeal; we effectively allow not just an appeal, but a general rehashing of all the arguments. We can also hear an appeal in writing and in person, unlike most courts, and often a Member chooses to do both, as Mr Paterson did. We honestly give every single Member a fair hearing. We do not always agree with the commissioner.

There are, however, some blurred lines here. We could tighten up the grounds for appeal, but I warn colleagues that that might not go down too well. We could constitute ourselves as two panels, as the independent expert panel does: one to hear the original decision and determine a sanction, another to hear an appeal. We could engage an outside figure to hear that final appeal, or we could ask the independent expert panel to do that. But that is not as simple as some might suggest. The corollary might be that the House would then have to take the sanction motion without debate or amendment, as it is required to do in sexual harassment cases.

I am, however, extremely reluctant to move from an inquisitorial system to an adversarial one, and I urge the House to oppose that. That would require everyone to be legally represented, which would benefit wealthy MPs over poorer MPs—unless legal aid is provided for MPs, when it is not now available in many other places. It would dramatically increase the cost of the proceedings and significantly extend the process. It would be disproportionate. It would not be any fairer to the Member or the complainant.

Some final points: The Daily Telegraph today reported a Government source as dismissing the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the adviser on the Ministerial Code as “bureaucrats” who should be ignored. I am glad that the Business Secretary, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) has apologised for calling for the commissioner to resign, though I suspect he was not freelancing at the time, but leadership in this field means backing the independent system, not seeking to undermine it.

As sure as eggs is eggs, there will be more cases before the commissioner and the Committee in the next few months, and I hope nobody will seek to undermine either of them. I pay tribute to both Kathryn Stone, the commissioner, and all of her team, who have worked tirelessly over these few weeks, despite some extreme bullying. That same source in The Daily Telegraph also said:

“Backroom talks between the parties over an MP appeals process have already begun”.

That is, I am afraid, completely untrue. There have been no approaches to the Opposition parties, to me as Chair of the Committee on Standards or to the Committee itself. It is untrue, and I hope that briefing will stop.

I hear talk of all sorts of proposals for how we should change the system, and I urge hon. Members to calm down a little. The past three weeks have been shameful for this House. We need a return to due process. The Committee will produce a report very soon, certainly before Christmas and hopefully even before Advent. All we have to do at Advent is wait a little.

Question put and agreed to.


That, notwithstanding the practice of this House relating to questions already decided in the same Session, this House:

(1) 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;

(2) approves the Third Report of the Committee on Standards (HC 797); and

(3) notes that Mr Owen Paterson is no longer a Member of this House.