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Code of Conduct: Consultation

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 2 December 2021

Committee on Standards

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Chris Bryant will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and call Mr Bryant to respond to these in turn. The Front Benchers may take part in questioning. I call the Chair of the Committee on Standards.

I do not want to be too pious about it, but the House has a set of rules and seeks to enforce them, first, because all Members aspire to a set of values and principles, and because the public have a right to expect that all Members abide by the highest possible standards in public life. The Committee on Standards has been reviewing these rules for some time. It started doing so in both the 2015 and 2017 Parliaments, but the general elections cut short that work. We have continued to work on it during this Parliament and have had the benefit of some members who have been on the Committee much longer than I have, including some of the lay members, in putting together the report that we compiled last week.

Our report has recommendations that fall into two main sections: suggested changes to the substance of the rules; and questions about the process whereby the rules are enforced and adjudicated. On the substance, we are recommending the following: first, an outright ban on any Member acting as a paid parliamentary adviser, consultant or strategist, which was a recommendation of the 2018 Committee on Standards in Public Life report on Members’ outside interests; secondly, the introduction of a new requirement that a Member must have a written contract for any outside work that makes it explicit that their duties cannot include lobbying Ministers, Members or public officials, or providing advice about how to lobby or influence Parliament, and that their employer will give them an undertaking not to ask them to do so; and thirdly, clarification of the criteria for the “serious wrong” exemption in the lobbying rules, to make clearer the risks of conflicts of interest and to put an end to this being used as a loophole.

Next, we propose a doubling of the six-month limit on reward or consideration restrictions in the lobbying rules to 12 months. Members will still be able to release themselves immediately from the restrictions by repaying any sums received in the relevant period if they wish to do so. In order to encourage Members to seek expert advice before acting, the Committee proposes a new “safe harbour” provision whereby Members cannot be found in breach of the rules if they sought and followed the advice of the House of Commons Registrar. This ensures that Members who seek advice from the Registrar or the House officials and follow the rules accordingly cannot accidentally find themselves in breach of the code of conduct.

We want to end the exemption whereby Ministers are not required to register with the Commons Registrar gifts and hospitality they receive in their ministerial capacity, so that other outside interests of all Members’, whether they are a Minister or not, can be found in a single place. We want to improve the transparency and searchability of the Commons Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and we have written to the House of Commons Commission to try to get it to speed up that process. We also want to add a new rule to the code of conduct prohibiting a Member from subjecting anyone to unreasonable and excessive personal attack in any medium.

In relation to the process of enforcing the rules and adjudicating cases, we have heard the complaints that there is no formal process of appeal at present. We were actually considering this for some time before the Owen Paterson case. We dispute that there is no process of appeal at the moment. Owen Paterson appealed the decision of the Commissioner for Standards to our Committee, and we took his evidence orally and in writing. Indeed, the Prime Minister also appealed the commissioner’s finding in a previous case, and we found in his favour and disagreed with the commissioner.

We have regularly received legal advice that our processes are article 6 compliant, but we accept that there are some blurred lines here. It might be better, for instance, to have a formal appeal process with established grounds of appeal, which might be more legalistic. It might be better if that process were akin to the existing structures for appeals under the independent expert panel that hears independent complaints and grievance scheme cases on sexual harassment and bullying. For that reason, we are engaging a senior judicial figure to advise us on improvements that could be made to provide greater clarity and to ensure that we are following best practice in embodying due process and guaranteeing a fair hearing to all Members and to complainants. We want to explore the pros and cons in detail before making any changes.

This report is not our final word on the subject. We are consulting on our recommendations and urge Members to send us their thoughts. It would be very helpful if there were a debate on the proposals early in the new year, because we may have got things wrong and we are happy to listen to Members. The closing date for written submissions is 20 January. There are some issues that we are considering separately, including the rules on Members’ use of parliamentary stationery, offices and facilities. I get the feeling from quite a lot of Members that it would be helpful if we provided new updated advice and recommendations in that field. We will be holding evidence sessions at the end of January and hope to produce a new draft code of conduct and guide to the rules for approval by the House by Easter. I am sure that the Government would then want to make time available for us to consider that.

Above all, we believe it right that the House should consider these matters in the round rather than piecemeal. The Government and the Opposition have both said that they believe it right that changes should proceed on a cross-party basis. We agree and believe that the best way of doing that is through the formal processes of the Committee.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement, for his calm chairmanship of the Committee through a particularly difficult period, and for the consensual way that he chairs the Committee. Does he agree that it is really now time for some calm deliberation? Although this was a unanimously agreed report, by no means are all the proposals in it unanimously supported by all the members of the Committee. They are proposals for consultation, and he is right to invite evidence. Will he join me in drawing attention to the very useful summary of issues that is on the Committee’s website? Perhaps we should circulate that as a link to all Members.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that we set out to try to simplify the code of conduct? Does he think we are succeeding in simplifying? Or, by adding more, are we perhaps being drawn dangerously into a zero-sum game, where rules beget rules and more rules beget more rules in an effort to try to clarify, and in fact making it more complicated? I particularly draw attention to section 8 of the report, on “Training, advice and promotion”. That is nothing to do with the enforcement of the code but is about promoting understanding of the purpose of the code and how we can more easily comply with the spirit of the code and avoid falling foul of the rules. What does he think we should do next to pursue that part of our thinking?

I am grateful for the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on the Committee. It is right that we take our time to get this right, rather than rush at it like a bull at a gate, because there could be all sorts of unintended consequences, including from some of the recommendations we have come up with. We are very happy to listen. We will be circulating the consultation document to all Members, which I hope will prompt lots more Members to take part in the consultation. The worst thing of all would be that we change the rules and then everyone says next September, “Oh, I did not know we were doing that.” We want to ensure that people can understand them.

On simplification, our rules are quite complex, and Members are caught by lots of different sets of rules, as we lay out in the report, including those of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Electoral Commission. I am aware that sometimes Members are advised on the use of stationery by a House official, because it is a House responsibility, but that may not be the eventual decision of the commissioner. That is unfair to a Member, so that is why we are introducing the safe harbour provision, which would mean that if someone has taken advice and followed the advice, then fair do’s; they cannot be found guilty of breaching the rules. However, I spent last weekend reading the House of Representatives code of conduct. It is 467 pages long. I think we have done well that ours is not quite as long as theirs.

The report considers interests and voting, but only in the context of a Member’s financial interests and the policy generally. It does not consider whether Members should vote on motions directly relating to them, such as reports on breaches of the code of conduct itself. I am aware that there is a convention that Members should not vote, but that was breached last month by Mr Paterson. I thank the Chair and the Committee for their work in this regard, but can the hon. Gentleman advise me what consideration the Committee has given to putting that convention on a statutory footing within the code of conduct?

I am not sure whether the hon. Member means a statutory footing, as in putting it in a piece of statute law. It might be a relevant change to Standing Orders. If she wants to make that recommendation to our Committee, I am sure we would listen to it.

On the issue of natural justice and a fair hearing, as I have said several times recently, all Members of the House, because of article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, are treated differently from every other citizen in the country. I welcome the consultation, but in regard to paragraphs 196, 243 and 244 of the report, will the Chairman accept that there must be full and proper consultation before any judicial figure is appointed, and therefore before his or her report comes about? Otherwise, we will have a prejudgment on the question of fairness, article 6 and all that goes with it and the issue of a fair trial with Members. The person in question must be approved by the House by resolution, and the House must not be bounced.

No, I disagree with the hon. Member. There is an issue about appeals, but it is not as simple as he would like to have us suppose. At the moment, a Member who has been found in breach of the rules by the commissioner can effectively appeal to our Committee. They can appeal on any basis whatever—no formal ground of appeal needs to be advanced. We might go to a more formal process, but that might limit a Member’s right to appeal; they might be allowed to appeal only on certain fixed grounds, as happens in most other appellate bodies. Members might think that that ended up leaving them in a worse position, rather than a better one. It is for our Committee to decide who we appoint to advise us. That is the standard way in which every Select Committee of the House works. If the person we are thinking of and are trying to secure ends up taking up the post, I am sure the hon. Member will be happy with the appointment.

I noted that in presenting the report, the Chair of the Committee suggested that it would be useful to have a debate on the issue early in the new year. I wonder if the Leader of the House could give us clarification about whether the Government are intending to provide time for that or whether it is anticipated that the Chair of the Committee will have to apply to the Backbench Business Committee for such a debate. If that is the case, I ask the Chair of the Committee to do so, so we can facilitate that if the Government provide us with time.

To be honest, I think the debate should be in Government time for the simple reason that, when we eventually get to a set of motions, they will have to be tabled by the Government. It would make far more sense for it to take place in Government time rather than Backbench Business time. I note that, thus far, there have been moments when the Government have been very involved in the debate and others when they have wanted to withdraw. I ask the Leader of the House whether it is possible to have a debate in Government time early in the new year. The whole Committee would be grateful for that.

I have to say that I disagree with the last remark of the Chair of the Committee, because it is clearly a House matter, so it would be better coming from the Backbench Business Committee.

I certainly welcome the proposal that the advice given is firm advice, even if the advice is wrong and is acted on. That would be a sensible safeguard.

The one area about which I am concerned is the right of appeal. I think there should be an independent right of appeal at the end of the process. In 95% or 98% of referrals, when the Committee makes its decision, the Member accepts it and we move forward, but on the rare occasions when the Member feels badly done by, there should be, as in other organisations, a right of appeal to a completely independent organisation. I wonder whether the Chair of the Committee would take that view on board in the consultation, because it is probably the only bit that I disagree with.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for agreeing with nearly all of it. Personally, and I think this is true for the rest of the Committee, I do not have a final fixed view on how we should implement appeals. The issue will arise, however, that one of the available sanctions is suspension from the House—or expulsion, for that matter—and historically, it has been the House’s view that that has to be a decision of the House rather than of any separate body. That is why, even in ICGS cases on sexual harassment and bullying, where there is an appeals process and the whole process goes through an independent expert panel, the final decision is none the less taken in the House. The hon. Gentleman knows—I think he voted for my amendment—that the motion comes straight from the IEP to the House and is voted through without amendment or debate. That is my only caveat to what he has said about appeals.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he and his Committee are doing to uphold Parliament’s reputation. At present, Ministers do not have to declare gifts or hospitality received in their ministerial capacity, whereas we MPs are required to. Will he comment on that distinction, which appears perverse to most of our constituents?

Incidentally, I am not right honourable, but my hon. Friend makes an important point. I have a view about that; I am not sure whether it will end up being the settled view of the House. It seems illogical to me that two Members of the House, one of whom is a Minister, could be wined and dined at Wimbledon on a ticket that costs £2,500, then the Minister does not have to register that with the House and never has to register its value, even though they might be the Minister who makes decisions about tennis funding in the UK, whereas the Member who is not a Minister has to register it within 28 days. It seems perverse, and it is difficult for members of the public, who might want to see all the information about an individual MP in one place.

May I refer the Chairman to paragraph 58 on page 19 of the report? I take the point he has made very clearly that these are proposals for consultation and could be changed. However, the paragraph says:

“We therefore support the addition to the Code of a rule similar to those adopted by the Welsh Senedd and the Northern Ireland Assembly, making it an investigable breach of the Code for a Member to subject anyone to unreasonable and excessive personal attack in any medium”,

which presumably includes the Chamber and Select Committees. [Interruption.] Well, if we read it literally, that is how we would interpret it.

Let me give the Chairman a quick scenario. In a Select Committee, a Member is pressing a witness, maybe about some Government procurement programme that has gone horribly wrong, and they are reluctant to answer. The member of the Committee, doing their job, presses them harder, and the witness says, “I’m sorry, but I regard your behaviour as an unreasonable and excessive personal attack, and if you continue this line of questioning I’m going to report you to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.” To take another example—this is important, Madam Deputy Speaker—Member A and Member B have a heated disagreement in the Chamber, and someone watching on television writes to the commissioner and says, “I think A made an excessive personal attack on B, and I want you to investigate it.”

The point is that this paragraph seriously impinges on article 9 of the Bill of Rights, if we take it literally, so here is my consultation submission early on: this is actually dangerous, and it should not appear in the final version.

I disagree with the right hon. Member’s interpretation of where we are going, not least because I think article IX is perfectly clear that no proceeding in Parliament should be impeached or questioned in a court of law or in any other place.

No. That has the force of statute law—the Bill of Rights is statute law—and we are not intending to derogate from that in any way at all. The Chair of a Select Committee at the moment could perfectly well say to an hon. Member, if he or she thought that the hon. Member was being excessively or unreasonably rude or personal towards a witness, “Let’s tone that down a little bit, shall we?” I think it would be in the interests of the House and its reputation for the Select Committee Chair to say that, and it is perfectly within their powers now. Indeed, in the work we have been doing in the Privileges Committee, we have been looking at how witnesses should be treated.

It may be that this rule is not perfectly worded as it is now. None the less—and, again, this is me on a personal level—it just seems odd that we would want to argue that we have to continue the right to make unreasonable and excessive personal attacks on others, especially when we are using the reputation of the letters “MP” behind it.

I thank the Chair of the Committee on Standards and his colleagues for all the work they have done. I also warmly commend the Chair for the way he has conducted himself over the last month or so, which has possibly been the most difficult period that anyone in his office has had to deal with.

I welcome the proposals on the declaration of Ministers’ interests, because my constituents cannot understand how it can be that a Minister, who must be a Member of one or other House of Parliament, enjoys all the rights of a Member of Parliament but does not have to comply with all the responsibilities that the rest of us do. Are there opportunities to take that further? For example, are there ways in which the conduct of a Minister can also be deemed to be the conduct of a Member of Parliament, and therefore, possibly as an alternative, subject to independent examination, rather than the picture we have just now, where the ultimate arbiter of a Minister’s conduct is the person who appointed them, who quite clearly has a significant political interest in the fate of any Minister whose conduct has been called into question?

I think that the questions asked thus far have made it evident that we need a full debate so that people can make speeches. The sooner we have that in the new year the better, and I will listen to all the comments people make.

I have lots of views about the ministerial code, but it is not the business of our Committee to have views about the ministerial code. That is a matter for another Committee, and we have touched on it only tangentially. As it happens, however, it does seem odd to me that a series of actions by a Member could get them taken through the ICGS process for bullying, but if done as a Minister within their Department would lead to no sanction whatsoever. In the end, I think that brings the whole of politics into disrepute. However, as I say, that is not a matter for the code of conduct. We are only interested in regulating Members’ performance in their duties as Members.

I reiterate that these are supposed to be fairly short, concise questions, including from the Front Bench. Debates will come later.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and his Committee on a very good and worthwhile report. He is right that all the issues need to be properly debated, and we should be able to do that as soon as possible. This report has been constructed and designed in the white heat of unprecedented public interest in the standards of this House, which I am sure has added to the pressure of his deliberations over the past few weeks. I have a number of issues with it, which we do not have time to go into now—that is why we need a debate. I will discuss the matter privately with him, and I know he will be open to that meeting, because there are certain things I want to get clarity on.

One thing I ask the hon. Gentleman about at this stage is appeals. With all due respect, I think he has been pushed into this by Conservative Back Benchers and because of the very keen interest in how the debates have been shaped over the past few weeks. He is absolutely right, and he should stick to this, that what his Committee does is an appeals process. That is exactly what happens. I have great concerns about this being conflated—

All I will say is to be careful about conflating this process with sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is significantly different from conduct on propriety, and we have to be careful not to conflate the two. I know the staff are concerned about that, so, as an early point, I ask the hon. Member for Rhondda to think very carefully about bringing those two things together. They are significantly different.

Sir Stephen Irwin, who, as hon. Members will know, chairs the independent expert panel, came and gave us advice on this whole issue of appeals. One of the points he made to us was that of course it makes sense to have a set of people on the independent expert panel who are experienced in sexual harassment, employment and bullying cases—lawyers, in the main, and their kin—because they are dealing with sexual harassment and bullying cases, and sexual harassment and bullying are the same in any workplace. There is no difference, and they do not need to have particular parliamentary understanding.

However, when we are dealing with things such as parliamentary stationery, use of offices and paid lobbying, Sir Stephen’s view was that there is a significant benefit to having a body that has some laypeople with some of that experience and some Members of Parliament. I think other members of the Committee would admit that it is quite interesting that lay members often say, after a Member has made a contribution, “That’s interesting—I would never have seen that or had that insight into how Parliament works.”

I think we will want to keep that mix in some shape or form, but we will be able to clarify the situation and get rid of some of the blurred lines, so that everybody has equal confidence. I do not like the idea that there might be some people still saying at the end of the process, “No, there is no appeal process.” We want to ensure that everybody is confident in the processes we have.

I have one question, but first I must congratulate my hon. Friend and his Committee on excellent, thoughtful work. I am particularly pleased with paragraphs 15 and 16, stating that values are something we should incorporate into our daily lives—something to be proud of rather than something to be wriggled round.

My one question is about paragraph 120. Could my hon. Friend elaborate on the work his Committee is planning to do on accepting gifts from foreign donors? This is about whether there should ever be circumstances in which a Member should accept a gift, hospitality or money from a foreign Government. Can he say a bit more about that? I know there is concern from both outside and inside this place about how those boundaries are drawn.

Interestingly, in the United States of America no member of Congress is allowed to accept anything from a foreign Government at all. That includes visits to foreign countries; if there is a visit, it is paid for by Congress, not by the other Government. I know there has been some expression of concern, particularly in relation to some of the all-party parliamentary groups, about whether it is right that British MPs are being lavishly entertained—I say this as someone who has just come back from Qatar, and Qatar paid for my trip; that is all declared—and whether it might not be better for us simply to say as a House, “If we really want to have strong relationships with those other Governments, we should be paying for those visits.” It is important to do that work, but we ought to be cognisant of the danger that a foreign power might be seeking to lobby the British Parliament through the back door. We will be doing work on that as part of our ongoing inquiry into all-party parliamentary groups.


Ambulance Waiting Times (Local Reporting) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57).

Daisy Cooper, supported by Ed Davey, Wendy Chamberlain, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Tim Farron, Layla Moran, Jamie Stone, Wera Hobhouse, Christine Jardine, Sarah Olney, Munira Wilson and Sarah Green, presented a Bill to require ambulance services to provide more accessible and localised reports of ambulance response times; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 December, and to be printed (Bill 209).