[Relevant Documents: Fourth Report of the Committee on Standards, Review of the Code of Conduct: proposals for consultation, HC 270.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Committee on Standards’ Review of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament.
I am grateful to the members of the Committee on Standards, three of whom I see, so we have got a quorum, the Clerks, who work assiduously on the Committee, the commissioner, the registrar and all those who work in this field on behalf of the House.
Let’s face it: we are in a bit of a mess. Voters are quite angry with us at the moment and they think parliamentary standards are a contradiction in terms. I am afraid that the Owen Paterson debacle, the rows about funding the renovations in Downing Street and the illicit lockdown parties are damaging trust in all MPs and in Parliament. That matters because it undermines confidence in democracy. It corrodes the silver thread of our constitution. In the Prime Minister’s words, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror.
Of course, I start from a basic assumption that every Member is an honourable Member. We are all here because we want to change the world. We have different views about how to change it, but we all want to change the world for the better. Sometimes we make mistakes. I have made more than most. In my experience, fortunately, the House is very understanding when a Member apologises or corrects the record.
However, we have to think carefully about the issue of lying in Parliament. It is not simple. “Lies, damned lies and statistics” goes the old phrase. Two people can see the same event in completely different ways. One might think that the other is lying, or call the other a liar. I hate to get religious, but even the Bible has four gospels, three of them supposedly recounting exactly the same events, but with contradictory details: Jesus gave his sermons sitting or standing; he was on a mount or on a plain; “Blessed are the poor” or, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.
So I am very reluctant to have the commissioner weigh in on whether an MP has lied or misled the House. Parliament must be a place of free speech. Incidentally, the commissioner completely agrees with me on this point. She has told the Committee several times that she has no desire to be the arbiter of truth in the House of Commons.
As the Leader of the House said this morning, some things are a matter of opinion or a question of emphasis —or “em-phasis” as my mother used to say. But if a Member lies and refuses to correct the record and the public can plainly see that the Member has lied, what do we do? Do we force the Member who calls it out to add the word “inadvertent” when we know perfectly well that the Member who uses that word does not mean it at all, so we are forcing them to lie? Do we throw the Member out of the Chamber if they refuse to withdraw? That is what the rules say we should do. Where is the justice in that? Should we refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges? That is the old system. We would do that because the matter would be considered a contempt of the House. That requires the governing party to assent, because there could be a vote on the matter, and members of the Committee on Privileges to act without partisan interests. It effectively means that, at the moment, the only arbiter of whether a Minister or ordinary Member of the House has lied is actually the Prime Minister who decides how to whip.
Today, that puts a phenomenal onus on Conservative Members, but in the past and in the future it will be on Members of other political parties. I heard what the Leader of the House said earlier, but I fear the rules were written at a time when a Member could not imagine anything worse than having their honour traduced in public. Frankly, honour is not what it used to be.
I do not think that the rule, as it stands, will hold forever. I do not have an answer to the question, but, incidentally, I do not buy the argument that it is not a lie if the Member believed it at the time they said it. Just because someone has persuaded themselves or lied to themselves, does not mean that they have not lied to the House.
On transparency, the biggest issue for many voters is whether we are acting in the public interest or in our own interest. We have seen cases of conflict of interest. We pray each day that Members may,
“never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind.”
I am sure that every single one of us thinks we follow that every single day—we all find ourselves innocent in the court of our own opinion—but we sometimes need the harsh light of transparency to reach deeper into our own self-interest.
I am sometimes surprised, and I think Committee members would agree, by some colleagues who simply cannot see the conflict of interest that they are engaged in, which is absolutely plain to everybody else. The key lies in transparency. People should be up front and honest and let the public assess whether they have resolved the conflict properly.
Unfortunately, the system is far too opaque. It is almost impossible to find all of an individual MP’s financial interests online and sometimes it is difficult to understand what they mean without exploring further. The website is a complete mess and we need an overhaul of all the transparency arrangements. Moreover, Ministers, who, of course, by definition are Members of this House or the other, are not required to register hospitality received in a ministerial capacity with the House, so they are held to a lesser degree of transparency than the rest of us. That cannot be right.
In one instance last year, more than a dozen Members received the same hospitality—they were at the same event, drank the same wine or beer, ate the same food and watched the same show—but only the Back-Bench Members were required to register the full details with the House within 28 days. In some cases, the Ministers’ declarations have still not been made public by their relevant Departments nearly a year after the event and I am guessing that they will be going to the same event again in a couple of weeks’ time. That is completely within the rules but, to use the word of Lord Evans, the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, it is “bonkers”. It is time we changed that rule. All people should be treated equally under the law and all Members should be treated equally under the rules of the House.
I am listening with great interest to the debate. The Chair of the Committee is talking about transparency in relation to financial interests. Would he comment on transparency in relation to non-financial interests, which may sometimes set up a conflict of interest for Members?
There has been confusion about that in the past, because we have not tended to encourage Members to register all their unremunerated interests whereas, oddly enough, Ministers do have to register them in the ministerial register of interests. I think it would be better if we just registered everything. There was a tendency for Members to say, “By the way, I’m the chair of the village hall committee,” which I am perfectly relaxed about. Why not put it all out there? I think it would be easier for everybody, because there would be no debate and it would make it simpler.
On the issue of second jobs, as the Committee has heard in evidence, many people see it all in a black and white way. They say, “MPs get paid more than double the average wage,”, “You’re in the top 5% of earners,”, “Why isn’t one job enough for you?”, and, “When you take on second jobs, what on earth do you think the corporations are buying other than your influence and the letters ‘MP’?”.
However, even people who say that we should ban all second jobs row back a little when you put some specifics to them. A&E nurse? “Fine.” GP? “OK.” Helping out on a family farm? “Yes, of course.” Running a family firm just to keep it in business? “All right.” A bit of broadcasting or writing? “Well, maybe, if you must.” Chairing a charitable board or a university? “Yeah, yeah”—and so it goes on.
Some have suggested that we should have a list of acceptable posts that MPs can take on, or that we should empower the Committee or the Commissioner to approve any outside interests. All of us on the Committee think that posts involving parliamentary advice should definitely be banned, because that is a clear conflict of interests, but I am concerned that introducing some of the suggestions would lead to the Committee making entirely subjective decisions which should really be made by voters, not by anybody else.
This leaves us with a difficulty. We all know when someone is swinging the lead and devoting far more time and energy to their other work than to Parliament. We see it—we know better than anyone else when being an MP has become the second job rather than the first—but perhaps we, as parliamentarians, should be talking more to our colleagues about that, and the political parties should be doing more in that field.
Some, including the Committee on Standards in Public Life, have said that we should come up with a “reasonable” amount of time that an MP could spend in a year, or a week or a month, on an outside interest, or a “reasonable” amount of money that they should be allowed to earn. The Committee—I think—is not yet convinced of that.
I see some nodding. For a start, I do not know how it could be policed. Some have suggested that MPs should fill in timesheets, but I cannot see that happening. Moreover, it seems invidious to tackle an MP’s earned income but not their unearned income, for instance from shareholdings or trusts.
Every constituency is different; every MP is different; and while the political parties should pay a greater role in turfing out those who are swinging the lead, in the end I think that that is what the ballot box is there for.
I am grateful for the fine introduction that the hon. Gentleman is giving to the debate, and I thank him for his work on the Committee on Standards. One of the issues that we have discussed in the Committee is that of a Member perhaps writing a book—I know that the hon. Gentleman has some experience of writing books—and the income generated by it. Writing a book is something that Members would do in their spare time, and could potentially be called a second job if they were earning from it. It is not clear how that sort of thing could be dealt with.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman about timesheets and the like. Does he agree that while some of the suggestions are about certain types of job, such as working in the NHS, there is an understanding that people working in business can also bring valuable experience to the House?
I am very upset with the hon. Gentleman, because he said that I had written some books but he did not say “some very good books, which are available in all good bookshops.” However, I declare my interest, Madam Deputy Speaker, before I am reported to myself.
There is a serious point here. I think that voters are well equipped to make decisions about this. It does not quite work equally between marginal constituencies and what are considered to be safe constituencies, but, speaking for myself, I think it would be odd if we were to say that MPs should not be allowed to write. The written word is as important as the spoken word when it comes to pursuing the things that we all believe in. If the House feels differently, however, I will stop writing books. [Hon. Members: “No, no!”] We are not having a Division on that, Madam Deputy Speaker.
This is what I return to. For me, the key issue is the conflict of interests. If you are pursuing a financial interest when you speak in the Chamber, or when you are talking to Ministers, or when you are in the corridors of power lobbying people, that is wrong. It is immoral, it demeans our political democracy, and it is rightly banned. The question is whether the public can come to a clear understanding of how you are operating as an MP, and whether you have resolved any conflict of interests in the interests of the public.
I want to say something about rules and principles. I know that some colleagues have reacted adversely to our suggestion of the inclusion of a new principle of respect—incidentally, I suspect that we may change “respect” to “respectfulness”—but let me be clear: we are adamant that while the Nolan principles of honesty, leadership, selflessness and so on are important and aspirational, the commissioner can only investigate a breach of the rules, not a breach of a principle. For instance, it would be impossible for her to investigate an alleged failure to be selfless enough. It would be equally invidious and bonkers for her to investigate a failure to show enough respect, which is why we are not proposing that she should be able to do so. We will make this abundantly clear in the next report that we produce.
We are not proposing that the commissioner would be able to investigate words said in the Chamber. That is solely a matter for Mr Speaker, or the Chair, and for nobody else. Yes, there are rules about our conduct. Bullying is wrong, and in a workplace such as this, which is hierarchical—I would say overly hierarchical—we forget too easily the power we have. However, what we say in the Chamber is a matter for the Chair, and for nobody else.
My final point is about appeals. We do have a form of appeal at the moment. If the commissioner finds that a Member has committed a serious breach of the rules, the Member can appeal that decision to the Standards Committee. However, it is my firm conviction—I am not sure that the Committee is quite there yet, but it is my personal conviction—that we should go further and create a formal appeal process, with established grounds for appeal on both the finding and the sanction. Sir Ernest Ryder, who formerly ran the tribunals service in England and Wales, is working on that for us at the moment, and I hope he will be able to lay out a firm set of proposals in this area by Easter.
I think that the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), who is in her place, is quite right to say that we need more alignment between Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme cases and non-ICGS cases, but I would be reluctant to hive off all cases to the independent expert panel. The Standards Committee’s combination of lay members and Members works. She set it up, it works and I would not abandon it. When we get it right, as I think we did on Owen Paterson, we enhance the reputation of the House.
I will be as brief as I possibly can. First, I would like to thank the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for the manner in which he chairs the Committee, for the way he presented the report, and for his diligence and the work he puts in to this Committee. It is a very arduous Committee, and it has a very heavy workload.
It is meant to be light duties, and I thought I could combine it with other things, but I have given up other things to stay on this Committee, because I think the work we are now doing on the revision of the code is so important.
I could touch on some of the points the hon. Gentleman made. I think he is right about the key being the transparency of conflicts of interests. We should not be denigrating people in this House who have outside interests. Some of them are unavoidable and some of them are by choice, but I firmly believe that this House is enriched by having people who stay on in Parliament, particularly later in their career, while involved with other interests. Being a senior barrister, for example, may take a Member away for weeks on end on very important cases, but having such people in this House means that we have such resources at our disposal much more readily than if these people felt they were squeezed out and were not welcome here. So I agree with him about the time point, and I agree with him about respectfulness.
I actually joined this Committee because I wanted to be involved in the revision of the code. This is ongoing work, and it has been going on for a very long time—since the previous commissioner first started work on the revision of the code. It is meant to happen every three years, but it has been delayed and delayed. So the report we are discussing actually incorporates the results of a great number of hours of work and thought.
The sad thing is that, if we just look at the Chamber today, we see there are a couple of handfuls of hon. Members here who are engaged with this debate. It has always been the biggest problem, in my view, that people only start engaging with the code when they are accused of something, they are worried about being accused of something or they are trying to steer clear of falling foul of the rules. There is not nearly enough discussion, reflection and understanding of why the code exists, of the principles and values behind the code, or indeed of how we should learn to talk about how we aspire to those principles.
I have always believed that the adjudication process is wanting. The compromise between handing the whole thing over to some independent judicial panel and leaving things as they are is to have an appeal akin to the independent expert panel that we have for the ICGS, but even that would have to be advised by a Member especially appointed for the purpose in serious and contested cases, to advise on how Parliament works and on the moral hazards of being a Member of Parliament.
I was mocked last week for suggesting that Members of Parliament need to learn more about this, but every profession in the world has training programmes to educate lawyers, doctors and other professional people on the moral hazards they will encounter in their career and how they should think about them. The General Medical Council website has a section on how to be a good doctor, and it sets out the principles. They are taught these things.
The problem we have in this House is that, culturally, we consider ourselves to be Members of a sovereign Parliament and to be beyond regulation and beyond question. Article 9 states that everything else is subsidiary to us. If anybody dares question us, well, we are elected, nobody dares gainsay us, and it is up to our voters. I am afraid no other profession in the country operates on that basis.
My hon. Friend will know that the old military theorist Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. I have often turned that on its head: politics is war minus the shooting. There should be chivalry and absolute civility in the way we conduct ourselves. Although I agree with my hon. Friend, it is often missed that our profession is not like other professions. We are, in a sense, at war without weapons in here. We should remember that and make sure our code of conduct is appropriate to the task that faces us.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The problem is that, when we sit in the Tea Room, we talk about rules; we do not talk about values and principles. People wonder what the rules mean and how to stay within them—“That is allowed, but this is not allowed.” We see it in financial regulation. When banks and financial services operate on the basis of what the rules are, they get around the rules. The rules are gamed, so they constantly have to adapt.
There is no discussion about whether something is a good and honourable thing to do, or whether it is something about which we should feel uncomfortable. The rules are meant to be a fallback. Actually, we should be talking to each other about why we are in politics, what our personal priorities are, what our personal morality is and how we navigate it.
I have very little time and there is much I could say, but I will not address all the proposals. Members complain about the code of conduct and about the commissioner, but this House voted for the code and the commissioner. This House is to blame for the system we have. If Members do not engage with the system at a moment like this, they have nobody to blame but themselves if they fall foul of it. To cry foul and say how it is all a fix and all a conspiracy does nobody any good.
On that point, because engagement tends to be low, the Committee will have to think much more about how we support those who are accused of falling foul of the code. I can think of cases—I will say no more than that—where if the individuals concerned had been taken aside by the right person and given the right advice, and if they had not run for their lawyers, got into a conflict with the commissioner and then questioned the whole system, their life would have turned out very different. Somehow, we need an independent system of support and advice—it cannot be the Whips—to make sure Members have the right advice.
On closing, I wish to draw attention to a particular piece of evidence that the Committee received. It has not had much attention, but I feel that it is by far the most useful thing that we have received. It is a response to our original issues and questions paper from Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert of the Westminster Abbey Institute. She was addressing the first question, “What values, attitudes and behaviours should the Code of Conduct for MPs seek to encourage or discourage?” She notes that the code reads as a document that first began as a response to financial misconduct. She said:
“It is cast as a regulatory instrument, which implies it is a set of rules which can be kept or broken.”
It is now a mixture of rules, guidance and principles. She points out that no one can perfectly embody those principles; that would be impossible. Let us take, for example, selflessness, to which the hon. Member for Rhondda referred. Nobody can be totally selfless, least of all in politics. Our efforts in that regard can never be completely successful. Dr Foster-Gilbert points out:
“For MPs, faced with difficult choices on a daily basis, the task is to learn how to retain their integrity and behave selflessly, even while making those choices”—
about power, about competition with others, and about competition of ideas.
I will wind up now, but I really recommend that people read this particular piece of evidence, because our next inquiry will be much more about training and promotion of the code. People bridle against training, but we need to engage people in the conversation about what the code is for much more than we do.
It is a pleasure and an honour to speak after such experienced Members: the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I particularly thank my hon. Friend for the work he has done on chairing the Committee on Standards, and I thank the Members and his officers for this excellent report. I also thank my hon. Friend for the clarity and common sense that he has brought to the issue of standards in politics in numerous media interviews, as the issue of the conduct of MPs has had such prominence over the past few months. I do wonder, though, whether he has been taken off the Christmas card list of certain Government Ministers.
Anyone who saw the testimony of Ian Hislop at the Standards Committee last week would have seen at first-hand the labyrinthine nature of our existing transparency requirements, and how difficult they can be to navigate even for an experienced politics journalist let alone for members of the public. What is even more confusing is that there are standards that govern Members of this House, but not Government Ministers, and I shall pick up on that shortly.
I have stood, and been elected, in seven council elections and three parliamentary elections. At each point, when I was selected as a candidate by my party, and then on election, I had to sign up to agree to uphold the core standards expected of me by those who elected me. Eight years into my political career, in 1994, the Nolan principles of public life were established, codifying the essential behaviours expected of all in public life, and not only those elected to office. They gave us a clear set of defined principles; a defined code of conduct against which the conduct of anyone in public life can be measured and judged.
The Nolan principles were introduced at the height of sleaze—the cash-for-questions scandal, which had trapped an unpopular Prime Minister, who was facing revolt from his Back Benchers. That may sound familiar, but I have much greater faith in the integrity of John Major than I do in the current occupant of No.10. In fact, I very much doubt that the Prime Minister would be able to recite the Nolan principles, let alone stick to them.
This is about much more than our Prime Minister. The fish rots from the head and the disregard for ethics has spread across Government in the past few years. When the Prime Minister’s adviser on standards found that a member of the Government had broken the ministerial code, what did the Prime Minister do? He refused to act, whereas his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), had, when she was Prime Minister, done the opposite and sacked the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel).
Over recent weeks and months, I have had an increasing number of emails from constituents who have told me that, for the first time in their life when they have travelled abroad or talked to friends and family abroad, people have lamented the decline in our political standards here in this Parliament, which is known across the world— perhaps incorrectly—as the mother of all Parliaments. Increasingly, scandal after scandal is weakening our reputation as a Parliament but also as a country across the world. Is that really global Britain in action? What we are experiencing now has happened in the past. Bad behaviour by a few politicians dragged us all down in the eyes of the public. How many doorsteps have we stood at where people say, “You’re all the same”? These scandals undermine us, undermine our Parliament and undermine our country.
The report has many excellent recommendations. I want to focus on the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda relating to gifts and hospitality, and the contradiction between the situation for Members—Opposition Members, Back Benchers and Committee Chairs—and that for Ministers. The Commissioner on Standards recommended that
“The Code should require Ministers who are also MPs to record in the Member’s Register the gifts, benefits and hospitality which they receive, including foreign visits, subject to the usual rules and thresholds.”
Take the hypothetical example of the gambling industry, which spends millions in engaging in lobbying all the time, including to oppose some often rather common sense reforms such as the limits on fixed odds betting terminals, which is the crack cocaine of gambling. If the gambling industry gave gifts or provided hospitality to a Back Bencher or Committee Chair, that Member would have to declare it within 28 days if it was worth more than £250, so tickets to the horseracing, with a hospitality box with food and drink, would have to be declared within 28 days. However, if the identical hospitality was provided to a Government Minister, who may well be making and signing off decisions about the gambling industry or horseracing, that gift would not have to be declared in the same way and at the same time. In the time between that and the Minister having to declare, they may push a Bill through Parliament, before the public know about the hospitality they had received.
In conclusion, MPs of all parties go into politics to make a difference, to be a voice for their constituents and to serve. I have worked across party lines on issues from the loan charge to cycling and walking, and I know that many Members across the House care deeply, but the failure to follow the rules and to clean up politics is corrosive. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said, it is like battery acid sometimes. If we do not act and improve our standards, it will spread across all our politics and fuel cynicism and distrust about all of us in public life.
I am not on the Committee. I have been on earlier renditions of it. It is interesting to watch developments and to read through the reports. I need to declare of course, in this debate of all debates, that I am a very, very, very part-time dentist.
The report is an interesting read. Mention has been made of Lord Nolan. If I can mention him again, he stated that the House of Commons must
“contain Members with a wide range of current experience which can contribute to its expertise.”
He also stated:
“A Parliament composed entirely of full-time professional politicians would not serve the best interests of democracy.”
If we are going to change the rules, we have to utilise that and move with it. The Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), suggested, and I agree with him, that setting an arbitrary limit and policing an MP’s hours on their outside interests, whatever they may be and whether paid or not, is ludicrous and probably impossible. Many outside interests that I think should be declarable are not declarable. Ultimately, the decision on the balance of time spent, as the Chairman said, must remain in the hands of the electorate and that is in the report. Fortunately, the code, and I suspect most of the House, recognises the need for certain professions, in particular medical professions. People need to practise to retain their licence. the House should look at the benefits that MPs’ outside interests bring to knowledge and expertise of our debates and actions.
That point draws me to the paragraph in the report which recommends
“tightening the lobbying rules so that a Member who has a live financial interest is prevented from both initiating or participating in proceedings or approaches to ministers or officials that would confer, or seek to confer a benefit”.
If that is imposed as worded, it will mean that an MP cannot lobby for a direct concern for their benefit, if that MP is receiving a renumeration for the concern. At first sight, that makes sense. It is covered to a fair degree by the rules on transparency. As has been mentioned, a recent incident was a classic example of this, but I hope that the Committee can look at another side, in that such a tightening would lose the House the benefit of Members’ expertise.
There is a plethora of examples. Active farmers, with their family farm, will discuss farming and environment issues—they could be the Chairman of a relevant Select Committee—and will have to raise issues and take part in debates, but that rule would stop it. A practising criminal barrister discussing legal changes in the criminal law is another example. In past years—the Chairman, the hon. Member for Rhondda, might remember this—the House had the benefit of the expertise, at some length, of Bob Marshall-Andrews on such issues. On mental health issues, which were touched on in the previous debate, would we not wish to hear from the practising psychiatrist among us? Of course we would, but he would be banned.
I turn to my own case. For years, I have been lobbying in debates, seeing Ministers and so on in campaigning for the HPV vaccine to be extended to young boys as well as young girls. The Government eventually were persuaded and, as a result, there will be a considerable reduction in head and neck cancer. I cannot conceive of how it would be of financial interest to me, but equally, from some of the letters I have had, I can conceive of attempts to construct such an issue.
I have been involved in the campaign for fluoridation of water supplies for many years. As I said, I am a practising dentist. I am a member of the British Fluoridation Society, I have met Ministers and officials and I have spoken in debates on the issues. In fact, when a previous Labour Government were passing a new water Bill, I was asked by the then Labour Minister to help her in the debate when a misguided Welsh nationalist tried to attach a new clause to the Bill that would, in effect, have made the fluoridation of water supplies illegal. Fluoridation is a preventive measure and, when widespread, would have an effect on day-to-day dental practice. From a financial view, it would perhaps be negative. We should be in a position to promote that, but if we go ahead with this measure, we may not be able to.
To touch on something that the Chairman of the Committee mentioned, I ask the Committee to look, even in a cursory manner, at other interests that perhaps should be declared, even though there is no obvious financial interest. For example, a number of us have dual nationality. I think we should declare that especially when the country from which we have come is included in debate. If it is New Zealand, I declare it. I do not need to—the moment I start speaking everybody knows. I had better make it clear at this point that the Tebbit rule does apply. When England play the All Blacks, I cheer for England, but I have already placed my money on the All Blacks.
Perhaps most importantly, I would like the Committee to consider whether Members can belong to campaigning organisations and speak or seek to influence Ministers without a declaration of their membership. I think that is wrong. Membership of CND when discussing nuclear issues or Campaign to Protect Rural England when discussing planning issues are two possible examples.
Finally, I ask the Committee, in considering the changes, not to tighten the bindings on MPs so as to stifle debate and stop us exercising the diverse knowledge that we all have. The key has to be transparency, not complexity.
I place on record my thanks to the Chair of the Committee on Standards, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), members of the Committee, some of whom are here today, and the House staff who support them, for their work on our code of conduct. Clearly, this has not been an insignificant task and they have more hours to come, as they sift through the responses to the consultation, which today’s debate forms part of. I noted the comments from the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) about his desire to be on the Committee. It is worth noting that smaller parties such as mine do not have that privilege in terms of being on Committees. Today’s debate and other consultations are therefore our only way to engage.
My party and I support all moves to strengthen the standards that we follow in this House. Given the extent of the report, it would be impossible to speak on every finding and proposal. Without wishing to pre-empt the findings of the Committee’s consultation, I wish to speak on just one rule today, which relates to whether a Member can vote on a matter that directly concerns them as an individual. One of the most unedifying aspects of the events of 3 November and the vote on the Owen Paterson report was that he was able to vote against his own suspension from this House. The fact that he was able to do so shows a worrying gap in our rules, about which there was rightly a degree of public outcry.
As with much in this place, there is not a straightforward process to be followed. Paragraph 5.17 of “Erskine May” states that a Member’s vote can be disallowed when a Member has a
“direct, immediate and personal financial interest in a question”.
That clearly implies that it is improper for a Member to vote on a matter in which they have an intrinsic vested interest in the outcome. A Member’s own suspension is clearly a matter in which they have a direct interest. However, the phrasing of the guidance in “Erskine May” is about objecting to votes after the fact and requires another Member to table a motion immediately after that vote. That is clearly impractical, as it requires Members to have sight of where others are voting at the time of the Division and then to have a seat in the Chamber to move the motion.
I was also told anecdotally after the vote on 3 November and by the Procedure Committee in correspondence published on its website that there is a House convention that, although a Member may speak at the start of a debate on their suspension, they should then subsequently withdraw. The clear implication is that the Member would not return to vote in any relevant Division. There is no way, however, in which to enforce this convention. Conventions only last until someone chooses to breach them and the outcome, as always, is a reduced standard of conduct. I was reassured in my correspondence with the Procedure Committee and in my meeting with its Chair, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), that the Committee saw the logic of putting the arrangement on to a firmer footing and the question is just, what is the best way of doing this: either an amendment of the Standing Orders or a change to the code of conduct.
The report of the Standards Committee, in all its 120-odd pages, does look at voting but focuses on whether Members should be able to vote where they have relevant financial interests. Although a suspension from the House would have a financial implication for a Member from a pay perspective, the discussion is focused on where Members have business interests or investments. The report is silent on the far more straightforward question of whether a Member should be able to vote on their own disciplinary proceedings. The convention says they should not and “Erskine May” says a vote could be disallowed, yet we saw this happen. I put it to the House that it is time for this very simple rule to be put on a formal basis and I hope that the Standards Committee will consider adopting the change in its final report.
Whether someone has been elected to this place in 2019, as I was, and as other Standards Committee members who are here today were, or in 1975, as the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) was—incidentally, he was one of the two Conservative MPs to support my Standing Order No. 24 application for an emergency debate on standards in November last year—each and every one of us should care about how we conduct ourselves in this place and the means by which we are held to account for that conduct. Our constituents expect it and they simply deserve nothing less.
I pay tribute to the Standards Committee for a very interesting and incredibly useful report, and to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for his time yesterday; we were charging around the Lobby together trying to discuss this issue, which is close to my heart. He knows that in my opinion we need a much bigger review of standards in this place and I want to take a few brief moments to explain why. First and foremost, our constituents want to be able to hold us all to account. Secondly, we want to hold ourselves to account. Lots of colleagues from across the House have said, “We want to behave in a selfless way, with high levels of integrity. We want to be those honourable men and women that we are called to be as Members of Parliament.” We all know of colleagues who have been absolutely devastated—their mental health has been destroyed; they have felt bitterly ashamed; they have left this place under a cloud—because of things they have done. They were not doing those things deliberately or maliciously, but for whatever reason, they have not been up to the standard that this House requires, so it is right that those punishments take place.
For our constituents, too, it is absolutely vital that they understand what they can require their Member of Parliament to do. In these days of 24/7 social media, 24/7 news and theyworkforyou.com, with all of the accusations that are flying at us, all Members will agree: we get constituents saying, “I require you to vote this way”, and when we do not do so, they literally rant at us. We have constituents demanding that we take up their case when we are completely unable to do so because it is a matter for another constituency MP, and what those constituents will do—as this report clearly sets out—is go to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, saying, “This MP is a piece of rubbish. I want to complain about them.” What they get back from the PCS is, “I am very sorry. That is outside of my remit.” That undermines confidence and trust in Members of Parliament, and it is a classic example of how our constituents need to understand what they can expect of us.
What the Standards Committee seeks to do is uphold those principles and those rules, and to judge us against them. That is quite right and very worthy, but it is neither clear to our constituents what we should be doing—because there is no articulation anywhere of what the job of an MP is—nor whether we are here as their delegates or as their representatives. How many times have we heard people say, “I want you to vote this way”? My answer is, “I have 82,000 voters. They do not all agree with you. If you can get the other 81,999 to accept your view, I will vote in line with that absolute confirmation of how my constituents want me to vote.” There is a fundamental problem with how our constituents can hold us to account, and there is a lot more that we should be doing as a Parliament with things like theyworkforyou.com and lobby campaigns. Somebody will literally send me and all of us an email saying, “Dear (insert name of Member of Parliament here). Yours sincerely, (insert your name here).” I will reply to them courteously, and they will say, “Why have you written to me about this?” I have to prove to them that it is because they wrote to me in the first place, so there are some mad things going on, Madam Deputy Speaker—you are laughing because, of course, you get it too, Deputy Speaker or not. There are real problems.
The other key point I want to make is that in this House, we set up the independent complaints and grievance scheme. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is in his place, was a part of it. It was entirely cross-party, it carried the support of this House, and what it was intended to do—rather than what the Standards Committee does, which is set out the principles and judge Members against them—was change the culture of this place. It was intended to make sure that people took on board a behaviour code that did not apply just to MPs, but to everybody who works here. There are 15,000 people who work here; there are only 650 MPs, and there are problems at every level in this place, as we saw only too well when the terrible #MeToo scandal hit Westminster. That is in large part down to the multiplicity of contracts and reporting lines that we have, and the HR processes that we do or do not have. The ICGS set out very clearly that, based on the evidence we took, 80% of the problems we were suffering in this House were workplace grievance issues. Yes, 20% were very serious bullying and sexual harassment issues, but nevertheless we have a culture issue, and the ICGS set out to change that.
It also set out, absolutely fundamentally, the need for proper induction courses for everybody who comes here, so that they know where the Table Office is and what it does; they know what sitting hours are and how to read an Order Paper; and, very importantly, they know what kind of behaviour they are expected to show to each other. Is it appropriate to go down to the bar with a junior member of staff and chat them up? As one Member has already said, issues such as those are taught in business environments: those things are made very clear, not just to MPs but to everybody who comes here, but it is not so at the moment in this place, even though the ICGS said it should be. The second point is about training as a sanction: rather than always reverting to an apology in this Chamber, which serves to devastate a Member of Parliament, or a sacking of a member of staff—which obviously devastates them—what is wrong with implementing the training that the ICGS envisaged? It is simply not happening.
The final point is about exit interviews. We know that there is huge turnover, and in some MPs’ offices there is very great turnover. We all know who they are, but why are their staff not undergoing exit interviews when they leave, so that measures can be put in place, not always to punish, humiliate and destroy people’s mental health, but to make things better, to make this a Parliament that everybody can be proud of? As Members we agonise about how we drag ourselves through the gutter all the time. None of us wants that to be the case. It is soul-destroying for all of us. In recent days we have heard some really good Members say, “I’ve had enough. I’m leaving this place.” A new colleague came to me and said, “I spent 25 years working in the public sector. I don’t want to risk being an MP for any longer, because if you make a mistake, your name and good reputation will be taken through the gutter and you’ll never live it down.”
It is slightly as if we have created a system of disaster, and our constituents cannot rely on it either. I would like to see a big review to address what an MP is there for. How are we actually helping MPs and those who work for us to do their job better, and what can we do to actually make people proud of their MPs and of their Parliament?
It is an honour to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), who spoke with clarity and purpose. I enjoyed her contribution.
I want to place on the record my thanks to the Chair of the Standards Committee, the Clerks and the lay and parliamentary members. I serve on the Committee, although I was absent from the recent oral evidence sessions and therefore apologise. My back was spasming in a way that meant that I could neither sit down nor walk, which was not helpful.
I was a little disappointed that the opening remarks did not give some context to this report, which is something we have to do on a regular basis and—given the nature of the 2015-17 and 2017-19 Parliaments—is an overdue piece of work. As we have heard from various contributors, the requirements are constantly shifting and evolving, meaning that when the Standards Committee is doing its very best to solve one problem, something else can appear. I listened mindfully to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) about the need to change culture as well as the rules and regulations. In terms of the level of interest, it is depressing, as he rightly pointed out, that there are so few participants present for a debate on an issue relevant to the governance of the whole House. I fear that the same is true of the consultation.
As the Chair of the Committee made clear, its members are not in unanimous agreement on many of the proposals. We agreed to put them forward, but it is important to note that our views differ. I have made my own written submission, so I will try to be as brief as possible in addressing the contents of the document.
On banning paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy services, I think it is quite clear how we got there. The Chair of the Committee was quite kind in his comments about the reasonable definition provided by the 2018 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I think that it is an entirely unworkable and deeply unhelpful suggestion. If the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House will forgive me, I think that the Standards Committee has ended up in a slightly more sensible and workable position than any of the political parties have managed. That is to our credit.
I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) is not here, but I think he would have focused on the review of processes and roles, and on the need for natural justice and fairness. I am sure that all those words would have appeared in his contribution, and we have appointed a senior judicial figure to ensure that our process is as good as possible.
I agree with what the Chair of the Committee said about appeals in his opening remarks, but I also think it is important to the Committee, as much as to anybody else, that we be reassured that our processes are as fair as possible. One thing I have mentioned perhaps more often than anyone else in the Committee, is the need to ensure that investigations happen swiftly and end swiftly. There are numerous reasons why that has not always happened, and this is certainly not a dig at the commissioner for her work, because she has worked through some remarkably difficult circumstances and cases. However, we must bear in mind that when a Member of this House is under investigation, it places a great strain and burden on them, and it is unfair for that process to drag on for a long period of time. I look to the Leader of the House to say that we must ensure that any resources that are required to speed up that process should be prioritised, because it is important that the investigations happen swiftly.
I treat some of the proposals with a bit of caution: the main one has already been referred to by the Chair of the Committee, and it relates to matters in the Chamber being referred to the commissioner. That has been widely misunderstood to mean, “If you say something that is out of line, you can now be referred to the commissioner and she will slap you down.” That was absolutely not the Committee’s intention. There is a bit of wording in the report that, with the benefit of hindsight, I think we drafted poorly, but it is a matter of quite grave importance that staff members of this House are not necessarily entitled to have things referred to the ICGS or the commissioner if they happen during the proceedings of this House—in a Division, a Select Committee or elsewhere. When that proposal is explained, I think it will have widespread support, but it has been seen as an attack on freedom of speech when it is quite the opposite. I very much welcome the Chair’s comments on that front.
One other thing I want to mention is the feedback on written contracts. It has been pointed out to me that those who do public sector roles often sign a standard contract that has been agreed by trade unions. Therefore, getting a bespoke contract that would say that someone cannot lobby or be involved in certain activities might be difficult, and that is something the Committee did not necessarily consider.
There are two things I am against: first, the bespoke Nolan principles outlined in the report. As they are, the Nolan principles are widely understood, welcomed and easily applied. I think the suggestions that the Committee has put forward are too prescriptive and create an overlap between the rules and the principles that is unhelpful and creates some confusion. I also think they are a little bit pious. The Chair of the Committee looks shocked, but it is one of his favourite words.
Secondly, I disagree strongly with the proposal on the ministerial register of interests. Ministers operate in a separate role and under a separate code when they act in a ministerial capacity, and therefore the Committee is somewhat overreaching. From what I have seen on the Committee, that is not a particularly large problem, and it feels that we are straying into overreach. Other than that, I think this has been a very helpful debate.
As an aside, while I was preparing to write this speech, a former member of the Committee on Standards sent me a WhatsApp message. I had asked him for advice on whether I should join the Committee, and he said, “I’ve been on this Committee for a couple of years, haven’t seen much action, don’t anticipate that will change—don’t expect to be too busy, in fact you might want to think about joining another Committee too.” How wrong he was.
Standards in Parliament and the conduct of MPs seem to have rarely been out of the news over the past six months. I must say it is a tremendous shame that there are not more hon. Members present for this debate, because this is one of the most important issues that our constituents consider. There can be few more contentious votes in recent times, I am afraid, than the one relating to the former Member for North Shropshire.
The inquiry into the review of the code of conduct, which all hon. Members are expected to follow, is very timely and welcome. It is a 120-page report and I want to focus on just three or four things. First, however, I want to make a point I have made in other debates: we should look at every opportunity to simplify the rules. I mentioned in a previous debate that I get confused as a member of the Standards Committee, and I think my local newspaper ran a headline saying the standards rules were confused and “complicated”. I say this because there are 12 or 13 different codes and sets of guidance that MPs are required to follow, all in different places and most of them adjudicated by different people, and it is very difficult, particularly for new Members of Parliament, to know exactly where to go to get the right information so that they do not make mistakes. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), and training and guidance at all stages of our experience in Parliament and reminders of the sort of things that are expected from a Member of Parliament are very important.
On second jobs—although for some Members it is about not just second jobs, but third or fourth jobs as well—the Committee heard from a number of witnesses and the conclusion I think almost everybody reached after hearing from them is that this is not a simple issue to resolve. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for that view was received from the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), who has a private Member’s Bill to ban second jobs. That convinced me that there was absolutely no simple answer. Frankly, it would carve out lots of exceptions to allow people to do all kinds of second jobs, therefore not banning second jobs. We need to think very carefully before legislating, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) made the point that we are enriched by having professionals from different disciplines in the House who can contribute to debates.
When I was first elected two years ago, I quickly realised that I did not have time to hold down a second job. My family would not have seen me if I had tried to take on another job in addition to being the Member of Parliament for a very busy constituency, but I do understand that some MPs have time to do other things. Indeed, in some cases they need to do other things to maintain professional qualifications—doctors or accountants, for example—and we should recognise that that is a good thing. However, I equally think that anybody who is recruited on to a board because of their experience here needs to ask why they are being recruited. That is exactly the same as people offering that input into here and Members being required to put input into commercial businesses. We should think very carefully about whether we should require Members of Parliament to hold contracts with such organisations. I think that what is expected of Members of Parliament should be set out so that there is proper transparency.
However, I agree that the electorate are the ultimate decision maker in terms of the work undertaken by MPs. If they believe that their representative focuses more on outside interests than standing up for constituents, they should use the ballot box to make changes when the opportunities arise.
I want to talk briefly about a couple of other points. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) mentioned the respect principles to accompany the Nolan principles. Everyone in public life is expected to follow the guidelines set out by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and I do not think that a new principle needs to be added there. I agree with the intention, but I think the sentiments are met elsewhere within the seven principles, so doing that could add confusion.
The hon. Member for North East Fife mentioned conventions and I think there is a convention that colleagues on the Standards Committee do not talk to the press about issues in relation to the Committee. We perhaps need a bit more guidance on that. It is important that every member of the Committee acts impartially and without political notions, and I try to hold to that. Making comments to the media about MP colleagues and then finding that colleague in front of the Committee is at some point going to cause problems for the Committee.
I believe that all Members of Parliament recognise that it is a privilege to sit in this House of Commons, and with that privilege comes a set of responsibilities and expectations. Members of the public rightly expect high standards of integrity and behaviour from those they elect to govern.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on the way he introduced it and on the body of work that he and his Committee have done. It is a fantastic document and a very useful signpost to the type of work we need to do to improve our code of conduct across the House. Our standards and code of conduct are our rules; they are in effect an interface with the electorate we serve. That is how people understand our work; they are the rules that electors appreciate and respect about how we do our work. It is imperative that, when we look at the rules, we manage to take into account what the electors expect of us as Members of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Rhondda was right that our code of conduct and standards have never been so much in the heat of public light and open to such inspection and even controversy. I congratulate the Committee on dealing with the issue in the heat that has been turned on it just now. I suppose we know exactly the moment, day and time when all this changed dramatically. It was about 2 o’clock on Wednesday 3 November when the Leader of the House got to his feet to approve the third report of the Committee on Standards. Of course, he had no intention of approving that particular report. In fact, he did most everything he could to undermine and neuter what was included in the report. We heard things like, “It was an unfair process.” He referred to the lack of examination of witnesses, the lack of an investigatory panel, the length of time taken and, critically, the absence of a right of appeal. It was the first time in history—certainly the first time in my 21 years in this House—that the Government had in effect attempted to overturn a recommendation of the Standards Committee.
More than that, the Leader of House supported an amendment that would have established a Select Committee to revise and review our Standing Orders, undermining and potentially wrecking the very essence of the Standards Committee and its work. This Committee would have had a Government Chair with a Government majority. To call it a kangaroo court would be a massive disrespect to Skippy the bush kangaroo and all his antipodean colleagues. It was a bizarre and clumsy attempt to get Owen Paterson off the hook and, even worse, in the days that followed there were sustained and appalling attacks on the Commissioner for Standards herself. The public hated it and they were appalled at what was going on in this House. It was no wonder that two days later the Leader of the House came scurrying back to the House to have the proposal reviewed and overturned.
What the Leader of the House did that day was to open a Pandora’s box of sleaze, corruption and double standards. It was just sitting there undisturbed since the 1990s and the days of “Back to my place” and cash for questions. The Government should have known not to tamper with it because this box was marked with a skull and crossbones with the very clear message, “Under no circumstances open”. But not only did they open it they took a crowbar to it, and out it all came in a spewing noxious torrent—the whole slurry of cash for access, paid advocacy, cash for honours, cash for questions, second jobs and PPE contracts for their pals. As they tried to put the lid back on, it erupted again, but this time it was like the ark in Indiana Jones when the contents ascended in a hellish mass obliterating everyone in its wake. Parties at No.10, cakes at No.10, do as I say, not as I do, DJs in the basement, birthday cakes, wine and cheese, police investigations, civil servants, and now we even discover that the Prime Minister’s chief of policy has just resigned because of the awful comment about Jimmy Savile that was made by the Prime Minister himself. How the Leader of the House must wish that he had a time machine to go back to that hour and minute on 3 November and that his plan with the Chief Whip to save their pal had been overturned.
The Standards Committee has had to pick this up. It has done well. I do not have time to go over all the details, but I want to pick up on a couple of points that the hon. Member for Rhondda highlighted. The first is the proposal on appeals. The hon. Gentleman has given us a number of options. I exhort him to stick to the status quo. It is right that the commissioner investigates and the Committee considers. That has been the principle at the heart of this, and I urge him to continue with it. I do not think we should reward the Government for what they tried to do by having any sort of look at appeals, and I hope the hon. Gentleman sticks to that.
I support the Committee in its option on second jobs. I would prefer to see a written contract for a second job, but I can live with the proposal that a contract detailing duties and an undertaking that these duties cannot include lobbying Ministers is right. The main thing that irks, frustrates and consumes our constituents like nothing else is the veracity of the things that are said in this House. This is now the new frontline in our standards, and it has to be addressed. Members of the public now believe that a Minister or Member of Parliament can say anything in this House, regardless of its relationship to fact and actuality—
I do not have time to give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I have to leave time for the Front Benchers.
I know that this is precarious territory, and the hon. Member for Rhondda has outlined a number of the difficulties, but this is something that we have to resolve. We cannot have a situation where Ministers can say practically anything and expect to be believed but if anyone challenges it, they end up with the prospect of being flung out of the House. That cannot go on. I want to end by congratulating the Committee. This is a great report and we have a good basis for going forward. I hope that this debate has helped the hon. Gentleman in forming his view when considering the final report.
This has been an excellent debate, and I find myself observing that every speaker has brought some light to it. Even if I have not agreed with every word, I have appreciated the spirit in which it has been conducted. It is always a great pleasure to take part in any debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). As well as demonstrating his intelligence and his ability to get to the nub of an argument, he is also incredibly poetic as he speaks. It has been a great pleasure to take part in the debate, and I congratulate him and all the Committee members—it is great to see so many here—on their very hard work on something that matters so much.
Virtually everyone here seems to agree that standards matter. They are a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy. We may disagree about the wording, and we may debate these issues, but I echo what the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) said about needing more of us in here debating them. It matters so much that many Members seem to get engaged in the process only when they fall foul of it, but standards really do matter and they should be something that we aspire to. It has been a long review, with the Committee looking at the code twice.
The Committee has made recommendations about more engagement and more training, and we are going to have to work really hard at that. It behoves all of us here today who clearly do believe in the system to also be the ambassadors for the system. We have to be the ambassadors for it in all its glory.
Others have spoken about the backdrop to the debate and about what happened with the former Member for North Shropshire, so I have cut all that from my speech. I just want to highlight a couple of key points. I have written to the Committee in full with a response to all its recommendations. That is winging its way to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and his Committee even as we speak. There are so many recommendations that I strongly support, including those on clarity, on training, on finding more ways to engage colleagues and on ensuring that the independence of the Standards Commissioner and the Standards Committee is maintained. This will help to restore and buttress trust in our Parliament, which is so important.
A key recommendation is that there should be an outright ban on second jobs as parliamentary advisers. That is Labour policy and I definitely agree that there should be an outright ban on any Member acting as a paid parliamentary adviser, consultant or strategist— whatever we call it. This has been a recommendation since 2018 from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is long overdue, and I strongly support it. Similarly, there is a recommendation for a contract for outside work with explicit statements. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) about the difficulty with contracts, but I still think that it is a difficulty we should push through with. This would help to dispel the misconception that MPs are for hire in any way. It is our constituents we are here to serve, not outside interests, so I strongly support that recommendation.
I am not going to take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, because I feel that I should honour Madam Deputy Speaker’s stricture.
The recommendation to clarify the criteria for serious wrong exemption in the lobbying rules would help to make clearer what constitutes a conflict of interest. In the case I have referred to, the Committee said that that exemption should be treated as a narrow exemption, not a wide loophole. I of course support the recommendation that there should be clarification.
We need to ensure that there is consistency when it comes to standards for MPs and Government Ministers. I therefore strongly support the recommendation, detailed by my hon. Friend, about ensuring that ministerial gifts and benefits can be found in the same place as information about MPs. I also support the recommendation about transparency and ease of use of the website. My goodness, it is sometimes hard to find even one’s own details in full.
I feel that any strengthening of the system—I know that this is outwith the scope of the report—should be accompanied by a strengthening of the ministerial code. The last Labour Government legislated to clean up politics after the sleaze of the 1990s, with various significant measures relating to, for instance, freedom of information, the ministerial code itself, and public registers. We have put forward a plan that the next Labour Government would introduce to strengthen the system, but of course we cannot wait a day longer to protect and strengthen our standards systems. I urge all Members who have not yet read the report to read it in detail. In fact, we could have a quiz—a party game. Who knows what paragraph 174 says? I do. We could also encourage our colleagues to respond to the request for consultation—I think we have another week or so to go.
I hope that the Government have learnt from the fiasco that surrounded the former Member of Parliament for North Shropshire, and I hope that all of us can get behind a new, invigorated system of standards. Wherever we end up, we have to salute and support it, because it says so much about our democracy that we have these standards and pride ourselves on trying to live up to them.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the Committee on Standards for their assiduous work in conducting a review of the Members’ code of conduct. I am pleased to participate in today’s debate, and I agree with the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), that it has been of very high quality, featuring many important contributions from across the House. I hope that it will be viewed as part of the evidence collected through the consultation process.
The hon. Member for Rhondda gave a good account of the complex issues that the Committee has had cause to consider in its review. The code of conduct for MPs rightly remains a matter for Parliament and, as we have said before, it is for the House of Commons to take forward any work on these issues on a cross-party basis. The Government will provide a response in due course on matters relating to the Executive and wider Government policy, but in the meantime I should like to make the following points.
The Government believe that, as public office holders, Members of Parliament have a duty to act in accordance with the seven principles of public life. These ethical principles form the foundation of the members’ code of conduct, and their value lies in the fact that they are applied consistently and commonly to all holders of public office, including Ministers. It is the fact that they are applied universally that gives these principles strength and meaning. I believe that we should maintain a consistent set of principles rather than tinkering with these commonly understood standards.
The Committee has also recommended that an additional principle of “respect” be added to the code of conduct. It is my view that adjustments of this kind, which would undermine the universality of the principles of public life, are undesirable. As drafted, the parliamentary behaviour code strikes the right balance between ensuring that all members of the parliamentary community and visitors to this place are treated with “dignity, courtesy and respect”, and ensuring that different views can be freely exchanged in debate, and Members can fulfil their constitutional duty of representing their constituents.
As for the scope of the code and the potential for consideration of public complaints about the use of social media by Members, the Government believe that in the course of debate, whether online or in person, the views of all participants can be freely expressed and treated with tolerance. It is important to distinguish between strongly felt political debate on the one hand, and unlawful acts of abuse, intimidation and violence that seek to suppress free speech on the other.
We therefore do not support further strictures in this regard within the code. Such changes would risk undermining the fundamental principles of our constitution, or unduly limit the ability of Members to express their views. However, I would note that there is also a role for political parties in this area. The Government response to the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life on tackling intimidation in public life asserted that each political party should put in place its own individual, tailored code of conduct, which should set out the standards of behaviour expected of its members and representatives. All the political parties represented in the House of Commons now have their own codes of conduct.
The Standards Committee has also looked at the existing rules on the registration and declaration of interests to ensure that they are clear and up to date. The Government see merit in several of those proposals, but at this stage I simply observe that the rules regulating the interests of Members and Ministers are necessarily distinct. The separation of powers is a fundamental constitutional principle and it remains the Government’s view that benefits received by Ministers in their ministerial capacity should not form part of the Members’ register.
I will give an example. In the unlikely event that I were made Minister for Sport—it is unlikely because this speech has been cleared by Downing Street, which did not question the thought that it was—I would see it as a great privilege to go to a test match at Lord’s. I would also receive many other invitations, however, and I am afraid to say that it would be more of a duty to go to the FA cup final, even though many other Members may think that a great privilege. So what Ministers do may be duty rather than pleasure, whereas Members do not have to accept invitations in that sphere, or certainly not normally.
I sort of understand the point that the Leader of the House is making, but why should the public not just know? Why should the public have to know about an ordinary MP going to the football or the cricket or whatever, and know the details of them receiving hospitality worth more than £300 within 28 days, but when it is a Minister, they do not have to know for months and months, and in some cases they never get to know the details at all?
The speed of registration is a very fair point, but it is a governmental rather than a parliamentary matter. In terms of the actual declaration, it could give a misleading impression that a Minister, particularly one in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, was attending a constant round of entertainments that were, in fact, entirely in the course of their public duties. That would be very different from a Member of Parliament who had no obligation and was purely attending, if at the same events, for his or her own pleasure.
The Leader of the House has not been in opposition, but if he was the Opposition spokesman, he would have the same obligation to attend the same event, but would be subject to the House of Commons rules rather than the ministerial ones. What is the difference?
Being in opposition is different from being in government. We have a separation between Ministers and Parliament. The separation of powers is an important constitutional principle.
I will move on to the question of the work undertaken by MPs outside Parliament and how that could, or should, be limited. The Government value the work of the Standards Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in applying the conduct rules that the House has endorsed. That is why we support the work being undertaken to
“introduce robust new measures to empower the standards system in Parliament”.
It is evident that, further to the 17 November resolution of the House, there is cross-party support for reforms of the rules on outside interests.
The Government remain firmly of the view that, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended in 2018, Members should be banned from accepting any paid work to provide services as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant. There seems to be widespread consensus on that point. The Committee has collected a wide range of evidence from expert witnesses, including the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to consider how reasonable limits on outside work could be defined. As we have discovered during this debate, that is a knotty question without a simple or straightforward answer.
It is apparent that successive generations of parliament-arians have obtained relevant experience through outside work. It is also clear that several parliamentarians continue to use that expertise to make valuable contributions to other areas of public life. First and foremost, however, we are here to represent our constituents and any work outside this place must not come at the expense of their interests. It is sensible that our rules reflect that Members must always prioritise their parliamentary work and serve the electorate who returned them to this place and who will, of course, judge them.
The existing rules require Members to declare their outside interests and positions, but do not explicitly prevent the holding of certain positions, notwithstanding the proposed limits on accepting any paid work to provide services as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant. To go beyond MPs’ central practice of declaration and instead place limits on Members undertaking a much broader range of activity through the application of hard thresholds of time or money would represent a substantive change to the definition of an MP’s role.
As such, there is a question as to whether it would be constitutional to make such adjustments through the Members’ code, or whether legislation would be required. It would arguably be a change to the conditions of membership of this House of similar significance to the provisions set out in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which provides that those who hold certain offices cannot be Members of this House.
More widely, in order for the standards system to operate effectively, it is essential that it is both robust and fair and also compatible with the constitutional principles that have ensured that this place works at its best. Parliament sits at the heart of our constitutional arrangements and it is of utmost importance that Members are able to participate without artificial impediments in debates on contentious issues that are of great import to the electorate. The compatibility of the standards system with the core principles and concepts of fairness and natural justice needs to be considered with care, so I welcome the appointment of the right hon. Sir Ernest Ryder to conduct a review of fairness and natural justice in the standards system.
Throughout the debate, right hon. and hon. Members made a number of interesting and important speeches, which I am confident the Standards Committee will consider carefully. It is through a shared understanding of the constitutional framework in which we operate, as well as formal rules, that we will ensure that our standards system commands the confidence both of the public and of Members on a cross-party basis. I therefore hope that when the Committee publishes its final proposals, they will form the basis for further discussion and final conclusions.
I am grateful to all those who contributed to the debate and look forward to seeing the Government’s written submission when it comes. Of course, I hope the Leader of the House will come to give evidence to the Committee as well. We are interested in hearing from slightly more Members than were able to attend this afternoon, although I understand that lots of Members have constituency responsibilities and need to get to their constituencies, some of which, like mine, are even further away than Somerset.
It seems to me that we need to work through a few issues, one of which is whether we have specific descriptors for the Nolan principles. The Committee on Standards in Public Life—which, of course, originally came up with the Nolan principles—has advocated that, reviewed our version and was supportive of it. We also need to look at the question of respect, or respectfulness, and how that plays out. I have listened to lots of Members on that.
There may be a knotty problem that we still need to resolve in respect of whether Ministers should be treated differently. I remember the Leader of the House coming to our Committee and saying that he did not really believe that the separation of powers was an important principle, but I noticed that today he said it is—we sometimes choose our arguments according to the day of the week. My important principle is that all MPs should be treated fairly and equally under the rules. It would be for the benefit of most Ministers if all Members were treated exactly the same and had to declare everything in the same way.
It would be in the interests of the public if the House was able to make our current register much more readable and accessible. It is strange that we have to go to TheyWorkForYou to find out the history of our register of interests. We cannot go through the parliamentary system without looking at 20 different documents. If someone wants to look at ministerial registers, they have to look, every year, at 122 online documents. I just do not think that, in the end, that does us any favours as a House.
I repeat the point that I made earlier about the issue of telling the truth and lying. The Leader of the House used precisely the right word: it is a knotty one. Like many of the issues we on the Committee face, these issues are not susceptible to very simple answers. I get very cross and abandon my piety when people try to present—[Interruption.] Yes, I have often abandoned my piety; that is a good point. I get cross when people try to pretend that some of these issues are clear cut; they are not.
Finally, the House has heard from three other Committee members, and we work hard on all these issues, but the lay members bring to the Committee a fascinating outside look. Many of them are from professional backgrounds of which we know nothing and that makes for a much more effective Committee, so I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), who set it up in that way.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Committee on Standards’ Review of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is there a means by which you could draw to the attention of the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), that Mr Speaker made a statement in which he explained
“there are means by which accusations of lying may be brought before the House”?—[Official Report, 2 February 2022; Vol. 708, c. 266.]
I do not think the SNP spokesman has read that statement or understood it.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. On 31 January, during the Sue Gray update statement, the Prime Minister said the Government
“have been cutting crime by 14%”.—[Official Report, 31 January 2022; Vol. 708, c. 24.]
I understand the Prime Minister took that information from a Home Office news release, which in two places presented the statistics to give a positive picture of trends in crime in England and Wales based on a fall in total crime, excluding fraud and computer misuse, of 17%.
In a letter sent to my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the UK Statistics Authority confirmed that, if fraud and computer misuse are counted, as they should be, total crime in fact increased by 14% between the year ending September 2019 and the year ending September 2021.
I seek your guidance on how we can get clarity on those remarks from both the Prime Minister and the Home Office.
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. Although the Chair is not responsible for the content of contributions made by Ministers, I am sure the concern has been heard on the Treasury Bench. If an error has been made in this instance, I am sure a Minister will seek to correct it as quickly as possible.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is a great deal of interest in statistics. I cannot remember whether the Chancellor or the Cabinet Office is responsible for the Office for National Statistics, but perhaps we could have a Question Time on statistics so that we can bandy around our favourite ones and have them answered by Ministers.