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Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

Volume 736: debated on Monday 17 July 2023

[Relevant documents: First Report 2023 of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Appointment of IPSA Board Member (former high judicial office holder), HC 1443]

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that His Majesty will appoint Dame Laura Cox to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority with effect from 1 August 2023 for the period ending on 31 July 2028.

The Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has produced a report—its first report of 2023—in relation to the motion. I have no doubt that Members will have studied that report closely and will know of Dame Laura’s background. I note that the recruitment panel considered Dame Laura an eminently appointable candidate.

IPSA is quite rightly independent of Parliament and Government, but as all Members will know and understand, it has an incredibly important role in regulating and administering the business costs of hon. Members and deciding their pay and pensions. I hope that the House will support this appointment and wish Dame Laura well in this important role, and I commend the motion to the House.

I rise to support the motion in the name of the Leader of the House, and to say that Dame Laura Cox has brought a great deal to this House. She has challenged us; she has worked with us; she has reviewed the independent complaints and grievance system, thereby strengthening our system of accountability for bullying and sexual harassment; and she has come to know us well. I believe she will be a good critical friend. She has been duly well appointed, and I support the motion.

The SNP pays tribute to Sir Robert Owen, who left the IPSA board in April, and wishes him the best for the future. We welcome the appointment of Dame Laura Cox to fill the vacancy: with her extensive and esteemed judicial career and dedication to equality and human rights, she will bring invaluable experience to the role.

In 2018, as has been mentioned, Dame Laura led the independent inquiry into bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff, and was involved in selecting the chair and members of the Independent Expert Panel, so she has an in-depth knowledge of this place. I note that the appointments panel recognised her “strong understanding” of IPSA, its challenges, and the political landscape in which it operates. The panel also highlighted Dame Laura’s proven track record of making “difficult decisions” under “intense public scrutiny”. I have no doubt that she will be an exceptional addition to the IPSA board, and the SNP supports the motion.

As regularly on these occasions, I say to the House that I have no particular knowledge of the individual concerned or any animus towards them, but I have huge concerns about the process.

I hope that, when the Leader of the House is looking at rigorous analysis and making tough decisions about IPSA, she looks, for example, at why it has expensive offices in the Strand in London when nearly all the staff seem to be working from home, and why the experience of individual Members in dealing with IPSA staff is that they are not facilitators of the work of hard-pressed and hard-worked Members of Parliament, but most of the time—with one or two individual exceptions, but certainly as an institution—are just incredibly obstructive. It creates a huge amount of unnecessary and bureaucratic work not just for Members of Parliament, but for our members of staff. I know that this is echoed across the Chamber from the number of Members who come up to me after speeches such as this to say so, many of whom may even have been watching in their offices while grinding through their IPSA returns.

I very much object to the process. The Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, which was brought in in haste and in response to a crisis—and in a panic, I would argue—specifies that at least one of the members of IPSA

“must be a person who has held (but no longer holds) high judicial office”.

Why? What does the requirement to have held high judicial office or to have been an eminent barrister have to do with deciding how efficiently to deal with people’s expenses? I would argue that somebody from one of the big corporations, who actually understands something about running a salaries and expenses scheme, might be a lot better at doing that, but such a person is not specified. I suspect that someone who has been a trade union official or a convener in a major company would have a much better idea about how to run such a system efficiently and effectively than someone who has never had such responsibility. I note that this individual has been a head of chambers, which would give them some understanding, but not of dealing with several hundred people in the way that IPSA has to do.

One of the problems we seem to have at the moment—this is what I want to highlight to the House—is that we have now erected a new priesthood. I find it very interesting that people complain about having bishops of the Church of England in the House of Lords, but almost everything now has to be allocated to a senior judge. These people have a lot of training and many of them are extremely intelligent, but that does not make them the only people in this country who have good judgment, are able to assess a case or are able to run something. Almost everything now seems to be delegated to the lawyers and to the judiciary. I find it really rather amusing, entertaining and slightly surprising from the Conservative party, given that its supporting newspapers are regularly castigating the judiciary on their front pages, that for everything that relates to this House, it somehow seems to allocate them a special place and a special privilege.

When we look through appointments not just to this board, but to the boards of so many public bodies that come before this House, time and again the only people who are chosen are the great and the good from various non-governmental organisations that get awards—that is another tick in a box—or those who have served on a number of quangos. It is not someone who is actually running a business day to day, someone who is doing the real job of working as a nurse or a doctor in a hospital, or a figure from the car industry, for example. None of those people gets a look in, because we hand over this process to search consultants who keep fishing in the same pool. We need to call that out and say that there is a great wealth of talent in this country. Our class system, time and again, ignores that pool of talent in all walks of life, and we have even institutionalised it in the legislation setting up the IPSA board.

So I end as I began—had we been closer to 10 o’clock, I might have felt the need to expand further, but we are not—by saying that this is nothing to do with the individual concerned. It is really to do with a self-perpetuating system that is basically about looking after chums, and it is about time we changed it.

Question put and agreed to.