Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Fifth Report

Letter to the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges from Lord Neill of Bladen QC, Committee on Standards in Public Life

I wrote to you in December 2000 with my Committee's response to your consultation paper on proposed amendments to the rules relating to the conduct of Members of Parliament. The Clerk of your Committee kindly acknowledged my letter on 20 December.

I confined my remarks to the questions raised in your consultation paper which did not include the issues raised in our Sixth Report relating to the disciplinary procedures. On the latter subject, we had already exchanged correspondence following the publication of the Sixth Report. In your letter of 13 October 2000, you agreed to ask your Committee "to look again at the investigatory, 'trial' and appeals procedures in serious, contested cases" despite their earlier rejection of our recommendations in those areas. I did not therefore repeat our advocacy of such changes when I wrote to you in December on your consultation paper.

However I see from the newspapers of 15 February 2001 that when the Rt Hon John Major MP gave evidence to you earlier that week, he addressed a wider range of issues than those set out in the consultation paper. I see from his submission to the Committee of 26 October 2000 that he calls for a change in the composition of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and for the Committee to have access to a Legal Adviser. He also calls for a formal appeal procedure. I have not yet seen a transcript of his oral evidence but the press coverage suggests that he raised other concerns, including the need to reduce the complexity of the Code and the problem of the 'tit for tat' disputes between Members of opposing parties.

I agree with the broad thrust of Mr Major's approach in suggesting that greater reform is required than the comparatively limited changes proposed in your consultation paper—hence the chapter in our Sixth Report. When you wrote to me on 4 July, explaining why your Committee felt unable to accept our recommendations in the chapter on a revised procedure for serious, contested cases and an appeals procedure, you suggested that "the involvement of lawyers has in some cases tended to prolong and complicate matters unnecessarily". My Committee has observed, however, that in the recent case of the complaint against Dr John Reid MP and Mr John Maxton MP, where the facts were disputed, a necessarily long consideration by your Committee resulted in any event. Furthermore, if recommendation 3 of our Sixth Report had been implemented, that investigation would have been governed by the "minimum standards of fairness", as defined by the Nicholls Committee, including clarity as to the standard of proof.

Given the breadth of some of the evidence you are taking in your consultation exercise, we would urge you to reconsider your response to the Sixth Report. To that end, I would be grateful if you would treat this letter as a further submission, together with Chapter 3 of the Sixth Report and our subsequent correspondence of 4 July and 3 October.

22 February 2001

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