Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bell: The appropriate procedure is for the House of Commons Commission to propose the nomination of a candidate in a report presented to the House of Commons by the Speaker. The report was printed on 6 February and presented to the House; this is the first opportunity to debate it.

The House's internal revenue service is considering the staffing resources that the commissioner's office will require and we expect it to report to us shortly. We will then take the views of the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the new commissioner, and we have undertaken to provide whatever resources are judged to be needed.

I said that I would return to self-regulation. Our present system was introduced following the recommendations of the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the Nolan committee. Sir Gordon Downey, the first commissioner, pointed out in a recent article that the House went further than the Nolan committee recommended by giving the commissioner responsibility for assessing whether a case had been made as well as whether there was a case to answer. Sir Gordon also described the introduction of self-regulation as

There has been much discussion of late in the media about parliamentary self-regulation. In my view, self-regulation has to work; outside regulation could create profound constitutional difficulties. It is also my view that self-regulation works and that it will continue to do so. The key elements are the wise guidance and non-partisan recommendations that we expect from the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and his Committee, the readiness of all of us to co-operate fully with the system and a strong, independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Mr. Mawer has all the qualities needed to ensure that the system of parliamentary self-regulation continues to work effectively, and that it is seen to do so both inside and outside the House of Commons.

Mrs. Browning: I have now had a chance to see the Speaker's paper, especially its provisions on resources. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for pressing this point again, but it is pertinent to what I would like to say later if I get the opportunity. Has the new commissioner been given a formal written contract of employment—as we would understand the term in commercial environments, and as opposed to a job description—that clearly sets out not only the parameters and conditions of the job but the processes to be applied when disputes arise. I note that resources have now been brought under the remit of the IRS and the Committee on Standards and Privileges. It is extremely important, however, if the new commissioner is not to experience

13 Feb 2002 : Column 228

the same difficulties as the previous commissioner, that there is a contract of employment that can be made available to members of the House of Commons Commission.

Mr. Bell: There certainly is a contract. It is a proper contract and, although I believe that it may be confidential, it covers all the points that the hon. Lady raises.

With that, I commend the motion to the House, and I commend Mr. Mawer to the House.

4.35 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I should like briefly to endorse the speech made by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and thank the Commission for allowing me to take part in the selection process to choose the new commissioner. The Committee on Standards and Privileges clearly has an interest in that appointment and I know that its members welcomed representation in the decision-making process. I found that process thorough and professional. We were confronted with some high-calibre candidates and, as a result, a difficult choice.

I welcome the decision to appoint Philip Mawer. He understands the House of Commons, but is independent of it. In my judgment, he has the right qualities of trust and discretion to develop the preventive and advisory role of the commissioner, to conduct investigations thoroughly and impartially and to prepare reports for the Committee. I look forward to working with him when he starts in March.

As the hon. Gentleman just said, Mr. Mawer's work will be especially important as the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Nigel Wicks, begins its review of self-regulation in the House of Commons.

I welcome the Commission's comments on resources, the fact that there is no restriction on the number of days that the commissioner will work and the recognition that the resources deemed necessary will be made available. That is welcome reassurance for my Committee.

Finally, may I pay tribute to the outgoing commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin? As Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, I enjoyed a good working relationship with her. I admire the qualities that she brought to the job. She handled some complex issues—one of which we have just debated—with thoroughness, impartiality and some courage. She displayed the independence that is a key part of the role of the commissioner. I thank her for her work and wish her well in the future.

4.36 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I want to echo some of the points that have been made before returning to some more formidable points that the House might briefly consider.

I endorse exactly what the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges said about Elizabeth Filkin; she genuinely will be a difficult act to follow. We often use that phrase, but it is true in this case. Mr. Philip Mawer's curriculum vitae gives me every reason to believe that he is an admirable person to try to do this difficult job on our behalf.

13 Feb 2002 : Column 229

We should recognise that over the past few months the perception of our ability to regulate our conduct in this place has been, at best, under attack. Some would say that our ability has been weakened; our role needs to be reviewed.

I hope, however, that hon. Members and people watching, listening to or following our proceedings will take comfort from the way in which the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee approached the difficult issue that we addressed a few moments ago. The report is admirable and will, I hope, restore to some extent confidence outside and inside this place in our ability to self-regulate.

I note the point made by the right hon. Gentleman about our being looked at by Sir Nigel Wicks and his colleagues. I hope that the evidence taken by Sir Nigel will not be all negative. I hope that he will see some merit in the way in which we have handled such matters in the recent past as well as some points for inquiry and possibly criticism and improvement.

I hope that Sir Nigel will look carefully at the crucial relationship between the work of the commissioner and that of the Committee on Standards and Privileges in performing the difficult and sometimes invidious task of self-regulation. On many occasions, Members of the House and people outside this place have drawn my attention to the fact that that relationship is critical in achieving effective self-regulation. I am concerned that, on occasion, either the Committee has not seen that role with quite the clarity or definition that we would have hoped for, or the commissioner has found it difficult to see the proper frontier between his or her role and that of the Committee.

As one Member put it to me, it is surely the role of the commissioner to act as the linesman—to put up the flag—but it is the responsibility of the Committee to act as referee. That may not be a perfect way to describe the respective roles, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it has some validity.

I share some of the anxiety that Members on both sides of the House expressed about how soon the new commissioner will be able to take up a full role and perform the full task that we are laying upon him. Initially—in a matter of weeks—he will be able to give us one day a week. If, with the leave of the House, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) responds to the debate, I hope that he will say how quickly we will progress to the absolute minimum requirement of three days; otherwise, a backlog will inevitably build up in a matter of months.

What period of notice do Mr. Mawer's ecclesiastical employers want him to work? Is he under a great obligation to them or, indeed, to a higher authority? [Interruption.] Hand signals are being given to me from across the House, although I do know not whether they are the result of divine intervention. A substantial backlog could be created within a matter of months, which would lead to a problem. We must hope that no cases are brought to the new commissioner's attention, but if they are it would clearly be unsatisfactory if his terms of employment failed to meet the needs of the House.

The House has not covered itself in glory by dealing with the matter as it has done in recent months—a view that is widely shared within it. Even if the media have been over-critical in some respects and have jumped to

13 Feb 2002 : Column 230

conclusions, I am afraid that we have given them some cause to do so. We sometimes get the press that we deserve, and on this occasion we have.

I have a particular concern that is not new; indeed, I expressed it when the Braithwaite inquiry examined the way in which the House conducts its business, runs the building and performs its work. It seems invidious that we cannot question the Chairman of the Commission. Despite the responsibilities that we lay on the Speaker, we cannot challenge, question or probe him in the House. The issue before us should have brought that concern to our immediate attention.

I expressed that concern to Braithwaite in the different context of the financial management of the House, which involves millions of pounds. None the less, it is wrong to ask the Speaker to chair the Commission on our behalf, given that he cannot be accountable to, or answerable to, the House. We cannot question the Speaker in that manner, because to do so would endanger his authority in many other ways.

I hope that the Leader of the House, the Commission and the Speaker will look again at the problem, because it is likely to recur time and again if we do not address it now. That implies no criticism of successive Speakers or of successive members of the Commission. Back Benchers who are non-ex officio members of the Commission—at the moment there are two, but there will be three—serve the House in that capacity without payment, reward or recognition. Usually, they receive only brickbats, and we should think carefully about that. That role has been particularly onerous in recent months, and has subjected them to much criticism. I hope that we can consider that issue.

I pay full respect not only to the commissioner but to the way in which the Standards and Privileges Committee undertook its responsibilities in particularly difficult circumstances in recent weeks. I enthusiastically endorse the nomination before us, but I hope that the Leader of the House and all those with a role in other parts of the building will think carefully about the issues that I have raised.

Next Section

IndexHome Page