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Peter Bottomley: The Leader of the House will be able to read what I said, and I hope that when he has done so, he will understand that his interventions have been off the point. I said that I would repeat what I had said only once, so I will not go on with that point.
We now come to the question of when the House of Commons Commission, of which the right hon. Gentleman is a member, decided to pay the commissioner for the extra days that she has been working, when up to now she has not been paid for them. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough for saying that if a written question is tabled, the House will be given that information. I think that the answer will confirm my belief.
No one on the Commission has been motivated by malice. However, the Commission's responses to certain matters included a combination of mistakes and misunderstandings, and an impression of apparent malice on the part of some people outside the Commission has been created.
Some inaccurate answers have been given which the Commission has, rightly, corrected. For example, it gave an answer that said that Sir Gordon Downey had been workingand been paid forthree days a week. In fact, he was always paid for four days a week. When he left his post, he said that if the work load decreased, the job could be done in three days a week, and that may have been the comment that people had in mind. It was a simple misunderstanding and the mistake has been corrected.
What was not correct was an assurance that the Leader of the House gave me in October, I believe. He assertedwhich I think means that he thought, but did not knowthat the Commission had followed the advice by which the House expects Ministers to abide in the code on public appointments. That assertion was wrong in three respects.
First, if someone is not up to the job, they should not have the chance to be reappointed. From the right hon. Gentleman's saying that if Elizabeth Filkin reapplied, she would immediately be put on the shortlistand,
Elizabeth Filkin was as competent as her predecessor, Sir Gordon Downey, who was sounded out, not officially by the Commission but by a senior member of the Government, about whether he would be interested in a second term. Having reached the age of 70, his answer was, "No, but thank you". I think that I am right in saying that the advertisement for Elizabeth Filkin's successor states explicitly that reappointment was possible by mutual agreement. The House and the country are left with the question of why Elizabeth Filkin was not sounded out about reappointment. We have had no answerperhaps there is none, but the question is real.
A second feature of the code on public appointments is that people should be required to go through open competition if they have served for 10 years, or if they are on their third term. Neither condition is true of Elizabeth Filkin: she would have been seeking a second term, or the House ought to have been seeking a second term for her.
Thirdly, if people are not to continue, they should have a decent amount of notice of that fact. Had Elizabeth Filkin applied for her own job at the advertised three days a week, she would have known whether she had got the job a week agoa week before her current term ends. That breaks the code on ministerial appointments. Although the Leader of the House might have been right to say that he believed that the code had been followed, that belief, albeit genuinely held, was wrong on the three grounds that I have outlined.
The system matters. It does not matter whether the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is officially responsible to the House of Commons Commission, which has not distinguished itself in that role in the past three years, or to, say, the Committee on Standards in Public Life or its Chairman. That distinction is not especially important except to the secular theologists who advise the House.
It is right to consider whether the term should be longer, and whether reappointment should be offered unless there is a reason not to offer it. The current position is illustrated by the curious circumstances of the end of Elizabeth Filkin's term. She is right that the current assumption of independence and support for impartial, fair and competent work by her office has been challenged by the events of the past six months.
The only modification that I would make to the operation of the complaints procedureonly a minor part of the work load of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standardsis that in normal circumstances, a person making a complaint should be asked whether they have put it directly to the Member concerned. If the answer is no, the commissioner should urge the complainant to do so. Many misunderstandings could be dealt with and problems rectified if that were a preliminary step. However, that is a step for the House to institute, not for the commissioner herself.
It is unfortunate that the "Londoner's Diary", in the Evening Standard, carried a report apparently directly quoting Mr. Stonborough. I do not think that any direct quotation in a newspaper necessarily means that the words were said or, if they were said, that they were reported in context. He was reported to have said something about the argument being one-sided and that, in some sense, he would balance that. The debate or argument ought to be in the House.
That leads me to the Prime Minister's answer to a question fromI thinkthe hon. Member for Walsall, North on the reappointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The Prime Minister said that it was a matter for the House. Within hours, the Leader of the House said, "Yes, and it will wait until there is a nomination from the House of Commons Commission on who the successor might be", and that it would be possible for a Member to table an amendment to such a motion, substituting the name of Elizabeth Filkin for that of, say, Philip Mawer.
For all sorts of reasons, that is not a happy or sensible way of proceeding. The Leader of the House was wrong to suggest that it was. It clearly showed that, whichever hat he was wearing at the time, he was deliberately frustrating the option for the House to debate the merits of Mrs. Filkin. In fact, of course, we are debating the merits of Philip Mawer, which are not only self-evident but have been proclaimed by Members.
I do not think that the Prime Minister has his heart in this standards business. His whiter than white and cleaner than clean remarks do not really stand up. He has not explicitly made abiding by the parliamentary code part of the ministerial code, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said.
I commend to the Prime Minister his declaring, in his own voice, that abiding by Members' responsibilities is part of being a Minister, so that any Minister from now on who does not fully co-operate with the parliamentary standards procedure, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in particular, will cease to be a Minister. The option not to do so should just go. Then, the remarks that, sadly, were made in the previous debate on the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) by a Minister would not be necessary, although Members of Parliament could still draw such matters to the attention of the House.
The Prime Minister did not require the Deputy Prime Minister to accept the invitation from the Committee on Standards and Privileges to register the union flat. Frankly, the Prime Minister should have said to the Deputy Prime Minister, "You should." We have not had any explanation from either of them as to why that registration has not occurred.
Peter Bottomley: In response to that question from a Government supporter, I was adding a few remarks on how I believe that the Prime Minister could help the system of which the commissioner is a significant part.
We then come to reports about the media and Elizabeth Filkin. The matter was first brought to my attention by somebody who asked me, "Did you see what she said at the Royal Society of Arts?" I asked, "What is she said to have said?" The Member pointed it out to me. I said, "I was at that meeting. That wasn't what she said; it wasn't the way she spoke. I was present, you weren't. What's the complaint?" I was told to look at what had been reported. Too many people seem to be sensitive about what is reported. The fact that the House of Commons Chamber is dominated at one end by a Press Gallery that is full of people who have the option to report what is said in the Chamber or spend their time listening to what people say in the Corridors seems to have passed such people by.
Commissionerspast, present and futureshould be judged on what they are employed to do. I hope that, from now on, every commissioner will do what previous commissioners have done: explain their role and frankly answer questions about whether there is an inquiry into a complaint against a Member of Parliament. If the commissioner is not allowed to say yes or no to that, whispering campaigns against Members occur.
The parliamentary standards process is as good a protection to the public and to Members of Parliament alike, and it requires the commissioner to be able to give such factual answers. I have not heard the slightest whisper from a single journalist on any occasion during the past three years that Elizabeth Filkin said anything improper or out of order with regard to a current inquiry, unless it is considered improper for her to confirm that an inquiry is taking place or to say that no inquiry is taking place.
As a tribute to Elizabeth Filkin, I quote the remarks of a director of the Britannia building society, who said that the question asked by the company about every proposal was whether it would pass the Filkin testin other words, whether it was right. That is the question that she had to ask about what Members of Parliament were doing. Each of us, whether we came under her invigilation or not, will find that her advice has been good.
I hope that Philip Mawer's advice will be equally good and that he will have the support of the House. Elizabeth Filkin did not have that support from every quarter. It is about time that senior Members of the House, whether in government or not, gave her the support that she deserved, and they should give Philip Mawer the support that he will need.