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5.34 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): When I was shadow Leader of the House, I was a member of the House of Commons Commission. I do not want to discuss some of the points that have been raised today in detail; I would prefer to speak in general terms. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) prayed in aid his experience of employment law and good employment practice in a former life. I too have experience of a former life—my business life, in which I spent a lot of time advising organisations, especially in the corporate sector, on communication.

When, as a member of the Commission, I considered the point that we had reached with the last Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Mrs. Filkin, I decided that the House should do something about one aspect, although it might not be unusual here. The House is not a good employer. We are not good at applying best practice in the way in which we, as MPs, would expect it to be applied in the wider business world. I think the House is now addressing that problem—the Braithwaite report, which was mentioned earlier, was an extremely useful exercise which put us on the right track—but we are not there yet.

In my short experience as a member of the Commission, I concluded that many aspects of communication—both verbal and written—had led us to the situation we are debating today. I welcome the appointment of Mr. Mawer, but it would be unacceptable if we did not learn the lessons and put them into practice pretty rapidly.

The House may recall that I questioned the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) about a proper contract of employment. I think that that is essential. I also think that the rudiments of what we would expect to find in such a contract should be accompanied by an outline, in terms, of the procedures to be followed not just when the Commissioner felt there was a need to apply for more resources, but in the event of a breakdown in communication with the Commission—either directly or through the Speaker—or when outside queries from the media and others must be handled. This is about process, not the definitive role of the commissioner in investigating individual complaints—that being part of the commissioner's remit. I believe that the last commissioner worked without that framework, which is absolutely necessary if communication is to be facilitated at all levels.

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We have just had a little exchange about the way in which things go wrong when the commissioner speaks to the media—and yes, there have been complaints about a whispering campaign in the House about the last commissioner. There are procedures to resolve such problems immediately, if someone takes the trouble to think the process through and set it down. The problems will arise, owing to the nature of the job and the number of people with an interest—not least the media, who can be quite pernicious in their own pursuit of what the commissioner is up to. If the process for dealing with those problems is not properly structured and set out, and is not part of the employment contract and terms of reference given to the commissioner on appointment—or if there is no procedure for adding it to them—we shall inevitably find ourselves in the position in which we found ourselves with Mrs. Filkin. In the end, rightly or wrongly, for a variety of reasons, the commissioner lacked trust in the House and the House lacked trust in the commissioner. As an employer, it is incumbent upon the House to resolve those matters. It is incumbent upon us as employers to ensure through the Commission that we obtain good advice, if that advice is not readily to hand, so that the new commissioner's contract and terms of reference are clearly set out.

The post of commissioner is relatively new. The way in which investigations of Members of Parliament are carried out when a complaint is made is relatively new. In one or two of the more high-profile cases in the previous Parliament, the commissioner perhaps started to investigate areas that she had not investigated before. People started to say, "Is it right that she should look at that aspect of a case and that that should command more resources?" I am not going to say in a judgmental way that it was right or it was not right. All I am saying is that that matter needs to be dealt with. As and when they arise, such issues must be resolved in a timely fashion by either the commissioner or Members of Parliament.

It is a pretty simple procedure; it is not exactly rocket science. Any large organisation in the financial sector would have such a procedure in place and would be able to solve problems as they arose. We have experienced a festering over several years of many issues, all of which deserve to be addressed. However, no one took responsibility to resolve those problems.

A breakdown in communication inevitably results when a situation evolves in that way. We end up with a situation such as we had with Mrs. Filkin. When the contract came up for renewal, it was not immediately clear to many people involved exactly what the procedure was.

Peter Bottomley: The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for at least slightly opening the curtains—

Mrs. Browning: I hope that I am not.

Peter Bottomley: May I put it this way? If there were thought to be problems and if the commissioner and the Commission did not meet, that is a failure of communication on the part of the employer. If the Commission did not consult the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, which is with the commissioner virtually every week, there would seem to be a slight communication problem, so my hon. Friend is right to say that lessons can be learned.

Mrs. Browning: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am shutting the curtains as quickly as I can; it was not my

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intention to open them. I am sharing an observation with the House as someone who has experienced these problems in another scenario. I could see how the situation had evolved.

One of the difficulties with problem solving is knowing and identifying the problem in the first place, rather than just living with what can become a festering sore, where everyone involved is disgruntled for a variety of reasons but no one takes responsibility for dealing with the situation and for solving problems as they arise.

A proper professional framework needs to be set out so that problems can be avoided in future. It is simply a matter of good practice in the management and employment of people, whether they be a parliamentary commissioner or anyone else for whom we are responsible. The House must raise its game and adopt 21st-century practices in managing its affairs, particularly in relation to employment contracts and the framework that is set out when people are employed, for which we or a Committee have responsibility. It is not acceptable for the situation just to go on and on. Someone must take responsibility.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough said that the new contract for the new commissioner is confidential. I accept that what is type-written in the contract is confidential, but I hope that it will be comprehensive and that the annexes, if not the main document—I trust that there will be annexes—will cover the proper procedures for problem resolution and for reporting back, setting out who the key people are to approach when these matters arise again, whether it be my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, or whoever. Unless that is written into the new commissioner's contract, we will go through the whole exercise again and the House will be the poorer for it. We must learn the lessons from the employment of Mrs. Filkin.

As a lay person looking in from the outside, there were times after reading the ultimate report when I did not agree with Mrs. Filkin's judgment on individual cases and other times when I did agree, but that is what happens when responsibility is devolved to someone so that they can independently take a detailed look at matters that are reported to them. That is their job. Inevitably, we are not all going to agree or disagree with the outcome of individual reports.

The Braithwaite report has been a wake-up call to the way this establishment is run. As a Parliament, we spend a lot of taxpayers' money and we are responsible for the employment of a great many people at all levels in the House. We must be as professional and as transparent in our dealings with them as we would expect them to be, and as we inevitably expect any business organisation to be outside.

5.46 pm

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch): Far be it from me to bring disunity to the Chamber, where unity usually reigns on occasions such as this, but the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) was not quite to my taste. To be honest, I found it unctuous. It bordered on hagiography.

What we need is what we had in Elizabeth Filkin: a rough-hewn character capable of fingering the collar of dodgy people who are self-serving and all too willing to

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kick up a fuss when the heat is on. As a one-time robust criminal barrister, I admired her style. Instead we will get a member of the great and the good, an establishment figure who will bed himself in as and when he can wind down his many other important activities. Personally, I doubt whether a sophisticated insider and dextrous mandarin who is capable of reading the tea leaves in this place is the sort of person we want.

Moreover, unless I am much mistaken, as that person is a Church Commissioner he must be a member of the Church of England, an organisation of which I was a member before I became an atheist. When I was in the choir, I was told that to be a good member of the Church of England, I had to eschew theology, shut down my moral faculties and demonstrate that the only principle to which I adhered was the lack of a principle. I was told that the Church of England was a Church where doubts very occasionally led to consensus. I am not sure that that is what we want in this case.

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