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Peter Bottomley: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to say that we should advise people to look at the report that was published today, in which the Member facing a complaint spoke to the commissioner and sorted things out? The commissioner thought that there was no need to go any further. There were further complaints; they were looked at. A report came to the Committee. I would argue that the Committee, by my readingit is an agreed report, although what it says may not be agreedagreed with the commissioner, in a sense, on three of the main issues, but also agreed that no further action was needed. In that case, legal advice did not come in. The whole process took very little time. It has been fair and open, and that surely is the best advice to others.
Mr. McNamara: I must say that I found that rather a strange phrase to use about the elegant commissioner that we have at present. If it meant that she was tough-minded and would stand no nonsense, I would accept that, but I always found herin my dealings with her and from observing her with other members of the Committeeever courteous, ever helpful, ever prepared to listen, and ever ready to argue her point, but willing to concede gracefully when the Committee decided differently.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I declare an interest, in that I was for some time a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I am a member of the House of Commons Commission and I was a member of the board that conducted the preliminary interviews for the position that the House is considering. In that sense, I am in this up to my eyeballs. The House should be aware of that, and can take account of it in respect of anything that I might now say.
Having said that, I have no hesitation in recommending Mr. Philip Mawer to the House because I had the privilege of being involved in interviewing him, among many other people of very high quality, not just once but twice. My view washappily, this was the way that events turned outthat he was the best qualified of a very high-quality field of candidates.
It partly answers some of what was said in the debate that, when the post was advertised, there was no lack of high-quality applicants who, although they knew the context, still came forward because they felt that the role was challenging and demanding, because they had a sense of duty and because they wanted to play their part in maintaining the reputation of the parliamentary process and of the House. The House can therefore feel confident that this candidate will serve it extremely well if, as I hope, we agree to his appointment.
However, we must recogniseit was made clear to Mr. Mawer, as it was to the other candidatesthat the position of commissioner is not an easy one, as became patently obvious during the debate. There has been no attempt to conceal it. We all know, not least from the debate, that the commissioner has to maintain a relationship with the Standards and Privileges Committee, of course; with the House of Commons Commission, although that relationship is, of necessity and rightly, much diminished after the appointment; with Mr. Speaker, of course, because of his position in the House; and with the Clerk of the House under some circumstances. In addition to all that, the commissioner must have a relationship with 655 Members of Parliament.
Mr. Forth: I thought that some clever colleague would ask me about the other four. I deliberately excluded Mr. Speaker and the Deputy Speakers. Strictly speaking, I perhaps should not have but I would be crazy not to in this circumstance. My point, Madam Deputy Speaker, is that maintaining a relationship with the entirety of the membership of the House is a key part of the job and responsibility of the commissioner, and one of the most difficult parts. It is on that ground, among others, that we must satisfy ourselves. Worse, the commissioner then has to maintain independence and integrity and at the same time be a servant of the House. That is a very difficult duty to maintain with credibility.
I am confident, however, that Mr. Philip Mawer has the experience and the capability to fulfil those very demanding requirements and maintain the confidence of Members and the public at large. I believe that he is fully capable of doing so and I commend him to the House.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The House will be aware that I have put my name to the motion. At the risk of scandalising the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), I fully support what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said in commending Mr. Mawer.
The House was fortunate to have a good field of candidates for the post. When it was advertised, some members of the press said that no one of calibre would apply. Indeed, one feature writer who said that himself went on to apply. The press were wholly wrong, as they so often are. The candidates were drawn from a wide field. I think that I speak for the Commission when I say that any of the three on the final short list could do the job with distinction and success. It is an even greater tribute to Mr. Mawer that he was successful in such a strong field.
I defer to my hon. Friend for his superior knowledge of the Church of England, but from my study of 19th century literature I believe that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is correct in saying that the Church is not without politics and intrigue. Handling the senior post that Mr. Mawer occupied must have required tact, skill and toughness. He also served with distinction at the Home Office where he undertook tough and demanding tasks, such as acting as the secretary and writer of the Scarman report on the Brixton riots. I am confident that he brings to the post the qualities that we need and experience that has prepared him for the role of commissioner.
It is important to underline what my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) said: the process of appointment was scrupulous. In the early stages, we sought the advice and support of one of my predecessors, Lord Newton, and Sir Gordon Downey, a former Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Throughout all stages of the process, we were observed by an independent assessor, Mrs. Sheila Drew-Smith, who was appointed by the Commission for Public Appointments. She also attended the final hearing, at the end of which she saidI wrote down her commentthat the process had been as robust as we can make it. The Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee joined us as a full voting member when we made the final choice from the shortlist of three, and he fully supported our choice at the end of the hearing. No matter what other opinions hon. Members may have, it is not possible to fault the process by which we produced the man who I believe is an excellent candidate for the post.
Mr. Salmond: No one suggested that the process of appointment of the new commissioner was not scrupulous. Some hon. Members suggested, however, that the effective removal of the previous commissioner was less than scrupulous. Having heard the views expressed in the debate, does the Leader of the House regret anything that he has or has not done as part of his role in the House of Commons Commission in the past few months, given the circumstances under which Elizabeth Filkin left office?
Mr. Cook: Not in the slightest. I have done nothing of which to be ashamed, nothing that I am not prepared to defend, and nothing that I have any cause to regret. I believe that Mr. Mawer will command the confidence of the House. In a year or two, we will look back on what we did tonight and regard it as the correct decision.
David Winnick: Would it not have been better for the House of Commons Commission to initiate a debate on why Elizabeth Filkin was not to have her contract renewed? This debate is about the new appointment, and
Mr. Cook: Let us be clear about this: Mrs. Filkin is leaving our service because she chose not to put herself forward in open competition for the post. Throughout the process, I have been careful to ensure that my appreciation of her qualities is placed on the record. It is strange that those who purport to be her champions are the ones who keep pressing for a debate to explore her merits for the post. I am content to echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said. I commend Mrs. Filkin for her assiduity, determination and meticulousness and, with those words, the House should draw a line under the matter.
There are aspects of the system that the House should consider for the future, one of which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston). Hon. Members require protection against the malicious representation of them being under investigation even when there is nothing of substance to investigate. Their reputation is important not just to their political careers, but to their standing in their community. We must not expose them to the meretricious publicity of being under investigation when no inquiry has been launched or is likely to produce a substantial result.
As Leader of the House, I would welcome the Standards and Privileges Committee's considering how to give greater clarity to the distinction between a complaint having been made and an investigation having been launched. I was much attracted to the formula that Sir Gordon Downey articulated on the radio last year. He said that he never initiated an investigation until he was satisfied that there was a prima facie case to be answered. Until we reach that stage, all Members are entitled to privacy and protection against fabricated claims that they are under investigation because of complaints without substance.