Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Peter Bottomley: One of the advantages of the system that the House instituted by establishing the commissioner and the Standards and Privileges Committee is that we can now take matters further. Newspaper used to attack a Member who had no way in which to get the claim investigated. We should remember that such a case would have received publicity anyway. Having a commissioner who looks into an allegation and who does not take an investigation further gives a Member greater protection than not having the system at all.

Mr. Cook: I am not suggesting that we dismantle the system, but we should protect ourselves against malicious complaints that result in headlines that a Member is under investigation. We can protect ourselves against that without dismantling the system.

Our system of self-regulation has been criticised. It is important that we restore public faith and confidence in it. Today we accepted a report by the Standards and Privileges Committee. We debated the report promptly and expeditiously, and its findings were accepted unanimously. The vigour, severity and unanimity with which we carry through the process of self-regulation compares favourably with other cases of self-regulation.

13 Feb 2002 : Column 267

We are more likely to pursue our self-regulation with greater rigour and with the unanimous support of our Members than, possibly, the press do with the Press Complaints Commission.

This is Ash Wednesday and an appropriate day on which to approach the debate in a spirit of penitence and critical self-examination. It is vital that we have robust and frank procedures to call to account those Members who let down the standards of the House. We also should ensure that we and, if possible, the press retain a sense of proportion. As Leader of the House, I am distressed that the occasional lapse by a few Members is sometimes written up as if it is representative of the House as a whole. That is false. Most complaints to the Standards and Privileges Committee are not upheld. Most hon. Members come to the House with a genuine commitment to serve their constituents and their political beliefs. Some of those beliefs are entirely wrong-headed, but I respect the sincerity and integrity with which all hon. Members bring their beliefs and commitment to the House. In my view, the House is as clean as any other representative parliamentary democracy. We should not be ashamed of saying so and should take every possible step to ensure that our systems advertise that to our public, our constituents and even to our press. That is why it is of the greatest importance that we have in place mechanisms to maintain our standards and enforce our code of conduct.

I believe that Mr. Mawer will win the confidence of the House for his discretion. Even more important, I believe that he will win the confidence of the public that he will conduct his job with vigour and without fear of, or favour to, any Member. Since becoming Leader, I have frequently said to the House that I believe in the scrutiny of Government because good scrutiny makes for good Government. I believe also that good scrutiny of standards makes for a good Parliament. I believe that Mr. Mawer will be a good scrutineer, and in that spirit I commend him to the House.

7.10 pm

Mr. Bell: I should like to make a few points about the debate.

First, I want to answer a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) about Elizabeth Filkin's extra day's work. I have been informed by the Director of Finance and Administration that arrangements have been made to pay Mrs. Filkin for all the days that she has worked and for annual leave that she has not taken. I hope that answers my hon. Friend's question.

It seems a long time since we heard from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). He said that he thought that Sir Nigel Wicks and his committee ought to review the commissioner's role or his appointment. We welcome any inquiries made by Sir Nigel Wicks and his review of the procedures of the House. I simply add that the House is master and mistress of its own affairs, and it is for the House to decide whether it wishes to alter the present status.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the duties that the new nominee will have if he is appointed. He spoke of linesmen and referees. I simply say that if Mr. Mawer is appointed by the House tonight, he expects to begin work

13 Feb 2002 : Column 268

from the beginning of March. Initially, this will be for one or two days a week, since the House will understand that it will take him a little while to relinquish all his present responsibilities, but he will increase his commitment as quickly as he can. Strictly speaking, Mr. Mawer should have given six months' notice to the Church of England, but recognising the importance of this role, the Church is allowing him to leave sooner. Mr. Mawer therefore expects to work up to three days a week by May. He has said:

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) made a very eloquent declaration of the merits and qualities of Mrs. Elizabeth Filkin. I have to repeat what has been said by other members of the Commission and by right hon. and hon. Members of the House: the Commission has valued Mrs. Filkin's work and regrets that she did not take the opportunity to apply to be considered for a second term. The nomination report records the Commission's appreciation

and notes:

We also believe that her work has validated the system of parliamentary self-regulation established following the recommendations of the first Nolan report.

Much has been made of the press and its contacts and relationships. The new commissioner, like all Officers of the House and like his predecessor, is subject to a general requirement to maintain confidentiality. Given the nature of the position, the commissioner will need to agree with the Standards and Privileges Committee what contact he has with the media, but there is no question whatsoever of gagging Mr. Mawer. Indeed, should the House approve his appointment today, I am sure that he would be ready to talk to the press tomorrow.

The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) made an interesting, intriguing and delightful speech, as always. I can only paraphrase Voltaire and say that I do not agree with what he said, but I would defend to the death his right to say it. The Commission and the House welcome his warm words for Philip Mawer in his early-day motion. I have read in the press—it may be malicious gossip—that the hon. Gentleman intends to resign from the Standards and Privileges Committee. I can only give him the advice of Lord Beaverbrook: "Never resign. Wait until you're sacked." Since no one is likely to sack the hon. Gentleman from that role, I urge him to stay where he is and to give Philip Mawer positive advice. I know that Mr. Mawer would welcome that.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who was a member of the Commission for some time, as she said, asked about the accountability of the commissioner. The Speaker and the Clerk of the House will have general management and oversight of the commissioner, but under Standing Order No. 149, it is for the Standards and Privileges Committee to oversee the commissioner's work. No doubt that role will fall on the gentleman sitting next to her, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). The hon. Lady made great play of what the commissioner's contract would say. If the House approves the motion, Philip Mawer will sign a detailed contract, which covers

13 Feb 2002 : Column 269

dealings with the media and all the other matters to which she referred. It contains written arrangements for dealing with problems and grievances that may arise. I hope that I have answered sufficiently the points that she made.

I come to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) and his articles in Tribune. I have to tell him that I preferred him when he was playing cricket for Tribune rather than writing his articles. I know that he has probably given up the cricket, but he has not yet given up his articles.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made an eloquent speech, as we would expect. Like me, he knows Philip Mawer from a long time back. He is right in his assessment of Mr. Mawer's character and qualities. He said that he thought that there should be a long-term commissioner, and no doubt that point will be taken up in the weeks, months and years to come.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) made a positive contribution, which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) summed up nicely when he said that it related to structural arguments. It was a fine, thoughtful speech, and one that we ought to take into account as we constantly review our proceedings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) made a refreshing speech. It was a minority speech, and it takes a lot to be the only one in step, especially in the House of Commons, but he made powerful arguments. Of course, the public do not think very highly of MPs and their standards, but since 1974 we have been on a par with estate agents. I do not want to disparage estate agents, but we have never quite lifted ourselves from that level.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, who made an eloquent speech, brought the debate to a close. He has a different element of faith from some of us. He knows that I, a Protestant, have a Catholic wife, and so we go to a Catholic church as well as to a Protestant one. For Philip Mawer to have the full support of Catholics and Protestants, and for him to be nominated on Ash Wednesday, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said, would be worthy of the House, of the Commission and of Mr. Mawer, and I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


Next Section

IndexHome Page