Motion 41 is the first of four motions before us in this debate. The House approved the original code of conduct and guide to the rules on 24 July 1996. A slightly revised code of conduct and substantially changed guide to the rules were approved by the House on 14 May 2002. In 2002, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that in each Parliament the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should initiate a review of the code of conduct and guide to the rules. That was endorsed by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges and supported in a debate in the House on 26 June 2003.
The commissioner therefore conducted a review last year, consulting all Members of the House, and made recommendations for some modest changes to the code to the Standards and Privileges Committee. The principal changes that he recommended are, first, the addition of provisions to make clearer the purpose and scope of the code; secondly, the inclusion of new statements of Members' duties in respect of the commissioner and the Standards and Privileges Committee, implementing recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life; and, thirdly, the extension of the existing provisions regarding misuse of parliamentary allowances to misuse of facilities and services provided by the House.
The Committee on Standards and Privileges endorsed all the changes proposed by the commissioner and added another: that there should be added to the principle set out in the code that Members have a public duty to uphold the law, the words
I believe that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who chaired the Committee in the last Parliament, will speak in the debate and explain the background to the proposed changes in greater detailalthough I hope in not too great a detail.
One of the Committee's recommendations is not reflected in the motions before us. In paragraph 20, the Committee supports the commissioner's recommendation that the House should consider whether the Director of Finance and Administration, the Serjeant at Arms and other relevant House authorities should henceforth have an obligation to refer to the commissioner for investigation under the code the more significant instances of misuse that come independently to their attention, particularly where there is prima facie evidence of deliberate abuse. The Committee recommended that the House should take a decision in principle on that proposal when it considered the proposed new code. It would be a significant change, with potentially serious implications for the relationship between the Officers of the House and its Members. The
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recommendation requires further consultation and would be better taken forward separately. The Committee recognised that the recommendation was free-standing and therefore capable of independent consideration. I welcome the views of right hon. and hon. Members, and as ever I will listen carefully to what the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire may say on that point.
Motion 42 amends Standing Order No. 150, in line with paragraphs 15 and 17 of the Committee's report, introducing a new, simplified procedure for dealing with some cases of misuse of parliamentary allowances, facilities or services. With the agreement of the Member concerned, the commissioner will be able to exercise discretion to refer such cases to the relevant Officer of the House to secure appropriate reimbursement. Provided that the process is completed in a reasonable time scale, there will be no need for the commissioner to report to the Committee. That represents a useful extension to the rectification procedure in respect of inadvertent or minor failures to register or declare interests.
Motion 43 makes two tidying amendments to Standing Order No. 149, which provides the order of reference for the Committee on Standards and Privileges. It reduces the size of the Committee from 11 members to 10 following the agreement made in the previous Parliament that there should be a gradual movement towards a Committee of 10 in which no party had overall control, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
The order also removes the requirement that the Committee appoint a sub-committee specifically to receive reports from the commissioner relating to investigations into specific complaints. In practice, the Committee has never adopted that approach and if it wished to do so in future its general power to appoint sub-committees would allow that to happen.
Motion 44 nominates 10 members of the Committee. The House will be grateful to those Members for their willingness to serve on the Committee, which is a responsible and often thankless task, but very important to the integrity and standing of the House. I commend the motions.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I echo and support the words of the Leader of the House. This is a sensible set of motions. I offer my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for the work that he and his Committee did on this subject in the previous Parliament. The House should also thank the commissioner for his work in putting together the proposed new code. Beyond that, I have nothing to add except that the motions have the support of my colleagues and I, and I look forward to hearing comments and explanation from my right hon. Friend.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
I do not need to detain the House for very long either. Having had the pleasure of serving on the Committee on Standards and Privileges in the previous Parliament
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under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), I want to put on record my appreciation of his chairmanship, which was exemplary, and of the work of colleagues on the Committee. As the Leader of the House said, it is a responsible but often thankless task. Members are happy to undertake it on behalf of the House, but on occasions we should recognise the difficult decisions that they have to take and the careful consideration that they must give to matters brought to their attentionalong with the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner. In addition, I strongly support the proposed extension of the rectification procedure.
As I said in a previous debate, the Committee on Standards in Public Life was right to recommend that not only should the Committee on Standards and Privileges do its work fairly, impartially and well, but that we should ensure that that impression is given to the outside world. The minor changes to the composition of the Committeereducing the size so that there is no in-built Government majority, ensuring representation of the minority parties, in the form of the representative of Plaid Cymru in the previous Parliament as well as in this if the proposal goes through, and ensuring that Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen are not representedadd to the regard with which the Committee is likely to be held by those who look at its proceedings. That is right and proper, and I would recommend it to the House. I look forward to hearing what the former Chairmanand, I hope, the future Chairmanof the Standards and Privileges Committee says about the proposals.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful for right hon. and hon. Members' kind words about the work of the Standards and Privileges Committee in the last Parliament and for what they said about the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly in our debate.
The report that we are debating is temporarily orphaned, as the Committee that produced it in March this year is no more and its successor will not be set up until after the end of this debate. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for bringing the matter before the House quickly, as the Committee recommended in the last Parliament, so that the new code can come into force as early as possible in this Parliament. This evening, I am prepared to act as a foster parent. The review, as the Leader of the House said, is the first major review of the code since it was first introduced in 1996. Its genesis lies in the recommendation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, accepted by the House in a debate in June 2003, that the code and the guide to the rules be reviewed once every Parliament.
A substantially revised guide was approved by the House in May 2002, following an extensive inquiry by the Committee and its predecessor, but before the Committee on Standards in Public Life made its recommendation. In July 2004, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards initiated a consultation on the revision of the code. In February this year, he submitted proposals for a revised code to the Committee. On behalf of the previous Committee, I thank the Commissioner for the substantial and thorough work that went into that exercise. As the
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Committee reported, it was clear from responses to the consultation that there was no general feeling, either inside or outside the House, that the code required major revision. As the Committee said in its report, that is a welcome demonstration that
The principal changes in the proposed new code, which brings a welcome overall enhancement to the clarity and focus of the code on the issues that matter, include new statements on Members' duties from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and the implementation of recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. They also include the extension of existing provisions on the misuse of parliamentary allowances to the misuse of facilities and services provided by the House. It is right in principle that the misuse of House resources, whether in cash or in kind, should be treated in the same way. The Committee gave careful consideration to the inclusion of a non-discrimination provision in the proposed new code. Such provisions are commonly included in professional codes of practice, and the Committee decided to include one. I believe that it has done so effectively and in a way that will not impose additional burdens on Members.
When considering the new code, the Committee was anxious to ensure that its proposals were proportionate to the regulatory need, and that it should not seek to increase unnecessarily the regulatory burden on Members, which some already find irksome. Nor did it wish to increase the burden on the commissioner for no good purpose. In recommending an extension to the scope of the code to include the misuse of facilities and services, we therefore recommended that the present arrangements for investigating such matters continue to be used as far as possible, but under the oversight of the commissioner. Those arrangements appear to work well and to command general confidence in the House, so we saw no need to change them for the sake of it.
The Committee recommended a procedure whereby the Commissioner could, if appropriate, dispose of certain cases by referring them to the relevant Officer of the House to secure suitable financial reimbursement rather than making a report to the Committee. In a deregulatory move, the Committee recommended that such a procedure should be available in misuse of allowances cases. That is not possible under the existing code.
Speaking personally, I would like to see further deregulatory moves, consistent with proper accounting for public funds. In the House we recognise the importance of a deregulated environment for those whom we represent, while putting more regulation on ourselves. I am not sure which body is the appropriate forum to take this agenda forward, but I detect an appetite for it in the House. I am pleased to see that the Government have tabled motions that will enable the two recommendations to which I referred a moment ago to be implemented.
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The Committee also set out a principle which I hope is not contentiousthat what happens to a Member should depend on the severity or otherwise of the offence, rather than on the route by which it is uncovered. In principle, we argue that there should be a level playing field. I recognise, as did the Committee, that the proposal in the Committee's reportwhich, as the Leader of the House said, we are not being asked to deal with todaythat Officers of the House should, in some circumstances, report evidence of apparent misuse to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards raises sensitive issues around Members' relationship with those Departments, and that how the level playing field might be brought about in practice may require, as the Leader of the House said, further consultation.
I am happy with that, and I hope that such discussion or consultation could take place in the context of acceptance of the underlying principle that the seriousness of the matter should be the paramount consideration. That can only enhance public confidence in our regulatory arrangements. Handling all serious cases in the same manner, no matter how they arise, will also mean that the procedural safeguards and protection for Members inherent in the procedures overseen by the Committee would be available to all Members concerned.
We made good progress in the last Parliament in building public confidence in the regulatory framework, and in self-regulation in particular. As Peter Riddell, chief political correspondent of The Times, stated in a recent review of the first 10 years of the Committee on Standards in Public Life,
I am sure the new Committee will want to build on that record. In the last Parliament, the commissioner and the Committee rightly emphasised education and prevention, and I was pleased to see the extensive briefings on standards matters offered to new Members. The proposed new code strengthens in a proportionate way the expectations of both the House and the public as regards Members' conduct, and I commend the motions to the House.