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15 Nov 2007 : Column 861

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

1.44 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I beg to move,

Hon. Members might recall that, on 28 June, Mr. Speaker informed the House that the current Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer, had indicated his desire to step down from the post at the end of this year, after almost six years in the post. This debate provides the opportunity to thank Sir Philip for all that he has done in that time; but before I do so, I shall briefly report on the process that has led the Commission to recommend that John Lyon should become the fourth person to hold that office.

The process followed very much the same path as the one that led to the appointment of Sir Philip in 2002. There was an open and competitive selection. We were very pleased that 46 candidates of notably good calibre were considered. Five of them were interviewed by the selection board, and the final two came for interview by the Commission. They were two excellent candidates, and the recommendation to the House was a very tough call.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for taking part in the selection board, as the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, to the two senior House officials who sat on the board and to Sheila Drew Smith from the panel of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments—an independent member of the selection board.

John Lyon is a senior official in the Ministry of Justice. He is currently responsible for handling relations between the Executive and the judiciary, which, one presumes, is no bed of roses. He impressed the Commission with his long experience of dealing with Ministers from both parties, dating back to the late Merlyn Rees in the mid-1970s. He also showed a good understanding of the importance of the job to the House’s reputation and the need to strike the right balance between prevention and investigation.

If the House agrees the motion today, John Lyon will serve a single term of five years, starting in January 2008. Members will recall that, in June 2003, following the recommendation in the eighth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the House resolved that the commissioner should serve a non-renewable term of five years, to avoid any suggestion that an incumbent might tailor their judgments on account of a desire to have the term renewed.

The Commission attaches great importance to ensuring that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has sufficient resources to carry out his duties properly. The cost of running that office in 2006-07 was £386,500, almost all of which was staff costs. If the new commissioner finds that he needs extra assistance, he will get a very sympathetic hearing from the House of Commons Commission.

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I would not want to steal the thunder—nay, more likely the warm sunshine—of the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, but on behalf of the Commission I should like to record our appreciation of the way in which Sir Philip Mawer has carried out his task. As a member of that Committee, I have seen that at first hand over the past couple of years. Sir Philip has shown a high degree of integrity, diligence and impartiality in carrying out complicated and sensitive inquiries. In a typical piece of understatement, his final annual report concludes with the words

We wish him well in his next appointment as the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests.

1.48 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It gives me great pleasure to support the motion, moved by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), to appoint John Lyon as the House’s new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I welcome what the hon. Gentleman has just said about resources from the House. As he explained, as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, I played a part the selection process, and I can confirm its rigour and integrity.

The current commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, will be a hard act to follow, and he was the benchmark against which I judged the applicants. John Lyon has a similar pedigree. He has a distinguished record as a career civil servant and a good insight into the ways of the House and its Members, both through his private office experience in the Home Office and through his involvement with our legislative programme. He has demonstrated his ability to deal effectively with sensitive matters and to balance conflicting interests, not least in some of his work in Northern Ireland. He has shown his ability to act discreetly and fairly and I am sure that he will prove to be a worthy successor to Sir Philip. Both the Committee and I look forward to working with him.

What are the skills that John Lyon will need? It is self-evident that an ability to act fairly is essential. The commissioner must also be able to prioritise, and to identify and concentrate on, the key issues. He must be resolute in the face of obfuscation, as successive commissioners have demonstrated. Given the extent of the commissioner’s direct personal involvement in investigating complaints, he needs the ability to run investigations, and to draft complex reports succinctly.

Besides ensuring that the system runs successfully, the commissioner needs to keep the wider picture under review. The standards system is a dynamic one, and the commissioner plays a leading part in ensuring that it continues to meet expectations, both inside and outside the House. He also has to seek to ensure that the system's achievements are better known. The commissioner’s annual reports—referred to by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey)—the most recent of which was published a couple of weeks ago, have an important part to play in this.

John Lyon will inherit a standards system that is in much finer fettle than that which awaited his predecessor in February 2002. Then, there was a
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distinct feeling, inside and outside the House, that the arrangements the House had put in place in 1995 were failing and were in need of radical reform. The Committee on Standards in Public Life initiated an inquiry, which could have recommended an end to our self-disciplinary procedures. The committee, rightly in my view, put its faith in continued self-regulation, and subsequent events have shown the wisdom and foresight of that decision. That the reputation of self-regulation was restored is due in no small part to the work of the current commissioner.

I have already mentioned that the standards system is a dynamic one, and the commissioner has a key part to play in ensuring that it develops effectively. This debate provides a welcome opportunity to pay tribute to the work of Sir Philip Mawer in this respect. The Standards and Privileges Committee supported a three-legged strategy: first, emphasising prevention; secondly, carrying out impartial and robust investigations of complaints; and thirdly, proposing initiatives aimed at ensuring that the standards arrangements continue to reflect expectations both inside and outside the House. Sir Philip has enhanced the reputation of the House’s standards arrangements.

On the first count, the proactive work of the commissioner and his team, particularly at the start of Parliaments, but also at other times—including when changes are made to the system—has helped to reduce the scope for inadvertent breaches. That is important, because all breaches, deliberate and inadvertent, impact on public perceptions of, and confidence in, Members generally and the reputation of the House as an institution. In tidying up the registration requirements and rationalising, where possible, those of the House and the Electoral Commission, he has made it simpler for Members to meet their obligations. He has also improved the visibility of Members’ interests: up-to-date versions of the register are now more readily accessible as a result of the decision to update the internet version fortnightly when the House is sitting.

On the second count, the commissioner has made 47 formal reports to the Committee, one of which—that relating to the complaints against the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway)—was the most lengthy and one of the most complex reports ever undertaken. On the basis of those reports, the Committee required remedial action in six cases, and the House took action against Members, on the Committee’s recommendation, in three further cases. Sir Philip’s inquiries have been fair and thorough in all cases, and his reports clear and succinct. I am heartened, though, that so few serious cases have arisen on his watch, which reinforces my own view of the generally high standards of Members’ conduct.

On the third count, the commissioner has led a review of the code of conduct, approved by the House in 2005, and a review of the guide to the rules, which the Committee expects to report on soon. He has introduced extensions of the rectification procedure, to increase the range of circumstances in which minor infractions can be dealt with effectively without the formality of a report to the House. Other developments are also in prospect, as outlined in the commissioner’s most recent report.

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Sir Philip Mawer has been an outstanding commissioner, who took over one of the most difficult jobs in public life and made a success of it. He has played a key part in restoring confidence in our disciplinary procedures. The extent to which his experience is sought out internationally is a tribute to the distinguished service he has given the House for some five and three quarter years. We wish him well in his new post as the Government’s adviser on ministerial interests, and we welcome his successor to the post.

1.54 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) in asking the House to agree to the motion. Both Members emphasised the significance of this issue. It is important that the House has high standards and that the public know that to be the case. To ensure that it is the case, it is right that there is a clear, visible and effective process in place for addressing possible breaches of the code and the rules of conduct for Members of Parliament, and that there are arrangements to offer authoritative advice to Members to ensure that they can be confident that they are adhering to those requirements.

Since 1995, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has played an important part in that: by giving Members appropriate advice to avoid situations that might give rise to allegations of breaches of the code of conduct; by helping to keep the code of conduct for Members of Parliament, and the associated mechanisms for enforcement, up to date; and by investigating and reporting complaints, where necessary, to the Standards and Privileges Committee.

The motion asks the House to approve the appointment of Mr. John Lyon CB as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards from January 2008 for a non-renewable period of five years. The document that has been published by the House of Commons Commission about the selection process for the new appointment has been helpfully explained. It sets out how Mr. John Lyon was chosen and provides information both about the post and about him. I know him to be an eminent public servant with substantial experience in areas requiring significant discretion and judgment. I had the privilege of working with him when he was a senior civil servant and I was a Minister in the Ministry of Justice. He has been selected following an open competition. I am very happy to add my voice to the recommendation to the House to agree to the motion providing for his appointment. I wish him well in the task and I know that all hon. Members will give him their full co-operation.

This is also an opportunity to thank—as other Members have done—Sir Philip Mawer for all he has done in his nearly six years serving the House as commissioner. Sir Philip has contributed greatly to the further development of the role of the commissioner, through the publication of annual reports and through his contributions to changes in the way complaints are handled by the Standards and Privileges Committee. He has had some difficult cases to investigate. As the House will know, Sir Philip is to become the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, and we wish him well in that new role.

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This is an appropriate opportunity also to thank those involved in the other parts of the House’s system for delivering standards: the Registrar of Members’ Interests—Alda Barry, who is always helpful to Members—and her team, and the Standards and Privileges Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. The sort of post that has been taken up by the hon. Member for North Devon is not likely to mean that people march in the streets demanding that he become the next leader of the Liberal Democrats, and people are not queuing up to thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire for his work. However, if they did not do that work, the House would not operate properly. It is important that they do their work and that we have an opportunity to recognise it, given that it is insufficiently recognised outside the House. I pay tribute to them for the way in which they do their work. They get little credit for it, but it is important.

The House will have noted from the latest annual report of the present commissioner, published recently, that the Committee plans in due course to bring to the House a revised guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members—including the outcome of discussion with the Electoral Commission about the alignment of the House’s registration requirements with those of the commission—and provisions for the reform of the rules on all-party groups. The House will, of course, have an appropriate opportunity to consider those matters in due course.

In conclusion, I once again record our thanks to Sir Philip for his contribution to the work of the House over the years and to improving public confidence in that work, and, in the expectation that the House will endorse the motion, I welcome Mr. Lyon to his new responsibilities from January 2008.

1.59 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I, too, take this opportunity to recognise the work of Sir Philip and the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Without them the integrity of the House could not be protected. Without their hard work and due diligence the standing of the House and MPs would be affected, and it would be much more difficult to deal with problems. As the report says, Sir Philip’s integrity and impartiality has been recognised. Public confidence, the lack of media headlines on the subject and the fact that there are not too many complaints within the House suggest that he has found a careful balance between keeping the House’s reputation and ensuring the smooth operation of the House’s work.

Like the Leader of the House, I pay tribute to members of the Committee and of the House of Commons Commission, because their work does not have a high public profile—or hopefully does not; occasionally it can. The fact that they get on with their work smoothly behind the scenes makes it easier for the rest of us to operate.

The process for appointing the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards appears to be fair, with a proper, open and transparent system of advertising, nominations and interviews. The House of Commons Commission and the interview board seem to have done their work, and I see no reason why the House should not endorse that work by supporting the
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motion. I welcome Mr. John Lyon to his job for the next five years. The House took the right decision in making the post non-renewable, so that the appointee has clear and transparent independence. I wish Mr. Lyon all the best for the coming years in which he will serve the House and its integrity. Again, I pay tribute to the work of Sir Philip, and wish him all the best in his new career.

2.1 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I have been on the Committee on Standards and Privileges for only the last year or so, but I would like to pay tribute to Sir Philip, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has done, for the calm, dispassionate and forensic way in which he carried out his duties. I wish him well in his next incarnation, and welcome his successor, John Lyon, who seems admirably qualified. The introduction of the new communications allowance has provided Sir Philip’s successor with a rich treasure trove of new complaints and issues to get to grips with, and I look forward to seeing how that pans out in the years ahead.

2.2 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I support the motion to appoint John Lyon the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and I echo the comments made by other right hon. and hon. Members. First, I should like to mention the work done by the Committee on Standards and Privileges, chaired ably by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). The Leader of the House said that my right hon. Friend’s role—and that of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who is spokesman for the House of Commons Commission—is not the sort of role that is likely to get people dancing in the streets and crying out, with acclaim, that those who hold them should have more senior roles in their parties or in Parliament. Similarly, the role taken by members of the Standards and Privileges Committee will not necessarily always endear them to their peers in the Chamber, but they all carry out their responsibilities with distinction, and we are grateful to them for their work.

The House owes Philip Mawer a debt of gratitude for the way in which he undertook his role; he has performed it with great distinction. Crucially, he has enhanced the belief, and the comfort that people take, in self-regulation in the House. He undertook his role with impartiality, but with robustness, and dealt with Members of the House with courtesy. I wish him well in his future endeavours, as others have done.

I am pleased to welcome the motion to appoint John Lyon to the position. He has had a distinguished career in the civil service. Throughout that career, he has shown integrity and, crucially, steely determination, as well as a willingness and ability to stand up to Members of Parliament and others. He has an understanding of the House and of the role that he must play as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. As the hon. Member for North Devon says, John Lyons understands the balance between prevention and investigation. His ability to marry that steely determination and integrity with an understanding of the House will make him a worthy successor to Sir Philip Mawer.

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2.4 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I support the appointment of the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and I want to pay tribute to Sir Philip Mawer. I may have caused him some sleepless nights over the past 12 months, given the large investigation that he undertook into the complaint that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and I made about the alleged misuse of Commons dining facilities. It was a complex investigation, and he dealt with it fairly and conscientiously. On a few occasions, I was on the receiving end of a rebuke from him for not getting the procedure right, but even that was done in a courteous and dignified manner. He has set the standard, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said.

We need to keep reinforcing in the public mind the fact that politics is an honourable profession, and that the House has honour. If the Standards and Privileges Committee and the new commissioner keep their high standards, those standards can be raised in the eyes of the public. We too easily become targets for sniping, although all hon. Members whom I know, on both sides, came into politics with the best of motives.

One issue that needs addressing, and which the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) raised, is the capacity of the commissioner’s office. The investigation that followed my complaint led to a lot of work for the commissioner, and very early on the new commissioner may have to review the issue of whether he needs extra resources. One investigation can take up a lot of time, and if two or three investigations are undertaken at one time there will be severe pressure, not just on the commissioner, but on his dedicated staff.

Finally, I wish Sir Philip all the best and thank him for his work on our behalf. His new regulations have been adopted by the Administration Committee, but I hasten to tell him that I think that I have found one Member who is in breach of them. However, if I have to submit a complaint, I may well wait and do so to the new commissioner.

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