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Clause 2

Code of conduct
Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 240, in clause 2, page 1, line 10, leave out ‘Commission must’ and insert ‘Secretary of State may by order’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 241, in clause 2, page 1, leave out lines 16 and 17.
No. 242, in clause 2, page 2, line 2, leave out ‘Commission’ and insert ‘Secretary of State’.
No. 243, in clause 3, page 2, line 11, at end insert ‘in accordance with the code’.
Mrs. Lait: The Minister will be pleased to know that they are probing amendments. It is ironic that, at questions in the House this afternoon, the matter of the Greater London authority’s code of conduct arose, because the query behind the amendment is why the commission is writing its own code of conduct and it is not being written by the Secretary of State. What came out of today’s parliamentary questions in the reference to the GLA was that the Assembly wrote their own code of conduct. The question that was asked was, “Why is there no code of conduct for political advisers?”
John Healey: As I was responsible for answering that question, I was following it particularly closely. It was not actually about the code of conduct for the GLA, but about the discharge of its scrutiny functions and the statutory basis on which it conducts them. That is something in which her hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is obviously expert, having been a member of the GLA for some time, as he remains. I thought that his points about the shortcomings of the GLA’s role in carrying out its proper function of scrutiny were well made. He obviously made them from a particular position of expertise.
Mrs. Lait: Indeed, he made them from a great position of expertise and we will rely on that long after he ceases to be a member of the Greater London authority, following the London elections. However, because of the question that he raised and that the Minister responded to, the subject of the code of conduct emerged from that exchange. That reinforced my interest in why the code is being written by the commission. If I can put it in a somewhat more theoretical context, the commission is made up of people of various expertise, we hope, having extracted that from the Minister in today’s debate.
We have not really debated, but we have expressed concerns about conflicts of interest. While I would not, in any way, shape or form, impugn the honour of any commissioners, the chairman or the staff of the commission, who would probably draft the code of conduct, I would like to know whether the Minister has any concerns about the code. Will it too be open to scrutiny and legal challenge should the commission make a decision that is unpopular? Will it be reassuring to those who might be concerned about the commission’s conduct in a particular inquiry that the Secretary of State had signed off or been a signatory to, or had developed the code along with the commission? If the Minister can reassure me along those lines, I am absolutely certain that we shall withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Curry: On a point of information, does each of the existing quangos usually set its own rules of conduct? The Housing and Regeneration Bill is being discussed in the Committee Room next door. It establishes a successor to the Housing Corporation and English Partnership—that sort of thing. I have already referred to the Food Standards Agency. Alternatively, does a standard set of rules of conduct apply to all quangos? It would make sense to have standardisation across the piece to apply to those who serve on such bodies.
John Healey: Although I understand the broad concerns that underpin the amendment, it is not appropriate or necessary. I point the hon. Member for Beckenham to subsection (2)(b). The importance of that provision is that it allows the Secretary of State to direct the commission to include specific or additional matters within the code of conduct that it produces. Beyond that, as an independent body, it is better that the commission has responsibility for its own code of conduct. Like any public body, it would be expected to follow best practice in drafting the code as well as keeping it under review.
As a Minister who would potentially have to consider such matters, I am not instinctively someone who is attracted by the idea that everything should be specified from the centre. In this case, it is better that, as an independent body, the commission sets its own code of conduct with the ability for Ministers to specify certain things that may need to be taken into account, if necessary. With the scrutiny arrangements that the House will put in place, it might be expected that Parliament will play an active role if questions about the content or compliance with the code of conduct were asked. I urge members of the Committee not to substitute the responsibility and role of the commission under clause 2 with yet another duty of a Secretary of State or a Minister.
Mrs. Lait: We may look at the issue further, but I accept the Minister’s reassurances. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clauses 2, 3 and 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]
Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Seven o’clock until Thursday 17 January at Nine o’clock.
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Prepared 17 January 2008