Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1113

Points of Order

3.31 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Home Office questions this afternoon, the Home Secretary criticised Professor David Nutt, a distinguished scientist and an independent adviser to the Government—as established in statute—who writes about his areas of expertise in academic journals. Is it in order for the Home Secretary to criticise him here, where he cannot answer back, for views that he has expressed in scientific publications? If so, what is the future of academic freedom or independent scientific advice if the Home Secretary can demand that scientists apologise for their published academic findings and views?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has asked me whether the Home Secretary is entitled to criticise an academic—or any other person, for that matter. Of course she can. It is a parliamentary privilege that we all have. The Home Secretary is a Member of Parliament, and therefore she is entitled to do that.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It was reported in The Sunday Telegraph that you had ruled, on grounds of privilege, that foreign trips funded by the British Council should not be subject to freedom of information requests. Could you confirm that that is in fact the case, and could you possibly furnish us with reasons for the ruling?

Mr. Speaker: I do not give reasons for that particular procedure, and I have nothing to say on the matter on the Floor of the House.

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1114

Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members

Motion made, and Question proposed,

3.33 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I invite the House to approve the revised guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members as set out in the fourth report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which we published last week. It paves the way for an early end to dual reporting, as well as making a number of other changes which I believe will be welcomed in all parts of the House.

Coming as it does shortly after the adoption of the new Green Book and the setting up of the new Committee on Members’ Allowances, today’s debate gives us a opportunity to adopt a reporting regime that is intended to provide the House and our constituents outside with transparency and reassurance on our interests.

The code of conduct and the guide to the rules are essential components of the House’s regulatory machinery. It is vital that hon. Members have a clear understanding of what the code states and what the rules mean, in order that they may comply with them. The reporting regime, which is one of the most demanding in the world, needs to be overhauled from time to time to ensure that it is both effective and proportionate. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that such an overhaul should be carried out once in each Parliament, and today’s package of proposals represents the overhaul in the present Parliament.

In addition to making changes that relate to the end of dual reporting, the revised guide clarifies existing rules, implements earlier decisions of the House—for example, on the employment of family members—and responds to developments outside this place, such as the
9 Feb 2009 : Column 1115
development of new forms of investment vehicles. The final section of the revised guide sets out in greater detail than before the procedure for considering and investigating complaints that a Member has breached the rules. Many of the changes, however, and most of the red print in the revised guide are there to end dual reporting.

The requirement to report donations to both the Registrar of Members’ Interests and the Electoral Commission was, as my Committee’s report points out, an unintended consequence of the legislation passed in 2000. Problems came to light in 2005— [Interruption.] The House may have heard the aside from the Lord Chancellor, admitting culpability for such dual reporting. The problems came to light in 2005 when my Committee considered a report from the Commissioner for Standards on the inadvertent failure of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) to register donations in the Register of Members’ Interests, although he had fully reported those same donations to the Electoral Commission and they were in the public domain. The Committee concluded:

An attempt was made to achieve that during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, but the complexity of the subject was underestimated at the time. Much of the past two years has been taken up with lengthy and detailed discussions that have drilled deep into the substrata of electoral law. With the successful conclusion of those discussions—I am grateful to the registrar, Alda Barry, and the Clerk of my Committee, Steve Priestley, for their work on this—we have now reached the point where the end of dual reporting is in sight and the “one-stop shop” called for by the Committee in 2005 will soon be able to open for business.

The main focus of the discussions over the last year or so has been the Electoral Commission’s very proper concern to ensure that we do not create a fresh anomaly in relation to Members who stand against non-Members in elections outside this place—for example, as Mayor of London or as a Member of a devolved Assembly. The end of dual reporting will mean that such Members are no longer subject to the same set of criminal sanctions as are other candidates. There are various legislative means of keeping the playing field level, but they are so complex and so convoluted that they resemble a steamroller being used to flatten a molehill. The Electoral Commission has agreed that such a legislative solution would be disproportionate, given the very few cases involved.

This agreement is important, because dual reporting cannot end until the Electoral Commission has indicated that it is satisfied it can get all the information it needs from the Register of Members’ Interests. I have been assured by Jenny Watson, who now chairs the Electoral Commission, that this revised guide will provide the assurances the commission seeks in order to sign off on dual reporting. It will then be for the Justice Secretary to lay a commencement order before Parliament. In its report, my Committee expresses the hope that this process will be completed by the end of June, and I rather hope that it may be completed well before then.

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1116

Members may well ask, “Well, what is the catch?” I do not believe there is a catch, but there is certainly some give as well as some take. Members will need to provide more information to the registrar than they did previously. However, this will be offset by the removal of any need to report the same information to the commission, and a single form will be provided for this purpose.

We considered whether to recommend alignment of the thresholds used by the House with those set down in statute. In several categories of the rules, the House requires interests with a value greater than 1 per cent. of parliamentary salary to be reported—at present, that sum is £633—whereas the statutory threshold tends to be set at a more generous level, which is currently £1,000. The 1 per cent. threshold was agreed by the House when the rules were last revised in 2002 and, in my view, it was set at an appropriate level. It provides a high degree of transparency in our reporting and, because it is indexed, it automatically rises in line with our pay. The Committee’s view is that this remains the right way to set the majority of the thresholds and we have not, therefore, recommended any change.

In relation to category 4, however—which covers most political donations and is the main area of overlap between the House’s requirements and those set down in statute—the threshold has been fixed at £1,000. Members will have seen that the motion provides for the threshold in category 4 to be tied to the level specified in the legislation, which, at the moment, happens to be £1,000. The Committee had not considered proposing this change, but it is a sensible adjustment that will avoid creating a differential between the House’s thresholds and the statutory ones, and I therefore support it. Any proposal to increase that threshold would come from the Government, but would be subject to parliamentary procedure.

Although hon. Members will no longer have to provide information on permissible donations and loans directly to the Electoral Commission, the commission will remain under a statutory obligation to publish all the relevant information as soon as is reasonably practicable. That means that the commission will publish information on its register within one month of receipt. In order to avoid a four-month gap opening up in the commission’s register, it will be necessary to return to the previous practice of requiring Members to register their interests within one month of their election or re-election to the House, rather than within three months, as at present. Separate deadlines for information required under statute and for information required under resolutions of the House would create confusion and lead to error, and the Committee therefore considers it preferable to have a single deadline.

In order for the Electoral Commission to obtain the information it needs to keep its register up to date, its officials will be granted controlled access to the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the sole purpose of gathering the information to which they are entitled. After a general election, the commission will need to publish some of this information in its register before the first edition of the House’s register is published. A memorandum of understanding is being drawn up with the Electoral Commission, and it will specify the limited circumstances in which access may be granted.

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1117

Members will also need to continue to report impermissible donations, or donations from unidentified sources, directly to the commission, which will remain the sole authority on such matters. All the substantive changes are described in the Committee’s report and are picked out in red. I shall not describe each of them, but I shall highlight just two aspects of the revised rules that are not related to the end of dual reporting.

First, hon. Members need to keep full records of each benefit of a value greater than £200. That is because a series of donations from the same source, each unregistrable in itself and even if spread across different registration categories, can give rise to a requirement to register if they accumulate to a value of £1,000 or more. Secondly, the motion makes specific provision to rename the Register of Members’ Interests so that it is called the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and to make a corresponding change to the title of the registrar. The change has been proposed because there is some confusion outside the House as to the purpose of the register. By renaming it the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, we will make it clear that all the entries in the register have a real or potential monetary value. It is a small change, but one that the Committee believes is worth making.

When dual reporting ends, the Commissioner will write to every hon. Member, sending a copy of the new guide and details of the seminars arranged to explain the new rules to hon. Members. There will also be guidance about how to complete the new form. I strongly encourage any Member who may be in any doubt about how the new rules will apply to seek advice from the standards commissioner or the Registrar of Members’ Interests, who will be glad to help—or from the Electoral Commission, in respect of impermissible donations.

I believe that the end of dual reporting will be welcomed on both sides of the House. Together with the other changes recently agreed by the House, the revised rules constitute an important step forward in this House’s regulatory system and in the transparency and accountability that rightly apply to our financial interests as Members of Parliament. The Standards and Privileges Committee will keep all these changes actively under review, and I ask the House to support the motion that stands in the name of the Leader of the House.

3.43 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I rise to support the motion. First, and most importantly, I must say that I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, and to his Committee for the work that they have done on this matter. He pointed out that although many Members of this House have wanted to make the change from a dual reporting system to a single reporting system, this has proved to be a rather knotty problem. I believe, as he touched on this, that he would also want to thank the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) and his officials, who have worked very hard. My right hon. Friend has a first-class degree in history from Cambridge, and that is clearly what one needs to be able to deliver reform in this area. [Interruption.] The Lord Chancellor just pointed out to me that there are no thanks due to him for this.

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1118

We should also pay tribute to the work of the Electoral Commission—in the last few months in particular, it has worked very swiftly and co-ordinated well with the officials of the House—and of the Registrar of Members’ Interests and the Clerk of the Committee. They have all worked to bring forward this paper in timely fashion so that it can be considered in line with the Bill this afternoon.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): We all welcome the progress that has been made so far, but does the Deputy Leader of the House accept that we need more progress on the conduct of Members? For example, we should consider removing the 646 small businesses in the House and have Members’ staff employed by the Department of Resources centrally, so that we can remove that problem for the benefit of Members and our constituents.

Chris Bryant: I know that hon. Members feel aggrieved when newspapers report that we have claimed allowances of £180,000 a year, so it looks as though the staffing budget has gone into our own pockets, whereas—as all hon. Members know—we are merely claiming the money to ensure that our constituents receive swift replies to letters and so on, as they would naturally expect. Various Committees have considered whether the appointing of staff should be done centrally by the House, and it seems to me that the House is of the settled opinion that that would be inappropriate, for the simple reason that each constituency is different and each Member of Parliament works differently.

There has been a problem with dual reporting since the 2000 Act. Although it was an unintended consequence, it has produced some considerable inconvenience for vast numbers of Members. The problem stems not only from having to report to two different organisations with two different systems, but from the variation in the rules. That has led to inconsistency and confusion. One example, from my personal experience, concerns the free car parking space provided to me by NCP at Cardiff railway station. Any Member from south Wales who wants such a space can have one. That means that I do not have to declare it in the Register of Members’ Interests—I have asked on several occasions to ensure that that is the case. However, I do have to declare it to the Electoral Commission. There will be many such instances in which hon. Members are confused about whether they have to report various donations and benefits.

I am grateful that today we will be able to end all that confusion. However, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire pointed out, the change will involve a cost to hon. Members. For a start, they will have to provide considerably more information to the House authorities under categories 4, 5 and 6 on sponsorship for their constituency associations or parties, and the benefits they receive in relation to overseas visits and gifts received on such visits. That information is laid out in the report, and it has been gone through with a fine-toothed comb by the Electoral Commission.

In addition, we have had to extend the rules of the House so that they meet the commission’s requirements. The requirement in section 43 now provides that if a

it will have to be registered. That is a more stringent requirement.

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1119

In addition, there is a new category in the register in relation to loans and credit arrangements, which have been subject to registration and publication with the Electoral Commission. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there will also be a requirement for Members to register within a month after a general election, instead of the three months that they had previously. Indeed, I am told that Members were often dilatory about meeting the three-month limit. It will be vital, however, that the information is provided within the time limit after the next election. In order for the Electoral Commission to do its work after a general election, it will need to have particular access during that period to the House authorities’ information.

I should also alert hon. Members to one issue that has been raised several times with me, which is whether one must register membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, the police service parliamentary scheme and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ MP secondment scheme, as well as of the Industry and Parliament Trust. Such involvement has been exempt under the House’s rules but not exempt from registration with the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission has insisted that we will have to register such involvement and so Members should be aware of that.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I do not know whether my hon. Friend was coming to the subject of category 3 on page 17, but I want to ask him a question as something is not clear to me. The definition of category 3 includes the words:

that is, directorships and remuneration—

I am confused by that, because, although there might be some relationship elsewhere, the wording here states that it should

Next Section Index Home Page