Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Straw: I was not present, but I am afraid I do not accept the burden of what my hon. Friend is saying. Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, are doing an important job of work. However, that is a one-off study into the future
29 Jun 2009 : Column 52
allowances system. This new body will, once and for all, on a permanent basis, ensure that the administration and supervision of what we call the Fees Office are separated, so that never again will staff in the Fees Office feel under the kind of pressure that they evidently have done, as some of us have now discovered, to bend or manipulate the rules. That has been very unfair to them, and I pay tribute to the overwhelming majority of staff in the Fees Office who have been trying to do the best job that they could in incredibly difficult circumstances. That is quite a separate issue from the recommendations about the kind of scheme that is needed, however. For the future, we need a process that is separate from this House—and separate from the Government, I suggest—for periodically setting the scheme of arrangements for allowances as well as administering them. That is what the new authority will do.

Mr. Frank Field: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I intend to make some progress first, then I will come back to this matter.

Clause 3 provides that IPSA will be responsible for drawing up and administering a new allowances scheme and that the scheme should be reviewed on a regular basis. I have already indicated that that does not in any way pre-empt the work of the Kelly committee. Clause 4 sets out the taking over of responsibility for authorising and making payments under the allowances scheme.

Clauses 5 and 6 share the title “MPs’ financial interests and code of conduct”.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I want to make some progress.

Clause 5 places a duty on IPSA to prepare rules relating to Members’ financial interests. How it does so is also set out in the clause. No such rules can come into force unless approved by a resolution of this House. Clause 6 goes wider than this, and says that the House is to continue to have a code of conduct incorporating the seven Nolan principles on conduct in public life, and any other matters determined by the House.

The starting point for any code of financial rules developed by IPSA will, necessarily, be the existing code of conduct of the House, which was most recently revised and published last Monday 22 June. It runs to 52 pages. As many Members may not have had reason to examine the code in detail before the expenses scandal broke, they might have assumed what was on the tin marked “Code of Conduct” was in the tin, in respect of all 52 pages. But if one examines the document, one finds that the code of conduct itself is couched in very general terms at the beginning of the document. It covers just three and a bit pages in all, of which one page is a recital of the Nolan principles. In contrast, the rules relating to the financial conduct of Members, and the guidance on those rules, run to 33 pages plus appendices, and almost all those rules and guidance concern Members’ financial interests and conduct thereto.

We have been clear that, if the new independent authority is to have teeth and achieve the public confidence so urgently needed, it must, among other things, be able to propose the rules on Members’ conduct in the areas related to its functions. That means that it will take over
29 Jun 2009 : Column 53
responsibility for the whole of the guide relating to the conduct of Members, although, as the Bill makes clear, the content of any clause 5 rules will be subject to approval by the House. Some amendments have been tabled to clause 5, and they will be discussed tomorrow, but none is in any way fatal to it, and I believe that the clause generally carries the approval of the House.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): This is one of the most difficult parts of the Bill. Does the Secretary of State recognise that, if the code of conduct were to become justiciable, that would constitute a questioning of proceedings in the House? The House has already shown that it is capable of producing a code of conduct, and Members can discuss with any outside body the improvements that should be made to it. It is therefore unnecessary to include this provision in the Bill in this way.

Mr. Straw: The— [ Interruption. ] Hold your breath! All those involved in the cross-party talks will confirm that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House of Commons and I worked hard to achieve consensus, sometimes revisiting draft clauses in the meetings to make them more acceptable. It was a genuinely collaborative process, and I am glad that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) acknowledges that.

The original draft of clause 4 combined the scope of the current clauses 5 and 6. That clause was regarded as too wide. So to answer the points raised, the redrafted clauses 5 and 6—which are now in the Bill—were brought forward and, though time was pressing, raised little objection in the cross-party talks. That said, I always made it clear that everyone involved in the cross-party talks was entitled to further reflection on the Bill and its contents. The result of that further reflection is that considerable concern has been expressed by the learned Clerk of the House about the possible impact of clause 6, and two distinguished senior Members, the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), have jointly tabled an amendment to delete clause 6.

I supported clause 6 because I believed—and still do—that it provides belt-and-braces reassurance to the public that we will continue to have a code of conduct covering the issues, which are not many, that are not covered by the financial rules. It is fair to say that I am more sanguine than others about the effect of clause 6 and its interpretation by the courts. My officials, on advice from first parliamentary counsel, are providing a memorandum on the matter for the benefit of the Justice Committee. That said, the Clerk is the adviser to the House on matters of privilege, and much else, not me. This is emergency legislation, on which all parties are committed in principle to a speedy passage.

Clause 6 is not essential to the Bill, so in the interests of consensus I will accept the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, and I will not move clause 6 when we reach that part of the Bill. There will be some consequential amendments to clause 5 and elsewhere in the Bill— [Interruption.] Well, there are bound to be. The issue is not whether the relevant
29 Jun 2009 : Column 54
sections of the code of conduct are covered by the scheme of the Bill, but how. I hope that what I have said has the approbation of the House, in the spirit in which we have approached the Bill from the start.

Mr. Redwood: I am grateful for that excellent concession. On the registration of interests, given that the Members who have the most time-consuming second jobs are Ministers, why are they exempted from the registration requirement? Will he tell the House how many hours he spent last week on his second job? [Interruption.]

Mr. Straw: I am Lord High Chancellor as well, which function I was undertaking this morning— [Interruption.]. I am answering, in detail—last Monday I had my tricorn hat on as well. It will bring tears to the eyes of Members of the House to learn that I am entitled to a whopping salary as Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, and a whopping pension, but I have forgone both.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacShane: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I give way to the hon. Gentleman .

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am very grateful. The right hon. Gentleman’s concession, which we all accept and are delighted to hear about, illustrates as nothing else could how silly it is to legislate on constitutional matters in haste. This is a constitutional Dangerous Dogs Bill. He should take it away and take a little time, and then come back.

Mr. Straw: I know that this will be unpersuasive to the hon. Gentleman, but that is not the position of his leader, as I heard what he said on 10 June, or that of the other parties. There is a difference between legislating with some speed, which we are doing, and legislating in haste. As for the famous Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, notwithstanding the mythology about it, I note that it is still on the statute book unamended.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s concession. Contrary to what he suggested earlier, the question at the heart of the Bill is not the sovereignty of the House of Commons, but the exclusive cognisance of certain matters that for 300 years have been the exclusive competence of the House. The clause that really causes offence is clause 10, which the learned Clerk refers to as having a chilling effect on freedom of speech in the House. Until the right hon. Gentleman withdraws that clause, I will not be hopping around like a sand boy.

Mr. Straw: Let me make some more progress.

Clause 7 sets out the investigatory powers— [Interruption.] No, I have said that I want to make some more progress, and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) must acknowledge that there is a great deal of interest in this debate and that others wish to speak. Clause 7, as I was saying, sets out the investigatory powers for the Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigation, while clause 8 includes a number of enforcement powers.

29 Jun 2009 : Column 55

Mr. MacShane: Will my right hon. Friend give way on this particular point?

Mr. Straw: No, I must make some progress, and there are two days of debate in Committee.

Clause 9 creates three new criminal offences: providing information that the Member knows is false or misleading in a claim for an allowance; failing, without reasonable excuse, to comply with the rules on registration of financial interests; and breaching the rules that prohibit paid advocacy. I am happy to lay before the House a detailed chart that explains the background to these offences.

The simple fact of the matter is this. In regulating elected bodies such as local authorities, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, this House has been happy to lay down, without argument, some stringent penalties for offences of misconduct by the members of those bodies. I thus have to say that what is sauce for the goose has to be sauce for the gander— [Interruption.] The same is also true, as the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) says, in respect of declarations.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Straw: I am not giving way at the moment.

We can go into these offences in more detail on Wednesday when we debate clause 9 in Committee. I will be happy to listen to what hon. Members have to say but, in my judgment, having offences in the Bill and in the scheme is fundamental to its proper operation and, above all, fundamental to ensuring public confidence in this scheme. That is precisely what we have insisted on in respect of local authorities, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Neither local authorities nor the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have had a scandal around their ears, to put it frankly, of the kind we have faced for our failure properly to regulate ourselves.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I do not take issue with the creation of offences per se, but does the Secretary of State accept that these offences and the processes that stem from them must be compliant with article 6 of the European convention on human rights? Having regard to the terms of the Bill before us, can the right hon. Gentleman honestly say that they are?

Mr. Straw: That is our judgment. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House would not have signed the section 19 certificate, which she has, if she had not taken that view.

Mr. Carmichael rose—

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. Dismore rose—

Mr. Straw: Of course we can look at that further, but I am certainly satisfied that the Bill does meet those requirements, so let me move on to clause 10.

Mr. Garnier: What about clause 9?

29 Jun 2009 : Column 56

Mr. Straw: We can debate these clauses in more detail in Committee.

I have already said that in our judgment there is a strong requirement for these offences. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is not correct in comparing the offence in clause 9(1) with the offence—fraud by false representation—in section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006. There is a further requirement in section 2, which covers dishonestly making a false representation, but there are plenty of examples in respect of other offences where exactly this wording has been used by this House for false declarations. We happen to believe that it is sensible for there to be a specific offence relating to a false declaration.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. MacShane rose—

Mr. Straw: No, I am going to make some more progress. [Interruption.] I mentioned the hon. and learned Member for Harborough because he shouted from a sedentary position, and I have given way to him on a number of occasions.

Let me tell the Opposition that we are of course ready to discuss the basis for these offences. However, having said that they support the principle of having an external authority, the Opposition surely have to accept that certain consequences go with it, one of which is the need to include some criminal offences to back up the scheme that the Bill introduces.

Mr. Grieve: Let me emphasise that we do support the principles of the Bill, and want to make it work. It is for precisely that reason that the creation of criminal offences, which may be an essential part of the Bill, requires special scrutiny.

I know that we shall return to the issue on Wednesday, but the Secretary of State mentioned that other bodies had been regulated. I could not agree more. One could use the phrase “the biter bit”. We have been imposing criminality on all sorts of organisations over the last 10 years—I believe that 3,000 criminal offences have been created in that time—but we have not imposed the provisions of clause 9(1) on the Scottish Parliament. We have relied on the general law. I flag that up now, because the Secretary of State may wish to return to it in greater detail.

Mr. Straw: I note what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said.

Mr. MacShane: I know—we all know—that the party leaders have agreed to this because they must satisfy headlines and the sense of public outrage outside, but we must ask whether we want to break the fundamental link with our constituents and put ourselves under the control of an external quango that will then be able to intervene.

I am only concerned about the clause referring to advocacy. I am here to advocate. Sometimes I am paid for writing a book or an article, or helped to go on a trip. I really do not want that to be taken up by every busybody and sent to a council of guardians who will tell me what I can do as a Member of Parliament, but that may be the direction in which the Bill is going.

29 Jun 2009 : Column 57

Mr. Straw: I hope to be able to give my right hon. Friend some reassurance, but let me also say to him that, as he knows very well, the expenses scandal is not just a matter of a couple of days of headlines. It has engulfed the House and its reputation—unfairly in many respects, but because there have been some egregious abuses by a few Members and a systemic failure properly to establish a system of regulation, we face a serious problem in terms of rebuilding public confidence.

There never will be an offence of advocating a cause in the House, although there has plainly been a breach of any code, and in many respects an offence with a small “o” for centuries: that of being hired and paid to advocate a cause. However, I know from long experience of my right hon. Friend that he would never do that in any event.

Mr. Garnier: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: No. I am going to end my speech in a moment.

Clause 10 states:

Next Section Index Home Page