Parliamentary Standards Bill - Constitution Committee Contents


APPENDIX 2: CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN LORD GOODLAD AND BARONESS ROYALL OF BLAISDON


Letter from the Chairman to Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, 29 June 2009

The Constitution Committee will in due course carry out scrutiny of this bill. I am writing to you now because I understand that the Government will seek to fast-track the bill though both the House of Commons and this House and therefore the time available for scrutiny may be very short.

The Committee has not yet had an opportunity to examine the substance of the bill. This letter relates only to the fast-tracking of the bill. As you know, we have recently been engaged in an inquiry into fast-track legislation. This will be published shortly. In our report we will suggest standard questions which should be raised to test the case for fast-tracking legislation. Even though our report is not yet before the House we thought it right to test the case for fast-tracking this bill against these questions. I should accordingly be very grateful if you would explain in relation to this bill:

(a)  Why is fast-tracking necessary? Is it necessary to fast track each element of the bill?

(b)  What efforts have been made to ensure the amount of time made available for parliamentary scrutiny has been maximised?

(c)  To what extent have interested parties and outside groups been given an opportunity to influence the policy proposal?

(d)  The bill does not include a sunset clause (or any appropriate renewal procedure)? Why do the Government judge that inclusion of such a provision is not appropriate?

(e)  Have the Government identified mechanisms for effective post-legislative scrutiny and review of the bill? If so, why are they not set out on the face of the bill?

(f)  Have relevant parliamentary committees been given the opportunity to scrutinise the legislation?

(g)  Has an assessment been made as to whether existing legislation is sufficient to deal with any of the issues in question?

In our forthcoming report we will also remind the House that it is open to any member who is not content with the Government's justification for the fast-tracking of a bill to seek the opinion of the House when the motion to suspend Standing Order 47 is moved. So I should also warn you that if in our scrutiny of the Parliamentary Standards Bill we are not content with the Government's justification for fast-tracking, we may recommend that the House does not support the motion to suspend Standing Order 47.

We would be grateful for a response to this letter as soon as possible and in any event by the close of play on Tuesday 30 June.

Response from Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, 30 June 2009

Government response to questions raised on the Parliamentary Standards Bill

(a)  Why is fast tracking necessary? Is it necessary to fast track each element of the Bill?

Fast tracking is necessary because there is an urgent public demand to see something done about the system for regulating MPs' expenses. The revelations in the Daily Telegraph have created an atmosphere where there is deep public anger about what has happened under the existing system of self-regulation. As my Rt Hon. friend the Secretary of State for Justice explained to the House of Commons at Second Reading, "the expenses scandal has profoundly affected the public's trust in us as individuals, and in the House of Commons as the heart of our democracy. In almost equal measure, it has seriously damaged our confidence in ourselves." As I explained in evidence to the Constitution Committee on 29 April, expedited bills are a reaction to circumstances which have arisen; and where most people would agree that there has to be a response to those circumstances. I believe that to be the case with this Bill.

The Bill sets up a new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and an independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Investigations. The principle of such an Authority has been publicly supported by the Leaders of the three main parties, and there has been active cooperation between all parties to secure an acceptable draft Bill. The Bill provides for the members of the Authority and the Investigator to be appointed on merit following fair and open competition. Setting up bodies of this description inevitably takes some time. With the summer Recess approaching, all main parties took the view that it was important that the legislation was passed before the summer so that work could continue during the Recess on actually establishing the Authority. If the legislation were not passed until the autumn, that would lose three months during which the public would continue to wonder what MPs were doing to answer their concerns.

The Bill deals only with the issue of the setting and regulation of MPs' rules on allowances and the Code of Conduct on financial interests. It sets up the new Authority and Investigator, together with a Committee of the House of Commons to oversee their work. It also sets out the functions of the new bodies, the enforcement mechanisms to which they would have access and creates three new offences. It provides for the transition from the existing arrangements in the House to the new bodies. The package in the Bill is a coherent whole, and no part of it would work without the rest.

(b)  What efforts have been made to ensure the amount of time made available for parliamentary scrutiny has been maximised?

Given the Government's view that it is necessary to achieve Royal Assent before the summer recess, we have sought to ensure the best use of the time between Introduction in the Commons (on 23 June) and Royal Assent (by 21 July). The House of Commons are considering the Bill over three days, and are expected to complete consideration on Wednesday 1 July. Following discussions in the Usual Channels in the Lords about striking a good balance between the Royal Assent deadline and providing this House with as much opportunity to scrutinise the Bill as possible, the Chief Whip made an announcement on Tuesday 30 June about dates for consideration of the Bill. The dates proposed allow three sitting days between Second Reading and Committee stage, and two sitting days between Committee and Report stages. The timings proposed should allow several Parliamentary committees to scrutinise, and issue reports on, the Bill during its parliamentary stages.

(c)  To what extent have interested parties and outside groups been given an opportunity to influence the policy proposal

The policy proposal directly affects only MPs and the staff of the House. Over the three weeks since the Prime Minister announced the intention to introduce immediate legislation to set up the new Authority, the Leader of the House of Commons and the Justice Secretary have engaged in intensive cross-party discussions. All recognised parties in both Houses have been represented, as have the cross-bench peers and the Chairman of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee and the Clerks' department in the House of Commons. 4 meetings of the Group were held, and members received papers and drafts of clauses 'raw', as they went to Ministers. As a result, the Bill as presented in the Commons has already reflected the outcome of those cross-party discussions. Separate discussions have also been held with staff and the unions in the Commons. The Ministers have continued to listen careful to, and respond to concerns about aspects of the Bill—all shown by the decision of the Justice Secretary to withdraw Clause 6.

(d)  The Bill doesn't include a sunset clause (or any appropriate renewal procedure). Why do the Government judge that inclusion of such a provision is not appropriate?

It is important that we demonstrate that we are moving swiftly to deal with public anger about the revelations about the MPs' expenses regime. But the proposals set out in the Bill are not meant to be a temporary 'sticking plaster'. They are meant to be permanent provisions. The public must be confident that the arrangements the Bill puts into place will continue to be in place, and that the only way in which they could be altered would be by further primary legislation. The Bill is unusual in that it directly affects the operation of Parliament. Having either a sunset clause or a renewal procedure does not therefore have the same impact as it would if the legislation affected only bodies outside Parliament. As I said to the Committee on 29 April, there are some situations where a sunset clause is not appropriate because of the need for certainty in legislation, and a sunset clause could have an adverse effect by causing instability and disquiet. Each bill being considered for expedition is looked at as a separate case, and that is what the Government has done with this Bill.

The Bill, like all legislation, will be subject to post-legislative scrutiny within 5 years. That will give the opportunity for the House and the Government to examine how well it is working and whether any changes to the arrangements will be needed.

(e)  Have the Government identified mechanisms for effective post-legislative scrutiny and review of the Bill? If so, why are they not set out on the face of the Bill?

The Bill has a limited, tightly drawn purpose and the arrangements it puts in place are directed to that purpose. The new IPSA will be obliged to prepare an annual report about its performance of its functions during the financial year. That report must be published. This will give proper opportunity to review the work of the Authority. In addition, there will be a new Speaker's Committee on the IPSA which will oversee the IPSA's functions. The funding for the IPSA will also be voted directly by Parliament. This again will mean that it will be possible for Parliament to review each year how the IPSA is operating and whether it is performing its functions efficiently and cost-effectively, as required by the Bill.

In the initial impact assessment for the Bill, the Government has said that the arrangements system should undergo an initial assessment to establish the actual costs and benefits and the achievement of the desired effects after one year of operation following a general election.

(f)  Have relevant parliamentary committees been given the opportunity to scrutinise the legislation?

A number of Parliamentary committees are expected to report on the Bill during its parliamentary stages. The Justice Committee in the Commons heard oral evidence from Dr Malcolm Jack on Tuesday 30 June. I understand that your Lords Constitution Committee, the Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are intending to publish reports during the Bill's passage. The Government will give careful consideration to any recommendations made by these Committees.

(g)  Has an assessment been made as to whether existing legislation is sufficient to deal with any of the issues in question?

There is no existing legislation dealing with the issues in question, except where an MPs' behaviour might break the existing criminal law, for example in relation to obtaining money by deception. Public opinion has made it quite clear that the existing, wholly internal systems of review and regulation are no longer acceptable. Legislation is required to create the new criminal offences and to entrench the regulatory system.


 
previous page contents

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009