Speaking as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Sir George proposed changes to the Rules for the Register of Members Interests and the Code of Guidance.
This is the text of his speech.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I invite the House to endorse the new code of conduct and guide to the rules on the conduct of Members that the Standards and Privileges Committee has drawn up. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for finding time to resolve this matter so soon after the publication of our report.
The last time that I spoke as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee was the debate in February when we appointed Philip Mawer as the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Mr. Mawer has now taken up his appointment, made an excellent start and is fully in command of his role. He is working the full three days a week for which he was appointed, and if his duties require him to do more, more will be done. He has already dealt with several complaints and the Committee entirely endorsed the conclusions that he reached in the one case that he brought to us. However, I do not want to place too much emphasis on investigations. I hope that Mr. Mawer will continue to develop a new strategy that gives priority to advice and prevention, of which clear guidance is a key component; that is where the revised code of conduct and guide to the rules come in.
The changes that we have proposed are intended to simplify and clarify the guidance that is provided for Members; to alleviate unnecessary burdens without compromising the transparency and effectiveness of the system; and, where practicable, to align the House's rules more closely with those of the Electoral Commission. The new code and guide have gone through a lengthy gestation period. The former Committee began the work of revision more than two years ago, and it introduced many of the detailed changes shortly before the last election, but the two most radical changes are the work of the new Committee and are recommended in this report.
The first change relates to the advocacy rule, which bans Members from paid lobbying. As the rule stands, a Member may not initiate a parliamentary proceeding—for example, by tabling a question or applying for an Adjournment debate—that relates specifically and directly to the affairs of a body, or of a wider group, in which the Member has a pecuniary interest. The rule was introduced with the best of intentions, but in practice it has imposed unreasonable and unnecessary restrictions on Members' parliamentary activities.
When the new Committee was established at the beginning of this Parliament, we became aware of a degree of feeling, both inside and outside the House, about the rule's restrictive effects. Shortly before Christmas, we published a consultation paper seeking views on two possible options for relaxing the rule. We decided to adopt the recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life to the effect that the rules on initiation should be relaxed and brought into line with the more lenient rules on participation in a proceeding initiated by another Member. If the House agrees to this change, from now on the only restriction on Members' freedom of action will be that they must not seek to confer benefit exclusively on a body in which they have a pecuniary interest. That interest must, of course, be properly registered and declared.
I believe that the change will be welcomed especially in the context of travel overseas. Hon. Members have a duty to keep themselves informed about what is going on in the wider world. Often the only way to do that is when foreign Governments or other organisations outside the House pay for the travel. From now on, hon. Members who travel abroad at someone else's expense will be able to make full use in the House of what they have learned. They will not face difficulties in tabling questions or introducing Adjournment debates that are relevant to their visit. That will help them and, I believe, the House.
Our second fundamental reform is that there should be a realistic de minimis threshold for the registration of interests. We do not want the Register of Members' Interests to be cluttered with low-value entries; nor do we want the complaints process to be brought into disrepute by allegations of failure to register relatively insignificant interests.
The solution that we propose is to take such items out of the scope of registration altogether by setting a threshold of 1 per cent. of the parliamentary salary. At present, that amounts to about £550. Below that threshold, interests would not have to be registered. That means that hon. Members need no longer register gifts or hospitality that are worth less than £550. However, benefits from a single source that individually are worth less than £550 should be registered if, cumulatively, they amount to more than 1 per cent. of salary in a calendar year.
The change in the rule also means that earned income, including directorships, needs to be registered only if it exceeds 1 per cent. of salary. The requirement to deposit an agreement with the commissioner if an hon. Member is providing parliamentary services of any kind will also be dropped if the remuneration does not exceed 1 per cent. of salary.
Finally, I shall refer briefly to some of the detailed changes to the rules that we are proposing. Hon. Members will see that these are highlighted in red type in the proposed new guide and code that is printed as an annexe to the report.
The rules relating to sponsorship have been revised substantially and now cover donations to constituency associations that are linked to an hon. Member's candidacy or membership of the House, as well as other support that an hon. Member receives in his capacity as a Member of the House, with a threshold of £1,000. That takes account of the changed nature of trade union sponsorship, and of the reporting requirements of the Electoral Commission.
In common with other one-off benefits, such as gifts and hospitality, donations to constituency associations will be removed from the Register of Members' Interests after a year. Such donations will be registerable only if they are expressly tied to the hon. Member by name—an example might be contributions to an hon. Member's fighting fund—or are donations that have been solicited for the party by the hon. Member. Donations to constituency associations that are not linked to the hon. Member but which are an expression of general political support will not have to be registered.
We have clarified the circumstances in which land and property, including houses, that is rented out may need to be registered. There are new rules on the registration of shareholdings. A shareholding wil be registerable in future if it amounts to more than 15 per cent. of the company's share capital, rather then 1 per cent. A shareholding of 15 per cent. or less will be registerable if it is worth more than an hon. Member's parliamentary salary.
Until now, the threshold for registration has been a nominal value of £25,000, but the nominal value often bears no relation to the real value. The Committee believes that it is not unreasonable to require hon. Members to revalue their large shareholdings once each year for the purposes of the register. After all, an hon. Member is likely to have few holdings that are registerable, and the end of the tax year is a convenient time to check what they are worth.
The rules covering political journalism, speaking engagements and other forms of media work connected to membership of the House have been greatly simplified. The requirement to deposit an employment agreement, which in many cases simply did not fit the relationship between the hon. Member and the outside body, has been dropped altogether. However, hon. Members will still have to declare in the register their income from this source, in the appropriate band.
The new Committee is working alongside Philip Mawer, the new commissioner, with this new strategy, a new code of conduct and a new register. I appreciate that it is less than a year since hon. Members had to fill in their registration forms at the start of this Parliament, but if we are going to have a new register it will be in everyone's interest to have one that reflects the new rules as soon as possible.
Shortly after the forthcoming recess, the commissioner will write to every hon. Member. He will send a copy of the new code and guide, a registration form and details of the seminars arranged to explain the new rules to hon. Members. There will also be guidance about how to complete the registration form. Hon. Members will be asked to return their forms before the summer recess, so that the new register can be published in the autumn.
The registration form should be completed in accordance with the new rules, so hon. Members will be able to delete from their current entries the minor benefits that fall below the 1 per cent. threshold. However, I hope that the House will look especially carefully at the new rules on sponsorships and shareholdings, which have been changed, and also on land and property, on which the guidance has been clarified.
If the House agrees to the motion, the new code and guide will come into force and the relaxation of the advocacy rule and the higher thresholds for the registration of benefits will apply immediately. However, any requirement under the new rules to register an interest that is not registrable under the current rules—for example, with some shareholdings—will not come into force until the new register is published, so all Members will have a reasonable period in which to ensure that their entries comply with the new rules.
I strongly encourage any Member who may be in any doubt about how the new rules will apply to him or her to seek the advice of either the Standards Commissioner or the Registrar of Members' Interests, who will be glad to help.
I believe that the changes that we have recommended will give the House clearer, simpler rules that are, in some respects, less onerous for Members to comply with, but still rigorous and consistent with the fundamental principles that the House adopted when it implemented the Nolan reforms in 1995–96. We have, of course, asked the Wicks committee for its comments on what is proposed.
My committee will keep all these changes actively under review. I ask the House to support the changes.