This is the text of Sir George's speech commending the recommendations of the Standards and Privileges Committee to the House of Commons.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and to commend the report of my Committee, the Standards and Privileges Committee, to the House. I begin by thanking the Leader of the House for his kind words about the work of my Committee and his constructive response to the recommendations that we have made.
Our business this afternoon has its roots in the report of the Wicks committee, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was published last November. This is actually the third occasion on which that Committee has reported on our standards, and the particular trigger this time was the circumstances, towards the end of 2001, that surrounded the decision to hold an open competition to fill the post of Commissioner, rather than automatically reappoint the present Commissioner's predecessor. I quite understand that this warranted a fresh look at our procedures.
As the Leader of the House said, we are all grateful to the Wicks committee for its continuing interest in the House's arrangements for maintaining standards. It is right that our system of regulation is open to critical, independent and professional review, and that can only help enhance public confidence in our arrangements. It is good that Sir Nigel Wicks was able to write in his covering letter to the Prime Minister that
"following the publication of the First Report in 1995, real progress has been made in establishing and enforcing high standards of conduct".
However, we must never be complacent, and I agree wholeheartedly with what Sir Nigel said when he said that one or two serious cases of misconduct can lead to disproportionate loss of public confidence, not only in individual Members but in the House of Commons as an institution. Such a loss of confidence is in the interests of none of us here today; indeed, it damages the democratic process.
Therefore both the Commissioner and my Committee are placing an increased emphasis on information and training, to help hon. Members to comply with the rules, thus minimising the scope for damaging breaches. We have also suggested changes to make some of the rules relating to allowances more explicit and more effective.
The thrust of the eighth report is threefold: first, to strengthen the independence of the Commissioner; secondly, to enhance the perceived neutrality of my Committee; and, thirdly, to improve and clarify the regulatory process. The Wicks committee's stated aim was to deliver public confidence in the House, while carrying the confidence of the House itself. To do that, the committee made 27 recommendations, all but one of them addressed to the House—the last one being addressed to the Government, to which the Leader of the House has referred. I endorse the preference of the Wicks committee for implementation through internal mechanisms of the House, such as Standing Orders, rather than through legislation.
In its own report, my Committee has given careful consideration to each of the recommendations that the Wicks committee addressed to the House. As I said a moment ago, we share the same aims and objectives, so it is not surprising that we therefore recommend acceptance of the substance of the vast majority of the Wicks committee recommendations. Where we have felt unable to follow the precise terms of its recommendations, we have, wherever possible, proposed alternatives to achieve the same objectives, but in a way that we think does so more effectively. Wicks's overall assessment of the proposal that my Committee has made in its report is that it will be
"a significant improvement on the current arrangements".
The House will be grateful for that endorsement.
The Wicks committee report was published in the context of an ongoing programme, with the Commissioner and the Committee working in tandem. Following a revision of the code and the guide, approved by the House in May last year, a completely new register was published in December 2002, with a much sharper focus than in the past and reflecting the more vigorous registration requirements to which the House had agreed. The Commissioner expects to initiate a more comprehensive review of the code later this year, the outcome of which will be considered by the committee.
The Commissioner has also, with the Committee's encouragement and approval, published procedural guidance for Members and other guidance, such as a comprehensive media strategy, which is to be followed, later this summer, by guidance on how frivolous or vexatious complaints will be handled. Pending the review of the code, a number of the Wicks recommendations have been given effect through such practice notes. Likewise, we have given effect to other recommendations, which may be formalised when the guide to the rules is next revised—probably early in the next Parliament, given that it is only a year since the House approved the last major revision.
One of the Wicks committee's key recommendations, which is designed to improve the fairness with which Members are investigated, is the proposed establishment of an investigatory panel. That proposal was designed to deal with cases—they are expected to arise only infrequently—that in the opinion of my Committee met two criteria: first, proof of the complaint would be likely to lead to the imposition of a serious penalty on the Member; and, secondly, that there appeared to be significant contested areas of fact that would not be properly decided unless the Member was given the opportunity to call witnesses and/or cross-examine other witnesses.
My Committee was sympathetic to the aims of that recommendation, but had a number of concerns about the details, not least that it left the Commissioner with neither an obvious role in establishing the facts, nor an opportunity to express an opinion on whether they point to a breach of the code. We have therefore proposed an alternative approach for those circumstances, which we hope are rare, where the Commissioner would sit with two assessors—one legally qualified, the other a Member of the House nominated by the Speaker. However, the Commissioner would retain sole responsibility for reporting the facts to the Committee and for expressing an opinion on whether the code had been breached. The proposed new Standing Order paragraphs (2B) to (2H) would give effect to that.
We believe that that approach will meet the Wicks committee's objectives, while maintaining the centrality of the Commissioner's role in investigating complaints. As I said earlier, those arrangements are designed to be used only in the most serious and most difficult cases, and it remains the intention of both the Committee and the Commissioner that our existing procedures should be used to handle the vast majority of cases.
Another difference of view between my Committee and the Wicks committee is over taking evidence in public. My Committee understands the arguments for taking evidence in public, as is indeed the norm for most Select Committees. However, it considers that there are compelling practical arguments, to which we refer in paragraphs 44 to 47 of the annexe to our report, against taking evidence in public in standards cases. So we have no plan to change our present practice in that respect, but we shall, of course, continue our present practice with regard to publishing our reports of the evidence that we have taken, whether in public or in private.
The Wicks committee once again raised the issue of whether the House should introduce financial penalties, without suspension, as a sanction for breaching the code. As the Leader of the House has just said, to do so would give the House greater flexibility over the range of penalties that it could impose, and a financial penalty could be imposed on a Member without depriving his or her constituents of their representation in the House—a consequence of suspension about which concern has been expressed in the past.
My Committee has recommended that the House should have an additional power to impose on a Member who is found to have breached the code a specific penalty of withholding salary for a specified period. As the Leader of the House said, when we published our report, it was unclear whether legislation was needed. I understand it is not needed. Indeed, Standing Order No. 45A provides the framework for withholding the salaries of suspended Members. I hope that the House will agree that that will be a useful addition to its armoury in dealing with breaches of the code.
The Wicks committee made a number of proposals for change in the composition of the Committee, designed, in its view, to strengthen public perceptions of its independence. The effect of the proposed changes would be to prevent any party holding an overall majority on the Committee, to make it a requirement that the Chairman be drawn from the Opposition parties and to exclude Parliamentary Private Secretaries from membership.
I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Committee for the way it works. My firm view is that, when Members enter Committee Room 13, they leave behind in the Committee Corridor their party affiliations. A fly on the wall would find it impossible to deduce party affiliations from the contributions that Members make. It is a matter of considerable pride to me that our key decisions are always unanimous.
I should like to pay a particular tribute to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) for the distinguished contribution that he has made to our work. His recent departure, to concentrate on his valuable work as Chairman of the Liaison Committee and as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, was a serious loss to my Committee, the impact of which has been, I am pleased to say, significantly offset by the welcome appointment of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) in his place. I understand that we may also lose the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), one of the Committee's longest serving members. Again, I thank him for his significant contribution to our work. I wish him well in his new post as PPS to a Secretary of State.
Despite our confidence that the present arrangements work well, my colleagues and I have none the less concluded that, in the interests of public perception of the Committee's independence, the House should go along with those three recommendations from the Wicks committee. In this area, perception is almost as strong as reality. I am grateful to the Government for clearly endorsing them today, as some aspects break new ground, particularly that relating to party balance. Although they are not being enshrined in the Standing Orders on this occasion, I hope that, with experience of their operation, the Government may feel able to do so on a future occasion.
The Wicks committee also made a number of recommendations designed to strengthen the position of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the current Commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, for the way in which he carries out his duties. He came to the task in difficult circumstances, at a time when confidence in our self-regulatory arrangements had been dented by the circumstances surrounding the departure of his predecessor. He has worked hard both to re-establish confidence and, with the Committee, to build a fresh approach to standards enforcement that places a significantly greater emphasis on education and prevention. His first annual report is expected to be made to the House shortly, and it will put into the public domain more information about the work of his office than ever before. I hope that that will also enhance the accountability, both to the House and to the public, for his stewardship of his role.
The proposals regarding the Commissioner's security of tenure, terms and period of office and the resourcing of his office are principally matters for the House of Commons Commission, rather than for my Committee—and I see three House of Commons Commissioners in the Chamber this afternoon. We are grateful to the House of Commons Commission for its willingness to provide whatever resources are needed to enable the Commissioner to do his job properly, and we support the proposals on security of tenure and on the terms and conditions of the Commissioner's appointment that will be put to the House shortly.
In recent months, some sections of the press have commented on an apparent lack of activity on the part of the Committee. To our critics, that is evidence that the system is ineffective. I think that fewer reports of Members behaving badly is good news rather than bad news. Indeed, I hope that the approach of both the Commission and the Committee of putting a greater emphasis on education and prevention will, over time, result in fewer Members finding themselves in breach of the code and will promote yet higher standards of conduct. We will, however, continue to seek to deal firmly with cases of proven breaches of the rules.
I believe that our system of self-regulation is effective in ensuring that high standards of conduct are the norm in the House and that those who fail to meet them are punished appropriately. The Wicks committee concluded that standards are generally high and that the overwhelming majority of Members seek to, and, in practice, do uphold standards of propriety. The Committee and the Commissioner are seeking to ensure through enhanced openness about the procedures, while maintaining confidentiality in the handling of individual cases, that public confidence in our arrangements is enhanced. The changes that the House is being invited to make today, on the recommendations of my Committee, should also act to enhance public confidence. I commend them and my Committee's report to the House.