Speaking in a debate on the report of the Standards & Privileges Committee in the last Parliament, Sir George welcomed the new Code of Conduct for MPs.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful for right hon. and hon. Members' kind words about the work of the Standards and Privileges Committee in the last Parliament and for what they said about the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly in our debate.
The report that we are debating is temporarily orphaned, as the Committee that produced it in March this year is no more and its successor will not be set up until after the end of this debate. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for bringing the matter before the House quickly, as the Committee recommended in the last Parliament, so that the new code can come into force as early as possible in this Parliament. This evening, I am prepared to act as a foster parent. The review, as the Leader of the House said, is the first major review of the code since it was first introduced in 1996. Its genesis lies in the recommendation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, accepted by the House in a debate in June 2003, that the code and the guide to the rules be reviewed once every Parliament.
A substantially revised guide was approved by the House in May 2002, following an extensive inquiry by the Committee and its predecessor, but before the Committee on Standards in Public Life made its recommendation. In July 2004, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards initiated a consultation on the revision of the code. In February this year, he submitted proposals for a revised code to the Committee. On behalf of the previous Committee, I thank the Commissioner for the substantial and thorough work that went into that exercise. As the
Committee reported, it was clear from responses to the consultation that there was no general feeling, either inside or outside the House, that the code required major revision. As the Committee said in its report, that is a welcome demonstration that
"the code continues to achieve the objectives for which it was created in the first place."
It is therefore not surprising that the commissioner recommended no great changes, and that the Committee was happy to accept all his proposals.
The principal changes in the proposed new code, which brings a welcome overall enhancement to the clarity and focus of the code on the issues that matter, include new statements on Members' duties from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and the implementation of recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. They also include the extension of existing provisions on the misuse of parliamentary allowances to the misuse of facilities and services provided by the House. It is right in principle that the misuse of House resources, whether in cash or in kind, should be treated in the same way. The Committee gave careful consideration to the inclusion of a non-discrimination provision in the proposed new code. Such provisions are commonly included in professional codes of practice, and the Committee decided to include one. I believe that it has done so effectively and in a way that will not impose additional burdens on Members.
When considering the new code, the Committee was anxious to ensure that its proposals were proportionate to the regulatory need, and that it should not seek to increase unnecessarily the regulatory burden on Members, which some already find irksome. Nor did it wish to increase the burden on the commissioner for no good purpose. In recommending an extension to the scope of the code to include the misuse of facilities and services, we therefore recommended that the present arrangements for investigating such matters continue to be used as far as possible, but under the oversight of the commissioner. Those arrangements appear to work well and to command general confidence in the House, so we saw no need to change them for the sake of it.
The Committee recommended a procedure whereby the Commissioner could, if appropriate, dispose of certain cases by referring them to the relevant Officer of the House to secure suitable financial reimbursement rather than making a report to the Committee. In a deregulatory move, the Committee recommended that such a procedure should be available in misuse of allowances cases. That is not possible under the existing code.
Speaking personally, I would like to see further deregulatory moves, consistent with proper accounting for public funds. In the House we recognise the importance of a deregulated environment for those whom we represent, while putting more regulation on ourselves. I am not sure which body is the appropriate forum to take this agenda forward, but I detect an appetite for it in the House. I am pleased to see that the Government have tabled motions that will enable the two recommendations to which I referred a moment ago to be implemented.
The Committee also set out a principle which I hope is not contentious—that what happens to a Member should depend on the severity or otherwise of the offence, rather than on the route by which it is uncovered. In principle, we argue that there should be a level playing field. I recognise, as did the Committee, that the proposal in the Committee's report—which, as the Leader of the House said, we are not being asked to deal with today—that Officers of the House should, in some circumstances, report evidence of apparent misuse to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards raises sensitive issues around Members' relationship with those Departments, and that how the level playing field might be brought about in practice may require, as the Leader of the House said, further consultation.
I am happy with that, and I hope that such discussion or consultation could take place in the context of acceptance of the underlying principle that the seriousness of the matter should be the paramount consideration. That can only enhance public confidence in our regulatory arrangements. Handling all serious cases in the same manner, no matter how they arise, will also mean that the procedural safeguards and protection for Members inherent in the procedures overseen by the Committee would be available to all Members concerned.
We made good progress in the last Parliament in building public confidence in the regulatory framework, and in self-regulation in particular. As Peter Riddell, chief political correspondent of The Times, stated in a recent review of the first 10 years of the Committee on Standards in Public Life,
"The revamped system of Commons self-regulation and disclosure is now operating pretty well".
I am sure the new Committee will want to build on that record. In the last Parliament, the commissioner and the Committee rightly emphasised education and prevention, and I was pleased to see the extensive briefings on standards matters offered to new Members. The proposed new code strengthens in a proportionate way the expectations of both the House and the public as regards Members' conduct, and I commend the motions to the House.