Sir George, who is chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, spoke during a debate on the Regulation of Conduct in Public Life, urging the Government to do more to support the Ministerial Code of Conduct. See speech below:
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). I agree with him that sleaze should not be the currency in which Members of Parliament trade.
Today’s debate is a much more constructive and calm discussion of standards in public life than the one that we had yesterday, and for that reason it will doubtless have much less coverage. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), not only for this report but for the heroic way in which he has ventured on to a whole lot of territories from which he might have been discouraged by the Government. At the beginning of his speech, he gave an indication of what might have been when he said that as a junior Back Bencher he made an injudicious speech about the mileage allowance that could have led him to fall out of favour with the Whips. Had it not been for that incident, he might now be at the Dispatch Box taking credit for a whole range of innovative and radical constitutional reforms that he still has to advocate from the Back Benches.
The report is unusual because it deals with abstract issues such as that of ethics, which is difficult to define and rather intangible, and various principles, structures and concepts. This debate therefore takes place on a somewhat different plane from many debates in the House. That does not excuse a rather thin and very belated Government response that ducks some of the major issues raised in the report.
Let me begin by confirming what was stated by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, by the Lord Chancellor yesterday, and in the report: our standards of conduct in this country are generally high. As Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I spend a lot of time talking to visiting parliamentarians, who are amazed at the high standards that we set ourselves and the procedures that are in place to monitor them. In many countries, MPs have immunity from prosecution. We do not have that, nor should we, but on top of the criminal system we have superimposed a ministerial code and the House of Commons code, breaches of which can lead to career-ending decisions. While we should of course always strive to do better, I believe that our politics here are cleaner than almost anywhere else.
Let me say a word or two about the Committee on Standards in Public Life. On 25 April, Sir Alistair Graham’s appointment ran out. No Chairman has been reappointed for a second three-year term, so the Government knew well in advance that there would be a vacancy in April. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase heroically said that he might be responsible for the delay because the Government were hoping that his report might recommend abolition. I am not sure about that, given that his report was published on 29 April and it was only today that an appointment was announced. Indeed, the Government did not advertise the vacancy until October. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that that body is being penalised for having had, in Sir Alistair Graham, an outspoken Chairman who was sometimes inconvenient for the Government.
It is important to have a Chairman, and I welcome the appointment of Chris Kelly, who worked in the Treasury when I was there. That is a very good appointment, and I applaud it. We need a new Chairman to focus on exactly what the Committee’s role should be. It is difficult, against the background of today’s controversies, to argue that the mission of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has been achieved and that there is no role for it. However, when we look at some of its recent activities, it is difficult to see how it envisages its mission. We need a new Chairman and a new focus, which underlines the point made in the report about the appointment being in the hands of the Government. They have the capacity to weaken the ethical regulator simply by delaying an appointment, as has happened in this case. If Parliament had been in charge, as proposed by the Select Committee, that would not have happened.
In passing, I would like to mention the constitutional watchdog about which I get the most complaints, the Standards Board for England. There is a passing reference to it in paragraphs 21 and 29 of the report. It is not quite clear who reviews that body—the Public Administration Committee or the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government—nor how it fits into the proposed structure, but someone needs to get a grip of it so that it is more focused and effective, and so that it does not drive all of my parish councillors into a rage.
I want to make one point only in my contribution, which concerns the relationship between the Prime Minister and the adviser on ministerial interests. The hon. Member for Pendle spoke of the dance of the seven veils, and that is what has happened in the dialogue between the Public Administration Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life and, on the other hand, this Prime Minister and the previous one.
By way of background, the behaviour of Ministers is just as much in the limelight as that of MPs, so enforcement of the ministerial code should be as robust as it is for the MPs’ code, but it is not. Three years after the CSPL recommended it in 2003, in March 2006, Tony Blair took off one veil and appointed an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. That followed the row about loans not declared to the Electoral Commission. Another veil came off a bit later when Tony Blair, who resisted the appointment of an investigator into alleged breaches of the ministerial code, finally conceded that point. But having conceded the principle, he did not make the appointment until some time later. Having made the appointment, he never asked the adviser to investigate any breaches of the code, although there have been, to put it mildly, a number of opportunities to do so.
I welcome the appointment of Sir Philip Mawer as the new adviser on ministerial interests—another inspired appointment—but there is still a serious and indefensible gap. His terms of reference permit him to establish the facts in certain cases concerning the ministerial code and provide private advice to the Prime Minister, but he can do so only if the Prime Minister invites him to. The design principles for a constitutional watchdog in the report make it clear that the ground rules for the ministerial code watchdog are seriously non-compliant with the report’s recommendations. He does not have the freedom to initiate his own inquiries; he is not appointed by the House; he does not have secure funding arrangements beyond the control of the Executive; and he does not have a secure legal foundation. In those four respects, it is a non-compliant appointment. Crucially, he does not have the right to publish his report when he makes an investigation.
The new Prime Minister could have taken a trick, by acceding, in the Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, to all of the recommendations in the report. But he did not. Paragraph 121 of “The Governance of Britain” makes it quite clear that the adviser can act only on the Prime Minister’s request. Therefore, the regime we have for enforcing the ministerial code is much weaker than the one we have for MPs, and I see no reason why the Government should have a weaker and less effective regime than we in this House do. We have a Parliamentary Commissioner For Standards who can initiate his own inquiries if he thinks that there has been a breach; his report is always published; and he is appointed by the House for a single, non-renewable term. I hope that, when the Parliamentary Secretary replies, she will say that there is some room for manoeuvre and that, as the years roll by, some more veils may come off.
I disagree with the report’s suggestion that all the decisions should be subject to judicial review. Making the decisions of the ethical watchdogs subject to the courts and judicial review is a recipe for disaster. If the Select Committee has a moment, it might like to consider the output of the democracy taskforce, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) chairs. It has produced a readable document entitled, “An End to Sofa Government”, which has some exciting comments to make about the ministerial code and how it might be enforced.
The authority of Government and the perception of their integrity is weakened if they continue to fail to respond positively to the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Public Administration Committee.