Sir George speaks on Parliamentary Standards
2 Feb 2009
This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House in a debate on Parliamentary Standards

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who would top the poll in any secret ballot for Leader of the House. He made a typically defiant, courageous speech, and I agree with what he says about the Government’s constitutional programme. The previous Lord Chancellor said that we have not a constitutional renewal Bill, but a constitutional retreat Bill. On Lords reform, I remember being told that the first elections to the upper house would take place at the same time as the 2001 general election. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman is quite right about allowing peers to retire so that their party can refresh their troops in the upper House, allowing younger people to play their part.

One of the paradoxes of life is that people like their local Member of Parliament, but refuse to believe he or she is typical. Wherever I go, I am told, “We’re frightfully lucky here, but the rest of you are up to no good.” The reputation of the House would be much higher if people had confidence in their own judgment, based on their experience of their own MP instead of what they read in the press.

Much has been achieved in this House in recent years, and with the imminent end of dual reporting for MPs, a new guide to the rules—it was published today, coincidentally—a new allowance regime and Select Committee, and greater transparency on receipts, we have the opportunity to build on past strengths and to do even better. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life said about the Commons:

“We endorse the view that standards in the House of Commons are generally high, and that the overwhelming majority of members seek to, and in practice do, uphold high standards of propriety.”

I see many of my opposite numbers from other countries who come to look at the regime here, and by any international standards, our political system is pretty clean. We deal with the inevitable lapses well, but we must never become complacent.

One of the consequences of introducing a tougher regime in this House is that it has led to pressure being applied to other parts of the body politic, and it is helpful to put our disciplinary regime in the broader context of that for Members of the European Parliament, Ministers and members of the other place. Anyone can make a complaint about an MP to the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. If the complaint raises matters of significance, he will produce a report for my Committee, which we will publish unamended, saying whether or not that complaint is upheld, and we can then propose appropriate punishments, some of which are career-ending. None of the other regimes—neither the ministerial code nor the current code for Members of the upper House—has our features of open access, independent scrutiny, publication of findings and harsh reprisal. The code for MEPs has the most generous of all allowance regimes, with the most relaxed audit trail.

The ministerial code is policed by the Prime Minister, who can decide whether to refer a matter to his independent adviser and whether to publish any report. Neither procedure has ever been invoked. I once complained that a Foreign Secretary had broken the ministerial code. My complaint was passed by the Prime Minister to the then Foreign Secretary, who replied to me, saying that he had not broken the code, showing a circularity of process. In the upper House, the complaints procedure has no independent element and limited sanctions. There would be greater confidence in the two other codes if they adopted those features of ours.

One of the recommendations that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made is to extend the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to cover the upper House. That recognises the regulatory strength of our regime. However, the proposal to extend the remit of the commissioner raises questions about the capacity of his office to take on additional work, while at the same time carrying out with due rigour his inquiries into complaints made against Members of this House. The present commissioner is contracted to work four days a week, although I know that he works more than that. If we are going to extend his remit to the House of Lords, which has more Members than our House, there will be questions to do with resources and whether he will be able to deal with all complaints personally. We therefore need to think that proposal through.

Some have suggested that by electing the upper House, we reduce the risk of abuse. I am a firm believer in a predominantly elected second Chamber, but I doubt whether changing the mode of entry would of itself drive up standards.

Let me turn to a case that has given rise to some comment, both inside and outside the House. Last week, my Committee published its report on the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway). We required the hon. Member to apologise to the House through the Committee Chairman and to repay nearly £4,000, which in our judgment he had overpaid to his son. Some hon. Members felt that those sanctions did not go far enough and said as much, possibly before having had time to read the report in full. Those who have read the Committee’s report will have seen that the breach was less serious than the case on which the Committee had previously reported and that it predated that case, so it can hardly be said to have compounded it. My Committee claims no monopoly of wisdom, but we had a thorough process of inquiry, with a 55-page report and annexes. We considered the case in detail in two meetings and came to a unanimous conclusion.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that I repeat, without qualification, the apology that I have already given him in writing and that I accept, without any reservation, the Committee’s conclusion that I breached a rule of the House? I would also like to withdraw the statement that I made to the media last Thursday.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention, which means that I can discard the next three pages of my speech.

There will be an opportunity to debate the revised guide to the rules next Monday. The rules are lengthy and even intimidating, but perhaps I can condense them into two short and easily remembered rules. Rule 1 is: if in doubt, ask. Rule 2 is: if in trouble, tell the truth. If all colleagues observed those two rules, the commissioner and my Committee would be a good deal less busy than they are at the moment, and the reputation of Parliament would stand higher than it does now.

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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015