This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons about how MP’s should register their interests
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I invite the House to approve the revised guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members as set out in the fourth report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which we published last week. It paves the way for an early end to dual reporting, as well as making a number of other changes which I believe will be welcomed in all parts of the House.
Coming as it does shortly after the adoption of the new Green Book and the setting up of the new Committee on Members’ Allowances, today’s debate gives us a opportunity to adopt a reporting regime that is intended to provide the House and our constituents outside with transparency and reassurance on our interests.
The code of conduct and the guide to the rules are essential components of the House’s regulatory machinery. It is vital that hon. Members have a clear understanding of what the code states and what the rules mean, in order that they may comply with them. The reporting regime, which is one of the most demanding in the world, needs to be overhauled from time to time to ensure that it is both effective and proportionate. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that such an overhaul should be carried out once in each Parliament, and today’s package of proposals represents the overhaul in the present Parliament.
In addition to making changes that relate to the end of dual reporting, the revised guide clarifies existing rules, implements earlier decisions of the House—for example, on the employment of family members—and responds to developments outside this place, such as the development of new forms of investment vehicles. The final section of the revised guide sets out in greater detail than before the procedure for considering and investigating complaints that a Member has breached the rules. Many of the changes, however, and most of the red print in the revised guide are there to end dual reporting.
The requirement to report donations to both the Registrar of Members’ Interests and the Electoral Commission was, as my Committee’s report points out, an unintended consequence of the legislation passed in 2000. Problems came to light in 2005— [Interruption.] The House may have heard the aside from the Lord Chancellor, admitting culpability for such dual reporting. The problems came to light in 2005 when my Committee considered a report from the Commissioner for Standards on the inadvertent failure of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) to register donations in the Register of Members’ Interests, although he had fully reported those same donations to the Electoral Commission and they were in the public domain. The Committee concluded:
“It would in our view be better...if a single system, operating under the authority of the Commissioner, could be devised to replace the present arrangements, which would enable Members to discharge their obligations in relation to making donations public through a single declaration.”
An attempt was made to achieve that during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, but the complexity of the subject was underestimated at the time. Much of the past two years has been taken up with lengthy and detailed discussions that have drilled deep into the substrata of electoral law. With the successful conclusion of those discussions—I am grateful to the registrar, Alda Barry, and the Clerk of my Committee, Steve Priestley, for their work on this—we have now reached the point where the end of dual reporting is in sight and the “one-stop shop” called for by the Committee in 2005 will soon be able to open for business.
The main focus of the discussions over the last year or so has been the Electoral Commission’s very proper concern to ensure that we do not create a fresh anomaly in relation to Members who stand against non-Members in elections outside this place—for example, as Mayor of London or as a Member of a devolved Assembly. The end of dual reporting will mean that such Members are no longer subject to the same set of criminal sanctions as are other candidates. There are various legislative means of keeping the playing field level, but they are so complex and so convoluted that they resemble a steamroller being used to flatten a molehill. The Electoral Commission has agreed that such a legislative solution would be disproportionate, given the very few cases involved.
This agreement is important, because dual reporting cannot end until the Electoral Commission has indicated that it is satisfied it can get all the information it needs from the Register of Members’ Interests. I have been assured by Jenny Watson, who now chairs the Electoral Commission, that this revised guide will provide the assurances the commission seeks in order to sign off on dual reporting. It will then be for the Justice Secretary to lay a commencement order before Parliament. In its report, my Committee expresses the hope that this process will be completed by the end of June, and I rather hope that it may be completed well before then.
Members may well ask, “Well, what is the catch?” I do not believe there is a catch, but there is certainly some give as well as some take. Members will need to provide more information to the registrar than they did previously. However, this will be offset by the removal of any need to report the same information to the commission, and a single form will be provided for this purpose.
We considered whether to recommend alignment of the thresholds used by the House with those set down in statute. In several categories of the rules, the House requires interests with a value greater than 1 per cent. of parliamentary salary to be reported—at present, that sum is £633—whereas the statutory threshold tends to be set at a more generous level, which is currently £1,000. The 1 per cent. threshold was agreed by the House when the rules were last revised in 2002 and, in my view, it was set at an appropriate level. It provides a high degree of transparency in our reporting and, because it is indexed, it automatically rises in line with our pay. The Committee’s view is that this remains the right way to set the majority of the thresholds and we have not, therefore, recommended any change.
In relation to category 4, however—which covers most political donations and is the main area of overlap between the House’s requirements and those set down in statute—the threshold has been fixed at £1,000. Members will have seen that the motion provides for the threshold in category 4 to be tied to the level specified in the legislation, which, at the moment, happens to be £1,000. The Committee had not considered proposing this change, but it is a sensible adjustment that will avoid creating a differential between the House’s thresholds and the statutory ones, and I therefore support it. Any proposal to increase that threshold would come from the Government, but would be subject to parliamentary procedure.
Although hon. Members will no longer have to provide information on permissible donations and loans directly to the Electoral Commission, the commission will remain under a statutory obligation to publish all the relevant information as soon as is reasonably practicable. That means that the commission will publish information on its register within one month of receipt. In order to avoid a four-month gap opening up in the commission’s register, it will be necessary to return to the previous practice of requiring Members to register their interests within one month of their election or re-election to the House, rather than within three months, as at present. Separate deadlines for information required under statute and for information required under resolutions of the House would create confusion and lead to error, and the Committee therefore considers it preferable to have a single deadline.
In order for the Electoral Commission to obtain the information it needs to keep its register up to date, its officials will be granted controlled access to the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the sole purpose of gathering the information to which they are entitled. After a general election, the commission will need to publish some of this information in its register before the first edition of the House’s register is published. A memorandum of understanding is being drawn up with the Electoral Commission, and it will specify the limited circumstances in which access may be granted.
Members will also need to continue to report impermissible donations, or donations from unidentified sources, directly to the commission, which will remain the sole authority on such matters. All the substantive changes are described in the Committee’s report and are picked out in red. I shall not describe each of them, but I shall highlight just two aspects of the revised rules that are not related to the end of dual reporting.
First, hon. Members need to keep full records of each benefit of a value greater than £200. That is because a series of donations from the same source, each unregistrable in itself and even if spread across different registration categories, can give rise to a requirement to register if they accumulate to a value of £1,000 or more. Secondly, the motion makes specific provision to rename the Register of Members’ Interests so that it is called the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and to make a corresponding change to the title of the registrar. The change has been proposed because there is some confusion outside the House as to the purpose of the register. By renaming it the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, we will make it clear that all the entries in the register have a real or potential monetary value. It is a small change, but one that the Committee believes is worth making.
When dual reporting ends, the Commissioner will write to every hon. Member, sending a copy of the new guide and details of the seminars arranged to explain the new rules to hon. Members. There will also be guidance about how to complete the new form. I strongly encourage any Member who may be in any doubt about how the new rules will apply to seek advice from the standards commissioner or the Registrar of Members’ Interests, who will be glad to help—or from the Electoral Commission, in respect of impermissible donations.
I believe that the end of dual reporting will be welcomed on both sides of the House. Together with the other changes recently agreed by the House, the revised rules constitute an important step forward in this House’s regulatory system and in the transparency and accountability that rightly apply to our financial interests as Members of Parliament. The Standards and Privileges Committee will keep all these changes actively under review, and I ask the House to support the motion that stands in the name of the Leader of the House.