Below is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons:
Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) made a similar point in an intervention. My Committee is worried about the matter and I wrote to the Leader of the House at the beginning of the month, asking if she would revisit the new rules on earnings precisely because of that problem. I await a reply. In my view, the new rules are almost unworkable.
The Bill is being rushed through. The cross-party consultations were welcome, and it was a courtesy of the Justice Secretary’s to include me in them as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. However, four meetings on Chatham House rules on a fast-moving text is no way to legislate for important changes, some of which go to the heart of how we are governed.
We are told that the Bill responds to public concerns, but there has been minimum public consultation on it. In his statement to the House on 19 May, the then Speaker said:
“The meeting also received a paper from the Prime Minister, which was endorsed by the other party leaders, calling for a fundamental reform of allowances—moving from self-regulation to regulation by an independent body. The Government will consult widely on this proposal.”—[ Official Report, 19 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 1422.]
They have not. In her statement the following day, the Leader of the House spoke of
“The proposal on which we seek to consult”—[ Official Report, 20 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 1506.]
Following which there have been minimal consultations.
At the end, she said:
“We must now seize the opportunity to promote a debate that will see proposals to change and strengthen our democracy”.—[ Official Report, 20 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 1506.]
Quite frankly, there has been no such debate, and the Bill was published but a few days ago. I looked at the Ministry of Justice website, which said:
“The paper that was tabled at the meeting the Speaker held of all party leaders and subsequently debated by Harriet Harman in the House the next day is now available on the Ministry of Justice website. Members of the public are now invited to comment”.
I wonder whether the Minister who will wind up this debate can tell us what members of the public have said about the process.
As others have asked, do we know what the views of the Committee on Standards in Public Life are on what is proposed? Presumably not, because it is in the middle of an inquiry into that very subject. The Justice Secretary’s rather narrow interpretation of its terms of reference is misguided. Like other hon. Members, I have given evidence to that committee, whose members are interested in much broader issues than the simple mechanics of allowances. They are interested in the whole architecture and in the philosophy and ethics behind the allowances. He was wrong to rule out their commenting on some of the broader issues. It is not inconceivable that the committee could come up with a different solution from the one in the Bill. As the Government have already indicated that they are minded to accept Kelly, we could find ourselves repealing or amending the Bill in the autumn. That seems to be bad government.
All stages in three days is too fast. The view of the Standards and Privileges Committee was that we should have had a draft Bill that went through due process, in order to get it right. Rushing the Bill through this House is an open invitation to the other place to look at it more carefully. I commend to the House the wise words of Peter Riddell in The Times today:
“But, not for the first time, speed is the enemy of adequate scrutiny, risking the type of consequences raised by Mr Jack”,
the Clerk of the House. He continues:
“Gordon Brown is determined that this Bill to ‘clean up politics root and branch’ should become law before Parliament starts its long summer recess in three weeks. It would be far better for Parliament to return for a couple of weeks in September to allow time for proper debate.”
On that theme, I invite the House to contrast the care with which we assembled part of our regulatory structure with the haste with which it is being dismantled. The appointment of the first Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards followed inquiries by the Nolan committee—the Committee on Standards in Public Life—and our Select Committee. We came to a considered view after a rational debate and put in place an investigatory system in 1995 that has been modified from time to time since and has worked quite well. In giving evidence to the Kelly committee earlier this month, Anthony King said as much, pointing out that that part of the system had worked well. The independent investigatory system is not part of the current problem. However, the rush to abolish it and replace it with a new system risks creating new problems.
The Bill dismembers the existing complaints machinery, transferring its functions relating to allowances and registration to IPSA and the investigator. However, the Bill leaves the rest of the system in a heap here in the House, with no plans for putting it together again. Will the House retain the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate complaints that do not relate to allowances and registration, of which there are some? If not, who will do the work of investigating those complaints and reporting to the Standards and Privileges Committee? Which independent person will keep our code of conduct under review and make recommendations to the House? Or will we keep our Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate complaints that do not relate to finances, but have a new investigator-commissioner to deal with those that do? What do we do about complaints that are a bit of one and a bit of the other? The proposal has not been thought through and has the potential to create an unholy mess.
The Bill has some good points. Giving the Fees Office function to an outside body is welcome. The retention by the House of its powers to apply sanctions against errant Members is important. We could not have a quango suspending or expelling Members who had not committed a criminal offence. However, there are genuine concerns about aspects of the Bill relating to parliamentary privilege. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), I do not know how on earth the Leader of the House could assert at business questions last week that
“the question of parliamentary privilege is not an issue in that Bill, so that is not a question that hon. Members need to concern themselves with.”—[ Official Report, 25 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 950.]
No sooner had she said that than up popped in my inbox five pages of a paper from the Clerk of the House entitled “Privilege Aspects of the Parliamentary Standards Bill”. The title of that paper sat uneasily with the assertion made by the Leader of the House. The Clerk of the House very tactfully says at the beginning:
“I should stress that I make no comment whatever on the merits of the Bill’s policy proposals”.
However, page three says:
“This could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Members and of witnesses before committees and would hamper the ability of House officials to give advice to Members.”
That sounds to me dangerously like a comment on the merits of the Bill’s policy proposals, but of course the Clerk would make no such comment.
I welcome what was said about clause 6. I am glad that it is not being pursued, although there are some other aspects of the Bill, particularly in clause 10, where there are still some residual issues. If the Justice Secretary was minded to accept the Clerk of the House’s views on clause 6, that prompts the question why he chose to reject them on clause 10.
The Standards and Privileges Committee has been described as a “gentlemen’s club”, which is an inaccurate and unfair characterisation. It is indeed a Committee composed entirely of parliamentarians who, at the moment, all happen to be male. However, as I told the Committee on Standards in Public Life in giving evidence this morning, the Committee would welcome the appointment to it of some lay members to correct any misperception that it is a club and to introduce an element of external involvement in its work on standards. I look forward to seeing what the Committee on Standards in Public Life says about that.
However, there is something close to a gentlemen’s club, and its members are Ministers of the Crown. There is no proposal in the Bill from the Government to place the ministerial code of conduct and the investigatory apparatus that goes with it on a statutory footing, unlike what we are doing as far as Members of Parliament are concerned. The Bill therefore creates a new disparity between the status of the two codes. Perhaps the reason is that the combined owner, doorkeeper and bouncer of the ministerial club is the Prime Minister. Anyone can complain to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards about any one of us. If he investigates and there is substance to the complaint, his report will be published. Let us contrast that treatment with the ministerial code. Complaints are pursued only if the Prime Minister so decides, and there is no guarantee that any report will be published.
There are a number of questions that the Bill does not answer or that it does not wholly answer. For example, when do the Government intend to commence the main provisions of the Bill? Will we have an opportunity to debate the relevant commencement orders? Do the Government mean to extend the role of the new commissioner to include investigating complaints that relate to matters other than financial matters, which I have mentioned, and if so, when? Do the Government intend to transfer the other registers to IPSA, and if so, when?
Do the Government intend to transfer investigations by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards that are already under way to the new commissioner? If so, when will that happen? Will the new commissioner be able to use the work already carried out by the present commissioner or will he have to start investigating those complaints afresh? Finally, what are we going to do with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who was appointed for a fixed term only last year? Normally, questions of this kind could be raised in Committee, reflected on and pursued on Report. However, there is no opportunity to do that with this Bill. I therefore hope that the Government can provide some answers up front today.
I do not like this Bill. I do not like the haste with which it is being pursued. I hope that the other place will subject it to proper scrutiny. I am minded not to vote against the Bill on Second Reading, but to vote against it on Third Reading if the objectionable bits are still there, although I am also attracted by the idea of voting against the timetable motion.