This is Sir George's speech on the Second Reading of the Recall Bill
Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con): I want to make a brief intervention in this debate, because so far no one who has sat on the Standards and Privileges Committee has spoken. During the course of the debate, a number of assertions have been made about how that Committee operates. We heard from one hon. Member that there was risk of a tabloid campaign leading to the upholding of a complaint against a Member who would then find himself confronted with a 10% petition in his constituency. Another Member asserted exactly the opposite—that the Standards and Privileges Committee was a cosy clique that protected other Members from justice. Let me therefore explain the Committee’s role, the environment in which it operates and the very real constraints on what its members can do.
First, there is an independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. That commissioner, who is independent of Members, investigates the complaint and produces a report saying whether or not the complaint should be upheld. Members of Parliament and members of the Committee have no role whatever in the production of that report, which is always published. Members are then free, if they so wish, to go against the finding of the independent commissioner, but they of course need very good reasons so to do. They are going to have to stand up in public; they cannot simply say that they do not uphold the complaint, as reasons have to be produced.
One quite recent change is the introduction of lay members on that Committee. It is true that the lay members do not have a vote, but they have something much more effective—a veto. If they disagree with the elected members of the Standards and Privileges Committee, that disagreement is put into the public domain. Any attempt by Members of Parliament to shield a colleague from a wholly justified complaint would be shot to bits by the lay members publishing a report in disagreement. Further changes are that the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee cannot come from the Government Benches. When I chaired the Committee, there was no Government majority on it. The notion that the members of this Committee, in the words of one Member, “chase the Whips’ bauble” is a gross injustice to the independently minded MPs who serve on the Committee. I think they would deeply resent some of the allegations made against them.
Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): As a former Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee and a former Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend is uniquely positioned to confirm whether, should a Member challenge the findings of the Committee, the Government would whip the party against that Member.
Sir George Young: The debates about Standards and Privileges Committee reports that take place on the Floor of the House are unwhipped business, and the Whips have no role to play in them. Indeed, I have been in the House when it has overturned one of the Committee’s recommendations. That is another safeguard that has been overlooked. The Standards and Privileges Committee does not have the last word; its recommendations go to the Floor of the House. The notion that Members of this House would validate a kangaroo court of Members upstairs is an injustice to them, for they would not tolerate it.
Having said that, I should add that I have a great deal of sympathy with some of the points that have been made today. For example, we could consider increasing the role of the Committee’s lay members, and consider whether it would be procedurally possible, in certain cases, to ask them to conduct the adjudication and publish the report. They could be the only voice in such cases if that found favour.
I think that one dilemma was put well by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who asked “Is it cause, or is it conduct?” In other words, are we going to hold people to account for their conduct, or for their cause? Our manifesto made it absolutely clear that recall would be linked to misconduct.
I see all sorts of risks in going down the path advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), although I commend the way in which he opened the Back-Bench debate. For example, in this country MPs are also Ministers. Some unpopular decisions are being made at the moment: HS2, for instance, is controversial, although it has been validated by the House. Some Transport Ministers are in marginal seats, and the HS2 campaign is, I believe, fairly well resourced. It would not be impossible to achieve the 5% trigger in the constituency of a Transport Minister and to destabilise that Minister, who would be doing the work of the House. Other Ministers may be involved in such issues as fracking, planning or tuition fees. I envisage a real risk that Ministers who are doing the business of their party and the business of the Government will be destabilised by this mechanism.
I think that what the House ought to do on this occasion is honour the commitments that the three main parties made in their manifestos, and link recall to misconduct. By all means let Members develop the debate and consider the options that have been ventilated by those who support the amendments, but those are, perhaps, for another Parliament. I do not think that we should divert from the commitments that nearly all of us made at the last election. I think that we should get the Bill on the statute book and then, at a later date, explore some of the other amendments that have been proposed.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that we are in danger of becoming obsessed with the process leading to a conviction without first determining the nature of the crime involved?
Sir George Young: I think that the process should be linked, if not to a conviction, to serious misconduct. As my hon. Friend knows, there are two triggers in the Bill. One is a custodial sentence of less than a year, and the other is a finding by the Standards and Privileges Committee that a serious misdemeanour has been committed. That must be validated by the House, and I think that it ought to be supported by the lay members. However, I am clear in my own mind that there is a distinction between cause and conduct. We heard from the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) about the case of Lena Jeger, and there are others who would have been caught if the Bill had been extended in the way that some have suggested.
I think that, on this occasion, we should stick to our commitment, and get the Bill on to the statute book.