Standards and Privileges (Independent Appeals Body)

– in the House of Commons at 4:52 pm on 20 March 2001.

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Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay 4:52, 20 March 2001

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to implement the recommendations contained in the sixth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life The Committee on Standards in Public Life, at the time in question, was chaired by Lord Neill, and the report reviews the first five years working of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. The report has been gathering dust for 15 months. The House has been given no opportunity formally to consider the Committee's recommendations, which I think should be debated before the end of this Parliament.

The report expressed concern that our in-house procedures for examining the conduct of hon. Members fail to meet the minimum requirements of fairness", as set out in the Nicholls report.

For hon. Members who are not familiar with the 1999 Nicholls report, I should say that it is a joint report on parliamentary privileges in the Lords and Commons by a Committee which was chaired by Lord Nicholls, who is a distinguished Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. Many distinguished Members of this place sat on that Committee, which had a broad spectrum of views on the way we should conduct our proceedings.

The House of course has a perfect right to determine its own rules on the way in which it conducts its affairs. However, I cannot imagine that any hon. Member would claim that the current system is entirely satisfactory. Lord Neill seeks not to change the rules, but to extend the right to an accused Member to appeal against a decision when that Member feels that his affairs have been treated with less concern than might be considered proper.

The Library informs me that, currently, the only way in which an hon. Member can challenge a decision of the Standards and Privileges Committee would be to go to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg. That is a lengthy and expensive procedure that prolongs the agony and leaves a cloud hanging over the hon. Member concerned. An appeals procedure, as recommended by Lord Neill, would establish a degree of consistency by building up a body of case law and would help to take some of the politics out of these proceedings.

The first recommendation that my Bill would seek to adopt is that in serious and contested decisions of the Standards and Privileges Committee the accused MP should have the right of appeal. The report goes on to say that it is likely that a contested case will involve a range of complex legal issues, with conflicts of evidence and legal debates on procedural points … which would be difficult for non-lawyers to control and decide. For this reason, Lord Neill proposes that what he calls "an investigative tribunal" should be chaired by an independent lawyer such as a senior retired judge, advised on the parliamentary procedures involved by two or four senior Members of the House.

The second recommendation that I believe we should adopt is that Members who receive an adverse ruling and wish to challenge it should be provided with financial assistance to pursue the appeal. It is only when the appeal is dismissed that the Committee should report to the House, along with any recommendations as to penalties.

I have raised these matters on more than one occasion with the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office. He has said that he is in favour of these matters being debated and that we should examine the possibility of providing legal advice and expenses to Members who wish to challenge decisions.

Lord Neill is not the only one who has expressed concern about the way in which our current procedures are working. In his retirement report, Sir Gordon Downey—the former commissioner, who worked with the Committee for three years—warned of the dangers of tit-for-tat wars breaking out. One would have to have flown in from another planet not to realise that that prediction has already come to pass.

If we were to adopt Lord Neill's recommendations, I believe that they would bring our disciplinary procedures nearer the concept of natural justice and would go some way towards improving public perceptions of the way in which we conduct our affairs. Whether we like it or not, these are portrayed in the press in a manner that must give cause for the public to wonder precisely what this Chamber is about and where our priorities lie. I commend my Bill to the House.

Photo of Mr Martin Bell Mr Martin Bell Independent, Tatton 4:58, 20 March 2001

I am grateful for this opportunity. I shall speak briefly to answer the points of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and—in some limited measure—to oppose them, at least in their emphasis and timing. I do not wish to press this to a vote as it should not be a divisive or a dividing issue. I would be extremely reluctant to see the House divided—whipped or unwhipped—along party lines. What matters in this case primarily is not the feeling in the House, but the feeling in the country.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the points that she raised and the particular perspective that she brings to the matter. She has had personal experience of the House's self-regulation, of the procedures of the commissioner and of the Committee, and of the consequences. There is no doubt that an appeals procedure must be introduced.

I draw the attention of the House to the 21st report of the Standards and Privileges Committee, which was agreed unanimously in the 1997–98 Session. The report provides exactly for such a court of appeal, in effect. I was concerned about the case of my predecessor as the Member of Parliament for Tatton. I believe that Sir Gordon Downey was thorough and fair in his investigations.

I believe, too, that the Committee did its best. I was not a member at the time, but I believe that it could stand by its report. However, an appeal procedure was not available. The commissioner is not a prosecutor and the Committee is not a court of law, but the effect of my predecessor's condemnation was akin to a criminal conviction: as he put it at the time, he was condemned to a life of penury and unemployment. That is why it is necessary for a suitable procedure to be put in place.

I very much hope that, between now and the end of the Session, the House will consider and adopt the suggestions made in the Bill. However, the emphasis must be on restoring public trust in public life. My goodness, we have a long way to go: I am not altogether convinced that this Parliament is held in higher esteem by the public at large than was the previous Parliament.

In the end, the answer lies not with commissioners, Committees and tribunals, but with ourselves. We hon. Members should register our interests. When in doubt, we should ask the commissioner, whom I believe to be one of the outstanding public servants of our time, and the registrar. We should not resort to lawyers, except for basic advice. We should certainly not resort to lawyers to obstruct the work of the Committee and the commission.

I think that the public will forgive us if we are too rigorous, and even nitpicking, in how we deal with these matters. People will not forgive us if we are not rigorous enough. Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to. Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Mr. Douglas Hogg, Sir Teddy Taylor, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Christopher Gill, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Patrick Nicholls and Sir Richard Body.