Standards

– in the House of Commons at 11:35 am on 8th May 2014.

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Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons 11:35 am, 8th May 2014

I beg to move,

That this House:

(1) approves the Eleventh Report from the Committee on Standards, HC 1225;

(2) endorses the recommendation in paragraph 29; and

(3) notes that Patrick Mercer has been disqualified as a Member of this House.

The conclusions of the Standards Committee in this case make for grim reading. It found that Patrick Mercer deliberately evaded the rules about the registration and declaration of interests, that he inflicted

“significant reputational damage on the House and its Members” and that by engaging in paid advocacy he brought the House into disrepute.

I deeply regret that one of our number should have failed so badly to meet the standards that we and the public rightly expect. In the event, the six-month suspension recommended by the Committee does not have to be enforced as Mr Mercer decided to vacate his seat in advance of publication of the Committee’s report. None the less, it is important that the House has the opportunity to endorse the Committee’s report, to note Mr Mercer’s resignation, in effect, and to thank the commissioner and the Standards Committee for their work in dealing with this case.

I will leave it to the Chair of the Committee to set out the rationale for the findings in its report, but I want to make one point relating to the use of the sanctions available to the House. The Committee draws attention in paragraph 28 to the further consideration it will give as to how best to balance the need to impose penalties of the right severity for breaches of the code of conduct with the position of the Member’s constituents, who elect them and, by extension, might expect to dismiss them. It goes on to say in paragraph 29 that in reaching a judgment in this case, it was

“mindful of the precedent in the Lords” where the equivalent Committee had recommended suspension of between four and six months in similar cases.

I am not convinced that the analogy with the Lords works in this context. The tariff system is calibrated differently in that House, largely because it does not have the power to expel peers. Any suspension does not have the same impact because peers do not have constituents who might suffer as a result of a lengthy suspension. Although I do not dismiss the value of precedent, I think we can accept that the two Houses might operate entirely independently from each other on matters of conduct.

In this House, there may be circumstances in which it is desirable to marry the interests of the electorate with the ethical standards of this House through the use of a recall mechanism. We might thus retain the responsibility of the House to police adherence to its own code of conduct but leave the ultimate decision on the sanction, when it is warranted, with the electorate. The Government have given a commitment to pursuing a recall Bill, which I hope will usefully add to the menu of powers already available to them.

On the Mercer case, Members will be aware that his offences related in part to the establishment of an all-party parliamentary group in a way that breached the rules: it was done in return for financial reward. There have been long-standing concerns about the potential for abuse of what are generally valuable additions to our parliamentary work. Following a report by the Speaker’s working group in 2012, the Standards Committee embarked on an inquiry into these groups, which was still under way when the case of Patrick Mercer was referred to the commissioner. The Committee reported to the House on all-party parliamentary groups in November 2013. The Committee’s report made many sensible recommendations designed to improve the transparency, accountability and distinctiveness of all-party parliamentary groups. The whole House can be grateful for this valuable work by the Standards Committee. As I have just announced, there will be an opportunity for the House to consider the Committee’s report and to approve the changes it recommended next Tuesday. I hope that these changes will make it even less likely that we will ever have to consider a report and a motion of the sort the House is being asked to consider today.

In recent weeks, lay members of the Standards Committee have emphasised that more should be done in this House to ensure that Members know and fully understand the requirements of the code and make the principles of public life integral to our thinking and actions. I agree with them and I look forward to working with the Committee to promote that.

It has been the practice of this House to endorse the findings of the Committee on Standards and I invite hon. Members to do so today.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 11:39 am, 8th May 2014

Let me add my thanks to my right hon. Friend Kevin Barron and to the other members of the Standards Committee for this detailed report and for their firm position on an appalling breach of clear and long-standing parliamentary rules.

I support the motion before us, which says that the House

“approves the Eleventh Report from the Committee on Standard…endorses the recommendation in paragraph 29; and notes that Patrick Mercer has been disqualified as a Member of this House.”

Of course, it is now also the case that the former Member has resigned his seat and there will be a by-election in Newark on 5 June. The Committee’s report notes that it is

“not aware of a case relating to a sitting MP which has involved such a sustained and pervasive breach of the House’s rules on registration, declaration and paid advocacy” and concludes that the second-longest suspension since 1947 was the correct sanction for such a grievous breach. It is right to have taken this strong position.

The details of the case are shocking. Patrick Mercer failed to register his commercial agreement; failed to declare an interest when he tabled a series of parliamentary questions and an early-day motion; failed, more likely than not, to declare an interest to the all-party parliamentary group that he had established, as it turned out, for his own financial gain; and, most seriously, used his position as a Member of the House to further his own personal financial interests. The commissioner is right to say that Patrick Mercer inflicted

“significant reputational damage on the House and its Members.”

In the light of these unambiguous findings, the Committee was right to recommend the sanctions it did. I also believe that the former Member for Newark was right to take the action he took last week when he resigned his seat forthwith.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards 11:41 am, 8th May 2014

Let me first say to the Leader of the House that we did point out the issues about Members of the House of Lords not having constituents and that a suspension from this House meant a suspension of pensions and salaries as well. The reason we used the analogy in this case is that a Member of the other place was caught by the same sting, for want of a better expression, and we therefore thought it right and proper that we ought to look at it.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to set out why the Committee on Standards considered that Mr Mercer’s actions merited, as we have heard, the longest suspension since 1947, with only one exception, which, as Members will know, ended up in the criminal courts with a conviction.

The House is a place for policy debate, which happens formally in the Chamber and informally outside it. Members do their best to explore different points of view and to establish the underlying facts, and almost every Member works closely with external groups to do so. That is entirely legitimate. The Leader of the House mentioned the Committee’s report on all-party groups. He will see in that report, which we are pleased to be debating next week, that my hon. Friend Ann Coffey, stated very clearly in her evidence for our report on APPGs that lobbying is part of the parliamentary process. Members talk to a lot of people, they listen to a lot of people, and then they make up their minds. The rules allow MPs to have external interests, but they do not permit paid advocacy. It is not acceptable to receive money in return for acting in Parliament or to use your position as an MP to get advantage, either for yourself or another person. That has been against the rules for centuries. Members who do this undermine our democracy. As this case shows, it is not possible to evade the rules simply by paying lip service to them; Members’ actions do matter.

I remind the House that this case is not, like many cases that have grabbed the headlines for many years now, a legacy case from the expenses scandal of 2004 to 2009. It is not a legacy—it happened during the lifetime of this Parliament. That puts some of our feelings into perspective. I hope that Members will read and take notice of what we have said.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

On legacy cases, was my right hon. Friend surprised to see the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority quoted recently on the front page of a Sunday newspaper criticising the process, despite the existence of a memorandum of understanding on these matters between this House and IPSA?

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards

Yes. That relates to the preceding case the Standards Committee dealt with, which has not been debated in this House. I was very surprised indeed, because we have had a memorandum of understanding with IPSA since 2010. If it is felt that this House should take action against a Member—only this House can do that—the case will initially go to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and then to our Committee, which will produce a report and make recommendations. IPSA has never approached us on such an issue in any of the past four years. If any UK organisation knows about Members’ expenses post-2009-10, it is IPSA, so I was not particularly happy about that.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the all-party groups, so many of which have secretariats from outside this place, are the next big scandal waiting to happen, and that the only way to clean up the situation is for Members themselves to take responsibility for the groups by funding them and, if they care about the issues so much, using their own resources to make sure the process is clean? The Mercer case could be the first of many, if we are not careful.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards

The Standards Committee did not know that this would come up when we started looking at all-party groups. The right and proper time to discuss those matters will be during next Tuesday’s debate.

The Committee on Standards has been critical of media stings in the past, but the case under discussion was not one in which a Member was misrepresented or had made a single error. It was a sustained course of conduct, not an ill-advised response to a single “fishing” incident.

There has been some confusion over the respective roles of the Committee and the commissioner. The commissioner is a finder of fact. She investigates and presents her findings to the Committee, and sometimes those findings include advice on the interpretation of the rules. The Committee entirely agreed with the commissioner’s conclusion that Mr Mercer’s actions had inflicted significant reputational damage on the House and its Members. The commissioner does not have a role in recommending a penalty. It is for the Committee to decide on the recommended penalty, and MPs and lay members play a full part in that discussion.

In this case, the Committee took into account the gravity of the offence and the penalties given in similar cases in the past. In fact, there are very few similar cases, and in most of them the Members concerned were no longer in Parliament by the time the Committee’s investigations were over. There is very little we can do about ex-Members.

As our minutes show, the Committee seriously considered an even heavier penalty than the one on which we eventually agreed. It is disappointing when colleagues say that the Committee overturned the views of the independent Commissioner for Standards and suggest that there are fundamental disagreements between the Committee and the commissioner, because that is not the case. Clearly, no system is beyond improvement. Indeed, the Committee will itself hold an inquiry into how the House’s disciplinary process could be improved, and the commissioner will contribute to that process as fully as possible. However, public confidence is not helped when Members of Parliament attack the integrity of the system rather than try to understand the Committee’s work, or when they claim that the Committee has overturned the commissioner’s findings, without appreciating the complexities of individual cases.

I do not want to go into this in great detail, but on 8 April my hon. Friend John Mann, who sadly is not in his place, asked an urgent question and said that the Committee’s proceedings should be open

“so that people can see on what basis the Committee overturns the views of the independent Commissioner for Standards”. —[Hansard, 8 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 124.]

There are three pages in that report that clearly explain our decision in relation to that of the commissioner. I advise Members of the House to read our Committee’s proceedings before dashing to the media to grab a few headlines.

I would have more sympathy with Members’ calls for reform to increase public trust if the proposals of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, made in December 2012, to update the code of conduct and the guide to the rules had been debated in the House. We are still waiting for that to happen.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee

I am probably interrupting the Chair of the Standards Committee to make a different point, but on public confidence, why did Mr Mercer hear about the contents of his report before it was published from journalists briefed by people who were party to the report? Is that not a breach of privilege that the right hon. Gentleman should take very seriously?

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards

We are undertaking a form of inquiry into what happened and this is all I can say at the moment, but it looks as though what was in the media came out before the decision had actually been taken. We may make a further report to the House at some stage if we feel that it is necessary. However, I have no concerns about that. The integrity of the Committee stands good. We do not take decisions on the basis of party politics, but on the basis of the commissioner’s memorandum, the precedents of actions we have taken in the past and what is presented to us. What happened was unhelpful, but it may have been based on pure speculation about this case. As has been said, there are other cases, one of which—in the other place—is directly related to this media sting.

Finally, if any Member has issues about a report, its coverage in the media or anything else, they can talk to me or any Committee member. We hold no party political proceedings on such matters. We are trying to get this place beyond what came to light in 2009, and it would be most helpful if all Members kept that in mind when talking about Standards Committee reports. I hope that the House will accept this report.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 11:52 am, 8th May 2014

I pay tribute to the Chair of the Standards Committee, Kevin Barron. He has a heavy responsibility and burden in chairing the Committee, which he does with tremendous interest and dedication. He and others of us who serve on the Committee have to undertake that unnecessary but unpleasant responsibility.

In this case, it is awful that one of our colleagues fell so far below the standards that we hold dear. All I can say is that at least it is good that he made a fulsome apology and immediately resigned. I pay tribute to the Government for moving the writ for the by-election immediately, because that ensures that the constituents of Newark will be deprived of their Member of Parliament for the minimum possible length of time.

It is very good that the Committee now has the benefit of lay members—that has been misinterpreted in the press—because they have equal responsibility and participate in debates in Committee. If we counted the amount of time that each Committee member speaks, I suspect we would find that the lay members collectively talk for as much time as all the others put together. That is no criticism of the lay members; I am putting on the record the fact that they participate to the full in the Committee’s work. It has been suggested—because, for technical reasons, they do not have a vote on the final report—that they are somehow second-class members of the Committee, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is really desirable to have their reflections.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

The lay members may not have a vote, but am I right to suggest that they can issue a minority report if they do not concur with the majority decision?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My hon. Friend is right. That is an important point that should be emphasised. The lay members have not chosen to write a minority report on any of the decisions of the Standards Committee in which they have been involved since the Committee was set up and they became members of it.

The lay members and the other members of the Committee are considering the issue of sanctions, partly because if there is a long period of suspension, it is as much a punishment of the constituents as of the Member of Parliament. If the Member had not resigned in this case, the long period of suspension could have been regarded as counter-productive. We will consider those issues.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in his opening remarks that there is an interaction between this matter and the Government’s commitment to introduce a Bill on recall. I urge my right hon. Friend—indeed, I plead with him—not to bring forward such a Bill unless there is consensus in the House and it has the support of members of the Standards Committee. The draft Bill was heavily criticised by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and members of the Standards Committee.

Bearing in mind that we are reaching the end of this Parliament, I think that it would be better, if we are going to deal with recall, to do so properly, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction. We must always be nervous about Members of this House intervening in the decisions of the electorate. There is a genuine question over whether the Standards Committee, with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, ought to start making recommendations on recall. Is that really what we want? I am not sure that it is. If we are to have recall, we need to work out in advance exactly how it will be triggered.

I hope, therefore, that the Government will come forward with a further draft Bill or provide substantial pre-legislative scrutiny, because if we are to have a recall Bill, we must ensure that it serves the best interests of the public and the House, rather than being seen as a political gesture to appease people who are concerned, quite rightly, about the standards of conduct in public life.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee 11:57 am, 8th May 2014

I should make it clear that Patrick Mercer is my friend and that I admire many of the things that he has achieved in his professional life. He was the first to admit that he had behaved badly in this matter. I condemn his behaviour and wholly endorse the report that has been produced by Parliament, painful as it is.

I raised the possible leaking of the contents of the report because it undermines the authority of the Standards Committee. I do not share the confidence of the Committee’s Chairman that it was just speculation, because there was too much certainty in what Mr Mercer was told. Although the Committee might not have concluded its proceedings, there may well have been drafts that informed the speculation, as the Chairman referred to it.

I do not envy the Chair and members of the Standards Committee. They have a very difficult task, but they have produced a good report and one that Mr Mercer accepts. Indeed, he said how ashamed he was of his own behaviour. That is testimony to the honour of the man.

We need to learn from this experience and see how we can improve our procedures to maintain their respect, impartiality and integrity. It does Parliament no good if the media feel that they can hunt down the contents of a report before it has been published—it undermines Parliament and it undermines the integrity of the proceedings of the Committee.

I have nothing further to say, except that I very much welcome the fact that there will be a new Member of Parliament in the constituency, as there should be. Mr Mercer took the right decision and the courageous one in doing what he did.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon 12:00 pm, 8th May 2014

In addressing the House briefly as a member of the Standards Committee, I add my thanks to the Chairman for the hard work that he, with the clerking team, undertakes week in, week out. It is not the most pleasant task to have to adjudicate on fellow Members, but this was an egregious breach, which had to be dealt with by a serious sanction. I echo and will not repeat the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope).

Let me deal briefly with the status of the lay members, which was raised during the debate. Having joined the Committee at the same time as the lay members, my experience is that they add a refreshing and new perspective to its work and bring us back to the point of view of a reasonable, objective member of the public when assessing the impact of our work and the role that we undertake. That is an invaluable service, and I pay tribute to them for their work thus far.

I am looking forward to the review that will follow as a result of the lay members’ helpful paper, which was published some weeks ago. It is important that we look at other jurisdictions and other Parliaments to see how they do it. I do not pretend that we have all the answers in this House, but it may well be that international comparisons, however interesting, do not quite match the particular context in which our Committee works.

The question of voting rights for lay members is not straightforward. Many members of the Committee, including me, believe that it would be desirable for lay members to have voting rights, but we are mindful of the conclusions of the helpful report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege that was published last year. It rightly pointed out that there are potential implications for privilege in conferring voting rights on non-Members of the House. Putting it simply, any attempt to redefine article 9 is laden with perils. It is certainly not my wish for article 9 to be in any way undermined or traduced by rules or legislation, however well intentioned.

The only way forward for the Committee to allow voting rights for lay members is for legislation to be considered specifically for our Committee, but I confess that I am having difficulty in thinking of ways in which it could be drafted that do not undermine the general provisions of article 9. For example, if we as a Committee have a particular legislative regime that allows article 9 to apply to lay members, does that imply that other Committees are not covered by privilege? All sorts of questions need to be considered carefully before we proceed down that road. That is not an attempt by me or other members of the Committee to try to stall on voting rights, but a genuine wish to preserve the ancient rights that this House and these proceedings enjoy under article 9.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House:

(1) approves the Eleventh Report from the Committee on Standards, HC 1225;

(2) endorses the recommendation in paragraph 29; and

(3) notes that Patrick Mercer has been disqualified as a Member of this House.