Committee on Standards (Reports)

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 3:44 pm on 17th March 2015.

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Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Chair, Committee on Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards 3:44 pm, 17th March 2015

I beg to move,

That:

(1) this House takes note of the Sixth Report from the Committee on Standards, on the Standards System in the House of Commons, (HC 383);

(2) with effect from the beginning of the next Parliament, the following changes to Standing Orders be made:

Select Committees">Standing Order No. 122B (Election of Chairs of Select Committees)

Line 10, leave out ‘and’.

Line 11, at end insert ‘; and

(f) The Committee on Standards.’.

Line 70, after ‘Accounts’, insert ‘or the Committee on Standards’.

Standing Order No. 149 (Committee on Standards)

Line 20, leave out ‘ten’ and insert ‘seven’.

Line 20, leave out from ‘and’ to ‘lay’ in line 21 and insert ‘seven’.

Line 26, leave out from ‘sub-committees’ to ‘and’ in line 27.

Line 34, leave out ‘five members who are Members of this House’ and insert ‘three members who are Members of this House and three lay members’.

Line 36, leave out from ‘three’ to end of line 37 and insert ‘of whom at least one shall be a Member of this House and at least one a lay member’.

Line 38, leave out paragraph 7.

Standing Order No. 149A: (Lay Members of Committee on Standards: appointment, etc.)

Line 5, at end insert–

‘() The period of appointment of a lay member shall be specified in the resolution of the House for appointment and shall not exceed six years. The appointment of a lay member is not terminated by any dissolution of Parliament.

() No person who has once been a lay member may be appointed for a further term’.

Line 6, leave out ‘first’.

Line 23, leave out paragraphs 6, 7 and 8; and

(3) notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 149A, as amended, lay members who were members of the Committee on Standards in the 2010 Parliament shall cease to be lay members at the end of the current Parliament but be eligible for re-appointment in the next Parliament, and paragraph (3) of that Standing Order shall not apply to any such re-appointment.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

With this we shall consider the following motion, on the code of conduct and guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members:

That:

(1) this House approves the Third Report from the Committee on Standards, on The Code of Conduct, (HC 772);

(2) with effect from the beginning of the next Parliament, this House approves the revised Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members annexed to that Report;

(3) the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament be amended as follows:

(a) leave out Paragraph 2 and insert

‘The Code applies to Members in all aspects of their public life. It does not seek to regulate what Members do in their purely private and personal lives’.

(b) leave out paragraph 17; and

(4) previous Resolutions of this House in relation to the conduct of Members shall be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Code of Conduct and the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members.

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

I am delighted to open this debate, which represents the fulfilment of a great deal of unsung and often thankless work by the Standards Committee.

I should like first to talk about the proposals for changes to the composition of the Committee. Those were recommended in the sixth report of this session, which the House is asked to note. The report was put before the Committee by the Standards Sub-Committee, which was set up in response to the reflections of the lay members of the Committee on their first year in office.

The lay members have prepared a further note covering their experiences after two years in office. That will be published shortly, and I have no doubt that the new Committee will find it as useful, if as challenging, as we found the first one.

The Sub-Committee was chaired by Peter Jinman, one of the lay members, and the House, like the rest of the Committee, has much reason to be grateful to him and his colleagues. Although the report was prepared by the Sub-Committee, it was adopted without demur by the main Committee. Contrary to any fears that may have been expressed before the lay members were appointed, this agreement between the lay and elected Members of the Committee has been typical.

The lay members were appointed to the Committee in 2012 when the Standards Committee was separated from the former Standards and Privileges Committee. Their introduction was intended to strengthen the independent element in the standards system. The first independent element, of course, was the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. As the report makes clear, her role remains crucial and undiminished and her independence in her field is unaffected.

In the event, the lay members have changed the Committee in ways that were not all expected. By bringing their outside experience to bear, they have encouraged the Committee to rethink its working methods. They have given it the self-confidence to suggest moving away from being a largely reactive body that comes into play when it receives a memorandum from the commissioner and towards being one that seeks to play a clearer and more positive role in standards setting.

The position of the lay members is not always understood. The fact that they cannot vote or propose reports or amendments is sometimes used to suggest that they are in some way ciphers or stooges. I want to say to the House, and to the people listening outside, that that is absolutely not the case. Not only do the lay members play a full part in debate, but any one of them has, by Standing Order of the House, the right to append an opinion to any report of the Committee.

Moreover, given that it is essential that one lay member be present for the Committee to be quorate, they have an effective veto over the transaction of business. Fortunately, neither opinion nor withdrawal has ever been necessary; the lay members have gained their points by discussion and persuasion, and the Committee’s work has been greatly strengthened as a result.

We have recommended that the number and proportion of lay members of the Committee be increased. That brings the House’s system closer into line with the regulatory systems for professions such as the law and medicine, and it is way ahead of lay input in the Parliaments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, none of whose equivalent Committees has any lay members whatsoever.

At present the Committee consists of 13 members— 10 MPs and three lay members. We propose that the overall size of the Committee be increased from 13 to 14, of whom seven should be lay members. That will also give us an opportunity to have more diversity in the Committee. Instead of the current quorum of five elected members and one lay member, we propose that the new Committee’s quorum should be three elected and three lay members. If agreed to, our proposal will also permit the term of office of lay members to run over a Parliament, making succession planning smoother. All those changes should strengthen the position of the lay members even further as well as allowing the Committee to experiment with different ways of working.

We also propose that the next Chair of the Committee should be elected, as the Chairs of most other Committees of the House now are. In principle, I think that is an excellent idea. On the other hand, I must warn any prospective candidates that, if elected, they will be in for an interesting and sometimes rocky road. None the less, it is a job worth doing, and one that is crucial to maintaining and improving the reputation of the House.

The report looked in some detail at the current system. It made a few suggestions for changes in practice by the commissioner and the Committee but found that the system was generally proportionate, the process fair and the sanctions appropriate. Some Members might think that our report spends too long setting out the existing system. We did that because we found that it was often misunderstood, and not only outside the House, but within it, and we wanted to help remedy that. Understanding of the system is not helped by the media coverage of parliamentary standards issues, some of which verges on the biased. I will give one example. The House has put restrictions on the remit of the commissioner. The Committee accepts that those should be reviewed from time to time, but none the less for the time being they are in place and the commissioner must abide by them.

The sixth report pointed out that many complaints to the Commissioner for Standards fall outside her remit. This applies particularly to what might be called level of service complaints, when a constituent feels that a Member did not help them as the constituent asked. We suggested that time, resources and frustration might be saved, not least for complainants, if constituents could be helped to understand better what MPs can and cannot do, what they may reasonably be expected to do, and when some other person or institution should be approached first.

Following publication of the report, one newspaper carried the headline, “MPs no longer want to help constituents with their bin collections and street repairs”. We do live in an elected democracy. Any such suggestion is ridiculous. Insult was added to injury in this case because the Committee had held a press briefing at the time of the report’s publication and Committee staff had already explained the recommendation to the journalist concerned. The misrepresentation was deeply disappointing, if not predicted from some quarters.

Misunderstanding of the system is not restricted to the media. There is widespread ignorance even in the House on occasion about what our system is. The Committee believes that the House authorities should do more to promote understanding of parliamentary standards—for instance, by making the website clearer. The Committee accepts that it, too, could do more to help the media and the public to understand its reports, in particular the process by which they are arrived at. We have made some suggestions for our successor Committee and to the commissioner to consider how this might be done, though any Committee will be careful to avoid getting drawn into argument about specific cases.

We are glad that plans have been made to make the induction of new MPs more effective.

The House is committed to reviewing the code of conduct and guide to the rules once in every Parliament. I now come to the proposed changes referred to in the first motion before us. These have been a long time coming, as they were first proposed in the Committee’s third report in the 2012-13 Session. Indeed, it was mainly the delay in bringing them to the House that led the Committee to recommend that its reports should be debated within two months of publication. Still, better late than never, and I am pleased that any difficulties seem to have been resolved and that the Government are now able to bring changes forward. This means that the revised code and guide will be in force at the beginning of the new Parliament. This will be crucial in assisting people who get over the wire, both those who are Members of the House now and new Members coming into the House. It will be enormously helpful if the proposed changes are agreed to.

The proposed change to the code of conduct reverts to the position as it was before 2013, making it clear that the code does not seek to regulate what Members do in their purely personal and private lives. We understand that this change meets the approval of Members.

The proposed changes to the rules make the rules on registration simpler, clearer and more consistent, tighten the rules on lobbying and make it clear that previous resolutions of the House are to be read in a way that is compatible with the code and guide currently in force. In this way they allow the House to respond to the recommendations of the Group of States against Corruption, otherwise known as GRECO, a Council of Europe body of which the UK is a member. Like the lay members, the GRECO report holds a mirror up to the House, and we should consider carefully the recommendations it contains. The recommendations and the Committee’s response to them are printed in our third report, to assist the House.

As the sixth report makes clear, the maintenance of high parliamentary standards is a matter for each and every one of us, whatever parliamentary position we may hold. There are many different sorts of leadership in the House. Standards are not a matter for the Committee on Standards alone: it is important that political leaders understand the system, and do not inadvertently undermine it by appearing ignorant of the rules. These are the House’s own rules, agreed in debates like this, and we should all respect them.

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons 3:54 pm, 17th March 2015

It is a pleasure to follow Kevin Barron and to pay tribute to his work and that of his Committee. I believe that both the motions before us, if agreed, will serve to increase confidence, inside and outside the House, in the regulatory system that we work under.

Let me deal first with the motion relating to the standards system in the House. I pay tribute not only to the Committee but to the sub-Committee, which did a lot of work on this. I particularly commend its lay members, who led the review, for the production of a thoughtful and balanced report. The report proves the value of including an outside perspective at the heart of our self-regulatory system. That, in itself, makes the case for broadening that outside perspective. These matters—the design and application of the standards system—are, of course, for the House collectively. The Government are fully supportive of the efforts of the Standards Committee and others to secure a system that is transparent, clear and effective. I believe that the motion is consistent with this objective.

The Government support the maintenance of an independent parliamentary commissioner for standards with the discretion to accept or reject a complaint for investigation, as she sees fit. It is right that a complete separation be maintained between the investigation of a complaint by the commissioner and the Committee’s role in considering her report and recommending any sanctions to the House. I am pleased that the Committee did not recommend a new adversarial procedure with lengthy and legalistic procedures. That would not have served the interests of the House or its Members, or improved its reputation in the eyes of the public.

The Committee’s most striking recommendation, as the right hon. Gentleman discussed, is the increase in the number of lay members from three to seven—the same as the number of MPs on the Committee. He told us how much of an asset it has been to have the services of the three lay members. Quite apart from the value they bring to the Committee from their differing backgrounds and experiences, their presence provides an effective answer to those who criticise the standards system on the grounds that it is Members judging each other. The achievement of a balance of external and internal members of the Committee will serve to provide it with a wider range of views and greater authority in this House, and, I hope, create greater confidence in the system outside this place.

It was notable that the lay members did not see the need to have a vote to be an effective presence on the Committee. The report explains that the

“existing position of the lay members is strong, contrary to some external portrayal.”

We have to be guided by the Committee on this point. It is difficult to imagine that it will want to publish reports with which its lay members disagree. However, the ability of lay members to record a contrary view is an important part of the present system that will be enhanced in the new one. Making lay members full members of the Committee would have introduced an element of legal uncertainty into its proceedings, as has been set out by the Procedure Committee and the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.

The one recommendation directly for the Government relates to the scheduling of reports for debate. The Committee recommends that debates should take place within two months of the publication of reports. The Government have been very responsive in scheduling debates on the Committee’s reports on the conduct of individual Members. The conclusions of reports of this nature have always been brought before the House within a matter of days. I believe that any Government in the next Parliament will want to continue to bring forward substantive reports on the conduct of Members that require a decision of the House at the earliest available opportunity. I would certainly recommend that to my successor.

I am pleased that the Committee plans to take on a wider role in the promotion of ethical conduct of Members of Parliament, drawing on best professional practice and the experiences of other legislatures. The new lay members of the Committee, when appointed, will give this role added resonance. The House can look forward to the Committee’s role developing further in the new Parliament.

I turn briefly to the second motion, on the code of conduct for Members and the guide to the rules. I am very pleased to be able to bring this issue before the House before Dissolution. It is important that Members elected to the new Parliament be subject to a clear code of conduct that they can read as soon as they are elected, and that they have the benefit of a guide to the rules that is fully up to date. I am particularly pleased that by updating and improving the guide to the rules, we can implement the outstanding recommendations of the Council of Europe Group of States against Corruption in so far as they relate to the House of Commons. The successful passage of the Government’s Recall of MPs Bill also meets its recommendations for disciplinary sanctions that are proportionate and dissuasive.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

On the code of conduct, the Leader of the House will be aware of the controversy in recent days about whether a Minister adequately explained having a second job. Does he feel that the Government now need to revisit the ministerial code of conduct so that Ministers, such as the Minister without Portfolio, have clearer guidance on what they should or should not declare?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

My immediate answer is no. Those rules are clear. The Minister concerned has said that he spoke in error, and I do not think there has been any suggestion that he broke the rules.

I believe that the updating of the guide to the rules is uncontroversial, and it should be supported by the House. The wording of the code of conduct has proved quite a difficult nut to crack during this Parliament. The debate in March 2012 revealed disquiet in some quarters of the House—let me put it that way—about how the code could be interpreted. That resulted in an amendment that, in the Committee’s view, led to a disconnect between the powers of the commissioner to investigate certain complaints and the provisions of the code.

As Leader of the House, I have been conscious of the need to secure a high degree of consensus on the code’s wording and interpretation before putting it before the House for a decision. That has taken a little more time than we all wished, but I hope and believe that we have got there in the end. The Members who have taken the time to do that have shown a good deal of forbearance, but that was the right approach. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rother Valley for his perseverance in chairing his Committee on this matter, and to colleagues from across the House for their co-operation. That is why there has been a delay in holding this debate, but we have been able to have it before the end of the Parliament.

I hope and believe that this debate will illustrate consensus on the wording. The new code proposed by the Standards Committee strikes the right balance between respect for the private life of Members and our obligation to uphold the code in all aspects of our public lives. I hope that the code will command the confidence of the public. On that basis, I am very happy to support the motions.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 4:02 pm, 17th March 2015

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Kevin Barron and his fellow members of the Standards Committee, including the lay members, on the two reports the House is considering today. I thank them for those reports, which each represent an important step forward and provide welcome clarity on the standards system and the guide to the rules.

I concur with the Leader of the House that it is important to agree the changes in advance of the new Parliament, in which the new Members will need clarity. We are all content that we have just managed to get in under the wire in doing so. The situation is complex: we have many structures of rules that Members are expected to follow, and they have become more complex and divergent over time. It was therefore important for my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley to be able to look at how to simplify some of the structures. We have the Electoral Commission and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, both of which are independent, but there are also—quite rightly—the rules of the House of Commons, which the Standards Committee has looked at.

The first motion is on the report from the lay members of the Standards Committee. It suggests some sensible changes to improve public trust in the standards system. As I said in my evidence to the Committee’s inquiry, we need a system that is predictable, simple and transparent. It is helpful if the system is intelligible to members of the public as well as to colleagues, many of whom will have seen the rules change multiple times over their years in the House. In my experience, Members tend to remember the rules as they were when they first came into the House and do not always manage to follow the myriad changes that occur as their time in the House lengthens. Many people have been caught out inadvertently by the evolution of the rules, which they have not noticed, because Members tend to respond to the rules that were in place when they first came into this place.

In my evidence, I said that we needed to remove the Government’s majority on the Standards Committee. I note that that is not proposed in the motion, but I hope that we can return to it. It is vital not only that the Committee act fairly—that goes without saying—but that it be seen to act fairly. We must avoid any perception among the public or others that Government Whips can affect the outcome of an inquiry.

I welcome the Committee’s proposal to increase the number of lay members so that there is an equal number of MPs and lay members on the Committee. I also welcome the decision to make it clear in future reports whether the lay members agree with the Members of Parliament who serve on the Committee. The use of lay members on House Committees is a relatively new innovation. In my experience of serving on Committees that include lay members—I have not served on the Standards Committee, but I have served on the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—the innovation has worked well to date and has helped the House immeasurably.

The changes in the motion will ensure that our standards system is in line with the regulatory systems of many other professional bodies, while respecting the House’s unique position. We welcome the Committee’s recognition that,

“The electorate have the right to choose their representative” and that

“any standards system must not constrain that right” in a democracy. That is an important part of the summary of the report. As the Leader of the House pointed out, we now have recall, which might also impact on this area in some circumstances.

The report makes the welcome suggestion of a clear description of the role of an MP in increasing public understanding of the work we do. The Committee even made an heroic attempt to describe the role on page 24 of the report. It is an interesting attempt, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley and his Committee were extremely brave to set it out. We will see what kind of dialogue ensues in subsequent Parliaments as a result of their writing down that description.

Turning to the second motion, on the code of conduct and the guide to the rules, the new guide recommends simplifying the process of registering interests, tightening the rules around lobbying, and clarifying the relationship between the code, the guide and resolutions of the House. All of those recommendations have to be welcome. As the Committee’s report notes, the guide to the rules was first published in 1996. Over time, as I hinted earlier, it has seen many piecemeal additions and revisions—or evolution, if you like, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The new guide is intended not only to be a comprehensive revision of the rules, which is certainly long overdue, but to ensure that we meet our obligations as a member of the group of states against corruption, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley said. As the Committee notes, if we do not agree to the new guide, Members who are elected in May will be bound by rules that are “not always clear”, that are “out of date” and that do

“not respond to the recommendations of a Treaty organisation of which the United Kingdom is a member.”

It is clearly welcome that we are able to have this debate today. I hope we will pass the motions on the Order Paper to bring ourselves into line with the international treaties we have signed.

The first thing these changes will do is to reform how Members’ interests are registered. The proposed guide harmonises the rules on registration and reduces the number of registration categories, with just one, rather than the current three, for outside employment. The report also recommends a lower threshold for the registration of interests. Those are welcome and sensible simplifications. Labour Members want to go much further and have a system in which registering a paid directorship or consultancy is no longer possible, in which second jobs are far more regulated than is currently the case.

The report also suggests changes to the rules on lobbying—an area that clearly needs change following the scandals of this Parliament. The proposed changes to the guide go some way towards tightening the rules, but the system of regulation the Government have put in place is fundamentally inadequate. Despite the Prime Minister promising before the last election that he would shine the “light of transparency” on lobbying, the register the Government are set to introduce would cover just 1% of ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists, and would not have caught any of the lobbying scandals that have hit this Government. The lobbying Act prevents charities and civil society from campaigning—rules that are already having a chilling effect on debate in the run-up to the general election.

If Labour wins the election we will introduce tough new limits on lobbying and an effective register of all professional lobbyists, backed up by a code of conduct and enforced with sanctions. We will also review whether lobbyists should be allowed to provide the secretariats for all-party parliamentary groups, and continue to support the ban on parliamentary passes for any APPG staff.

The report also recommends updating the basis of the rules. As the former Clerk of the House, Lord Lisvane, made clear in his evidence to the Committee,

“there is a certain amount of doubt about what actually constitutes the ‘rules’ of the House”.

As well as the code and the guide, a number of other resolutions of the House also provide guidance on MPs’ conduct. As the report says,

“defining the rules of the House through a series of Resolutions of varying antiquity, which need to be regularly amended, is unsatisfactory”.

We therefore welcome today’s motion, which clarifies that all previous resolutions on Members’ conduct should be read in a way that is compatible with the guide and the code. We also welcome the sensible proposal to revert to the 2009 wording on Members’ private lives, which I hope will assuage concerns across the House that were raised when this matter was last debated in 2012.

I welcome both reports as a positive step in the right direction, while believing that we can, and should, go further. On second jobs, proper regulation of lobbyists, and the Government’s majority on the Standards Committee, I look forward to a Labour Government working across the House for further reform in just a few weeks’ time.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon 4:12 pm, 17th March 2015

It has been my privilege to serve on the Committee on Standards under the chairmanship of Kevin Barron throughout this Parliament, and I put on record my gratitude to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the registrar and the staff of those offices for the extraordinary diligence with which they have pursued their functions and roles. It has been an enormous pleasure to collaborate and work with them.

It is extremely important to remember the division of functions between the commissioner and the Committee. The commissioner is the rapporteur to the Committee.

She will investigate and establish the facts and make recommendations. Ultimately, however, it is for the Committee to decide what the response and reaction to her report should be.

I remember very few occasions when the Committee has ventured to disagree, and even then it has done so with considerable trepidation and diffidence, and only in cases where the commissioner herself evinced a degree of uncertainty as to the correct conclusion. That is exactly the dialogue that should exist between commissioner and committee—a dialogue of mutual respect and collaboration, but of independence. Like the Chair of the Committee, I am not certain that the relationship between the two is always fully understood. I hope that it will be in future, and that the motions before the House will assist in the clarification of the roles and true function of the Committee.

The involvement of lay members was an innovation that some greeted with scepticism, but I have to say that having worked with them it is important to put on record the gratitude of all the elected members of the Committee for the way in which they approached their roles. It has been uniformly constructive, so much so that one of them was an extremely good chairman of the Sub-Committee responsible for one of the reports. It is a good report, and their involvement has been thoroughly constructive and helpful.

I therefore support the recommendation for an increase in the number of lay members, with some reservations. I am extremely pleased that no vote has been accorded to the lay members. There is no doubt, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, that the inclusion of unelected members on a House Committee would present considerable constitutional and legal complexities. It may well make the Committee susceptible to judicial review, with all the panoply of judicial intervention that that would mean, and I do not think that anybody in the House would really have wanted that. What I think we do need is a situation where the lay members’ influence is telling and, as it has been sometimes, decisive. That can be better done by the moral influence they exert and the constant sanction that exists—that they may append a minority report. That is, in many ways, a more compelling, more persuasive and more telling influence on Members’ thinking than any vote would be.

I commend the motions to the House. I heard Ms Eagle on the Opposition Front Bench express a concern that there may be a perception that the Whips have some mischievous and nefarious impact on the deliberations of the Committee. I can say two things to that. In four and a half years, I have never had a Whip try to influence me. I do not know whether that is just something to do with me or something to do with the fact that the Whips demonstrate commendable and appropriate restraint. However, I think that members of the Committee with whom I have served over this Parliament would reject with disdain any attempt by a Whip to influence the impartial and anxious consideration, which I have witnessed time and again, accorded by members of the Committee to very difficult individual and sometimes complicated circumstances in which a judgment is never right or wrong, never black or white, but can admit of disagreement.

If a Committee comprising a number of elected Members, with all their shared experience of the House, together with the one who is accused and lay members, can reach a consensus as we uniformly do, generally, I would submit, it is more likely than not that the right conclusion is reached. That is why I say to the hon. Lady that in many ways to bandy about the idea—I am not criticising her for a moment; I do understand the perception she speaks of—or even to suggest that Whips may have some influence or role on the Standards Committee is not helpful. It simply would not be tolerated by members of that Committee, in my experience. It would be, as I have said, rejected with disdain.

It has been an enormous privilege to serve on the Committee. It has caused a great deal of soul searching in many of the cases that have come before us. Some have been controversial and some have been less so, but throughout we have been assisted by the extraordinary skill, sophistication and professionalism of the officers who support us. I, for one, am deeply grateful to them, to the Chairman of the Committee and to all other members of the Committee with whom I have had the honour to serve.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Liberal Democrat, North Devon 4:19 pm, 17th March 2015

I, too, have served on the Committee on Standards in the second half of this Parliament. I found the Committee very different from its predecessor, on which I had served in the previous Parliament. In no small part, the difference was the arrival in our midst of the three lay members. I join the tributes to them that other Members have expressed. They have brought a wealth of relevant experience, offered informed opinion and intelligent insight, and encouraged and persuaded us to better practice and better judgments.

As has been explained, the report was produced in no small part under the influence of the lay members. They have encouraged us to get on the front foot, to be more proactive and to look ahead. The House was reeling after the expenses scandal at the end of the last Parliament and was still in a state of shock. The lay members have encouraged us to move on, to look ahead and to show more leadership in the area of standards, as the Leader of the House said. I hope that everyone in the House will respond to the challenge and that in future we shall approach these issues as other professions and careers do and help each other in a spirit of continuous professional development.

There was a great deal of controversy, confusion and misreporting after one of the more high profile cases dealt with in this Parliament by the Committee on Standards, but rather than lamenting the misinformation and misreporting, the lay members encouraged us to learn from the experience, to get out and better explain what we do, to be more transparent and open, and to see ourselves as having a mission to explain, so that people inside and outside the House could have a better understanding of what we were trying to achieve and of the distinction between roles to which my hon. and learned Friend Mr Cox referred. In the case I am thinking of, there was great confusion about where the role of an independent commissioner ended and the role of the Committee began.

I believe that the proposals to move to an equal number of elected and lay members will enhance the Committee’s work further, create more opportunity for more external experience and challenge, move us into line with other professions, and basically look better in the eyes of the outside world. I do not believe that it will undermine the work done. It would have been a complete red herring to divert ourselves down the rabbit hole of whether the lay members should have a vote. They do not need one for the reasons given. In any case, the Committee seldom has occasion to vote: its deliberations always aim at consensus. As has been observed, every lay member—in future, all seven—can append an opinion if they so desire, and the Committee would have to think long and hard before arriving at a consensus to which the lay members had raised any objection. It would get itself into very hot water were it to do so. The report points a sensible way forward, and I commend it to the House.

The other motion deals with the code of conduct and guide to the rules. The interrelationship between the two is tricky, and the impact of what we are doing this afternoon is potentially slightly counter-intuitive in terms of what a cursory examination of the text before us might conclude. The House got itself into a mess last time it considered this issue, in 2012, and the proposition before the House today is a pragmatic way of trying to resolve that mess. It is right to do this and to do it now, and to ensure that after the election those coming into the House have the clarity they need about what is and is not acceptable. We are not opening up the spectre of investigations into Members’ purely private lives, but it is important that anything a Member does in their capacity as a Member of Parliament should be subject to proper scrutiny and done to the highest standards.

We have two sensible propositions before the House this afternoon, and I hope very much that they will both find favour.

Question put and agreed to.