It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow Maria Caulfield, who gave an interesting speech. The Committee on Standards, which I chair, will be discussing Gemma White’s report at its meeting next week, and I do not want to anticipate the Committee’s views ahead of that meeting. Speaking personally, and like other Members who have spoken this afternoon, I very much welcome her report. I put on record my thanks to her for her work on it and pay tribute to the staff, past and present, who spoke to her, often about very painful experiences.
As with last year’s report by Dame Laura Cox—indeed, as with last week’s report to the House of Lords by Naomi Ellenbogen QC—Gemma White’s report does not make comfortable reading for us as parliamentarians, but we must pay heed to what it tells us. The White report reinforces Dame Laura’s message that abuses have taken place in the dark corners and closed offices of our institution. Of course, that does not mean that all, or even a majority of, Members or senior staff have been abusers or complicit in abuse—Gemma White acknowledges that many are seen as good employers—but there have been enough documented cases of bad behaviour where the House authorities and the political parties have been unresponsive to cause us significant concern.
The Standards Committee is determined to play its part in evolving a better standards system for Parliament. As we have heard, that has proven to be a complicated and very protracted process. That is partly because of the complexity of parliamentary structures, but there is no doubt that the sheer number of alternative and competing centres of authority—including, as we have heard, the House of Commons Commission, the political parties, the Government, various teams in the House administration, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the ICGS helplines and investigation services and the Standards Committee, as well as their duplicates in the House of Lords—have all made it much more difficult to capitalise on the political will that I believe exists in this place to deal with the problems that we face. The number of separate reviews that we have had, and the lack of co-ordination between them—not necessarily the fault of the individual reviewers—has not helped either. I hope that clarity is now slowly emerging and that Gemma White, like Dame Laura Cox before her, will assist us in moving forward rapidly.
I am pleased that Gemma White welcomes the Standards Committee’s current work on reviewing the range of sanctions available to the Committee, the House and the Parliamentary Commissioner. She notes that this development
“has been a long time coming.”
That is a fair comment, although we have not been short of other tasks to keep us busy in recent months. She has given us a deadline of December this year to put in place a package of reforms to the sanctions system. I assure the House that the Committee will use its best endeavours to meet that deadline, and I am confident that we will be able to put proposals to the Leader of the House, and the House as a whole, in time to do so.
I should add that the Committee’s work on this subject is without prejudice to any decisions that the House may make in response to Dame Laura Cox’s recommendation that Members should play no part in determining complaints about bullying and harassment against other Members. A working party of officials has been set up to put proposals to the Commission, and I am pleased that one of the lay members of the Committee has been appointed to it. I hope that the Committee will recommend an updated set of sanctions which are fit for purpose and can be implemented no matter who the decision-takers on sanctions are in future, whether they are MPs or not.
Other work by the Committee includes formulating a framework for considering ICGS appeals, on which we published a report in March. We have set up a formal sub-committee on ICGS matters to deal with that important and sensitive work. I am pleased to see that Gemma White comments favourably on the progress that the Committee has made in this area. As promised, we are keeping the appeal arrangements under review, and if necessary we will report further to the House on any modifications that we consider desirable. We have also set up an informal sub-committee to review the Code of Conduct and the associated Guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of Members, which we are required to do in each Parliament. The sub-committee, which is dominated by lay members of the Committee on Standards, has been doing good work, and we intend to launch a public consultation in the autumn on proposals for revisions to the code and guide.
Our seven lay members continue to play a very active role in the Committee, and to provide an independent perspective from outside the Westminster bubble. I want to place on record my thanks to them. The House will recall that it conferred full voting rights on the lay members in January this year. Because the Committee has equal numbers of lay and elected members, and because I, as Chair, only have a casting vote, they now have, in effect, a majority vote on the Committee. However, I am glad to say that in the six months since we made that decision, no formal votes have taken place in the Committee. We are working very much as a unified team, following the consensus-seeking approach of all Select Committees.
We also plan to report to the House soon on the subject of confidentiality in relation to complaints, in the light of early experience of how the ICGS procedures have been working in practice, as well as reflecting some of the concerns of both the Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards about the recent extension of confidentiality to non-ICGS cases. I can assure the House that Committee members, including me, have also undertaken the Valuing Everyone training, and I endorse the comments that we have heard about it this afternoon. I should add that I will be supporting the proposals in respect of non-recent allegations on which the House will be asked to vote later today.
I thank the House for giving me an opportunity to update Members on the work that the Committee on Standards has been doing in order to play our part in making Parliament a safe and respectful place for everyone who visits or works here.