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Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

Point of Order – in the House of Commons at 7:54 pm on 7th October 2019.

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Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Government Whip 7:54 pm, 7th October 2019

I beg to move,

That, in pursuance of paragraph 2A of Schedule 3 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, Mr Peter Blausten be appointed as a lay member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for a period of five years from 27 January 2020 to 26 January 2025.

The Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is not a conventional Committee of this House. It is a statutory Committee, and its establishment, role and membership are determined by the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, as amended. The Committee has two responsibilities: first, to consider the candidates proposed by the Speaker, following a fair and open competition, for the posts of Chair and members of IPSA; and secondly, to approve IPSA’s annual estimate of resources.

The legislation sets out the membership of the Committee, which comprises the Speaker, the Leader of the House, the Chair of the Standards Committee, five further Members and three lay members. The three lay members have full voting rights. They were added to the Committee under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, following a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. They are intended to bring an external view and provide greater transparency and independence in the exercise of the Committee’s statutory functions.

The motion before the House seeks to appoint Mr Peter Blausten as a lay member to succeed Bronwen Curtis CBE, whose term will end in January 2020. Ms Curtis has served the Committee and the House diligently, and I know that Mr Speaker and the other members of SCIPSA would wish to place on record their gratitude for her advice and service.

The motion seeks approval for the appointment of Mr Blausten to take effect from 27 January 2020 for a period of five years. At the Speaker’s request, the recruitment panel was chaired by Dr John Benger, then Clerk Assistant. The other panel members were: Sir Hugh Bayley, formerly the Member for York Central; Michelle Barnes, an independent HR consultant; and Mike Page, HR business partner in the House of Commons Service. The board was assisted by a specialist recruitment agency, and the recruitment process involved stages of advertisement, longlisting, shortlisting and interview.

The candidate named in the motion, Mr Peter Blausten, is a former FTSE 30 and 250 group HR director and civil service commissioner. He is currently a partner in Alvarez & Marsal, an international management consultancy. The interviewing panel concluded that Mr Blausten’s analytical approach and experience as a human resources director would support and greatly assist the Speaker’s Committee in its dual role of scrutinising IPSA’s estimate and overseeing the recruitment of new IPSA board members.

The statute requires that the motion is tabled with the agreement of the Speaker, and I can confirm that the Speaker has signified his consent. I have been assured that this process met the requirements of statute, and I hope that the House will support Mr Blausten’s appointment.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 7:58 pm, 7th October 2019

I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box for what I think is his first outing. It was remarkable, and he has had some friends here in support of him.

I thank the Minister for moving the motion. I too want to thank the board, which was chaired by the then Clerk Assistant, now Clerk of the House, Dr John Benger, and its other members: Sir Hugh Bayley, Michelle Barnes as the independent HR consultant and Mike Page from the House of Commons Service. I also thank the outgoing lay member, Bronwen Curtis, whose appointment will end on 26 January 2020. She has been assiduous in the way she has carried out her independent functions and incisive in her contributions on the Committee.

The Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has published a helpful explanatory memorandum for Members, which is available in the Vote Office. Peter Blausten was selected following a fair and transparent competition. The board was assisted by specialist recruitment agency Veredus, and the recruitment process included an advertisement, shortlisting and interview. The interviewing panel concluded that Mr Blausten’s analytical approach and experience as a human resources director would support the role of scrutinising IPSA’s estimate and overseeing the recruitment of IPSA board members. Her Majesty’s Opposition support this motion.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham 7:59 pm, 7th October 2019

I welcome my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin to the Dispatch Box, and I know he will serve with distinction from our Front Bench. I agree with those on both the Opposition and our own Front Benches about the motion that stands before the House.

I must welcome, provided this motion goes through, Peter Blausten to the Speaker’s Committee for IPSA. I have to declare an interest because I sit on SCIPSA, as it is affectionately known, with—I am going to say this—my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, because we do truly represent a cross-party approach to looking at the budget and the ways in which IPSA operates.

It would be wrong of me to let this motion pass without thanking Bronwen Curtis wholeheartedly for her service to the Committee, the House and every Member of Parliament in this place. She has brought a very challenging commercial voice and, I have to say, often a completely refreshing perspective to the way in which we look at ourselves and the way in which we approach this very important part of parliamentary life. I also think that she has brought—dare I say it?—a woman’s eye to the way in which this place operates when we are looking at estimates and how this should operate.

I also thank Shrinivas Honap—I always get his name wrong, but I am absolutely sure he will forgive me—who is one of our lay members, and Cindy Butts, but particularly Shrin because he has also brought a fresh voice to the Speaker’s Committee for IPSA. It would not bode well if we did not thank them. These lay members are selected by a very stringent process, and there is no doubt that they provide a complementarity to our proceedings that is welcome. However, I do think, as the Speaker’s Committee looks particularly at the estimates, that any new lay member joining the Committee should be aware of some of the problems that face us in SCIPSA.

Just speaking as an individual Member, since the new computer system was brought in, I have experienced some personal problems. Rather than refer to anybody else’s, I would like to leave with the House a few problems, which are being sorted, but which have caused great anxiety and reflect on the new computer system that has come in. For example, incorrect information was put through in the preparation of my P11D, which was not exactly welcome. Money was paid into the wrong account when reimbursing myself for valid expenditure, and a member of my staff received a pay increase higher than I had agreed with that member of staff, and I was not informed until I read those numbers. So anybody coming in as a lay member should know that all in the garden is not entirely rosy—[Interruption.] I am sorry; no pun intended, Madam Deputy Speaker. We would welcome those fresh eyes on our systems and the way in which we operate, because I think they can make a valuable contribution.

These issues affect not just 650 Members of Parliament, but of course the thousands of people who work with us and for us, and that is why it is so important we get this right. We often forget the people who stand behind Members of Parliament, to whom we owe a great debt of thanks, and we must get their payroll right. We must get their remuneration right, and we must ensure that IPSA goes on the right path, so that it can provide what anybody working in the commercial world would accept was normal practice. I do think that, when salaries are adjusted without the boss knowing, that needs putting right.

May I say that the job we do here—I think everybody would agree—is not a normal job? It takes a great deal of understanding. Although Peter Blausten comes to us with a fantastic pedigree, I would like to issue an invitation, which may come from anybody else in the Chamber: I hope he will come and work shadow, perhaps me or somebody else, so that he can gain an understanding of what happens in a Member of Parliament’s office and how we need to be so careful in an area that has caused so much agony in the past for many Members of Parliament. We need to get it right, and we need the public to have confidence in the process. We need our staff and also every Member in this House to have confidence in the process, and I very much hope that Peter Blausten will arrive on the Speaker’s Committee able to make a valuable contribution.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader 8:05 pm, 7th October 2019

I do not intend to say much in this debate, but I would like to express an incredible amount of thanks to Bronwen Curtis. I have been on the Speaker’s Committee for just over two years now and, as Dame Cheryl Gillan said, I found everything she said in those meetings to be incredibly useful and insightful. It was from a position of great knowledge, and also from a position of not being a Member of Parliament, which I think is incredibly useful because she could perhaps see things from outside and take a step back from those of us involved in the minutiae of problems and discussions with IPSA.

I would not like Members in this House to think that SCIPSA is a Committee where we sit quietly. At every meeting that I have had, particularly when IPSA has been represented, we have taken it to task over various issues and problems that have arisen. I would agree entirely about the issues that there have been with the online system. I would also raise the issue that the online system has cost an awful lot more than we expected it would, and SCIPSA has not been backwards in coming forwards on that. We have said to IPSA on many occasions that this is a real problem.

I think Mr Blausten, if the motion is approved, will find the Committee incredibly interesting. I hope that he will go in trying to learn as much as possible about it and, as the right hon. Lady said, perhaps shadow a Member of Parliament, so that he understands exactly how things work in Parliament and how the Member of Parliament’s job works. As I say, the main thing I wanted to do was to thank Bronwen Curtis for all her incredibly hard work and the way in which she treated me, as a new member, when I joined the Committee. I found she was very kind, and she looked out for me a bit when I first joined the Committee, so I am pleased that she has been on that Committee.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 8:07 pm, 7th October 2019

I, too, commend the Minister for his latest outing at the Dispatch Box. Many Members of the House think of him as a very nice man, and it is nice to see him here with us today.

I wholly concur with the points that have been made by my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan—I return the favour—and my hon. Friend Kirsty Blackman in relation to Bronwen Curtis. In fact, one of the keenest points that she made repeatedly in SCIPSA was that, if IPSA wants a significant increase in capital expenditure to pay for a new IT system, it had better prove it is worth it. If I am honest, I think an awful lot of Members this year would have said, “Well, actually, the way it was introduced, with too few people to answer the telephone—the answers and the conversations you had to have were sometimes so complicated that they went on for 45 or 50 minutes—there are some serious questions about whether public money is being spent properly”.

This goes to the heart of something I think was wrong with the original legislation that was introduced. The Minister said that SCIPSA—the Committee—has two roles, and that is absolutely right, but IPSA itself has two roles as well, and I think they are mutually exclusive. One is to support Members in doing their job of trying to ensure that all those letters from our constituents are responded to quickly and all the rest of it, and that we are able to do our job of representing our constituents well. However, the second part is regulating Members. I think that all too often IPSA relies too much on the regulating element, rather than the supporting element. That, for instance, is why decisions that should have been taken swiftly about providing finance for security measures in Members’ constituency offices and in their homes—where it is not primarily about ourselves, but actually about our families and our staff members, to whom we have a duty of care—have been delayed far, far too long. All too often, it is left to the House authorities to take up the slack. That is a shame and a mistake, and we need to rectify that in the future.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

I will give way, but I was hoping to come to an end very soon.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

I was just going to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he was supportive of seeing those two functions split into different bodies at some stage in the future.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

I think I argued at the beginning, when the whole thing was set up, that the two should be in separate organisations. I understand that there is a model of regulation, which we have adopted in many areas now, where the regulator is intimately involved in the industry. I think that that is a mistake. It would be better to separate the two, but that requires primary legislation. It would be a brave Government at the moment who introduced legislation in this particular area—well, introduced any legislation at all. We in SCIPSA need to make sure that we enable IPSA to do a better job to recognise the two halves of its role, supporting and regulating.

I am very confident that Mr Blausten will be a very significant addition to the Committee. We take our job very seriously. I say to hon. Members that, if they have issues that they feel need to be raised with IPSA, all the members of SCIPSA are available. I am sure that Mr Blausten will do a good job. The independent people sometimes say to us, “You know what, MPs? You should be arguing for better support, not the opposite, because you need to be able to do your job properly. If you were in any other industry you would quite simply expect to be able to do your job properly.”

Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Government Whip 8:11 pm, 7th October 2019

I thank the shadow Leader for her kind words directed at the panel, Bronwyn Curtis and also me, for that matter. I am most grateful. It is very kind of her. I am also grateful for her support for the motion.

I was delighted that the House was able to hear from three other members of SCIPSA. We are indebted to the work they do on our behalf in serving on the Committee: my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan, and the hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman). It was great to hear them, with their personal experience, thanking Ms Curtis for her work and her service. I think that they all mentioned the importance of lay members of SCIPSA understanding all aspects of MPs’ role and the importance of SCIPSA getting it right. I know that is invaluable for their work of studying the IPSA estimates. I trust that Mr Blausten will do just that, if this House is pleased to agree to his appointment. It was a great pleasure to move the motion.

Question put and agreed to