Second Reading

Part of Parliamentary Standards Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:19 pm on 8th July 2009.

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Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat 6:19 pm, 8th July 2009

My Lords, I recognise the urgency for this Bill, but it is not so urgent as to exclude proper scrutiny. I understand that the Government want to get IPSA working on the scheme as soon as possible, but we need to be satisfied that the Bill is right. The Government could and should, at the very least, provide further time for the Committee stage on Wednesday and/or Thursday next week in place of the not very urgent legislation which is now listed for both those days. I understand that the Committee stage of both of those Bills will not be completed before the Recess, so it will make very little difference indeed if they are replaced in the timetable by this Bill. I am absolutely certain that one day in Committee for this Bill will not be enough, and I am far from certain that two will be sufficient.

The basic principle of the Bill, the setting up of IPSA as a body independent of control by the House of Commons with a duty to set up and manage the allowances scheme, has been endorsed by all three parties, or at least their leaders, and I believe rightly so. I agree that the new code should be prepared by IPSA and should require approval by the House of Commons, although that could cause problems in the case of disagreements between IPSA and the House of Commons. We shall see whether that occurs.

In my view, there are quite serious problems with Clauses 6 and 7 on investigations and enforcement respectively. Those problems have been pointed out by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, by my noble friend Lord Lester in the debate today and particularly effectively by the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House in its admirable report. There is a need for proceedings to be fair and for there to be a right of appeal, whether to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council or to some other independent and impartial body. Various options could be adopted for that. We shall have to think about that very rapidly.

I have serious doubts about Clause 7, even though I understand that the Government have now agreed to withdraw the subsection which allows IPSA to make recommendations about disciplinary proceedings to the Committee on Standards and Privileges before it has decided on the actual sanction. That was a very unusual and, frankly, odd provision which divided responsibility for imposing punishment and could have led to all sorts of difficulties. It is essential that it goes.

The way in which the system operates seems to be that under Clause 6 the commissioner makes a report and sends it to IPSA. It is not wholly clear what happens next. Does IPSA simply accept the report? Does it have any power of its own to carry out further investigation? Is it bound to accept the report as factually correct? If not, does it have power to modify the report? What sort of representation can be made to IPSA by the Member who is subject to the investigation? Now that IPSA will not be authorised to give a recommendation to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, what will IPSA do with the report when it gets it, apart from file it in its archive? That is not the way to conduct business. It will be extremely slow. As IPSA does not have any disciplinary powers itself, I think it should be out of the loop altogether and that the commissioner should simply report straight to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Another provision which concerns me is Clause 8. Is it right that Members of Parliament should be subject to criminal offences to which no one else at all is subject? I am very doubtful about that. The offence in Clause 8(1) of knowingly giving false or misleading information for the purpose of claiming an allowance is plainly a fraudulent act which is already a criminal offence with a much higher maximum sentence than is proposed under that subsection of the Bill. I agree with the Constitution Committee's report in paragraph 39, where it says that no criminal offences should be applicable only to MPs when the general criminal law already covers the situation.

However, the committee goes beyond that. The offence under Clause 8(2) of failing to register an interest is hardly serious enough to justify criminal proceedings and could perfectly adequately be left to disciplinary action by the House of Commons and its power to suspend or to expel a Member from the House. For that particular misbehaviour that seems to be a perfectly adequate punishment. In addition, the Constitution Committee in paragraph 22 points out that Clause 8(2) could lead to a conflict between the courts and Parliament.

The offence under Clause 8(3) of paid advocacy is probably not a criminal offence at present but is likely to become one, if and when the draft bribery Bill, now getting pre-legislative scrutiny, is enacted. The Constitution Committee says that a criminal offence of paid advocacy is unlikely to be workable. In my view, the conclusion is that all three of the offences in Clause 8 should be removed from the Bill; and I am certainly prepared to support the amendments tabled by the Conservative Party to remove them from the Bill.

The changes which I believe are needed to Clauses 6 and 7 and the removal of Clause 8 do nothing to prejudice the fundamental purpose of the Bill. I believe that they would improve it.

I very much welcome the idea of a sunset clause as, given the inadequate time to get this Bill through, it is likely to produce serious problems within the next couple of years. For an unavoidable sunset clause to come into effect in a year's time would be too soon as that would take us up to shortly after the next general election, but a two-year period would be sufficient to give time for further consideration and to identify the shortcomings of the Bill, not all of which I suspect have yet been realised by those of us speaking in this debate. Although we are anxious to get this Bill through quickly and although we certainly support the principles behind it, I believe that we shall need to carry out a very detailed inspection even within the very limited time that may be made available to us.