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13 Feb 2002 : Column 224

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

4.19 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): I beg to move,

On behalf of the House of Commons Commission, I warmly recommend to the House the name of Mr. Philip Mawer as the next Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on the terms set out in our report to the House.

The previous debate showed clearly the complexity of the commissioner's job and the qualities of toughness and persistence that are required; Mr. Mawer has those qualities in full measure.

I wish to pay tribute to the outgoing commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin. It is no secret that the past few weeks have not been happy ones on either side, but it is right that we should acknowledge her dedication to her work on behalf of the House. She undertook a number of difficult and complicated investigations and brought them to a successful conclusion. We believe that her work, together with the Standards and Privileges Committee's consideration of her reports, has fully validated the system of parliamentary self-regulation set up following the first Nolan report. I will have a word to say about that system shortly.

Like many other hon. Members, I have known and respected Mr. Mawer for his work as secretary-general of the General Synod, and more recently as secretary-general of the Archbishops' Council. He is a person of clear vision, absolute integrity and strong moral values. You would not be surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to find those qualities in someone who has held the highest lay post in the Church of England.

Philip Mawer has much more to offer. He is a man of immense ability. He was principal private secretary to the Home Secretary, and when he was barely 40 he held one of the key jobs at under-secretary level in the Cabinet Office. Ten years before, as a relatively junior official, he was secretary to Lord Scarman's inquiry into the Brixton riots. Lord Scarman, whose views we would all respect, described Philip Mawer as a very clever and hard-working man, with tremendous mastery of detail. Mr. Mawer is a brilliant man in handling questions of principle. Since then, his career has borne out Lord Scarman's assessment.

It is reasonable to ask and answer two questions: Mr. Mawer may be clever, but is he tough enough? Is he not a bit of an insider? The House may not be surprised to hear that Church of England politics are at least as tough as anything that we are used to in this place, although the vocabulary used may be a little more restrained. The issues with which Mr. Mawer has grappled in his present job include the ordination of women, the role of bishops in another place—for the avoidance of doubt, I use our conventional phrase to mean the House of Lords rather than any more exalted forum—and racial discrimination. Such issues are neither simple nor easy.

In one of Mr. Mawer's previous posts he was responsible for Prison Service discipline. In another post, he was head of industrial relations for the Prison Service. A private secretary to one of the most senior members of Government also needs to be pretty tough. The House

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of Commons Commission has no doubt that, as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, he will be as tough as it takes. To use a phrase I used on television, he frightens the life out of me, so I do not know what he will do to our colleagues.

Is Mr. Mawer an insider? He certainly knows a good deal about this place and about politicians, which can only be a good thing. However, I inform anyone who thinks that familiarity will make him a soft touch that that is not likely to be the case. There is no shortage of people to testify to the fact that Philip Mawer is his own man and, if the House approves the motion, we will all soon come to know and respect his personal authority and independence.

Some may think that my description is of a rather fearsome person. No doubt, Philip Mawer can be fearsome when he wants to be, but he is also a man of understanding and trust. He will pull no punches in his reports, but he is someone whom I for one will readily consult in the certainty that our conversations will remain entirely private.

The Commission's report describes the selection process. We were determined to follow best practice for an appointment of this importance, and the interview board that produced the shortlist included two external members—Sir Gordon Downey and Lord Newton of Braintree, who is better known to us all as Tony Newton. In addition, the later stages of the sifting process, the meetings of the interview board and the final interviews by the Commission were observed by Ms Sheila Drew Smith, an independent assessor recommended by the Commission for Public Appointments. I should like to thank all three for their expert contributions, which were much appreciated.

Our report also notes that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, joined us for the final interviews. We were very glad to have his help, and to draw on his detailed knowledge of the work of the Committee and the commissioners. We look forward to hearing his views on the level of resources required to support the new commissioner's work, and to co-operating closely with him and his Committee.

I shall say a brief word about resources. Mr. Mawer's appointment will initially be on the basis that he will work three days a week, but it will be for him to judge how much time is required. If he thinks that four or five days a week are needed, there will be no difficulty about that.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Will my hon. Friend say why the commissioner will work for three days? The job of the commissioner who is leaving was advertised as requiring four days a week. More relevantly, she believes that the job should take up more than three days. I know that some would be happy if the job occupied only one day in the week, but I should have thought that four days would be far more suitable than three.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful for that intervention. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said in the previous debate that the work of his Committee had now concluded. Therefore, we will begin with a clean sheet. If the work requires three, four or five days a week, it will get three, four or five days. A pro rata increase in Mr. Mawer's salary would take that into account.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I do not think that the Committee's work is finished; other inquiries are

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going on, and the former commissioner was dealing with them. The Committee will continue to make inquiries. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to give the false impression that everything was suddenly clean, neat and orderly.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Commission found it necessary to give a large amount of backpay to the commissioner who has just resigned, as a result of the extra work that she had done? Will he also confirm that the commissioners did not act on the audit of the work that she was doing until after she had gone, and that she had been working under tremendous pressures? Will he explain—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has given the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) enough to answer.

Mr. Bell: With regard to the first point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), I was simply repeating a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire in his statement in the previous debate—that the publication of the report that we discussed earlier concluded a particular piece of work. No doubt there will be other work in the pipeline.

I have no knowledge of the second matter raised by my hon. Friend. I should be happy to send him a written reply and, if necessary, place it in the Library.

Mr. McNamara: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again, and I am sorry to delay the House. Will he say how soon the new commissioner will be able to take up his post in full, given that he might work only one, two or three days a week?

Mr. Bell: My hon. Friend anticipates my next paragraph.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope to catch your eye a little later on, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As a former member of the Commission, the question of procedure and process is of great concern to me. The hon. Gentleman has just said that the commissioner would, if necessary, work more than three days a week. Is that provision formally and clearly set out in a proper contract of employment?

Mr. Bell: The answer to that question is yes.

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, Mr. Mawer expects, if appointed by the House, to begin work from the beginning of March. Initially, he will work one or two days a week. The House will understand that it will take him a little while to relinquish his present responsibilities, but he will increase his commitment as quickly as he can. Those who know Philip Mawer as well as I do know that he will fulfil all the obligations thrust upon him, given that there are seven days in a week.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Does the hon. Gentleman not find it somewhat surprising that, although the House of Commons has lost the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards under what he described as

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unfortunate circumstances, our first opportunity to debate that is in a debate on the appointment of a new commissioner? Was that the view of the Commission, of which he is a member, or was the timing of the debate a matter for the usual channels?

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