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Mr. Michael Jabez Foster: If one party has been running the show, how does the hon. Gentleman account for the fact that every report has been unanimous?

Mr. Salmond: That is not the point I was making, as the hon. Member for Worthing, West, a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, helpfully points out from a sedentary position. We have a system of self-regulation under which the Committee, like all others in this place, is appointed by the usual channels. That leads to the perception that the system of self-regulation is subject to political influences. All these people, regardless of how honourable they are and how diligently they carry out their duties, are none the less politicians regulating other politicians. It is impossible for people wholly to remove themselves from the political process when they are active politicians. In an earlier speech, we were told of an unguarded remark made by a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee about the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I do not know whether that is true, but I trust the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. That example shows exactly the failings of any system of self-regulation. Most such systems—wherever in public life they may be—are open to challenge; they are certainly open to considerable scepticism.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made an excellent point about tenure: whoever is appointed, under whatever system, should be appointed for one term only. I suggest that a term of 10 years would be appropriate. There should be no question of reappointment. There would thus be no pressure to reappoint—whether such pressure is perceived or real.

The person should be released from the post due only to complete incompetence or—

Peter Bottomley: Death.

Mr. Salmond: Indeed. Death or taxes: that should be the only way out of the post. Whoever is appointed should be wholly free from any pressure—real or apparent—to obtain a second term, to which they may be subjected or which is suggested by their employers. The confusion over whether the commissioner was being offered a three-day or a five-day week or whether she was to be paid for work that she had done—when someone has, in effect, to apply to get her own job back although there is no good reason for her not to be reappointed—shows how unsatisfactory the position is. A one-term appointment would free the commissioner from any possible pressure.

If the House of Commons Commission and the commissioner continue with their present responsibilities, surely the Speaker should not continue as Chair of the Commission. Some of us have greatly admired the Speaker's independence and the strength of his rulings recently. We believe that he requires support throughout the House—especially from Back Benchers—to uphold those rulings. However, we find ourselves in difficulty in this debate. We are in a debate with the House of

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Commons Commission, chaired by the Speaker whom we greatly admire but who cannot take part in the debate. It seems completely wrong that the Commission is not properly answerable to the House—through the Chairman or whoever—on decisions that the Commission has or has not made.

I repeat that it is disgraceful that the first real opportunity that we have had to debate what happened to our current commissioner is during our discussion of the appointment of the next standards commissioner. If there were valid complaints about the way in which Mrs. Filkin conducted her duties, they should have been brought to the Floor of the House through the Commission and debated in the open—in the light; they should not have been the subject of a whispering campaign in the dark, demeaning her character and abilities.

I have no knowledge either of Mrs. Filkin or of Mr. Mawer. I am sure that he is a true believer of the Church of England—unlike other people whose views may be more transitional. I am told that the rough house of Church of England politics will have prepared him for his role as Standards Commissioner. I must accept that.

However, I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch: Mr. Mawer will suffer from two big disadvantages. The first is that he will be seen as an establishment candidate—as one of the chaps who knows the game and has been brought in as a contrast to his predecessor, who was outside the establishment and thus extremely difficult. Secondly, the circumstances in which Mr. Mawer's predecessor fell will surely overshadow his ability to do his job.

I wish the new commissioner well. I hope that he does well, but he arrives in especially difficult circumstances and, unless they are properly addressed, the same situation may be replayed time after time. If someone does the job too conscientiously, it will seem that they were got rid of because they were inconvenient to people in this place.

I have one more point about the Commission. When hon. Members have raised this issue at business questions—especially the hon. Member for Worthing, West, but also other hon. Members—they have been barracked by the shadow Leader of the House. I have never seen such strength of solidarity and support—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House does not seem to agree. There is something unhealthy about a political system where the Members of the Front Benches were so arm in arm—the Liberals were not much better—about getting rid of that independent regulator—[Interruption.] I certainly was not part of that cosy conspiracy at the Dispatch Box—thank goodness for that.

In summary, Mrs. Elizabeth Filkin has, to use an old-fashioned term, been wronged by this House. Those who did that wrong should be ashamed. They should be ashamed of what they did, but especially of the manner in which they did it. They acted behind the scenes, behind the Chair and in the dark—rather than in full debate and in the light, where the real issues could be addressed.

6.25 pm

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): I became a Member of the House nearly five years ago and was enormously honoured to be made a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee almost immediately.

I entered the House with a perception that the whole place was sleaze-ridden. I thought that one had to keep one's hands in one's pocket and to keep hold of one's

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wallet, whereas in fact this is an amazingly honest place. Across the board, the politicians whom I meet are extremely honest, but very occasionally some of them break the rules.

At present—after the three years during which our commissioner has been in place—people believe that this place is more sleaze-ridden than ever; yet during the past few years, there has been no money in brown envelopes. We have not experienced the problems that occurred in the past. There has been no cash for questions. Certainly, there have been some breaches of the regulations—often technical breaches. In relation to our earlier debate, it is worth noting that both the two substantial offences of which my hon. Friend Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) was found guilty—among the 11 with which he was charged—involved regulatory issues that occurred many years ago. That was all. There were, of course, serious matters and the House took the right decision about what should happen to that Member.

However, those issues were not sleaze—at least not according to my definition. My definition of sleaze is when one uses one's public office for private gain. If any hon. Member can think of an example of that during the past few years I should be interested to hear it, because there have been no such cases. The behaviour of hon. Members has indeed been honourable. That is why I am so sad that, as I enter my second term as a Member, my constituents—like those of many hon. Members—believe that we are not honourable and honest. That upsets me.

It upsets me when a public servant gives the impression that we are not honest and honourable. That is why I do not support the reappointment of Elizabeth Filkin. It is not because she lacks integrity: she is one of the women of the greatest integrity whom I have ever met. She is indeed a woman of independence—there is no doubt about that—but the job of the Standards Commissioner is to instil confidence about the House here and in the outside world as well: the outside world must be confident that the commissioner is doing a good job and Members must be confident that they are being treated fairly. If they do not believe that, they will not co-operate with the system. That is the nub of the matter.

Under Sir Gordon Downey, there was no such criticism as we have heard recently. During the first two years of my membership of the Committee, there were differences of opinion with Sir Gordon on some occasions, but the Committee did not disagree with the logic of the commissioner's reports as often as it has done in recent years. That disagreement is regarded as a debit for the Committee, but if the current system is to operate it is surely right that the Committee should not second-guess the arguments and evidence against Members; it should analyse them and consider them judicially.

Let us consider the report that was published this morning in which—as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) pointed out—the Committee, yet again, took a different view from the commissioner. The House should study that report and read what the commissioner said. She said that people should account for money that had been properly paid to them—thus, if someone charged a rent, the cash they received would be an improper use of public funds. That so defeats logic that one understands why some Members get upset.

I repeat that I do not doubt Mrs. Filkin's integrity, but I do question her judgment and ability to meet the evidential requirements and thus to reach fair decisions

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in many cases. With that in mind, the Commission was absolutely right to see whether we could do better. The decision was no more than that. It was not an unfair dismissal, but a decision not to reappoint someone to a post with a fixed-term contract. I have some experience of employment law and, assuming that the contract contained such a provision, failure to reappoint would not constitute unfair or constructive dismissal. None of us has seen that contract, so none of us knows the answer to that question, but that is another issue.

In discussing Mrs. Filkin, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) suggested that we should have a grievance procedure. Happily, we will have such a procedure, because the Employment Bill that the House passed last night provides that it be included in employment contracts as an implied term. Unhappily, the Opposition opposed it, even so, it is an important procedure that should be not merely implied but expressed in the new commissioner's contract. That would avoid many of the problems that we have experienced.

Sir Gordon Downey said just a week or two ago that the behaviour of Members in respect of their interests has improved enormously in the past three or four years. I agree, but I would extend that to the past five years. Why, therefore, does the perception of sleaze and wrongdoing remain? One reason—I am sorry to repeat the point—is the commissioner's readiness in the past three years to take on complaints of little substance.

Of course, we are also at fault, because most complaints are brought by Members against other Members not for quasi-judicial reasons but for political purposes. That is wrong, and when such complaints are found to be spurious, Members should be shown the red card for falsely complaining, rather like soccer players who throw themselves to the ground in the penalty area. There should be some form of sanction when wholly unjustified complaints are made. Having said that, we do not want to discourage people from bringing proper complaints. It is a difficult line to draw.

I agree with those Members who said that self-regulation is a difficult issue, because I am not at all sure that we can ever be trusted by the public. People do not trust us to look after our own affairs.

Moreover, the Select Committee process is perhaps not the best method of self-regulation or any other form of regulation. Although the Select Committee is skilfully managed by a distinguished Chairman, such Committees are an inappropriate substitute for a judicial body. The media will always think ill of Members of Parliament, which is a cross that we must bear. When the commissioner presents a report, it becomes public property, and nothing that the House or its Committees subsequently say is of much value. The press pick up on the commissioner's comments, rather than ours, because they want to think ill of us.

The Select Committee process is the problem. Select Committees' main objective is to reach unanimity, but unanimity is not always justice. They compromise and fudge—in one direction or another—and look for a middle way that is acceptable to everybody, but that does not always mete out justice to a given Member. For that reason, I am not at all certain that that is the best way to proceed.

If we are to proceed with the current system, if we are to look after our own affairs and if we are to instil confidence not only in the public but in Members so that

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they co-operate and so that there is no repeat of this afternoon's tragedy whereby someone took against the investigator and behaved so wrongly that we had to reach such a decision, we must consider the rules. We need procedural rules that are unambiguous and certain, which, perhaps, is our next task. I agree absolutely with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston), who clearly set out many of the requirements for achieving that objective.

In a nutshell, if we are to operate such a system, allegations must be clearly put, including references to the alleged breach of rules—not simply a letter setting out some generality, but the actual fact and the actual breach, rather like a charge sheet for a Member. That is what is required.

Members must thus be given the evidence on which a complaint is presented so that they can challenge or agree to it as the case may be. They must always have the last word—the opportunity to answer the charge—but I fear that that has not happened over recent years. There has been a fudge, with suggestions being made and considered, and new charges arising part way through the process.

That is not justice. If we want to achieve justice, not only for society, which is most important, but for Members, we must acknowledge that they have rights too. I believe and very much hope that the new commissioner will help us to achieve that objective.

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