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Sir George Young:
As I said earlier, the Government deplore these unauthorised leaks of information, which have the potential to destabilise relationships between
countries and lead to a risk to life. We deplore what has been put in the public domain, and it is not our policy to comment on unauthorised disclosure of information.
Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): Further to the question by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), we have a Business Secretary who develops a policy on tuition fees, tells the country that it is the best policy possible, and then comes to this House and tells us that he has a strong inclination not to vote for his own policy. What are the constitutional implications of this departure?
Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Labour Members welcome the Prime Minister's rethink about scrapping school sport partnerships. While we try to refrain from saying "We told you so", can the Leader of the House ensure that the Government make a statement on this issue before the Christmas recess to end the uncertainty for schools in my constituency and across the country about their budgets and their ability to continue with sports provision?
Sir George Young: We will make a statement in due course about the allocation of resources to local authorities. As I said earlier, we will be delivering school sports in a different way from the previous Government, and we will announce how we will spend the money we have allocated for school sport in due course.
Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): May we have a debate on where Ministers make statements, to whom, and at what time? We were promised a statement by the Deputy Prime Minister on the progress relating to immigration centres, Yarl's Wood in particular, and that statement should have been made this week. Today, we are told by the press that he is going to make the statement via a video link from Kazakhstan to a charitable organisation. Is not that disrespectful to the House?
Sir George Young: The coalition agreement is quite clear that we want to phase out the detention of children for immigration purposes in centres such as Yarl's Wood. At the moment, we are looking at alternatives-namely, looking after families with children in the community rather than in detention. When those alternatives have been developed, the House will be informed in due course.
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Given that the coalition has said that because of the Post Office subsidy and the plans for privatisation there will be no further post office closures, can we please have a debate about why a post office in Welwyn Park road in my constituency is going to close imminently?
Sir George Young: I think the Government said that there would be no planned post office closures along the lines that we had under the previous Government, when whole swathes of post offices were closed as part of a policy that that Government developed. We are not going to do that, but of course we cannot stop individual post offices closing if the sub-postmaster wants to withdraw and no one else can be found to take over.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): In the light of some of the exposures on WikiLeaks, may we have a debate on the 22 days when the coalition was formed? May I make the helpful suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman that perhaps we should set aside the Standing Orders of the House and have Mervyn King lead the debate on behalf of the Government? In that way, we could at least hold to account someone who played a major role in forming the coalition Government.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman is well aware of the constitution and procedures of this House-probably better aware than anyone here-so surely he must have some concerns about the slightly ridiculous situation created by the possibility of a Minister coming to the Dispatch Box in the tuition fees debate to try to persuade the rest of the House to vote for a Government policy when he is not persuaded to vote for it himself.
Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that I have already dealt with. The coalition agreement is absolutely clear that on this particular issue Liberal Democrats are entitled to abstain.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on the provision of speech and language therapy in schools? Dylan Scothern is a six-year-old autistic boy, the son of Rachel Scothern, a constituent of mine. Because he is six years of age, he has had speech and language therapy taken away from him on the basis that he is too old. That is clearly ridiculous. Whatever the situation, an autistic boy needs speech and language therapy. The decision to provide it only for children up to the age of five is nonsense, and Dylan deserves better than that.
Sir George Young: Of course he does. I am not aware that there has been any change of policy by the coalition Government on this issue. I think that we are carrying forward the policy that we inherited, with which the hon. Gentleman may be familiar.
Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Does the Leader of the House agree with the Speaker, who strongly deprecates the practice of late transfer of oral questions by Government Departments at late notice? If so, what action does he intend to take on this matter?
Sir George Young: The answer to the question, "Do I agree with the Speaker?", is always yes. I should like to make some inquiries about the particular transfer to which the hon. Gentleman refers. If a question is transferred for good reason from one Department to another, then the Department to which it is transferred should reply promptly. If that has not happened, of course I will chase it up.
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab):
BBC online news has reported the execution of Shahla Jahed in Iran after nine years' imprisonment. Amnesty International said
that there were flaws in the trial. May we have an urgent debate on women and human rights to discuss this case, and particularly that of Sakineh Ashtiani, who still remains under threat?
Sir George Young: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I read today in the paper that tragic story of the execution and the circumstances in which it took place. There are real issues about human rights in Iran-the two cases to which she referred and many others. We have made constant representations to the Iranian embassy here and we are taking action through our European partners. I will of course raise her concern with my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to see whether there is any further action we can take.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time about the disgraceful practice of banks, particularly in relation to internet bank accounts, whereby they set up headline promises of high interest rates that are subsequently changed so that it is virtually impossible to find out what rate of interest one is now obtaining? Should not banks be required to display on their internet sites, when the statement comes up, what level of interest is being paid on the account so that people know when they should be moving to other interest-earning accounts?
Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She is right. Many consumers have found that the high rate of interest they thought they were earning on their account has come to an end without their being notified. We had a debate on the banks, I think, on Monday. However, I will raise with Treasury Ministers whether we have any plans to increase transparency about the interest earned on current accounts.
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the answer that the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), I am delighted to hear that he agrees with the Speaker that the practice of late transfer of questions is despicable, and that they should be answered promptly. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has decided to transfer questions on the impact of the abolition of school sport partnerships on participation in sport that were tabled by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and were chosen in the ballot for answer this Monday. Furthermore, neither of us has received an answer from the Department for Education on this matter, or indeed a date when we can expect an answer. Will the Leader of the House therefore commit to coming back to the House with detailed explanations as to what he has done in talking to his colleagues about ending such practices?
Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House was in the Chamber when the original point of order was raised. At his initiative, inquiries are now being undertaken to find out what has gone wrong, and we will report back to the House in the usual way.
Mr Speaker: Order. I am extremely grateful to the Leader of the House and to colleagues for their co-operation, as a result of which 35 Back-Bench Members were able, in a pretty constrained time scale, to pose questions to the Leader of the House.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): With permission, I shall inform the House of the outcome of the investigation into the tragic death of the British aid worker, Linda Norgrove, who was taken hostage by insurgents in Afghanistan on 26 September, and who died during a US-led rescue operation on the night of 8 October.
As I informed the House in my statement on 11 October, initial reports about the rescue suggested that Linda Norgrove's death was cause by the detonation of a suicide vest worn by one of her captors, but new information came to light on the morning of 11 October that called that account into question. The Prime Minister therefore agreed with the international security assistance force commander General Petraeus, and confirmed with President Obama, that a full US-UK investigation would be launched, reporting to General Mattis, commander of US central command, with a remit to investigate the operation itself, the inaccuracy of the original accounts and to make recommendations for the future.
Today, I should like to update the House on the outcome of that investigation, but before I do so, I pay tribute to Linda Norgrove's family, who have shown inspiring strength, dignity and fortitude throughout their terrible ordeal. They, above all others, deserve to have the fullest account possible. Throughout the investigation, Foreign Office officials have been in close contact with the Norgrove family. Linda's parents, John and Lorna, were briefed yesterday on its outcome, and I met them this morning to discuss its findings.
I shall now report how the investigation was conducted, the conclusions it reached and what action will now follow. However, I must first remind the House that Her Majesty's coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon is legally responsible for determining the cause of death, and my statement today must not in any way prejudice the course of his inquiries.
The investigation team began work immediately, led by US Major-General Joseph Votel and British Brigadier Robert Nitsch. A 10-man investigative team worked for two and a half weeks in Afghanistan. It conducted interviews with all the personnel involved in the rescue attempt, and assessed hours of video evidence and hundreds of pages of documentary evidence. I am grateful to the investigation team for the thorough work it has done and for the willingness of our US allies to share their most sensitive operational information with us.
We judged that Linda Norgrove's life was in grave danger from the moment she was abducted, and we feared that her captors would pass her higher up the Taliban chain of command or move her to more inaccessible terrain. We also judged that the only credible prospect of securing her release was through a rescue attempt, which is why I authorised such an attempt to be made.
Locating and rescuing Linda Norgrove became the sole mission of approximately 1,000 US and Afghan forces, leading to significantly stepped-up activity in the region where it was believed she was being held. As a result of those intensive efforts, Linda's captors were tracked to two small groups of buildings high in the Dewagal valley in Kunar province, a region of steep
mountain valleys and peaks ranging from 8,000 to 14,000 feet, which were accessible in most areas only by pack animal or by foot.
On the night of 8 October, a rescue attempt was launched following analysis and surveillance of the area. The rescue force, chosen for its operational knowledge of the area, specialist training and experience in carrying out hostage rescue operations, set off in two separate helicopters. The operation took place during the night in total darkness. US forces were required to land on the near-vertical incline of a rugged mountainside, 8,000 feet in height, within a narrow valley, and to assault a series of buildings built in to the steep slope on several levels.
On the basis of intelligence, analysis and surveillance, it was judged that Linda was being held in the upper group of two groups of buildings. One of the two teams of soldiers landed near the lower group of buildings. The team came under attack as soon as they left the helicopter. As the soldiers progressed towards those lower buildings, Linda Norgrove's captors came out and were engaged by the soldiers who were advancing on a narrow ledge and under threat. A grenade was thrown by a member of the rescue team-who feared for his own life and for those of his team-towards a gully from which some of the insurgents had emerged. When the grenade was thrown, no member of the team had seen or heard Linda Norgrove. All the actions that I have described so far took place within the space of less than a minute.
The team moved on immediately to the other group of buildings higher up the mountainside, where it was believed Linda Norgrove was being held. It was when the team returned to the first location that it became apparent that Linda had been taken by her captors into the gully into which the grenade had been thrown, and where her body was now discovered. She was examined immediately by the team medics. The investigation team had access to the provisional post-mortem results, which concluded that Linda Norgrove died as a result of penetrating fragmentation injuries to the head and chest. After the investigation, it is clear that those injuries were caused by the grenade.
This incredibly difficult operation was carried out with the utmost courage by elite US forces. The United Kingdom is grateful that they risked their own lives in the attempt to rescue Linda. They did so just as if she were one of their own. None the less, it is a matter of concern that the facts of how Linda Norgrove died were not made clear immediately after the operation was carried out. Initial reports suggested that she had died as a result of the detonation of a suicide vest because of the nature of the wounds found on the captor lying closest to her. The explosion observed was in line with the team's experience of suicide vests or other weaponry exploding. Although the US soldiers did report their own use of a grenade, it was not immediately reported up the military chain of command. It was only on later examination of the video footage that the possibility that a grenade was thrown became known to more senior officers.
The investigation team found that the failure to disclose information that a grenade was thrown breached US military law. As a result, members of the rescue team have been disciplined for failing to provide a complete and full account of their actions in accordance with US military procedure. I cannot announce any more details
of the disciplinary action taken by the military of another nation, but the fact that that action has been taken will confirm to the House how seriously the US authorities regard the matter.
As a result of the investigation, the US military is reviewing post-operation procedures to ensure that the true sequence of events in such complicated operations is revealed earlier and more accurately than was the case on that tragic occasion. In the aftermath of a rescue operation in which a hostage died, the US military is conducting a number of other reviews of the tactics, techniques and procedures involved in hostage rescue operations. Senior British military officers have been briefed on the results of the investigation and will ensure that the lessons learned from the operation are shared.
Following this statement, the US authorities will release their own statement on the outcome of the investigation, a copy of which I will place in the Library of the House. The coroner will now be able to conduct his inquest, which has been adjourned until the new year. Once he has issued his verdict, it will be possible for the investigating team to publish its findings, including judgments made by the investigators, but in advance of the coroner's verdict I cannot go into that greater level of detail.
Linda Norgrove's death was a terrible tragedy. Her parents have paid tribute to her inspiring devotion to the people of Afghanistan and her love for the country. I believe that all in this House will have been moved by her example and her dedication. Her parents have set up a foundation in their daughter's name that will honour her memory and fund projects that support education and health for Afghan women and children, including scholarships to help Afghan women to go to university. The House will want to join me in paying tribute to all those working to support the people of Afghanistan in extremely difficult circumstances, and in sending our sincere condolences to Linda Norgrove's family, as they come to terms with their irreplaceable loss.
Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): I thank the Foreign Secretary for providing such a thorough statement today on such a tragic and difficult set of events, especially as he is constrained by the inquest procedures. I join him in sending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Linda Norgrove and in paying tribute to Linda Norgrove's parents, John and Lorna Norgrove, who have acted with such great dignity and strength since the tragic death of their daughter. The House will want to wish well the Linda Norgrove Foundation, which they have set up to provide education and health and child care for women and families in Afghanistan, to continue the courageous and selfless work to which Linda Norgrove dedicated her life.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for the details of his response today. Linda Norgrove's family have made it absolutely clear that they are grateful for the bravery and efforts of the US special forces who attempted to rescue her, and the whole House will agree with the Foreign Secretary's tribute to their bravery. We are grateful that they risked their lives to attempt to save Linda Norgrove.
Operations such as the one launched by those US forces are of course high risk, and we must all recognise that success can never be guaranteed. The practicalities of that specific operation were especially difficult. I know that the House will also want to condemn utterly the actions of Linda Norgrove's kidnappers, who must take responsibility for putting her life at risk from the very moment of her kidnapping.
We welcome the swift conclusion of the inquiry and not only the commitment of the US forces to investigate the events, but their readiness to involve senior British personnel in the inquiry. That point was raised when the Foreign Secretary made his first statement on the matter and I am grateful to him for taking it forward.
It would be helpful if the Foreign Secretary would address a few further points about the inquiry's conclusions and the importance of the lessons that are being learned. He said in his statement that the special forces believed that Linda Norgrove was held in an upper group of buildings when in fact she was held in a lower area, in a gully. The operational conditions were clearly difficult, as he said, but will he tell the House whether the investigation examined the intelligence before the operation, or whether that will be done as part of the subsequent review? Can any lessons be learned?
Will the Foreign Secretary tell us more about the grenade that was thrown, including about the practice of using such grenades in a rescue operation of this nature? Was that covered by the investigation, or will it be dealt with in the US forces' subsequent consideration of such cases? Again, will lessons be learned?
The Foreign Secretary set out further information about why the facts did not emerge immediately, but it would be helpful if he would clarify part of his statement. He said: "Although the US soldiers did report their own use of a grenade, this was not immediately reported up the military chain of command." However, he also said that "failure to disclose information that a grenade was thrown breached US military law" and that members of the rescue team had been disciplined as a result. It was unclear from his statement whether the investigation concluded that the failure of information lay with the rescue team or the upward reporting processes. It would be helpful if he could give us clarity on the matter so that lessons can be learned.
The Foreign Secretary is aware of the considerable concern and confusion that was caused by the inaccurate information that was disseminated in the immediate aftermath of Linda Norgrove's death. At the time of the previous statement, I raised concern about the early information that was given to journalists by the Foreign Office and the apparent level of certainty that was given in responses about suicide vests and in reply to journalists' questions about grenades. Although he has provided details of why incorrect information was held, may I press him further on the certainty in the responses, because clearly there must have been considerable uncertainty about the events at that time, given the difficulty of the operations? Will he say whether Government communications have been reviewed in light of that?
Will the Foreign Secretary tell us how the outcome of the inquiry and the details of what he has said today came to be, regrettably, reported in The Sunday Telegraph?
I hope that that matter concerns him, given that the importance of accurate information has been at the heart of the case.
This tragic case reminds us all of the dangers faced by those who work so bravely to support the people of Afghanistan. The civilian effort in Afghanistan, especially working on the ground with Afghans in rural areas, is crucial to finding and sustaining a political settlement and lasting stability in the country. We all want Linda Norgrove's work in Afghanistan to be continued, and we pay tribute to her work and that which other aid workers are doing today.
Mr Hague: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her questions and wider remarks. She joined me in paying tribute to Linda Norgrove's family and extending the House's condolences to them, for which I know that they will be appreciative. The Prime Minister hopes to meet them this afternoon, and he will be able to convey the heartfelt condolences from all quarters of the House.
The right hon. Lady was right to pay tribute to the bravery of the forces involved who, as I said in my statement, operated in total darkness with no moonlight or artificial light of any kind. They disembarked directly into a hostile environment from helicopters that could not land because of the near-vertical nature of the terrain. She was also right to condemn those who were entirely responsible for this chain of events: the people who kidnapped Linda Norgrove and deliberately placed her in grave danger.
As the right hon. Lady acknowledged, the United States has been ready to involve UK officers at a senior level. Our brigadier has had full access to all information and has been fully involved in the investigation, so we have truly had a joint UK-US investigation.
The right hon. Lady was quite right to raise the report of the statement in The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend. I strongly deprecate any advance leaks of, or revelations about, statements to the House, especially those about such a matter. I have made that absolutely clear within Whitehall and I appreciate her reinforcement of that point.
The right hon. Lady asked about the initial information that we gave on the Saturday lunchtime after the rescue operation, when we said it appeared that Linda had died at the hands of her captors or due to the explosion of a suicide vest. We were clear about that because that was the unequivocal information that was given to the Government, and to our embassy and military in Afghanistan. Indeed, that was how senior US officers understood it. During our exchanges on the October statement, I think I said that if we err on the side of transparency, as we try to do in governmental matters these days, it can sometimes lead to apparent certainty. We made a correction as soon as possible. As soon as General Petraeus and his colleagues realised that an inaccurate account might have been given, he was straight on the telephone to No. 10 Downing street and the Prime Minister, and we immediately made a correction that morning. We will all reflect on the dilemma when balancing transparency and showing certainty. However, the Government gave the information that was available to them in good faith.
The investigative team examined the surveillance and intelligence that was available before the operation, and it will make further comments about that in its final
report, which will be published at the time of the coroner's verdict. However, as the House will understand, any details that would reveal how we gather intelligence will, of course, have to be withheld. Nothing in the investigative team's analysis contradicts the overall analysis that all of us involved came to, which was that the best chance-the only credible chance-for Linda Norgrove to return alive was to mount a rescue operation. However, the team has examined the use of intelligence and the belief that she was being held in a particular group of buildings distinct from the group where she was actually killed.
It is hard for me to make further detailed comments about the use of a grenade without cutting across what the coroner might wish to pursue although, as I said in my statement, the investigative team will make further comments about that in its full report. We should be clear that it is not normal practice for special forces of the United States or the United Kingdom to use grenades-to employ explosive munitions-in a hostage rescue operation. Nevertheless, there are issues in this case about when a hostage rescue operation begins, because the troops involved believed that Linda Norgrove was being held in a different set of buildings from those around which they were fighting at the time a grenade was thrown. We have to understand that to be fair to all concerned.
The right hon. Lady asked about responsibility for not giving information in a timely fashion. I think that I can go so far as to say that responsibility lay with the rescue team, but not its junior members. The disciplinary action has fully reflected the responsibility of the individuals identified by the investigative team as not having passed on information in a timely way.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): I welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement, and join him and the shadow Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the Norgrove family. The House will want time to digest the contents of the statement, but in the meantime, will my right hon. Friend say a little more about the procedure for authorising rescue attempts of this nature? He said that he had authorised such an attempt to be made. Was that part of a standard operating procedure, and did he actually give the order himself or did he delegate it to others?
Mr Hague: I gave the general authority for a rescue attempt to be made, based on the intelligence that we had received, which covered the intelligence and other information that we had received that gave rise to our fears that Linda Norgrove would be taken to more and more inaccessible places, and that she would be passed higher and higher up the Taliban chain of command. We were aware that her life was in grave danger at the time, and within a very short time after her kidnap. Based on that, the normal procedure is for the Foreign Secretary-in this case, with the knowledge and agreement of the Prime Minister-to give the authority for a rescue operation to take place, if he or she thinks that that is the right thing to do. It is also entirely common-and, as in this case, the normal procedure-for the actual details of such an operation to be worked out on the ground in Afghanistan by the forces involved, with a final go-ahead to be given by our representatives in Afghanistan, in this case in the British embassy. So that was the procedure involved.
I would also stress that, in this case, all involved-the military commanders, the staff of our embassy in Kabul and everyone involved in COBRA here in London, as well as the Ministers involved-were clear that this was the best course of action. Risky as it was, the risks associated with inaction were greater. The procedure therefore involved an authority to proceed, which came from me, but with a final go-ahead based on the details cleared by our embassy in Kabul.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement about my constituent, Linda Norgrove. He will of course be aware that her parents, John and Lorna, have sought not to apportion blame but to find the truth. From the outset, at a time of great personal difficulty for them, they have publicly expressed their gratitude for the transparency and openness of the Americans, and indeed from UK diplomats as well. They are now greatly involved in continuing Linda's work, and I wonder whether the wider Foreign Office, and perhaps other Government Departments, could help by highlighting and helping the foundation and its website, lindanorgrovefoundation.org, which was set up by her parents and which aims to continue Linda's great humanitarian work for women, families and communities in Afghanistan.
Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We will all want to support the foundation in different ways, and I particularly drew attention to it in my statement. It is inspiring that Linda's family have set up this foundation and are conducting this work for the future in memory of her life and work. There will be tremendous respect and enthusiasm for it across the House, and it is something with which the Government want to assist. Linda's parents have been to the Department for International Development this morning, after their meeting with me, to discuss how DFID might be able to assist with the work of the foundation. We will provide support where we can, in keeping with Government policy and the wishes of the family. The foundation will fund projects to support education and health for Afghan women and children, as I have said, and I think that it will serve as a fitting testimony to Linda Norgrove's dedication to the people of Afghanistan.
Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con):
On international volunteers day, does my right hon. Friend agree that it behoves all of us who are able to sleep soundly in our
beds at night to remember that there is an army of volunteers and aid workers around the world who are placing themselves in harm's way and in grave danger and discomfort in the interests of humanity? Will he assure the House that his Department will do everything in its power to recognise the service and courage of those people, as exemplified by Linda Norgrove, and to ensure that they receive as much help as possible in their work?
Mr Hague: Yes, and my hon. Friend's question forms part of the recognition for which he calls. We often rightly pay tribute in the House to the work of our armed forces and the sacrifices that they make as they try to bring security and stability to Afghanistan, but we must never overlook the work of others, including the many voluntary workers and aid workers who are doing their utmost to give assistance in many different ways. They do so out of their humanity, bringing their expertise and compassion to the people of Afghanistan, and it is absolutely tragic that someone who was simply seeking to do that for the benefit of humanity should have ended up in those tragic circumstances, and the victim of such a tragic death. That is a reminder of the risks that those people run, and of the need to recognise their efforts, as my hon. Friend has suggested.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decisiveness in making the very difficult decision to authorise this mission. Despite its outcome, that was clearly the right decision to make. May I urge him not to forget the wider context of all this? It is hugely impressive that ISAF managed correctly to identify where Linda was being held within days of her capture, and we came extremely close to liberating her. The actions of the military forces on the ground will act as a huge disincentive to other Taliban groups thinking of trying to do the same thing again.
Mr Hague: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He makes an important point. We should recognise that the operation came tantalisingly close to success. Linda Norgrove was located in very difficult terrain, and the troops managed to get very close to her, despite having to fight their way in. Nevertheless, it was a failed mission, because the hostage was killed. We have to be very clear about that, but we must not lose sight of the enormous expertise, skill and bravery that was involved even in getting to that point and enabling us to have any prospect of rescuing a hostage in those circumstances.
(1) That this House approves the Sixth Report of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Session 2010-11, HC 577; and
(2) That accordingly-
a. The Commissioner may publish papers relating to complaints rectified or not upheld since the beginning of financial year 2008-09 and information about complaints received and matters under investigation since the beginning of financial year 2010-11.
b. Standing Order No. 150 be amended, by inserting the following new paragraph after paragraph 10.
"(10A) The Commissioner shall have leave to publish from time to time-
(a) information and papers relating to-
(i) matters resolved in accordance with paragraph (3) of this order;
(ii) complaints not upheld;
(b) information about complaints received and matters under investigation."
(1) That this House approves the Seventh Report of the Standards and Privileges
Committee, Session 2010-11, HC 578; and
(2) That accordingly Standing Order No. 150 be amended, by leaving out paragraph (2)(e) and inserting in its place:
"(e) to investigate, if he thinks fit, specific matters which have come to his attention relating to the conduct of Members and to report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges or to an appropriate subcommittee thereof, unless the provisions of paragraph (3) apply.
(2A) In determining whether to investigate a specific matter relating to the conduct of a Member the Commissioner shall have regard to whether in his view there is sufficient evidence that the Code of Conduct or the rules relating to registration or declaration of interests may have been breached to justify taking the matter further."
That this House agrees with the principle as set out in the Twelfth Report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life that lay members should sit on the Committee on Standards and Privileges; and invites the Procedure Committee to bring forward proposals to implement it.
Mr Barron: I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing debating time for the three motions relating to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. It is right that they should be debated and I welcome the opportunity to answer any questions that hon. Members might have about them. All three motions relate to unfinished business from the last Parliament and, to that extent, they can be seen as a package. However, each is free-standing and I will speak to them in turn, in the order in which they appear on the Order Paper.
By agreeing to the first motion, the House will bring its publication policy on the complaints handling process into line with best practice. The current regime, which greatly limits what is published, no longer meets legitimate public expectations. Sections of the media have been able to portray the way in which less serious breaches of the rules are rectified as "secret deals". There has also been inaccurate reporting of who is, and who is not, under inquiry, and what they might be under inquiry for. By enabling the commissioner to publish the information, the House will ensure that it is both accurate and complete. The alternative is to leave us exposed to unfair allegations of cover-ups and to allow the media to continue to set the agenda for us, often on the basis of inaccurate or incomplete information.
Under the new policy, each month the commissioner will publish on his web pages statistical information about the number of complaints and self-referrals he has received, the number he has accepted, and the number he has not accepted. He will not publish the names of Members who have been the subject of complaints that he has not accepted for inquiry or the details of those complaints. To do so would be unfair and would encourage malicious complaints and publicity seekers. To put this into perspective, if the new policy had been in place in 2009-10, no details of the 245 complaints that were not accepted for inquiry would have been published. All that would have been published would have been the information on the 72 complaints that were inquired into.
As for complaints that are accepted, each month the commissioner will list on his web pages inquiries that are under way, including in each case the name of the Member who is subject to the inquiry, with a brief description of the nature of the allegation and an indication of whether the inquiry is active or has for any reason been suspended. Other than in exceptional circumstances, which would have to be approved by the Committee, he will not publish other information about specific inquiries while they are under way. As our report makes clear, the commissioner already confirms or denies to inquirers that a complaint against a named Member is being investigated. The change will introduce consistency into a process that at the moment is random and largely media-driven.
The commissioner will also publish on his web pages his determination letters on specific complaints or allegations that, after inquiry, have either not been upheld or have been rectified as soon as possible after they are produced. He will also publish relevant evidence he has received about such cases. In the Committee's view, it is in the best interests of the Member concerned and of the House that where evidence of a possible breach has been fully investigated but the allegation has
not been upheld or the matter has been rectified with the commissioner's agreement, both the decision and the reasons for it should be made public.
It is perhaps worth repeating that complainants-some of them politically motivated-have always been free to publicise the outcome of the commissioner's inquiry into a complaint that is either rectified or not upheld, but at a time and in a manner of their own choosing. That unregulated state of affairs will be replaced by one that is consistent and, I believe, fair and that is under the authority of the House. Publishing the information will help Members to set the record straight publicly and will go some way to redressing the balance.
The motion also proposes that historical information going back to April 2008 should be published. I know that that has caused some concern, but the reason for backdating the information is to make it broadly consistent with other recent decisions of the House to introduce greater transparency. I remind the House that, contrary to what sections of the media have claimed, the commissioner's determinations are not secret. Much of it is already out there, although often in incomplete form, because complainants have always been free to publicise the outcome of their complaint. By allowing the commissioner to publish his determinations and the relevant evidence, the House will ensure that what is published is both accurate and complete. If the House supports the Committee's proposal, the commissioner will start to publish information on his web pages later this month.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): For the record, is my right hon. Friend in a position to tell the House how many of the complaints that the commissioner accepted for investigation resulted in a finding against the Member and how many were dismissed at that stage?
Mr Barron: I quoted the figures from the commissioner's last annual report. During the time of the leaks, The Daily Telegraph and everything else, 245 complaints were never followed up whereas 72 were. My hon. Friend will know that they were not necessarily all upheld, and in such cases the commissioner wants to say that in terms so that there can be no equivocation.
The numbers that are investigated and the number of complaints that are not upheld are sometimes published by the commissioner, as my hon. Friend will know, through the commissioner giving a memorandum to the Committee and the Committee doing its own investigation on that basis and publishing it. All the information has been around in the House in one form or another for many years-since before I became a member of the Committee. I do not have the exact figure for the number of people among the 72 whose cases were followed up who were not found to have done anything wrong. If my hon. Friend is interested, I will try to get that figure from the commissioner, but we must recognise that the commissioner works independently from the Committee, although we have contact with him.
The second motion seeks to implement a recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life-I think we used to call it the Kelly committee-that the commissioner should be able to
carry out an inquiry without receiving a complaint. As my Committee's seventh report points out, that would bring the House's procedures into line with those of the House of Lords and of the compliance officer. It will also allow the commissioner to investigate a matter that has been reported on by the compliance officer and that raises code of conduct issues. For the first time, it makes proper provision for self-referrals, although they will continue to be subject to the Committee's agreement.
There is a risk, as the report acknowledges, that giving the commissioner such a responsibility might raise public expectations that each and every allegation will be investigated or that the commissioner will turn into some kind of witchfinder-general. Let me make it clear that that is not going to happen. The Committee does not want it and the commissioner is not asking for it.
"specific matters which have come to his attention".
There is also a built-in requirement that there must be sufficient evidence of a possible breach of the code or rules to justify taking the matter further. In the 245 cases in the last annual report there was no evidence and they were not acted on. A lurid newspaper headline or unsubstantiated speculation will not lead to an inquiry. The process must be driven by the evidence and the evidence must come to the commissioner.
It is important, as my Committee's report recognises, that the commissioner has the resources he needs to do his job. We supported the temporary expansion of his office to deal with the increase in the number of complaints over the past two years and, if necessary, we will do so again. However, there is no expectation that that will happen. The current work load is somewhat smaller than that of 12 months ago.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for missing his opening remarks, but it was his subsequent remarks that I wanted to hear. Will the motion allow right hon. and hon. Members to make self-referrals, which we know the commissioner discourages?
Mr Barron: It would do that. Self-referrals would carry on and, indeed, there has been one since the election. However, self-referrals will still have to come in front of the Committee and the commissioner will effectively ask permission, although we do not direct the commissioner by giving permission or telling him not to do things. He works independently of the Committee. Self-referrals will carry on in much the same way as they do at the moment.
Of course we can all help to ensure that the commissioner has the resources to do his job by acting at all times in full compliance with the code of conduct and the associated rules. Members of this House decide what workloads are and whether treatment is fair or unfair by what we do on a regular basis.
The third motion, tabled in the name of members of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, was not on our original shopping list, but we are grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for adding it to today's business. It relates to a proposal that was put to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards
in Public Life by our former Chair, now the Leader of the House, to add lay members to the Standards and Privileges Committee. The proposal was supported by the Kelly committee in its 12th report. Lay members already serve on the Members Estimate Audit Committee and they will soon sit on the Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Lay members provide the public with reassurance that the Committees are not cosy gentlemen's clubs, where deals are stitched up and scandals are hushed up. They can also bring valuable outside experience and expertise with them. It is common practice for standards bodies dealing with the professions to have lay members, and in the view of the Committee on Standards and Privileges it should be the practice here too. I say that as a now former lay member of the General Medical Council; I spent nearly nine years in that role, sitting with various clinicians.
That said, adding lay members to one of the House's senior Committees raises some important questions. For example, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that the lay members should have full voting rights on the Standards and Privileges Committee. The question is whether that would mean that the lay members could vote on matters relating to privilege. I assume not. I know that the Clerk of the House has reservations about allowing lay members to vote at all, because he wrote to me about it following the publication of the motion. In practice, of course, we have to recognise that any decision of the Committee that was not supported by the lay members present would lack public credibility. It may be that the lay members will not need to have a formal vote to have a decisive influence.
The Procedure Committee might wish to consider other questions identified in my Committee's report, such as how many lay members there should be and whether they should form part of the Committee's quorum. The Kelly committee suggested there should be two lay members, but a case can be made for more than two. I hope that the Procedure Committee will wish to consider that. We also suggested that lay members should receive modest remuneration, directly related to the volume of work that they carry out. We felt strongly that to provide the public with the greatest possible confidence in their appointments, the lay members should be appointed to the Committee but not by the Committee. The Procedure Committee may wish to consider what would be the best way of making the appointments, what qualifications those appointed should have, what should be the term of the appointments, and who should be involved in making them.
My Committee's understanding until recently was that progress on the issue was being held up by the Government's work on their recall policy. However, a recent letter from the Leader of the House to Mr Speaker has put us right on that, and the House has now been given the green light to proceed. In the Committee's view, the best way forward is to ask the Procedure Committee to come up with some workable proposals for putting the matter into practice. It is an important reform and it needs to be got right.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op):
Many of us are very concerned about whether these three proposals will improve the system's ability to ensure
that justice is done for people who are referred to my right hon. Friend's Committee. We feel strongly that over the past two or three years, the way in which people have been referred to his Committee has been partial. Some have been referred and a report made, leading to a prosecution by the police. Others have never had the opportunity to put their case before the Committee. Will these three changes bring some sense of justice back to what goes on?
Mr Barron: Only one referral of the nature that my hon. Friend sets out has happened in my five years on the Committee, and the matter is out of the Committee's hands. My understanding is that it happens elsewhere and is not done by the Committee. As I emphasised earlier, there has to be an evidence base for any complaint that is taken up and investigated by the commissioner. The last annual report showed that 245 cases had not been pursued because there was no evidence, but that 72 had been, although some of the Members involved will have been found to have done nothing wrong. I commend the motions to the House.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I am grateful, as I am sure the House is, to the Standards and Privileges Committee for its work in the last Parliament, to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and to the current Chair and members of the Standards and Privileges Committee who have tabled the motions. I am grateful also to the Backbench Business Committee for providing this time today. These are the first substantive motions that have arisen from a Select Committee report to be considered on a Back-Bench day, and the Government are frankly delighted that the House can now make progress on House matters without first requiring a ministerial seal of approval. Should the motions be agreed to, they will prove that Parliament no longer needs to look to Government for help in putting its house in order, but has the independence, power and political will to do so of its own volition.
The Government fully support the three motions in the name of the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron). On the publication of information about complaints against Members, the failure to publish details of rectification has clearly led to some negative stories that have tarnished the House's reputation. The lesson from the last Parliament is that openness is the only way to allay public unease and suspicion. The process of rectification is typically used when the commissioner is satisfied that the Member concerned has made an entirely honest mistake, acknowledged the mistake, apologised and repaid any money that was wrongly claimed. Publishing the information will briefly embarrass the Member concerned, but withholding it would be damaging for the whole House in the longer term.
I wish to make one point for the record that I hope the commissioner will bear in mind. As those who have been under investigation can testify, the knowledge that a Member is under investigation can itself damage their reputation. That can be exacerbated by the length of
time that an inquiry can take-sometimes well over six months. That results in some people concluding that if it is taking that long, something must be up. To mitigate the problem, it would be sensible for the commissioner to be equally open about the process of investigation, for example by providing details of when it began and where the Member has reached in the queue for investigation. That would go some way to ensuring that while we create a more transparent approach, Members are not subjected to open season by political opponents.
Mr Sheerman: May I renew my plea that, after the reforms come in, we must not have a situation such as in the past, when some people have seemed to get a full investigation and some have been referred to the police? All of us who were in the House remember the cases of Ian Gibson and others whom we believed were not given real justice, either by the Standards and Privileges Committee or in what happened to them subsequently. Has anybody trawled back through what happened to those people, and assessed which parts were correct procedure and which were not?
Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman has already intervened on the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee on that point, and I really do not think it is a matter for Government. It is most important that it should not be. We must have a process that is just to all concerned, but equally rigorous for all concerned. When there have been instances in which Members have sadly fallen far short of what is required not just by the rules of the House but by the rules that apply to any other citizen in the United Kingdom, it is right that investigations should take place elsewhere.
Mr Sheerman: I am not asking the Government to do anything; I am merely asking that we all reflect on the fact that those of us who were in the House before the election know that some cases were taken up and others, which we thought were even worse, were not taken up. That is the point-justice was not done on an even basis. If the three motions today will set that right, I will be happy with them. If they do not do that, I will be very unhappy.
Mr Heath: I do not think that I can add anything to what I have already said. This is a matter for the Standards and Privileges Committee and for the commissioner, and certainly not a matter for a Minister at the Dispatch Box to comment on, other than to say that I hope that justice will always be done in the most transparent way.
Mr Barron: I have two points to make in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). First, I do not believe that Ian Gibson ever went to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards or in front of the Committee. Secondly, on a wider matter, discussions are currently taking place between the compliance officer, the commissioner and others on a memorandum of understanding about referrals, and whether cases will go to different organisations rather than to the commissioner and then on to the Committee.
Mr Heath: That is a very helpful intervention, and of course the landscape has changed since a year or so ago. We now have the compliance officer in the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, who is responsible for investigating some matters. Having that memorandum of understanding seems to me a very positive way forward.
I mentioned the time that investigations sometimes take and the adverse effect that that may have on a Member's reputation. As I said, it would be sensible for the commissioner to be open about the process of an investigation, such as when it began and where a Member had reached in the queue, to ensure that we have a more transparent approach. It is also important that Members know at the first opportunity that a matter relating to them is under investigation. It should never be the case that a Member hears that from the press or from a political opponent.
The Government support the move to give the commissioner a power to initiate investigations, which, to an extent, ties up a process started by the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. Without that power, the commissioner would not be able to act on referrals from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority compliance office. That would clearly be unsatisfactory, because the House would not be able to take action against a Member who had knowingly submitted an improper expenses claim. However, this issue goes wider than that; it is absurd that allegations about a Member's conduct can be splashed all over the newspapers, yet the commissioner is powerless to investigate unless he receives a complaint from a member of the general public. That is an unnecessary hurdle. If we can trust the commissioner to use his good judgment to carry out investigations, we can trust him to decide when to initiate them.
Finally, the Government support the principle, first advocated by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, that the Standards and Privileges Committee should be strengthened by the presence of lay members. Although that is ultimately a matter for the House, the Government take an interest, given the commitment in the coalition agreement to establish a right to recall Members who have been found guilty of serious wrongdoing. There is obviously a potential role for that Committee in the process of adjudication on recall cases, and the presence of members from outside Parliament will help to build people's confidence in our system of internal compliance. In supporting that, we note the concerns expressed by the Clerk of the House, to which the Chairman of the Committee referred, that if lay members are given full voting rights, they might not enjoy the protection of privilege or their presence might compromise the Committee's position based on privilege in respect of judicial review. The Procedure Committee will want to look particularly closely at that, while the Government will be taking a close interest as part of the ongoing work on the draft parliamentary privilege Bill.
Mr Jenkin: I am very grateful that my hon. Friend has addressed the question of privilege and lay members, and I am grateful for the Government's measured and sensible response to this approach. However, does it not begin to advance the argument in favour of having a standards committee that is separate from a privileges committee? If there really are two functions that require lay members to be involved in one function and not the other, should we not have two separate committees, permanently? I shall discuss that in my remarks later.
Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and that is another matter that the Procedure Committee needs to examine carefully. I hope that it will take full account of the recommendations that the Standards and Privileges Committee has already made on this subject, particularly on the separation of standards cases, where lay members will have a role to play, and privilege cases, which should rightly remain the exclusive business of the House. The Procedure Committee will wish to examine whether that requires two committees or the Standards and Privileges Committee meeting in a different form, with different arrangements for the two classes of consideration.
The Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee makes the important point that lay members would not necessarily require full voting rights, as long as it clearly states in the Committee's reports whether the lay members supported the conclusions and recommendations of the rest of the Committee. That imprimatur is the important aspect in determining whether the Committee's response not only has credibility, but is seen to have credibility by all those who are interested in the matter.
Mr Sheerman: Is the hon. Gentleman absolutely sure about all this? This is a very important point, because in his earlier remarks he said that the Government should not be involved, but he subsequently said that the recall element meant that they should be involved. The recall element is very important. Can a Member be recalled only when they have been through the Committee and been found wanting? What about Members of this House who were prosecuted, never having had the opportunity to go through-
Mr Sheerman: My right hon. Friend is shaking his head, but people were prosecuted, and people are being prosecuted, without having gone through the Standards and Privileges Committee process; they were just taken down to the police station and charged. Where is the equality there? Do we have recall in both Houses or both-
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We have to be very careful that we do not get into matters that are sub judice. I know that the hon. Gentleman was careful in what he said, but we are drifting into an area that we need to keep away from.
Mr Heath: I shall be equally careful not to enter that area, Mr Deputy Speaker. We have yet to introduce our proposals on the powers of recall; those will be in future legislation. Obviously this matter will be under consideration when we draw up the proposals for that Bill. Clearly, there is the potential for a trigger to reside with the consideration of the Standards and Privileges Committee or in a court decision. The House will have to determine that in due course. We also hope to introduce a Bill on the matter of privilege. Again, we will have to take great care to understand the points made by hon. Members in this debate and in others, and the response of the House in its decisions. We will have to ensure that we have covered, as far as is possible, any points raised on the matter of the draft legislation on privileges, which we anticipate introducing at a later stage.
Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Will the Minister give an assurance on the Floor of the House today that, whatever the Government come up with on the recall of Members of the House of Commons, there will be a parallel process for those from the other House who offend? Clearly they cannot be recalled, because they are appointed through a process of patronage rather than elected by the public. Can he assure us that they will also be held to account, in a way that they palpably have not been on their expenses scandals, which I suspect are still at a relatively early stage?
Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. Again, I do not want to pre-empt draft legislation that has not yet been put before the House and is under consideration. As he knows, an all-party body is considering the matter of House of Lords reform, but I believe that I can, without betraying any confidences, say that it is very much in our thoughts that there has to be a process of recall for both Houses of Parliament, and for other senior elected offices, which is broadly compatible. What we should not have is a different regime in different circumstances where wholly different considerations apply. If the public are to have a power of recall, it must be applicable to senior decision-making positions in elected office across the piece. I believe that that would include the upper House but, as I say, it is not for me to pre-empt the draft Bill that I hope will be before the House early next year.
Mr Sheerman: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. How can we make a decision about this important aspect today, given that the Minister has just told us that the Government have not even decided what they are going to do about recall, or whether recall can be sparked off through the Standards and Privileges Committee or through a criminal case? What sort of rule is this?
Mr Heath: I responded to a point raised in debate. I am attempting to help the right hon. Member for Rother Valley and his Committee put matters before the House and indicate that the Government support his view. I am very happy to rest my position on that point.
Mr Sheerman: Mr Deputy Speaker, I said "misleading" but the Minister did not mean to mislead the House. However, he did say that he was responding to an intervention-he was not; he mentioned the recall problem during part of his speech.
Mr Barron: What I said in my speech was that we thought that the question of lay members serving on the Standards and Privileges Committee was being held up because of the likelihood of a recall Bill. The reason the motion is on the Order Paper today is that it is about having lay members on the Committee-certainly in respect of standards-so that people can have more confidence that the Committee is not about gentlemen or gentlewomen looking after other gentlemen and gentlewomen.
Mr Heath: I thank the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee for making that clear. We have had enough of this House appearing to be a cosy club for its own benefit. The previous Parliament took steps towards improving the situation. What we are debating today is a continuation of that process, and I commend it to the House.
Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): Let me begin, as the Deputy Leader of the House did, by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) and his Committee, as well as its predecessor Committee, for the considerable amount of work they have done on these issues. They are difficult issues for the House to grapple with, and we want to get the detail right. That view is widely shared across the House. It is good that we are debating these motions today, because hon. Members can be reassured about any issues that they want to raise.
We on the Opposition Front Bench support all the motions. We believe that greater transparency will help the House in future and alleviate any fears that the public might have about our being a cosy little club. That is important in increasing public confidence in the procedures of the House, and it will also be to the long-term benefit of hon. Members. However, I have one or two queries that I want to put to my right hon. Friend that I hope he will be able to deal with when he winds up.
The first motion would allow the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to publish papers relating to complaints that have either not been upheld or been dealt with through the rectification process. My right hon. Friend is quite right that the current practice-whereby the commissioner publishes details on the number and type of complaints received in his annual report, along with details of outcomes-does not give sufficient information to the public. His Committee has pointed out that the commissioner responds if he is asked whether a complaint about a particular individual has
been received. The Committee has given good reasons for the change that it proposes today. However, I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend elaborated a little on why it decided to introduce an element of retrospection. He said that the proposal would bring the complaints procedure into line with practices that have been adopted elsewhere in the House. However, I am sure that he would agree that this raises the possibility of complaints that have long been dealt with being reopened, through the media and other means, and often where Members have left the House. I hope that when he sums up this debate he will elaborate on exactly how his Committee considered that point, and on why it came down on the side that it did.
There is also an issue, which I am sure my right hon. Friend will recognise, about publishing evidence on complaints that have not been upheld. He was right to say that on many occasions that will assist hon. Members, by showing that the complaint against them was completely unfounded. However, there is also a risk that the whole affair will be reopened. I wonder whether he could elaborate on what kind of evidence the commissioner will publish on such occasions, and on how he will decide what should be published and what should not.
For those under investigation, the need for transparency has to be balanced with their right to a fair consideration of the complaint against them, as it would be in any walk of life. The House is no different in that respect from anywhere else. However, the reputational damage that can be caused to a Member, even where a complaint is not upheld, is considerable. Given that the commissioner has always recognised that a Member's reputation should not be risked without proper cause, and given that he has also noted that there is a spike in complaints in the run-up to a general election, will my right hon. Friend say what consideration his Committee gave to that question? Could the Committee and the commissioner together develop a code of practice on what can be published in the run-up to a general election, so as to avoid a huge rise in politically motivated complaints that are not upheld, but made purely so that someone's opponent can issue newsletters saying, "MP X is under investigation by the Standards and Privileges Committee"?
Mr Sheerman: My hon. Friend is a highly trained lawyer, but, for those who are worried about the proposal, let me say that we believe in transparency-we campaigned for a better system-but we also want that balance, with justice for all Members, so that they are treated in a fair and democratic way.
Helen Jones: I am a lawyer, but I am not sure that I am a highly trained one-I am certainly a very out-of-practice one. I recognise that my hon. Friend has a long record on campaigning for more transparency, but there is always a balance to be struck between the need for fairness to those under investigation and the need for transparency. We all recognise that it is not necessarily easy to draw the line. The Committee has done an excellent job in trying to make proposals that achieve the right balance, but it is not always easy. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley will consider that point about the run-up to a general election, which is a consideration for Members in all parts of the House.
The second motion would give the commissioner the power to initiate an investigation. That sensible move might increase the access to justice that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) mentioned, because it would allow the commissioner to look at things that are perhaps aired in public, but not necessarily referred to him. I know, too, that there has been some concern among hon. Members about allowing the commissioner to act pursuant to a finding by the compliance officer of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. That is not because hon. Members do not want there to be a compliance officer; it is because there is some concern about the procedures adopted by IPSA. However, I understand-I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley will confirm it-that it will still be for the commissioner to decide whether there is a case to answer, according to the same standards that he applies now, when he considers whether the rules of the House have been breached. I hope that that provides some reassurance to hon. Members.
The final motion will probably present us with the most difficulties. We are being asked to agree in principle to two lay members being appointed to the Standards and Privileges Committee. We support that move, but there is no doubt that if the House agrees the motion, there will still be a lot of work to be done. The Committee on Standards in Public Life said that lay members should be chosen through what it called
"the official public appointments process".
Much as we love the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and much as we acknowledge that its knowledge of the rules of the House is deep and abiding, the problem is that none of us knows exactly what the official public appointments process is, because it differs according to which organisation one is dealing with. Therefore, we will first need the Procedure Committee to look at appointments. However, I hope that we do not get another round of the same, small coterie of the great and the good being appointed. There is a quangocracy out there, and I personally would like members of the public who have not previously been involved to be appointed.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): What is certain about the recruitment process is that we will have head-hunting firms earning a lot of commission from the taxpayer. That is causing a number of people in this place a great deal of concern.
Helen Jones: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. When the Procedure Committee looks at the issue, I hope that we will be able to avoid that. With great respect to all the ladies and gentlemen who serve on many committees, I do not want to see the usual suspects. I would like to see people who have not been involved before and who bring an entirely different perspective.
Mr Jenkin: The third motion concerns by far the most contentious matter before the House this afternoon. As Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, which is responsible for the public appointments commissioner, I can attest to the fact that what the hon. Lady is saying is absolutely correct. I do not think that Whitehall is the model of how to make public appointments, and in any case there comes a point where, even if we are bringing lay members into House, it should be this House that appoints them, not necessarily ex-civil servants who do not understand how the House works.
Helen Jones: The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point and he brings a lot of expertise from the Public Administration Committee. Having battled for many years to get more people from the most health-deprived or socially deprived areas of my constituency appointed to health trusts and as magistrates, I have great sympathy for the points he makes. I hope that the Procedure Committee will take those remarks on board and consider different ways of finding lay members to assist the House.
Mr Sheerman: Many of us on the Back Benches could be persuaded of the value of lay members, but the House is a strange place with a strange culture, so local knowledge is needed. Anyone who believed that what had happened to Members in the past 18 months or two years did not depend on the Whips and party leadership would have to think again.
Helen Jones: As a former Whip, I would have to say that the Whips always act in the best interests of those whom they serve and that they are known for their understanding, kindness and gentleness. However, my hon. Friend makes a fair point. Whoever is appointed will need induction into the rules and procedures of the House, just as Members need that induction when we first arrive here. The Procedure Committee could consider that.
One issue to consider is whether the lay members would have voting rights. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley made a fair point when he said that any decision that was not supported by the lay members would not be trusted by the public. Previously, his Committee has assumed that those voting rights would be confined to issues of standards and not to privileges. Perhaps we should consider splitting the Committee in dealing with those very different issues.
Another possible problem has been pointed out by the Clerk: lay members might not be covered by privilege when they take part in a Committee investigation. If that is the case, the House will face the difficult decision of whether to extend qualified privilege to non-Members. That would have huge implications for the future business of the House and would have to be considered very carefully by the Procedure Committee, who are the right people to do so. I have absolute faith that the Committee would consider the issue in detail, but I suspect that the inquiry would be long and comprehensive. The Committee already has a number of issues to deal with, so we are giving it a great deal more work, but it is most fitted to undertaking that work. These are matters for the House. I know that hon. Members want to be satisfied on a number of issues before we vote on them, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley will respond to some of those issues when he sums up. We commend the motions to the House.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): One of these three issues-ensuring that resources are available to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards-is vital. It is a tragedy and a disgrace to the House that we did not do this when Elizabeth Filkin was the commissioner. There is not enough time to go back over all that now, but the House does not have a very good or consistent record.
The question of whether lay members will have privilege should not be too difficult. Presumably, we extend privilege to the commissioner, so we ought to be able to extend it in the same way. I do not have a view on whether we should go for a sub-committee of Members only to deal with privilege issues. I shall not argue against the proposal on lay members, but I note that the provision that they cannot have been a Member of Parliament before would exclude someone such as Martin Bell who would be eminently qualified to be a lay member, but that might be the rough justice we will have. I suspect that if there were lay members, we could avoid hon. Members having the dilemma that he and I faced when we were members of the Privileges and Standards Committee and agreed, in one or two cases that we considered, to use the criminal burden of proof rather than the balance of probabilities. I think that we made a mistake; I think he acknowledged that in a book and I am perfectly willing to say now that we did make a mistake. Again, however, the reasons behind that are not for discussion today.
"MPs should be required to register positions of responsibility in voluntary or charitable organisations, even if unpaid, together with an indication of the amount of time spent on them."
Bluntly, I would ask that Committee why not spend more time looking at what MPs do in our job rather than what we do with our spare time? In my time at Parliament, I have been a trustee of Christian Aid, chairman of the Church of England Children's Society, a member of the council of Mind-previously the national association for mental health-and a member of the council of Nacro. I have also been involved with other, less nationally prominent, organisations. I do not think that I would have accepted the invitations to take those positions if I had thought that I would have to log the amount of time I spent going to and at meetings, and I doubt whether I would have taken on the position of being parliamentary warden of St Margaret's at Westminster. There is a whole range of issues on which that Committee ought to wake up, and if it wants to take advice from me publicly or privately I shall offer it.
Mr Jenkin: Is not the corollary of that recommendation that an MP who went on a holiday to learn how to paint watercolours would have to fill in a form and register it because that would be time spent not as an MP but doing an unpaid extracurricular activity? Why not register everything we do not do for Parliament in our spare time?
Peter Bottomley: I think my hon. Friend makes the point that if we registered what we did not do we would probably have a longer list than if we registered what we did do. The key point is that the general aim of having transparency matters.
The first of the motions introduced by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) concerns publication. During my time in Parliament, there have been two or three cases in which I have been rather proud of my approach to them and the persistence I
maintained. However, two of them ended up with accusations being made against me of being a paedophile, one of which was swallowed by a national newspaper, which published in 2 million copies a case against me. If a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards took media attention as a basis for starting an investigation, I would object. As it happened, in that case, no other newspaper copied the allegation, and the first settled, at pretty heavy expense to it, and made a damages payment. I wish those events had not happened, but the case involved people whom I had upset. They were bad, mad or sad; I was bold and pretty decisive, and there ended up being a series of allegations against me.
In a second case, a constituent whom I had helped complained to the commissioner that I had taken obscene photographs of his children. The commissioner found that there was no case to look into, but if that person had gone to the papers and they had run the story as they normally would, under the current arrangements the commissioner would have had to look into it. We have to be aware of such dangers. We cannot legislate against all possibilities, but we have to be careful about saying that just because there has been media attention, the commissioner should get involved.
Peter Bottomley: That may be, but the issue is that it was done and that the people who do such things are not always thinking straight. That is not my problem. The issue is that the commissioner should be very careful about taking the decibels as a reason for launching an investigation.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): First, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House and the Leader of the House, both of whom have a deserved reputation for courtesy, made a big mistake when they tried to take these matters through without debate. The very fact that we have had this debate is evidence that it is important to take such matters on the Floor of the House. I hope that that point will be taken on board by the business managers who allocate time on the Floor of the House.
These important matters reflect on and affect the public view of us individually and collectively as Members of Parliament. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Worthing West (Peter Bottomley) for his remarks. The examples he gave indicated the serious problems that Members can face when people, for whatever reasons, bring charges against them that leave those Members-owing to the nature of their public role-at least with difficulties defending themselves. It is important that our procedures reflect the gravity of that situation.
I want to make a few points for my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) to take back to his Committee, about whose reports the House needs reassurance-although I am not saying that they represent the wrong direction of travel. We need reassurance that there is recognition of the important implications of the new procedures. My first point relates to the commissioner now putting it into the public domain
when Members are under investigation. That may or may not be the right thing to do, but we should recognise that it will increase enormously the pressure on those Members. In practice, that is not necessarily in line with procedures used by other investigatory authorities. However, given that the commissioner has adopted the practice of responding to freedom of information requests, it might be better for Members if all such incidents were in the public domain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) made a serious point: this procedure could be used, in the run-up to an election, in a deliberate attempt to sully the reputation of Members of Parliament seeking re-election. We have to guard against that. I hope that the Committee and the commissioner will reflect on today's exchange and consider whether a code of practice can be devised to prevent those who go beyond the bar of frivolity and necessitate an investigation from being able to use that procedure to sully a Member's reputation in a pre-election period. This is not a trivial matter; it matters to people standing for election who might later find themselves exonerated by the commissioner.
That is why I asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley whether he could give us the number of people who, having been investigated by the commissioner, were found not guilty. It is important that that information is in the public domain, because it gives us the context and allows us to recognise whether this is a serious problem of which we need to be aware, or whether it is simply in the realms of the theoretical. As he said, some 240 cases were dismissed for having insufficient evidence. Quite rightly, of course, those did not enter the public domain, because the commissioner ruled them inadmissible for investigation. However, it is unlikely that all the 72 cases taken forward will be found to warrant action by the commissioner or the Committee. This issue matters. It is important that we get the balance right and that the commissioner reflects on the need to give consideration to that pre-election period and the capacity for people to use this procedure not only frivolously, but with a political purpose.
I want to make a second point to my right hon. Friend. If the commissioner is now to be given the power to initiate investigations-I understand the arguments for why it should be given-it will be critical to be cognisant of the need to prevent either the present commissioner or future commissioners from simply engaging in what in the past have been described as fishing expeditions. Again, this matters, and it is important that the House has reassurance. My right hon. Friend's Committee has an important role in ensuring that when the commissioner reports to it, it engages in a reasonably robust dialogue with him on the relevance of such commissioner-led investigations, to ensure that the commissioner sets a proper test or standard before taking on such a role.
My final point relates to lay members. I have considerable sympathy with the point made by the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), about the need to recognise the distinction between standards and privilege. It is important that we know in what role and capacity the lay members will be appointed. I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North that we need to ensure that we do not simply replicate the appointment to these public
roles of people from traditional backgrounds. We need to ensure that the establishment is not once again put in a position to do things that are not only not in the interest of the House, but not in the interest of the wider public. We must ensure that we have a robust Parliament and MPs who can operate robustly when considering matters of standards and privileges.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) about how we choose the lay members. The House has fallen into the habit of finding people seen to be more respectable than we are in order to resolve some of the difficulties that have arisen. Inevitably, they turn out to be former permanent secretaries, but with the greatest respect to those eminent people, they are seen as more respectable only because they have not been exposed in public life to the extent that many of us in public life have been.
Helen Jones: Continuing the debate about who should be appointed, does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems we have encountered-we will see this in the debate later on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority-is that civil servants tend to want to fit everyone else into the civil service mode, and often do not understand the work of a Member of Parliament?
Mr Jenkin: I wholly agree with that point, and it fits with the one I am trying to make, which is that their perspective is necessarily a different one, owing to civil servants' long and distinguished experience. Very often-it has to be said-Parliament will have been, throughout their careers, perhaps a matter of great frustration to them, and they might well share the feeling of many others about how poorly the House has done its jobs in various ways over the years. I do not think, therefore, that they necessarily have the right perspective-they have one perspective, but it cannot be solely the right perspective. We have to take their recommendations gratefully and humbly, but add a wider perspective to them to give them life.
On the question of adding lay members to a Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), who moved the motion, gave examples of where lay members have been added to other committees. However, those are not parliamentary committees and are not, for example, subject to the question of privilege, and it is on parliamentary privilege that I wish to make three brief points. First, there are members of the judiciary and senior figures in public life who have served elsewhere in public life who are either careless of the question of parliamentary privilege or actually could not care less about parliamentary privilege.
The word "privilege" carries certain overtones. At one stage before the election, it went out to the Conservative party that we should not use that word, because it would be misunderstood and seem to relate to the then Leader of the Opposition's education. In fact, every Parliament in the world of any distinction enjoys some measure of privilege or immunity in order that those Members can do their job. The reason we had the Bill of Rights in 1689 was to enable the House to function, and we still need those privileges, that protection and those immunities. We hold those immunities not for ourselves
and the protection of our own persons or private interests, and not to protect us from the criminal law if we commit criminal offences-as we have just discovered in a recent case-but so that we can advance the interests of the country freely and without fear or favour. These are the people's privileges. I urge the Procedure Committee, as it considers this matter, to accept the advice of the Clerk of the House. Let me, for the second day on the trot, quote from a note from the Clerk. Referring to the role of lay members on the Committee, he made it clear that he did not comment on the merits of the proposal itself, which I personally welcome, but he also said:
"It is not clear to me that their participation in decision-making by voting is in fact covered by parliamentary privilege. At the very least the matter is questionable and therefore may be justiciable."
Until that matter has been comprehensively and categorically resolved, it would be sensible for the Procedure Committee to recommend that if the Standards and Privileges Committee is to have lay members, they should not be voting members.
I imagine that it would be extremely hard for the Standards and Privileges Committee to ignore the advice of the lay members, particularly if they are as eminent as I hope they will be. I very much hope that one of them will be a retired judge, for example. I think that it would greatly assist the functioning of the Committee to receive more legal advice, so that it could interpret the byzantine rules and regulations and be navigated through difficult, contentious issues of evidence and fairness. After all, that is what the Committee is about. It would be very difficult to ignore the advice of a retired judge, whether he had a vote or not.
It would be awful if decisions were split on some of the contentious cases that we are discussing. The voting is not really relevant, and I think that it can be set aside until the question of the privileges of the House has been resolved.
We keep running up against the question of privilege. The arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) led to a protracted argument about it. The case relating to privilege has just been resolved-I recognise that other cases are sub judice under the criminal law, so I will not comment on them-but resolving it took months. If we had had a more watchful Privileges Committee entirely devoted to the question, we could have forestalled all that. More to the point, if we got on with the parliamentary privileges Bill that everyone agrees we need, we could put the question of privileges on a much less contentious and disputed footing.
That is my third point. When will we have a parliamentary privileges Bill, so that we can resolve some of these issues? Australia has enacted such a Bill, as have other Commonwealth countries. It is time that we stopped resting on the 1689 Act, which is increasingly irrelevant in this information age whose media are so different
from those of the past. Parliamentary privilege has to contend with many issues that were not conceived in those days. It is time we updated the Bill of Rights with a parliamentary privileges Act, and I hope that the Procedure Committee will consider that.
I also think that we should have a Select Committee on parliamentary privilege, separate from the Standards and Privileges Committee. As soon as a big issue arises, what happens? Following the arrest of my hon. Friend, it was immediately agreed-somewhat insultingly-that the existing Committee was not up to the job, and that much grander and more important panjandrums would have to be placed on a separate Committee to consider the issue of privileges. I think we had better recognise that the two functions are different. The fact that lay members will be involved with one aspect of the work of the Standards and Privileges Committee and not the other underlines the fact that there are two separate functions, and that they should be undertaken by two separate Committees. I very much hope that that will be one of the Procedure Committee's recommendations.
Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): As I am a member of the Committee, I thought it sensible to sit through the debate and hear all the views that have been expressed. I am a new Member, and I am not used to hearing about issues such as byzantine rules and regulations. We need T-shirts with that written on them, do we not?
The work that we have been doing over the past few weeks has built on the Kelly report, which I find fascinating. I am very pleased that the House is dealing with these three motions. We have received indications from both Front Benches that there is complete agreement with them. The Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), made an excellent opening speech broadening the issues with which we have all been dealing in the Committee, and I am sure that he will discuss the comments that have been made when he winds up the debate.
I have found it difficult to deal with the cases that have come before the Committee and the complaints that we have been considering. We have taken advantage of the experience of the commissioner, who is upstairs in the Gallery-I am noting his beady eyes every second-and the work is very interesting, but what is most important is that the public are aware of the complaints that are received, the statistics about complaints that have absolutely no validity, and the decisions made by our Committee. It is also important that the House is confident that the Committee deals with complaints properly-and we do try.
Mr Barron: The hon. Member for Worthing West (Peter Bottomley) spoke of media headlines serving as reasons for investigation. That is not the case now, and it will not be the case in future. Investigations are not made on the basis of media headlines; they are made when the commissioner is provided with evidence and he or she is satisfied that there are grounds for examining, for instance, a potential breach of the code of conduct.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) discussed rectification, which involves two issues. Rectification sometimes takes place on the
basis that the individual concerned has been found to have done no wrong, but, as I explained, it does not always take place in a right and proper way. It may take place in a very ill-informed way, and a complainant who has done no wrong can still go to the media and say "Yes, but...". I think it eminently sensible to improve that process of rectification.
When people have done wrong and have admitted doing wrong, rectification has been the right and proper thing to do from the commissioner's point of view. It is his decision and no one else's to take the matter no further. Money is paid back, and matters are settled. However, the information is not published in a right and proper way at the moment. We need more transparency, so that people can understand exactly what is happening. I entirely accept that that involves the question of retrospection. We are trying to put the last 18 months behind us, and, as I said, in that context I think that retrospection is right and proper. I hope that the House will accept it on that ground.
I think it highly unlikely that there will be further complaints on the basis of these publications. Even if there were, evidence beyond that which had enabled the commissioner to reach the point at which he had arrived would presumably be required for any investigation to take place. I do not believe that cases that have been rectified will be reopened, whether they have been upheld or not.
My hon. Friend also mentioned a spike in major complaints just before a general election. Political opponents often make complaints. That is a judgment to be taken not by the House or the Committee, but by the commissioner, who I hope would use common sense in those circumstances. I say that because it would be wrong-I am only one voice, but I chair the Committee-for us to define a code of conduct for the commissioner. The commissioner is independent of the Committee and must remain so. We cannot have a situation where someone investigates complaints against MPs, but works to a code of conduct written by a Committee of MPs.
Tony Lloyd: It would not necessarily be my right hon. Friend's Committee that created the code of conduct. The commissioner could operate his own code of conduct. That might give the House the reassurance that it needs.
Mr Barron: That is entirely a matter for the commissioner. From what was said earlier, I gather that he is with us not just in spirit for the debate. I am sure he will read the report in Hansard tomorrow. The Committee should not be a party to drawing up a code of conduct for somebody who works independently of the Committee. That would be wholly wrong.
On the subject of lay members, we have said that that will be a matter for the Procedure Committee, and I hope the House will agree. I mentioned that I had been a lay member of the General Medical Council. The Procedure Committee may want to know something about my journey to that role. The first time I was appointed to it, I was the Labour appointee. There was also a Liberal Democrat and a Conservative appointee. They were appointed by the Leader of the House.
That is what used to happen under the old system. The GMC was a big body, consisting of 124 members and three MPs, one from each major party. The second time that I served as a lay member on it, I had to attend
an appointments session up in Leeds. I was appointed by a panel who asked me questions about what I had to bring to the table.
I say to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) that I would hesitate to suggest to the Procedure Committee that it ought to have some form of permanent secretary. I had worked in industry as an electrician. I had been to see doctors, of course, because everyone gets ill from time to time. I used to sit on fitness to practice committees when a doctor had done wrong. Those were national cases. I was not qualified to take on the medical profession. I was there in a different role. My role was to bring to the committee what I thought ordinary people would think about the situation-to bring common sense to the issue.
That is what we ought to ask of the Procedure Committee. How it achieves that is entirely up to the Committee. I hesitate to go down the route suggested and lay any sort of guidelines whatever. If lay members come on to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, as I hope they will at some stage, it will be up to the Committee to decide whether they have anything to do with privilege. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that as soon as we get a privilege Bill, or a draft privilege Bill, as we are promised, we can see what that means. There has been a ruling of the Supreme Court on these matters in the past 24 hours. We should look at that in the context of what has come to light in the past few months. The Procedure Committee should get on with the job, if the House agrees to the motion.
I hope the House will accept all three motions without Division. As I said, they serve to clear up issues from before the general election and make sure that the workings of the House are as transparent as is humanly possible, so that people outside have more confidence in us than they have had in the recent past.
(1) That this House approves the Sixth Report of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Session 2010-11, HC 577; and
(2) That accordingly-
a. The Commissioner may publish papers relating to complaints rectified or not upheld since the beginning of financial year 2008-09 and information about complaints received and matters under investigation since the beginning of financial year 2010-11.
b. Standing Order No. 150 be amended, by inserting the following new paragraph after paragraph 10.
"(10A) The Commissioner shall have leave to publish from time to time-
(a) information and papers relating to-
(i) matters resolved in accordance with paragraph (3) of this order;
(ii) complaints not upheld;
(b) information about complaints received and matters under investigation."
(1) That this House approves the Seventh Report of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Session 2010-11, HC 578; and
(2) That accordingly Standing Order No. 150 be amended, by leaving out paragraph (2)(e) and inserting in its place:
"(e) to investigate, if he thinks fit, specific matters which have come to his attention relating to the conduct of Members and to report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges or to an appropriate subcommittee thereof, unless the provisions of paragraph (3) apply.
(2A) In determining whether to investigate a specific matter relating to the conduct of a Member the Commissioner shall have regard to whether in his view there is sufficient evidence that the Code of Conduct or the rules relating to registration or declaration of interests may have been breached to justify taking the matter further ." - ( Mr Barron. )
That this House agrees with the principle as set out in the Twelfth Report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life that lay members should sit on the Committee on Standards and Privileges; and invites the Procedure Committee to bring forward proposals to implement it. -(Mr Barron.)
That this House regrets the unnecessarily high costs and inadequacies of the systems introduced by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA); calls on the IPSA to introduce a simpler scheme of office expenses and Members' allowances that cuts significantly the administrative costs, reduces the amount of time needed for administration by Members and their staff, does not disadvantage less welloff Members and those with family responsibilities, nor deter Members from seeking reimbursement of the costs of fulfilling their parliamentary duties; and resolves that if these objectives are not reflected in a new scheme set out by the IPSA in time for operation by 1 April 2011, the Leader of the House should make time available for the amendment of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 to do so.
I thank hon. Members across the House for their support in crafting the motion and for coming to the debate. In particular, I thank the chairs of the Back-Bench committees for each of the parties. This is a cross-party motion which enjoys wide cross-party support. I thank the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) for hosting the debate in Westminster Hall earlier this year, where hon. Members were able to give their initial view of the systems being operated by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
It would be all too easy for Members of Parliament to moan about the details of how the existing scheme is working, but from all the conversations that I have had over the past several months, I am reassured that that is not the purpose of today's debate. Members have been reassuringly consistent in their view, in private and public conversations, that the debate is about ensuring that we get a grip on a system that is taking MPs' time away from constituents and is costing the taxpayer far too much money. Although there are personal inconveniences to Members of Parliament, which are fully recognised by all MPs, that is not the primary purpose of the motion. I thank the Backbench Business Committee and its Chair for having the courage to hold the debate on a substantive motion.
The motion presents an opportunity significantly to reduce the costs of Parliament to the taxpayer, an opportunity to allow MPs to spend more time representing their constituents, and an opportunity to reform a system that unintentionally discriminates against MPs with family commitments and those who come from a less well-off background. Above all, the motion offers a chance finally to begin or continue the process of restoring confidence in Parliament. If it is passed, as I hope it will be, it will send a clear message to IPSA and the country that Parliament wants a new expenses scheme that cuts the cost to the taxpayer and allows Members to conduct their duties for their constituents.
The motion urges IPSA to be bold in proposing a new scheme. I hope it will introduce one that works. The motion is also clear that if IPSA fails to do that, Parliament will act in the interests of the country by proposing the necessary reforms.
The history of payments to MPs is informative. I do not intend to go through the entire history, but it is useful in the present context. A simple Members' allowance was introduced in 1911. It was transformed-or deformed, I would argue-over the past century into a byzantine
system of hidden expenses and allowances. That happened because Parliament allowed it to happen. Past Governments, understandably, avoided politically unacceptable and unpalatable pay rises for MPs, but these rises were necessary as the nature of the job changed, the amount of correspondence changed, and the expectation on MPs to be in their constituencies more often increased. MPs failed to assert themselves over the past 100 years on behalf of their constituents.
From the mid-2000s, MPs knew the system would eventually undermine the integrity of Parliament. When I arrived as a new Member in 2005, that was pretty clear from the conversations and from the worries that were being expressed. However, I think it is safe to say that the initial system introduced by IPSA is now also creating problems, and they will make it difficult for Parliament to do its work in the future. For the sake of our democracy, Members of Parliament have a duty to act if IPSA does not bring forward a scheme that sorts out these problems.
Last year's expenses revelations were a well-deserved kick in the teeth for Parliament. They should also have served as a wake-up call alerting us to the fact that action needed to be taken. We must act now, and avoid dragging the British Parliament back into disrepute purely because we may be nervous about the initial public reaction to what we say.
I will address the motion shortly, but first I want to say that I greatly commend the staff at IPSA both for putting up with us, because we can be very forceful in making our representations to them, and for implementing a scheme that was designed not by them but by the IPSA board. We must take care to recognise that the staff at IPSA are working hard in trying to implement the scheme, even if it does not work for our constituents.
I also welcome the publication of MPs' claims this morning; IPSA is right to publish them, because accountability must be at the heart of any system that is put in place. Like all other Members, I accept, of course, that it is a complete coincidence that the claims, along with other publications and leaks, were published this morning; I accept that the timing of that has nothing to do with today's debate. However, it is alarming that IPSA has chosen not to publish the receipts behind the claims, because we have been here before. If there is a claim and a supporting receipt, it is essential that the receipt is shown to the public, or made readily available to them. I believe this decision will prove to be calamitous. It implies secrecy and concealment when MPs should have nothing to hide, and it encourages misinterpretation and miscommunication unnecessarily. It is inevitable and right that under the Freedom of Information Act people will request to see these receipts, and they will therefore become available. Why on earth were they not published immediately? I think that will turn out to be a mistake.
I recognise that some might say that it is exceptionally expensive to publish such receipts, and I agree. It is very expensive to process receipts and then publish them with redactions for privacy and other reasons. My counter-argument to that is straightforward, however: IPSA should have been aware of these costs and burdens when it introduced a scheme that demanded that such procedures were followed. It cannot be an excuse that it costs too much to publish receipts if that is what is required under the system IPSA initially designed. I therefore encourage it to change the system.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and for his contribution thus far. Does he know how many Members of Parliament IPSA consulted before setting up this scheme?
Adam Afriyie: That is a very good question. I have the figure 44 in my head for the number of responses to the initial January consultation. A quarter to a third of them were completely against the kind of scheme IPSA eventually introduced, while the other three quarters or two thirds raised specific issues that were not directly related to the terms of the consultation. The input from Members of Parliament in a public sense was therefore fairly minimal; only about 11 MPs actually made a contribution. That is a little concerning. I think the reason behind that low figure is that we as Members of Parliament all know that anything we write on expenses that is in the public domain is a hostage to fortune. We have to overcome that reluctance, however, because unless we show confidence and courage and make it absolutely clear that we will not tolerate an unnecessarily expensive system and an unnecessarily burdensome bureaucracy that takes us away from our constituents, we will fall into the same trap we have fallen into in the past. I therefore have a tremendous sense of déjà vu.
The expenses scandal coincided with the run-up to the general election-it was almost part of the general election campaign-so there was a political need to resolve the issue quickly. I think we all recognise that, and I think we all accept that something needed to be done fairly briskly. However, on reflection now, a year later, it seems to me that perhaps in our haste we have lost some time. Even with the best intentions in the world, there have been omissions and errors in the establishment of the current regime, and they need to be tackled.
Ignoring warnings from the Clerk of the House and others, we have created a curious beast. We have handed over control of the work of MPs to an unelected and unaccountable body. IPSA is judge and jury; IPSA is both regulator and the regulated. MPs are rightly accountable to the people who elect them, whereas IPSA is accountable to nobody, yet IPSA can control the way MPs work-it can control the amount of time that MPs have available to them to conduct their duties. That is a curious state of affairs, and if we are honest with ourselves we would never tolerate that set-up in any other walk of life, or in any other part of government or the civil service.
I do not doubt that the chairman and board of IPSA have good intentions, but is it right that the current system continues to frustrate the work of democratically elected MPs? The issue is not about us and our minor inconveniences, but about our constituents and the time that we can spend with them, so we have to be bold in what we do.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con):
To be completely fair to IPSA, the scheme that it had to implement had already been handed to it by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and if I remember correctly there was a curious collision of timetables, whereby IPSA was set up at the same time as the committee was holding its inquiry. I am afraid that we politicians are responsible collectively for the mess that IPSA inherited
from us, and I think that my hon. Friend is appealing for it to take charge, to fulfil its remit and to take full responsibility for the scheme that it now implements.
Adam Afriyie: I very much welcome my hon. Friend's intervention. It is quite clear that the Committee on Standards in Public Life had not reported at the time when IPSA was instructed to create a scheme, so we must take responsibility for that. We were in a hurry-with the right intentions-to change the system so that an external body would set the rates of remuneration and pay, but it is widely recognised that in our haste we created something that needs adjustment.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is certainly making a positive contribution for all of us. Is it not odd that IPSA itself is not situated on the parliamentary estate? It is also reluctant to give information about its senior executives; I have now waited a fortnight for a parliamentary answer about the number of senior people in the management team and their salaries. Incidentally, it might interest the hon. Gentleman to know that the dog of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) shows absolutely rapt attention to every word he says.
The hon. Gentleman knows, because I have communicated this point to him, that we need to reflect on the public's reaction a year ago. Indeed, I contributed to the discussion in January and was in favour of a much simpler administrative scheme than the current one. Is the review at the beginning of January not an opportunity to try to get the system right, in a non-adversarial way; to take the public or, at least, the opinion-formers with us, rather than back a year; to make the job of IPSA staff, whom he rightly praises for trying to operate a difficult system, much easier; and to ensure, therefore, that MPs benefit from a simpler process, the public benefit from a cheaper process and the world outside believes that we have not once again lost our marbles?
Adam Afriyie: I welcome the intervention and the correspondence between me and the right hon. Gentleman, although we have a slightly different view about the purpose of today's motion. We know that there will never be a win on this subject with the media and the public, whatever the scheme's initial form. That is just never going to happen. Anybody who has been around the media, business or politics for long enough knows that that will never happen, so the question for us is: what type of scheme would be most beneficial to constituents and the taxpayer?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's input during the initial set-up, and I recognise his hard work in looking for a simple scheme, but I suspect that IPSA has not fully taken on board the power that we have given it to simplify things and make our jobs easier. My greatest hope today is that the terms of the motion never need to be used, and that IPSA comes forward with a scheme that works, thereby enabling us to do our job.
With regard to the intervention of the hon. Member for Walsall North, it is notoriously difficult to get information out of IPSA, and I understand why. Among other practices, it might not reflect well on IPSA if its senior salaries were compared with the salaries of Members of Parliament. I believe that there is also concern over the cost of the buildings that it has hired and the contracts into which it has entered. I do not want to go into the minutiae of how IPSA operates; I want to focus on the purpose of the motion and the consequences of its being passed this afternoon.
The motion presents an opportunity for the Government and our political party leaders to stand aside from this issue. The moment a party leader speaks on this subject, it is ignited and becomes a party political matter, with the parties wrangling with each other. The moment a Government get involved, it is a headline media issue-why are the Government trying to change IPSA and get rid of its independence? It is untenable for Governments and political party leaders to handle this issue, and they cannot do so in the way that is needed. I put it to the House that it is right for Parliament to handle this issue and to create the opportunity for the Government and party leaders to stand aside and allow measures to be brought forward. If it looks like those measures will cost the taxpayer more, of course the Government should have a right of veto. However, we need to deliver to the Government and party leaders the opportunity to step aside and allow this place time for calm contemplation and to bring forward measures. It is then up to the Government to make a judgment. We would be doing our party leaders a service, and it would be the first time in 100 years that they would have been given such an opportunity on the issue of MPs' conditions and remuneration.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is an advocate of worker representation, but does he accept that it would be unusual in any other workplace to invite the employees to set the terms of their expenses arrangements?
Adam Afriyie: The hon. Gentleman is a new Member, and he is spot on. That is why the majority of hon. Members believe that it was right that an independent body set the rates of remuneration. We talked about privilege earlier, and this is a matter not of MPs' privilege but of the people's privilege to have an MP who can work, unimpeded by a third party that is unaccountable to the public. If a body can tell MPs how to do their work-which, in effect, IPSA can in its current form-democracy and the people's voice are undermined.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con):
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Perhaps he would like to disabuse my hon. Friend the Member for
Chippenham (Duncan Hames) of the notion that we are employees. When I came to this House, I wrote to the then Speaker to inquire about the possibility of availing myself of child care vouchers. I was told that it was not possible because I was not an employee, but was regarded by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs as self-employed. That is the distinction.
Adam Afriyie: Absolutely. My hon. Friend hits on the key issue, which has not been resolved in the last 100 years, of whether a Member of Parliament is a paid employee with a salary, in which case one would expect a job description. MPs do not have job descriptions; it is therefore semi-illogical that they would have salaries. HMRC is absolutely correct that for most intents and purposes, MPs are self-employed. I will comment on that in a moment, but I am conscious of the time that I am taking.
Bob Russell: In answer to parliamentary questions that I tabled, IPSA graciously acknowledged that I am employed by the good people of Colchester. It also acknowledged that I am the employer of my staff and that it is not the employer of MPs' staff. However, half the time it behaves as if it were the employer of MPs, and half the time as if it were the employer of MPs' staff.
Adam Afriyie: That is the irreconcilable nature of the task that IPSA has been set. These are quite deep waters and I am not sure that we can get into the intricacies in this debate. The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a fundamental incompatibility between an external body controlling the terms and conditions by which staff are employed and the responsibility for that employment falling with the individual Member.
Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I completely support what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Can we move back to the motion and to trying to consider how we rationalise the headings in respect of what the regime is all about? It is clear to me that it is all so time-consuming and unnecessary and will lead to our running out of money in certain budgets. That problem would be overcome if there was a bit of rationalisation before 1 April next year-the date set by the hon. Gentleman in the motion.
Adam Afriyie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing me back to the motion, which is where we really need to be, especially given how long I have taken so far. He is absolutely right to say that we are looking for the schemes to be simplified. I hope that the motion will give IPSA the licence to do that without our having to bring forward measures. There are other anomalies that may need to be dealt with through legislation, including statutory instruments, but they do not relate directly to the reimbursement or remuneration of MPs.
I turn back to the motion, which has three substantive parts. First, there is the regret about the unnecessary bureaucracy that impedes MPs' work for their constituents. Secondly, there is the regret about the unnecessarily high cost of the scheme; I shall not go into the details of how the new scheme costs 50% more than the one in the previous Parliament, although I am sure that others will. There are also irreconcilable differences in IPSA's January consultation. Principle 9 in chapter 2 says that
"Arrangements should be flexible enough to take account of the diverse working patterns and demands placed upon individual MPs",
"The system should be clear and understandable. If it is difficult to explain an element of the system in terms which the general public will regard as reasonable, that is a powerful argument against it."
Yet the current system fails to respect that principle. How can IPSA expect the general public to understand the system when we MPs find it virtually impossible to understand? That is another irreconcilable point.
Sections 3.1 and 3.2 state that there is no formal job description for an MP and that defining an MP's duties is notoriously difficult. However, the document goes on to attempt to define that role. Section 3.13 recognises the varying accommodation needs of every MP. Why, then, is the system so prescriptive about the nature of that accommodation, irrespective of family situation or the rapidly changing circumstances of individual Members?
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I am a new Member with a constituency in outer London. Every night, I am lucky enough to return to my family. However, many colleagues tell me that, for four to five days a week, they have extreme difficulty in seeing their families because the allowances do not permit it. In many cases, a Member cannot keep their family with them unless they are rich enough. I feel that that is wrong.
Adam Afriyie: Hear, hear! Absolutely. The system seems almost designed to create a Parliament for the wealthy. If a Member does not have sufficient resources to subsidise themselves, they become ensnared in a vice-like grip designed to bring them into disrepute-they have to produce every single receipt for some sort of personal item. Wealthier Members or those with independent means, of course, can simply not claim. As I look around both sides of the Chamber, I know that probably not a single Member here has claimed everything that they are entitled to claim-first, through fear of the public and the media really having a go, or secondly, because it is too complicated and time-consuming to do so.
We have to ask ourselves whether the public want such a system for their Parliament. The wealthy swan through, buy their way out of the system with no trouble at all and are treated as saints when they are nothing of the sort, and everyone else is stuck in the system.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the main issues is that IPSA does not seem to have understood that MPs have responsibilities and duties in their constituency and similarly here in Parliament? The current system does not take that into account, so the costs of one or the other have to be subsidised, or can be met by those who have wealth. If MPs do not have that wealth, they are simply unable to meet the costs of operating in two places at once.
Exactly that debate was had in 1911. After the Osborne judgment, Labour Members could no longer be funded by the unions, which meant, in effect, that they were destitute. Then, in 1911, a flat
rate-a beautifully simple Members' allowance- was introduced at £400 a year. Members were told: "There you go. This is not a salary, a remuneration, a reimbursement of expenses or a payment in kind for services; it is merely an allowance that recognises that there are costs associated with being here, and Members are trusted to organise their lives in the way that is necessary."
One cannot second-guess and legislate for the topography of every seat or the lifestyles-the changing lifestyles-of every MP, or for the reproduction rates of MPs: we are now on our fifth. One cannot create a system that takes into account whether the trains are working or whether it is going to snow and being told only at 5 o'clock in the evening. There is no way that the route that IPSA is currently pursuing will satisfy the needs of the public to have a Parliament that functions effectively.
Adam Afriyie: The Parliamentary Standards (Amendment) Bill, which will appear on tomorrow's Order Paper-of course, I do not know what is going to happen to it-says that that is exactly what we ought to do, because it would save the taxpayer money and give MPs time to serve their constituents. That proposal is not directly related to the motion, but I just point it out. It would take courage to enact such a simple, straightforward scheme, and I urge IPSA to have the courage to do so. There is nothing more transparent than a flat-rate Members' allowance: everyone can see what it is and everyone can see that every MP gets the same thing.
The current system causes inconvenience and makes things very difficult for Members with families and Members who are less well-off. It also causes problems, because Members are not making claims. Looking back at this year, and certainly over the past six months, I know that virtually every one of my colleagues-I have spoken to 350 MPs one-to-one-has not made the claims that they are entitled to make. That may be seen externally as a great success-"Look, IPSA has crushed the MPs, and they cost far less!"-but we all know that that is not the situation. We know that Members are borrowing from their parents, having to borrow cars from friends, and still sleeping on floors of offices, which they are not supposed to do, because they are not claiming what they rightfully should be able to claim. It is not a good situation.
However, I am not moaning on behalf of existing MPs. I love all the MPs here, but I am not whingeing on their behalf. What I am concerned about is the functioning of Parliament for the next 100 years. Where will we be in 30 years' time if we continue down this route where only the wealthy can serve? That is where we were before; I thought we had moved on. IPSA, I hope you are listening.
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