Sat, 13 July 2024

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Standards Committee Considers Tightening Sanction Appeals Process After Owen Paterson Lobbying Row

3 min read

A lay member of the Standards Committee has defended the "thorough and fair" system but suggests existing appeals routes could be changed.

Writing for The House magazine, Dr Arun Midha, a member of the public who sits on the Commons Standards Committee, said the current appeals process could be altered in the wake of the row over how the MPs code of conduct is policed.

Midha, one of seven lay members of the 14-strong committee, has made a rare public intervention following attacks on the system saying it was wrong to suggest MPs were unable to appeal the findings of the Standards Commissioner and defending the "independence" of the body that has stopped MPs from "marking their own homework".

His comments came after former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson was last month found guilty by the watchdog of "egregious" breaches of Parliamentary lobbying rules, who recommended he be suspended for 30 sitting days, a punishment that could have lead to a recall petition and by-election in his seat.

Conservative MPs subsequently voted through new rules which would have blocked Paterson's suspension and triggered an overhaul of the standards committee, before u-turning following furious backlash.

Part of the argument put forward by Paterson, who later resiged as an MP, and Tory ministers was the incorrect claim that the current process had no route for appeal following an investigation by Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone.

But Midha said while he was the first to admit the current system was not "perfect" there was already a "right to appeal" which would have seen the Commissioner's findings probed, and possibly even overturned, by the Committee.

"[Paterson] had full rights to submit written and oral evidence and to challenge the Commissioner’s findings," Midha wrote.

"The Committee reviews those findings and can disagree with them. It has recently done so, in a case involving the Prime Minister."

The academic, who has previously sat as a lay member on the General Medical Council, said many of the debates taking place in the Commons were already being considered as part of a "major review" being carried out by the Committee around the code of conduct.

He said the Committee were also already seperately considering setting up a "system of appeal against its own sanctions, which does not effectively exist at the moment".

"The options for appeal against sanctions might include having an appeals sub-panel within the Committee, or transferring responsibility for such appeals to the Independent Expert Panel or a newly constituted independent body."

But he insisted he was "confident" in the face of minister's criticisms that the system remained "thorough and fair".

"The Committee has received extensive advice from the House's legal advisers to confirm this," Midha added. 

He said that after a 20-year career involved in standards and conduct work, he believed any attempts to undermine public confidence in the system by reducing its independence could "diminish" respect for MPs.

"Whether the public will view any changes to the standards process which might lessen not strengthen the element of independence in the system time will tell," he wrote.

"What I have learned also is that without public support and importantly public confidence in the process of overseeing the conduct of members, the respect a democratic society should have for its elected representatives will sadly diminish."

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