MPs vote to curb expenses transparency amid harassment rules shake-up
MPs under investigation for expenses breaches will no longer be named by parliamentary watchdogs under plans backed by the House of Commons today.
The Commons voted 79-22 against a bid to ensure that a new code of conduct aimed at clamping down on bullying and harassment does not also curb the power of watchdogs to name MPs and peers accused of wider offences.
Ministers argue that anonymisation of initial inquiries by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards will encourage victims of bullying and harassment to come forward.
Outlining the proposals today, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said: "We’re proposing that the Commissioners of both Houses will keep their investigations entirely confidential until such time as there is a finding.
"This is crucial if individuals are to place their trust in the new system.
"There is clearly a balance to be struck, between the public interest in transparency and putting the complainant at the heart of the process by protecting their identity. That is absolutely vital."
But MPs on the cross-party Standards Committee tried to force a change to the Government’s plans with an amendment that would have stopped the new transparency curbs applying to expenses and other non-bullying or harassment cases.
Speaking before the Commons rejected that bid, Standards Committee chair Sir Kevin Barron warned that the existing rules had been put in place as an "important way of demonstrating transparency and openness".
They see MPs under investigation by the Commissioner for Standards named online alongside a brief statement on the claim against them. At no point are accusers named under the existing system.
The Labour MP added: "There is no doubt if the House today votes for this element of the… motion many people outside will criticise us for rolling back the openness that was agreed back in 2010 in view of the situation with the expenses scandal."
Green Party leader Caroline Lucas - who supports the the broad thrust of the code outlined by Ms Leadsom - meanwhile warned that the move to anonymise wider investigations was "deeply, deeply worrying".
She added: "I would far rather live with a bit of inconsistency, particularly since it essentially means that the MPs are under more of a spotlight - quite rightly.
"That to me is a much lesser concern than the fact it looks to the outside world - and indeed to some extent it’s true - that we are rolling back transparency at exactly the time we should be expanding it."
But Ms Leadsom insisted the new code - which will cover all MPs, peers and staff and vows tougher sanctions for those found to have behaved inappropriately - would "eliminate the threat of exposure which prevents many from coming forward".
And she argued that it was unfair for those facing claims about expenses or misuse of Parliamentary resources to face a different system to those facing bullying and harassment claims.
"I would be the last person to want to avoid transparency,” she said. “But I do think it’s vital for this scheme to succeed that we achieve consistency."
Those seeking to force the change by voting for Mr Barron's amendment included Labour MPs Wes Streeting, Harriet Harman, Luciana Berger and Jess Phillips, alongside the Green's Ms Lucas and independent MP John Woodcock, who resigned the Labour whip yesterday.
Labour frontbenchers Dawn Butler and Marsha de Cordova meanshile joined Conservatives including Iain Duncan Smith and ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker - as well as Lib Dems Alistair Carmichael and Wera Hobhouse - to oppose the attempt to drive a government u-turn.
Meanwhile, unions representing parliamentary staff continue to have concerns about the broader code proposed by the Government
The FDA - whose members include Commons clerks - said it would allow politicians to "mark their own homework" by giving a committee of MPs the final say on sanctions for offenders.
The union’s assistant general secretary Amy Leversidge also hit out at a decision not to consider bullying and harassment allegations from before the June 2017 general election.
She told PoliticsHome: "This decision to place arbitrary restrictions on past cases has no legal basis and serves only to protect MPs accused of bullying. MPs today are saying time’s up – except they’re saying it to the victims, not the bullies."
The new code outlined by Ms Leadsom will be reviewed in six and eighteen months' time.