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MPs have a golden opportunity to show leadership over standards – they should take it

4 min read

I will shortly conclude my six-year term as a lay member of the House of Commons Committee on Standards.

Over the past six years the committee has adjudicated on several prominent cases, including Boris Johnson (three times); Ian Paisley – which led to the first trigger of the Recall of MPs Act 2015; Keith Vaz – which resulted in the longest suspension of an MP in recent times; and Owen Paterson, for an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, sparking an attempt by the government to sideline lay members and restructure the standards system. 

In 2018, I found myself on the brink of resigning from the committee when consensus broke down over the issue of whether the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (PCS) would be allowed to investigate historical allegations of bullying Commons staff by the then-Speaker, John Bercow. By a majority of three to two, MP members voted not to allow an investigation. This made clear that lay members could be excluded from crucial decisions. 

People in positions of authority should work actively to level every playing field

Fortunately, the controversy caused by this decision contributed to the House giving voting rights to lay members, abolishing the rule that the PCS needed to seek permission to investigate historical allegations, and introducing the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS). The changes allowed the allegations against Bercow to be investigated. The new Independent Expert Panel upheld the investigation’s findings and concluded that if the former Speaker had been a sitting MP, they would have recommended he be expelled from the House. He is now banned from holding a parliamentary pass for life. 

The Committee’s review of the MPs’ Code of Conduct has understandably intensified in the fallout from the Paterson affair, leaving significant issues for our elected representatives to decide.

The seven Nolan Principles should be recast to reflect the contemporary role of MPs. This would perhaps make it easier to understand the ethos underlying each principle. Although the government has not embraced this, it has widespread support, not least from the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life. 

The committee has also proposed a “Respect” principle relating to the values of equality, diversity, and inclusion. In following this, MPs have a leadership opportunity to promote tolerance and inclusivity as the pathway for everyday life. 

Although well- supported, Lord Evans, chair of the Committee of Standards in Public Life, argued against a separate eighth principl, considering the existing seven well understood. Nevertheless, he suggested incorporating these values into the existing Leadership principle. 

This could be: “Members are elected as leaders, who can only be effective when they inspire trust by setting a good example. They should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles, abide by the Parliamentary Behaviour Code, and set an example of anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion, and diversity. They should refrain from any action which would bring Parliament or its Members into disrepute.”

The committee has received evidence from some MPs concerned that focusing on these values might lead to MPs being investigated. These concerns are unfounded. As Lord Evans explained: “The principles of public life are designed to be a high-level statement of the overall direction in adhering to standards and were not designed to be enforced.” 

These are not rules that can be enforced and breaches of which can be punished; they are simply a decent, respectable, and honest guide to behaviour. This is not about requiring Members to follow a “woke agenda”. 

When did respecting each other become a bad thing? This is about our elected representatives showing leadership. 

These fundamental values have already been incorporated into the Codes of Conduct in the Welsh and Scottish parliaments. However, there is an opportunity to go further: to demonstrate not only that people have equal rights, but that people in positions of authority should work actively to level every playing field.

 

Dr Arun Midha is a Lay member on the House of Commons Committee on Standards.

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