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Decision to overhaul standards system highlights the need for greater independence for regulators

Decision to overhaul standards system highlights the need for greater independence for regulators
Alice Lilly

Alice Lilly

3 min read

In its decision today not to suspend Owen Paterson from the Commons for breaching the rules, and to instead set up a new committee to investigate the standards system, the Commons has highlighted the need for even greater independence for regulators. But the prospects for that are also very unclear.

In a highly unusual move, the government whipped its MPs to vote in support of an amendment by Dame Andrea Leadsom that effectively pauses Paterson’s case and sets up a new committee—to be chaired by a government MP and with a government majority—to review the standards system.

Ministers have claimed that this move was a response to growing concerns about how the existing standards system works. But that system was established with the approval of MPs. For them to reconsider it now looks an awful lot like changing a process because they didn’t like the answer it gave them.

Of course, not all MPs voted in favour of the Leadsom amendment—and the vote was much closer (250-232) than expected, suggesting some considerable disquiet among the government backbenchers. But the three-line whip reportedly imposed by the government meant that the Leadsom amendment’s passage was never in doubt.

If Labour and the SNP boycott the new committee, then the shape of any future reforms is even more unclear

This is not the only time in recent memory that ministers have been willing to overrule independent judgements because they did not agree with them. The previous independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, resigned when the Prime Minister disagreed with his findings that Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had breached the ministerial code; with Johnson instead extolling his party to “form a square around the Pritster.”

The new committee will have three months to look both at Paterson’s case—and the whole system for upholding MPs’ standards. It is possible that they will make suggestions for a new and fully independent system that improves how standards are upheld—but it is also possible that they may water down the independence of the current system. And if Labour and the SNP boycott the new committee—as it is being reported that they might—then the shape of any future reforms is even more unclear.

The government has so far been reluctant to bolster the independence of the standards regulators it oversees. It would be a shame if the House of Commons took the same approach. We at the Institute for Government will be discussing the role and remits of various standards regulators at a one-day conference tomorrow.

Lord Evans, chair of the CSPL, and Chris Bryant MP, chair of the Commons’ Committee on Standards, will be joining us to discuss how the standards that the public expect can be properly upheld. Whatever the new committee recommends, it is clear that this issue is not going away.

 

Alice Lilly is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government.

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