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By Women in Westminster

The standards system for MPs is independent and effective: but it can still be improved

The standards system for MPs is independent and effective: but it can still be improved

Former MP Owen Paterson (right) leaves No 10 Downing Street with Iain Duncan-Smith in 2019 [Photo credit: Alamy]

4 min read

At the heart of the Owen Paterson affair was a dispute over independence. Should MPs’ conduct as members of a sovereign legislature be judged only by other MPs as well as by their electorates, or should their actions be subject also to independent scrutiny?

Since the ‘cash for questions’ affair, the Commons has developed a standards process which has seen an incremental increase in the role of independence of decision-making on conduct matters, moving it away from the hands of MPs solely, thus addressing serious and legitimate concerns that “MPs mark their own homework.”

It is not perfect, and as a lay member of the Committee on Standards for the past 5 years I would be one of the first to admit this. However, an independent element features in all stages of the parliamentary standards process from the creation of an independent standards commissioner in 1995, to the introduction of first three lay members increasing to seven lay members, thus giving equivalence of representation, on the current 14-person Standards Committee, and conferring full voting rights on the lay members in 2019.

The committee has been conducting its own major review of the Code of Conduct and the standards system and has a draft report under consideration. As part of this inquiry the committee has devoted much thought to some of the issues now being discussed in the Commons, such as how to introduce rights of appeal for Members equivalent to those they have in bullying and harassment cases where the House has set up an Independent Expert Panel.

Mr Paterson had raised his concerns that there was a lack of opportunity to appeal the decision of the commissioner. There is already effectively a right to appeal against the commissioner’s findings to the committee.

Indeed, Mr Paterson had raised his concerns that there was a lack of opportunity to appeal the decision of the commissioner. There is already effectively a right to appeal against the commissioner’s findings to the committee. The committee is not involved at all in the commissioner’s investigation. The Member in the case had full rights to submit written and oral evidence and to challenge the commissioner’s findings. The committee reviews those findings and can disagree with them. It has recently done so, in a case involving the Prime Minister. As part of its review of the Code, the committee is considering whether this effective right of appeal against findings should be reconstituted as a formal appeal process, with specified grounds for appeal, etc.

Separately, the committee is considering options for 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. Introducing a legalistic additional process of appeal on sanction is more complex than it might first seem, which is why I suspect we will provide options for the House to consider before we come to final recommendations.

Following the resignation of Mr Paterson, the government remains keen to look at the fairness of the existing system and whether it needs to be overhauled. I myself am confident that the existing system is thorough and fair. The committee has received extensive advice from the House’s legal advisers to confirm this. Equally there is no doubt that the system could be improved. In his speech in the debate on 3 November, the committee chair gave a good brief response to the criticisms made of the committee’s process, and I would urge everyone to read that speech in Hansard or watch on Parliament TV.

For over 20 years, I have also been involved in governance, regulation, standards and conduct in a number of professional settings including the General Medical Council. What I have learned is that any standards and conduct process must not only have the confidence of those it seeks to oversee and importantly in the context of Parliament, from all political parties but perhaps even more importantly, must command the confidence of the public.

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. 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. In that respect, in any review, I would urge that any proposed revisions to the standards system should not diminish or curtail the independent element in the form of lay members which is at the heart of the present system.

 

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

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