The Commons standards system must be reformed to ensure confidence of Members – and the public
The Owen Paterson affair has created the opportunity to reform the Commons Standards system, but, unfortunately, in the most unpropitious of circumstances.
The government’s conflation of its unhappiness about Paterson’s individual case with a wider argument for change created widespread suspicion about its motives, and the parties do not even agree on the nature of reform needed, let alone what the possible solutions might be.
Despite these adverse circumstances, reforms must now be considered. The damage to the credibility of the current system done by the Paterson affair must be addressed – to ensure that the Commons has a disciplinary process that can command the confidence of Members and – more importantly – of the public. To achieve this, cross-party agreement must be reached.
The House of Commons is not a normal workplace
Even setting the politics aside, the task is not an easy one. The House of Commons is not a normal workplace. MPs are not employees, and yet the House must have a way of holding them to account for breaking its rules.
The government critique of the standards system seems to be that the process is too investigatory and insufficiently adversarial, and that MPs do not have sufficient opportunity to appeal. The current system (previously agreed by the House) provides for MPs to challenge the facts set out by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in her report to the Standards Committee, and to challenge her conclusions in front of the committee, but the government is pushing towards a more judicial model of determination and appeal.
A more judicial model would raise the question of what role MPs should play. Many believe MPs’ democratic mandate makes it inappropriate for non-elected people to determine their guilt and punishment, although this already happens in other areas such as expenses and bullying. Ultimately, everyone agrees that it should be for voters to decide whether to keep their MP – and until now a debate and vote in the House has been seen as a proxy for their involvement. But recent events demonstrate how, when MPs are asked to sit in judgment on their peers, partisanship and personal relationships can undermine the carefully constructed independence of the system.
One option under discussion is the idea of asking legally qualified peers sitting in the Lords to hear MPs’ appeals. This would increase the legal expertise within the process, but would risk complicating relations between the two Houses and – more importantly – do nothing to assuage public concern about parliamentarians sitting in judgment on each other.
An alternative answer, which would increase the independence of the process for determining sanctions and hearing appeals, already exists in the form of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP), established as part of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS). The IEP is made up of independent legal and HR qualified figures who sit in differently composed panels of three to decide what punishment to impose on MPs found guilty of bullying or harassment, and to hear any subsequent appeal – by the complainant or by the accused.
Adopting a parallel model for the MPs’ Code of Conduct would ensure that cases were decided by individuals with appropriate expertise, unaffected by partisan or personal considerations. As under the ICGS, a final vote for MPs on the panel’s conclusion, without a prior debate, would provide democratic sign off while minimising the prospect of political considerations coming into play at the final moment.
This solution would increase the independence of the Commons Standards system – and demonstrate that MPs really want a process which is seen to be beyond reproach, rather than one in which “egregious” rule-breaches can be set aside. It offers the tantalising prospect of helping to address the parlous state of public trust in Parliament. The question is whether MPs are serious enough about restoring the reputation of their institution to adopt it.
Dr Hannah White is the deputy director of the Institute for Government.
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