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The government’s utterly shameful attempt to undermine the standards process has damaged the reputation of the House

The government’s utterly shameful attempt to undermine the standards process has damaged the reputation of the House
3 min read

One of the consequences of the doctrine of parliamentary privilege, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights 1689, is that the Commons has to act as a self-regulator as to the standards of behaviour it requires from its MPs.

Sitting in judgment on a colleague you know, who is alleged to have breached these rules is never going to be easy and is fraught with risks of allegations of bias. It was to try to address this problem that the current system was devised, with a preliminary investigation by the Commissioner for Standards leading to her findings and recommendations being submitted to the Standards Committee and it then endorsing, altering or rejecting them, before passing its report on to the House of Commons itself for approval. Far from the system having no appeal process, as has been suggested, each stage provides an opportunity for further consideration of the issues.

To work however, the system requires there to be a willingness by government to support and not subvert it, because otherwise a government with a majority can do what it likes in ignoring House rules.

My 22 years of experience in the Commons and of serving on the Standards Committee was that successive governments properly supported the system, reinforcing the message that upholding the reputation of the House must matter much more than personal or party loyalties.

Last week however, the government turned these principles on their head. In what can only be described as an utterly shameful episode, it used a three-line whip to "force" its MPs to undermine both the Standards Committee and the Commissioner by neutralising its report on the conduct of an MP, on the pretext of deciding to conduct a fundamental review of the current disciplinary process.

There is a deeply unpleasant sense that the current government is utterly cavalier with issues of propriety and ethics

There may well be a case for looking again at the disciplinary system for MPs. It has been suggested that the Commissioner's inquisitorial findings might be reviewed by a High Court judge, if the defendant MP disagreed with the Commissioner's conclusions. While it may extend the already lengthy process to do this, if it is able to provide another layer of assurance for MPs that they will be treated fairly, it merits consideration.

But to link any review to a particular case was plainly wrong – all the more so, as a reading of this case shows the facts were effectively not in dispute at all. The House has banned paid lobbying by MPs and paid lobbying had taken place.

The matter is made worse by the fact that the Prime Minister was plainly the initiator of this move, when he is himself currently the potential subject of an inquiry by the Commissioner in respect of his declarations of interest. There is a deeply unpleasant sense that the current government is utterly cavalier with issues of propriety and ethics when it sees them as interfering with its immediate objectives.

As we have no written constitution, we are dependent, for the maintenance of trust in politics and politicians, on politicians observing the rules and conventions they have themselves created as an assurance. In this case, it has taken a public outcry and backlash from constituents to get the government – and a majority of MPs in the Commons – to behave properly. That cannot be good for the health of our parliamentary democracy.

The vast majority of MPs, of all parties, work extremely hard and are dedicated to public service. The evidence suggests that the public recognise this in their assessment of their individual representatives. But collective behaviour matters as well. The impression conveyed by this episode to the world outside Westminster is profoundly negative.

 

Dominic Grieve is a former Conservative MP and former Attorney General. 

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