Committee on Standards

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 2:18 pm ar 16 Tachwedd 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges 2:18, 16 Tachwedd 2021

It is three weeks since the Standards Committee produced our report on the conduct of Owen Paterson. It detailed a catalogue of bad behaviour. The evidence was stark and compelling. He repeatedly engaged in paid lobbying. He peddled influence for his paying clients. He repeatedly used his parliamentary office to run a commercial enterprise. Every single MP I have spoken to who has read the report tells me he was guilty, yet here we are. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.

I confess I am still mystified why the Prime Minister decided to move heaven and earth to prevent Owen Paterson from being sanctioned. Today’s motion, however, is in precisely the words that I gave the Leader of the House last Monday, as I think he will confirm, and it is necessary, I am afraid, for two reasons. First, the motion carried on Wednesday 3 November set up an alternative standards Committee, to be chaired by Mr Whittingdale. I am told that the Prime Minister told Conservative Members at the time that this had been “squared off” with the Opposition. That was not true. Since not even the right hon. Member for Maldon wants to sit on the Committee, we probably ought to get rid of it.

Secondly, the motion of 3 November parked the question of whether Mr Paterson was guilty, which suggests that the House is uncertain what it thinks about paid lobbying. I hope that that is not the case, and I hope, if we have a unanimous decision this afternoon without a Division, that will prove to be the case. In effect, without this motion, both the Committee and the report are in limbo. I am not an expert on the theology of the Catholic Church, but I understand that the Catholic Church now believes that limbo does not exist, so we really ought to put these two issues beyond doubt.

I wish this could have been otherwise. Mr Paterson and his family must have been through hell over the past year since Rose Paterson took her own life. It is a matter of deep regret to me that the parliamentary shenanigans of the past three weeks can only have added to that misery. This House has done Mr Paterson and his family no favours. We should be ashamed of what has happened here.

Sadly, Mr Paterson’s was not the only catalogue of bad behaviour. As countless Conservative MPs have said to me—incidentally, I praise a lot of the new Conservative MPs, who have shown far greater insight over the past three weeks than some of their more long-standing colleagues—the way the Government and the Prime Minister have handled this matter has been shameful and has brought the House into disrepute. It was just wrong to delay the original motion, wrong to change the rules at the last minute of a disciplinary process for a named individual, wrong to whip Members on a standards report, wrong to call for the commissioner to resign, wrong to refuse to table this motion last week, wrong to try to get away with just taking this motion last night without debate—just plain wrong, wrong, wrong, and the Government know it.

I will respond to one point from Sir Christopher Chope. The real aggravating point was not anything he has mentioned, but the fact that Mr Paterson endlessly and repeatedly said he would do the same again tomorrow. That was bound to keep on bringing the House into further disrepute, and of course we had to bear that in mind as an aggravating factor.

I hope it will be helpful if I say a few words about appeals. We on the Committee have been grappling with this for some time, and I expect we will be able to say more when we report formally to the House before Christmas. We are in the process of appointing a senior judicial figure to help us to think through all these issues, as I told the House last week.

It is wrong, however, to say, as several hon. Members have, that there is no appeal process now. There is. A Member can appeal the commissioner’s decision that there has been a breach of the rules. The Committee on Standards hears that appeal, with seven independent lay members and seven Members of this House. Unlike most appeal bodies, we are remarkably generous. We do not specify grounds for appeal; we effectively allow not just an appeal, but a general rehashing of all the arguments. We can also hear an appeal in writing and in person, unlike most courts, and often a Member chooses to do both, as Mr Paterson did. We honestly give every single Member a fair hearing. We do not always agree with the commissioner.

There are, however, some blurred lines here. We could tighten up the grounds for appeal, but I warn colleagues that that might not go down too well. We could constitute ourselves as two panels, as the independent expert panel does: one to hear the original decision and determine a sanction, another to hear an appeal. We could engage an outside figure to hear that final appeal, or we could ask the independent expert panel to do that. But that is not as simple as some might suggest. The corollary might be that the House would then have to take the sanction motion without debate or amendment, as it is required to do in sexual harassment cases.

I am, however, extremely reluctant to move from an inquisitorial system to an adversarial one, and I urge the House to oppose that. That would require everyone to be legally represented, which would benefit wealthy MPs over poorer MPs—unless legal aid is provided for MPs, when it is not now available in many other places. It would dramatically increase the cost of the proceedings and significantly extend the process. It would be disproportionate. It would not be any fairer to the Member or the complainant.

Some final points: The Daily Telegraph today reported a Government source as dismissing the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the adviser on the Ministerial Code as “bureaucrats” who should be ignored. I am glad that the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng has apologised for calling for the commissioner to resign, though I suspect he was not freelancing at the time, but leadership in this field means backing the independent system, not seeking to undermine it.

As sure as eggs is eggs, there will be more cases before the commissioner and the Committee in the next few months, and I hope nobody will seek to undermine either of them. I pay tribute to both Kathryn Stone, the commissioner, and all of her team, who have worked tirelessly over these few weeks, despite some extreme bullying. That same source in The Daily Telegraph also said:

“Backroom talks between the parties over an MP appeals process have already begun”.

That is, I am afraid, completely untrue. There have been no approaches to the Opposition parties, to me as Chair of the Committee on Standards or to the Committee itself. It is untrue, and I hope that briefing will stop.

I hear talk of all sorts of proposals for how we should change the system, and I urge hon. Members to calm down a little. The past three weeks have been shameful for this House. We need a return to due process. The Committee will produce a report very soon, certainly before Christmas and hopefully even before Advent. All we have to do at Advent is wait a little.

Question put and agreed to.


That, notwithstanding the practice of this House relating to questions already decided in the same Session, this House:

(1) rescinds the resolution and order of 3 November 2021 relating to the Third Report of the Committee on Standards (HC 797) and the appointment of a new select committee;

(2) approves the Third Report of the Committee on Standards (HC 797);

(3) notes that Mr Owen Paterson is no longer a Member of this House.