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Schisms and reform in parliamentary standards

Posted on 9 November 2021

On Thursday 4 November, the Leader of the House of Commons stood and gave a statement: “Last night’s vote created a certain amount of controversy...”

We predicted in an article in May this year that there would be a hardening of politics' regulatory regime. We did not, however, predict how electrified the debate would become or how reform would be attempted.

In summary:

  • On Monday 1 November, the Independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (the “Independent Committee”) released a report calling for significant changes to political regulation.
  • On Wednesday 3 November, Parliament voted on whether to endorse a recommended 30-day suspension for former Cabinet Minister, Owen Paterson MP. Such votes are normally routine. However, extraordinarily, the Government threw its weight behind putting Paterson's suspension on hold while it reworked the regulatory regime.
  • The week ended with the Government back-pedalling and dropping its support for Paterson and consequently Paterson resigning as a Member of Parliament ("MP").
  • There were also significant developments in the cases of two disgraced MPs and the Electoral Commission provided its preliminary findings to the Conservative Party about the renovations made to No.10 Downing Street.

Independent Committee Demands Change

The Independent Committee is one of the key organisations regulating politics in the UK. It is made up of five independent members, appointed by the Prime Minister, and a member from the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.

For the past year, the Independent Committee has been carrying out a wide-ranging review of "the institutions, process and structures in place to support high standards of conduct."  Its report was released on Monday 1 November. In summary, it concluded that:

  • The governance of how Ministers comply with the rules is "below the bar" for effective regulation. It should no longer be for the Prime Minister to pick who investigates Ministers' conduct and to choose when investigations can occur and be published.
  • Lobbying rules should be reformed, for instance by increasing the current ban on officials and Ministers lobbying after leaving their post from two years to five.
  • The public appointments process must be made more independent.

These recommendations are extremely important and provide a clear path towards professionalising political regulation.  

The issue with Owen Paterson

Two further regulators, responsible for MPs' conduct, also had moments in the spotlight last week: the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, a role held by Kathryn Stone and the Commons Select Committee on Standards (the "Parliamentary Committee"). The latter has 14 members, who are a mixture lay members and MPs from different political parties.

Having investigated Paterson for multiple instances of Ministerial misconduct, Ms Stone sent a Memorandum – listing her findings of fact regarding serious breaches – to the Parliamentary Committee. The Parliamentary Committee was required to reach its own conclusion as to whether Paterson had breached the Ministerial rules and, if so, to recommend a sanction. The Parliamentary Committee found that Paterson had committed an "egregious case of paid advocacy...No previous case…has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests."

Paterson contended that the process and outcome were not compliant with "natural justice" as in his view (which is contested) the system does not allow appeals and he had been denied the opportunity to produce witness testimony.

The Government threw its weight behind putting consideration of Paterson's suspension on hold, pending an immediate rewriting of the rules and whipped the vote on the issue.

Although the Government won the vote, it was very close and 24 hours later, after seismic blow-back and significant criticism, the Government was forced to call for a second vote on the issue, at which they would not attempt to whip their MPs. Without Government support, Paterson resigned as an MP rather than face suspension and a possible by-election.

Wider Developments

Wider issues with the rules governing Ministerial conduct were also thrown into relief last week.

On Thursday 4 November, Claudia Webb MP was given a suspended prison sentence of 10 weeks for harassment.  Webb will remain an MP pending the outcome of any criminal appeal. Should her appeal fail, she will face a Recall Petition, which her constituents can use to force a by-election. Only if Webb loses that by-election will she lose her seat in the House of Commons. As any possible by-election is unlikely to occur for many months, she will at least retain her seat until deep into next year.  

Rob Roberts MP, who was suspended by Parliament in May this year after being found to have sexually harassed a staff member, was readmitted to the Conservative Party after a 12-week suspension last week. His case revealed a loophole that means that if you are suspended from Parliament for bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct a Recall Petition and potential by-election are not triggered. Attempts to remove this loophole recently failed, after a majority of Parliamentarians felt it would be inappropriate to apply the closing of the loophole to Roberts retrospectively.

What next?

The clearest avenue for reform is to commit to introducing the Independent Committee's recommendations on wider political regulation and to timetable a further attempt to remove the loophole that Roberts benefited from.

However, these changes may be unlikely to happen soon for two reasons:

  • The Paterson dispute has polarised and politicised proposals to change political regulation, which could reduce the chance of vital cross-party cooperation. Any goodwill the Government had on this topic across the House has been significantly eroded.
  • The Government appears somewhat uninterested in strengthening regulation (perhaps given its own ongoing issues such as the Electoral Commission's investigation into the refurbishment of the No.10 flat and the Commissioner's investigations into two Government Ministers).

Most agree that a strengthening of political regulation would be a positive step in helping to rebuild public confidence in Government and elected representatives.  However, it remains to be seen what appetite the Government has for reform after recent events and what ability it will have to persuade the House of Commons to engage in good faith with any proposals it makes.

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