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I wish to start by commending two Members who cannot be with us today. My opposite number, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), cannot be with us because of illness. I spoke to him yesterday about the debate, and I hope that he recovers and is back with us as soon as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) was commended in one of the reports for his ability to divorce his two rolesas a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and as a parliamentary private secretary. He has reinforced that commendation by giving his apologies for not attending today's debatehe thought that it would be inappropriate for him to do so. I am pleased, as I know all members of the Committee are, that there was no implication whatsoever that his role was why the decision on dual function, which the Government support, was made. As a former Whip, I can testify to my hon. Friend's independence during the period in which he served on the Committee.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for explaining the Committee's views. As ever, he dealt with those matters with clarity and even-handedness. When preparing for this debate with the excellent support, as I have already said, of departmental officials, I discovered that the right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament for many more years than I have been out of school, so it is with humility that I attempt to uphold the standards of the House of Commons in the role that I have been given.
May I comment on the intended convention that an Opposition Member should chair the Committee? The convention already works in the Public Accounts Committee, and the proposals in the report will be strengthened by the commitment of Members on both sides of the House to even-handed membership of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, with members drawn from all the main parties.
Mr. Woolas: I think that everybody would endorse thatI certainly would. I referred to the experience of the current Chairman; the previous Chairman was a Member of Parliament before I was born and, as my neighbour in Oldham, often referred to me as "the young lad". As has already been said, the impartiality of Lord Sheldon's chairmanship was never questioned. Perhaps we should all hope that in future the political affiliation of the Chair will not matter, and that if the convention and the Committee work as we hope, we will not have to worry about that.
Everybody is aware of the need for impartiality and the need to be seen to be impartial. That is part of the Committee's remit. One of the strengths of the Committee and of the Wicks report was that they looked outwards from this place as much as inwards in order to achieve one of their main tasksto ensure public confidence in the proceedings of the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), who represents the Commission, for his comments. It is useful for all concerned that there is unanimity from that source as well. All hon. Members will be grateful for that.
The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) raised the matter of the tenure of the Commissioner. I make clear the Government's view that there should be no implied criticism of the previous Commissioner, whose devotion to public service is recognised. We have noted the comments that have been made. I emphasise that the restriction of the tenure to one term of office of five years, which is the term that the Commission recommended, ensures the perception of impartiality and overcomes the possible accusationnot that members of the press would imply such a thingthat favour might be curried in the House. That, of course, is not the case.
Like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I thank the shadow Leader of the House. We are attempting to move forward with consensus. We have not closed our minds to the argument for legislation, which the Wicks committee recommended, but we believe that it is not necessary. I put on record the fact that we have an open mind about that.
The Government believe that the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the Commission have recommended a sensible way forward and responded positively to the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I ask the House to support the motion and the motions that follow.
(1) Standing Order No. 149 (Committee on Standards and Privileges) be amended in line 39, after second 'time', by inserting ', to appoint legal advisers'; and
(2) Standing Order No. 150 (Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards) be amended as follows:
(a) line 33, at end add 'unless the provisions of paragraph (2A) apply.
(2A) No report shall be made by the Commissioner if, in any case where the Member concerned has agreed that he has failed to register or declare an interest, it is the Commissioner's opinion that the interest involved is minor, or the failure was inadvertent, and the Member concerned has taken such action by way of rectification as the Commissioner may have required within any procedure approved by the Committee for this purpose.
(2B) The Commissioner may at any time in the course of investigating a complaint, and if so requested by the Committee on Standards and Privileges shall, appoint an Investigatory Panel to assist him in establishing the facts relevant to the investigation.
(2C) An Investigatory Panel shall
(a) consist of the Commissioner, who shall be Chairman of the Panel, and two assessors, one of whom shall be a legally qualified person appointed by the Commissioner and the other shall be a Member, who shall not be a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, appointed by the Speaker; and
(b) meet in private.
(2D) The Commissioner
(a) shall determine the procedures of the Panel, subject to the provisions of this Order; and
(b) may appoint counsel for the purpose of assisting the Panel.
(2E) Any report that the Commissioner may have made to the Committee on Standards and Privileges in relation to the complaint before the appointment of the Panel shall be made available to the Panel by the Committee.
(2F) Any Member who is the subject of the complaint under investigation shall, if he so requests, be heard by the Panel; may call witnesses; and may examine other witnesses.
(2G) When the Panel has completed its proceedings
(a) the Commissioner shall report as in paragraph (2)(e);
(b) the legal assessor shall report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges his opinion as to the extent to which its proceedings have been consistent with the principles of natural justice; and
(c) the Member assessor may report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges his opinion as to the extent to which its proceedings have had regard to the customs and practice of the House and its Members.
(2H) The Commissioner shall report each year to the House on the exercise by him of his functions.'.
(b) line 34, leave out paragraph (3) and add
'(3) The Commissioner may be dismissed only following a resolution of the House, moved for by a Member of the House of Commons Commission, after the Committee on Standards and Privileges has reported to the House that it is satisfied that the Commissioner is unfit to hold his office or unable to carry out his functions; and any such report shall include a statement of the Committee's reasons for its conclusion.'[Mr. Woolas.]
(a) any future appointment to the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards shall be for a period of five years, and shall not be renewable; and
(b) notwithstanding the Resolution of the House of 13th February 2002, the appointment of the current Commissioner shall expire on 25th June 2008, and shall not be renewable.[Mr. Woolas.]
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): The subject of my debate may ensure that hon. Members will not want to stay for the whole of it, but I dedicate the debate to Sir Nicolas Bevan, who has been the Speaker's Secretary for 10 years. This is the last formal proceeding in the House before he leaves that position. I wanted to pay tribute to him and say that many hon. Members have valued greatly the service that he has given to the House. I know that he will be much missed.