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3.36 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): This has been an interesting, constructive and important debate.

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 roles—as 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 debate—he 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.

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Peter Bottomley: I hope that the convention will not be applied too rigorously so that if for some reason the Chairman cannot attend, a Government Member cannot chair the meeting.

Mr. Woolas: I think that everybody would endorse that—I 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 tasks—to 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 accusation—not that members of the press would imply such a thing—that 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.

Question put and agreed to.


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Quadratic Equations

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

3.43 pm

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.

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