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I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this debate and very much welcome it. I, too, am a member of the Standards Committee. Usually, by precedent, we do not comment on the cases that we deal with: we put everything into our report and allow the report to speak for itself. However, last week left us in slightly unusual circumstances where we felt the need to try to clarify some things around our work, our processes and our motivations.
I have served on the Committee since February of last year. It is usually senior Members of the House who serve on the Committee, but I have had the great privilege of doing so. With respect to the Chairman of the Committee, it is, in many ways, a horrible Committee to sit on, because there is a huge amount of work to do and very little link back to the constituency, and we sit judgment on colleagues, some of whom we have tremendous respect for. I joined the Committee at a time when there was great change within the processes around the ICGS and the new things that we were creating, but also
questions around the rules that we were upholding, oversight of the commissioner, and the processes that we were trying to apply as a Committee. Yet I joined up willingly, because perhaps the greatest threat to our democracy is when people outside this building point to us all and say, “They are all the same—they are all on the take.” It is true that anyone in this House can make a mistake, but the vast majority of colleagues in all parts of the House are desperate to stay within the rules and are well-intentioned. But for those who do break the rules, the punishment must be fitting. I had no problem voting for the report that was discussed last week; I would do the same again today.
I have only three points that I wish to place on the record. The first is around process. Many hon. and right hon. Members have said that the process of standards cases needs improving. I agree. I think every member of the Standards Committee would say they agreed. They would probably disagree over which parts of the process should be improved, but nevertheless there is a commitment among all members of the Committee to try to improve the process and ensure that it is as good as possible. The process under which we currently operate was agreed before I became a Member of this House. The Committee had been set the homework of trying to uphold the existing process and make a success of it. If the assignment is now to come up with a different and improved process, I am sure we will undertake that as happily as possible. I do, however, caution that I think that Mr Paterson would have been found to have broken the rules under any process that we create, and we should not kid ourselves on that front. I appreciate that he has many friends in this House, and the tragic events that have impacted him and his family deserve all our sympathy, but this is a separate point to his conduct. Equally, I caution some colleagues on their desire to rush towards a pseudo-legal adversarial process to replace the current system: be careful what you wish for. I think that path will lead to more antagonistic cases and, as the Chairman of the Committee set out, a greater role for external counsel, which I fear will create inequality among Members in terms of those who have particular private wealth, and potentially create a significant loss of parliamentary privilege.
Secondly, it has been suggested by some senior colleagues on the Conservative Back Benches that as I have only been here for two years, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), I, and we, do not know how this place really works. I say with the greatest of respect to those colleagues that I think that two years here is more than enough to know the difference between right and wrong. Many senior colleagues have made comments and suggestions regarding the Committee’s work. If any of those colleagues wish to replace me on the Committee tomorrow, I will happily stand down.
Thirdly, I wish to strongly defend the lay members of the Standards Committee. I know that very few Members have interacted with them or had the experience of sitting on a Committee with lay members. Those I have served with on the Standards Committee are conscientious, hard-working and fair. I have learnt a tremendous amount from them, and I hope that they would say the same in return.
I have been a Member of the House for 20 years, and the maturity and the balance of the speech that the hon. Gentleman is giving makes we want to intervene on him to thank him for serving as a member of the Committee, because I can certainly say that it is something that I have never been willing to do. I thank him, the Chair and other members of the Committee for the service that they give to this House.
I welcome that, but we do need to push on.
If ever an intervention killed a career, Mr Speaker!
It is the untold story of last week’s situation that absolutely none of the points raised by Mr Paterson and his various supporters were not discussed by the Committee at length. The report that was produced contained many of the responses and corrections. Everyone is entitled to disagree with what the Committee decided, but it is desperately unfair to suggest that it did anything other than forensically examine all the evidence presented to it and reach the appropriate decision. The Committee so often has diverse starting points, but we work incredibly hard to reach a consensus, which I think is the very definition of fairness for Members whose cases appear in front of us. If we change the process to remove the lay members, our standards system will be all the poorer for their loss.
It was only a matter of weeks ago that this House was united in grief for the loss of a great colleague. That was us at our very best. Today’s debate, with the mistakes that have been made, the opportunism of some Opposition Members—I hate to point it out—and the rush to create a new system without full consideration is us at our very worst. I am a proud member of the 2019 intake that came to this House determined to deliver a better politics for my constituents. I want a free and fair standards process that allows me to look my constituents in the eye and say, “No, we are not all the same.” Improvements can be made, but rushing things through risks creating a bigger mess. Let cooler heads prevail. Our duties as Members of this House are wide ranging. We represent our constituents, we create laws, we hold the Government to account, and we work to further many issues, but we are also role models held to high standards. When we fall short of those standards, as any Member can do, we should remember our duties to this House, to our colleagues and to our democratic system.