Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Sir Edward LeighMain Page: Sir Edward Leigh (Conservative) - Gainsborough)
Department Debates - View all Sir Edward Leigh's debates with the Leader of the House
The question of parliamentary privilege applying to the ICGS is one that will have to be determined by a court, and it is not entirely clear whether they would be covered by the article 9 rights. The reason we have to have a final vote in this House is that there is no court outside Parliament that can question the proceedings in Parliament. That is at the heart of the constitutional dilemma that we have been facing. It is also why we are making this fundamental break with the past.
In allowing an independent body to take such action we are making a really important constitutional change. We are doing this—and we are right to do this—because of the way that some Members have behaved, and we have to stop that happening in the future. As Leader of the House, I am ashamed when people come to see me and tell me what they have suffered; I am appalled at the stories they tell me and shocked sometimes that they have not been to the police about them when they are so awful. That is why we have to have this change, which hits at the heart of our constitution. The House knows that I have an admiration and affection for our constitution that does not seek to change it lightly.
Let me come to the panel and the level of member that we expect. The panel’s members must bring significant expertise to the process, and we will expect it to be led by somebody who has a standing equivalent to that of a High Court judge. It must also include knowledge of human resources, employment law, bullying and harassment cases and sexual harassment cases. In a serious case, three of the independent experts would consider the sanction in the light of the report and recommendation of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. A further three would act as an appeal panel if necessary.
In cases considered by the panel that propose sanctions requiring action by the House, the panel would report directly to the House. At that stage, a motion would be moved by a member of the House of Commons Commission to implement the sanction, and it is at this stage where we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, it is constitutionally proper that a decision of this magnitude—the expulsion or suspension of a Member—can only be taken by the House as a whole. It is removing, in effect, albeit temporarily, the democratic representation of tens of thousands of people, and we can only take away that democratic representation by a motion of this House. It does not seem right that a decision that could overturn the result of an election in a constituency could be taken by unelected individuals.
My right hon. Friend makes a crucial point: we are elected by the people, and we are answerable to them. That is why I support the principle that only the House of Commons holds the authority to make the decision to suspend or expel.
Break in Debate
I support the motions tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I have also added my name to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is Chair of the Committee on Standards, on which I serve. The amendment would mean that the House would ratify the decisions of the ICGS independent expert panel without debate.
Evidence of the mistreatment of the staff of this House, of right hon. and hon. Members’ staff and even of Members of the House themselves was for far too long managed out of public view to avoid proper scrutiny, meaning that those responsible were never held to account. That is why the ICGS must be as it describes itself: independent. Unless we understand how we MPs have forfeited the trust of victims, we will fail to learn the lessons of our past and fail to honour our obligation to put matters right.
To expel or even just suspend an MP voted in by their electors is a serious matter. It is perfectly sensible for my right hon. Friend to test the opinion of the House on whether the House should debate a decision by the IEP, but the delegation of such decisions has no bearing on our sovereignty, whether we debate the matter or not. By voting for the amendment we will not only demonstrate our commitment to the ICGS. By deliberating and then deciding on these matters, we make sure that there can be no legitimate complaint about there being no debate when at some future date we are asked to approve the IEP decisions.
I do, however, wish to put down a caveat. If the wrong kind of panel is appointed, this delegation of a very serious constitutional responsibility to unelected people will not last. The IEP must inspire the trust and confidence of the House as well as of staff and the public. The legitimacy of such decisions taken by such a panel will be the issue. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, it needs to be chaired by the equivalent of a High Court judge.
I would say that it should be a retired senior judge who chairs this panel, supported by relevant people of similar standing with juridical experience of the assessing and weighing of evidence and of interpreting the meaning of rules. The IEP should itself be sufficiently judicial in character to provide the same assurance as a proper court. Its decisions need to be as unimpeachable as the High Court would be. If this works well, there is much that the Standards Committee might learn from the ICGS about how to improve the House of Commons code of conduct, which we still have under review.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House talked about changing the culture. That is something that the House of Commons code has never really succeeded in doing. What do we mean by culture? We mean changing people’s attitudes and changing their behaviour, and that is a very personal and difficult thing to discuss. It is about not just talking about that, but approving of the good behaviours and the good attitudes and calling out the bad long before people have actually broken rules. I suggest that promoted alongside that is a positive conversation as well as a holding to account. It is not just about the enforcement of rules. Our challenge on the Standards Committee is to reform the House of Commons code so that it begins also to promote a positive change in attitudes and behaviour.