Today’s narrow vote on whether Owen Paterson should be suspended from the House of Commons for an “egregious”[i] breach of the MP’s code of conduct shows why standards regulators need to be truly independent from the people they regulate. The amendment to the motion for Paterson’s suspension, which the government whipped its MPs to support, has instead set up a new committee to investigate the standards regime and the specifics of the case, due to report back in the new year.[ii] In the meantime, Paterson remains in post. This result throws into question the Commons’ systems for upholding expected standards of behaviour among its members.
The investigation into Paterson had been criticised by MPs, and the amendment drew wide support from across the Conservative Party. But the system the investigation followed was established in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, meaning it has been approved by the House itself. MPs cannot say that they have a robust system of standards if they criticise its workings when it delivers a judgement they do not agree with.
This is not the only time during this parliament that an independent judgement has been overruled. Sir Alex Allan, the prime minister’s former independent adviser on ministerial interests, resigned in November 2020 after Boris Johnson disagreed with his findings that home secretary, Priti Patel, had breached the ministerial code – Johnson instead extolling his party to “form a square around the Pritster.”[iii]
This week’s report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) argued for more independence for all standards regulators.[iv] The independent adviser on ministerial interests should be given a statutory basis and the power to start their own investigations into potential breaches of the ministerial code. Likewise, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) should be given a proper legal basis and powers to enforce its recommendations, rather than simply give advice to ministers and officials leaving government. Both are points the IfG has also previously argued for.
The clear message in the CSPL report is that the current system of standards regulation, based mainly on convention, an expectation of good behaviour, and regulation by appointees not independent experts, is not working. The decision by MPs to challenge the judgement of the parliamentary commissioner on standards and the Commons’ own committee on standards shows how great the need for change is: there must be greater distance between those being regulated and those setting and upholding the regulations.
The new committee will have three months to look both at the Paterson case and at the overarching system for upholding standards in the Commons. It may make suggestions for a new, truly independent system that greatly improves how those standards are upheld.
Or it may water down the independence that the system currently has. It is not clear whether opposition parties will participate in the new process. This, combined with the pressure put on the role and office of the standards commissioner during the debate, mean it is not easy to see how the new system will become more independent. The government has so far been reluctant to bolster the independence of the standards regulators it oversees. The House of Commons should take a different approach. Whatever the new committee recommends, it is clear that this issue is not going away.
We will be discussing the role and remits of various standards regulators at a one-day conference tomorrow, Thursday 4 November. Lord Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and Chris Bryant MP, chair of the Commons’ Committee on Standards, will be joining us to discuss how the standards that the public expect can be properly upheld.
[i] House of Commons Committee on Standards, Mr Owen Paterson Third Report of Session 2021–22, 26 October 2021
[ii] House of Commons Order Paper for 3 November
[iii] Proctor K, Boris Johnson Has Warned Ministers and Mandarins To "Respect" Each Other After The Priti Patel Bullying Row, politicshome.co.uk, 23 November 2020, https://www.politicshome.com/news/article/boris-civil-service-letter-priti-patel-bullying
[iv] CSPL, Upholding Standards in Public Life – Published Report, 1 November 2021