Last week was another bad week for politics, but this time the damage was self-inflicted by politicians. The response to the report into the conduct of Owen Paterson by Parliament’s Standards Committee was mishandled by the Government and ended up benefitting nobody, including Owen Paterson. It was clearly wrong to attempt to deal with an individual case at the same time as making proposals for reform of the system of sanctions on MPs for poor conduct, and the reputation of Parliament and politics has been set back yet again by this effort to do so. I did not vote for the amendment which would have had that effect, despite the 3 line whip to do so, but it is worth recognising the case for reform of the current systems for holding MPs to account for bad behaviour. The discussion of how elected representatives who misbehave can be properly punished without also punishing their constituents needs to be a serious one and conducted calmly, not in dramatic headlines or abusive tweets. It needs to recognise the strong benefit of an appeal structure for those accused of wrongdoing, in any walk of life, and the need for confidence in the process of considering evidence. The irony of course is that the proposers of the amendment in question have obscured the worthwhile points they seek to make on these things, and made them less likely to receive serious consideration, by tying them to an attempt to revise judgment in a particular case and by associating them with unfair and inappropriate attacks on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, on whose report the Standards Committee’s conclusions were based.
Reform is indeed needed in my view, but the reform I think we need is not to create a new Committee of MPs to judge their peers and to minimise the role of external assessors, but rather to minimise the role of any MPs in judging the behaviour of other MPs and to increase the participation of those outside the House of Commons in doing so. That was the lesson we learned, painfully, on expenses and the approach on standards of conduct will have to be similar. I can understand the argument for the decision to suspend or exclude MPs being ultimately a decision the House of Commons must take, but it is the opportunity to debate and amend the conclusions of disciplinary procedures MPs have previously approved that led to the Owen Paterson debacle. That is what should change. Whether legislators are acting in accordance with high standards and with appropriate motives matters of course not just for its own sake, but also because it affects the willingness of those we legislate for to accept the laws we make, which has seldom mattered more than when we are asking for compliance with laws restricting liberty in the interests of public health. Those are no longer, if they ever were, judgments for MPs alone to make.