Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
Senior judge’s review of fairness in parliamentary standards system published
The Committee on Standards publishes Sir Ernest Ryder’s review of fairness and natural justice within the House of Commons standards system. Sir Ernest is a former Senior President of Tribunals and Lord Justice of Appeal. He will give evidence to the Committee on Tuesday 8 March.
The Committee commissioned Sir Ernest to carry out this review following the publication of their November 2021 report making proposals for a revised Code of Conduct.
In his wide-ranging review, Sir Ernest discusses issues of fairness and natural justice in the context of parliamentary privilege, the relationship between Parliament and the courts, and human rights legislation. In an annex, he provides responses to specific questions posed by the Committee. Sir Ernest has focussed particularly on the handling of complaints of breaches of the MPs’ Code of Conduct which are within the remit of the Committee (rather than complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct which are dealt with under the House’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme).
Sir Ernest’s conclusions and recommendations include the following:
- Trust, respect and confidence in Parliament requires leadership around the standards of conduct of Members of Parliament which the public are entitled to expect the House to deliver.
- The existence of a Code of Conduct for MPs which has the authority of the House and which describes the general principles of conduct separately from the details of the Rules which are to be observed is a model of good practice that should be preserved and built upon.
- The existence of lay members on the Standards Committee with an equal number of parliamentarians reflects both the public’s interest in the regulation of standards and the imperative that the governance of standards should be by Members of the House. The balance of the Committee should not be altered Sir Ernest adds, “[t]here is nothing in the way that it works in practice that causes me to believe that there is a problem which needs to be solved”.
- The House should approve a Code of Procedure for the conduct of standards cases which would enhance fairness by improving understanding, perception, clarity and consistency. Existing good practice should be brought together into one document which has the same status as the Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules.
- Minor amendments to the House’s standing orders are desirable to ensure they reflect existing good practice.
- There should be regular opportunity for the House to debate the Code of Conduct and the new Code of Procedure, perhaps as an annual fixture.
- The exclusion of MPs from the standards process would damage the constitutional basis for the standards jurisdiction and would raise at least as many problems as it might solve.
- The encroachment of the courts into the jurisdiction of standards of conduct in Parliament will not solve any of the issues which have been identified and is to be avoided.
- The present inquisitorial procedure for standards inquiries is fair and compliant with Article 6 ECHR (the right to a fair trial). Sir Ernest agrees with the Committee’s conclusion that it does not propose to move from an inquisitorial procedure to an adversarial one. The standards jurisdiction of the House is quite different from criminal or civil proceedings in a court and is a unique jurisdiction in Parliament that has no comparators.
- The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should investigate cases but not be the first decision-maker; instead of “findings” she should submit “opinions” to the Standards Committee which would be the first decision-maker.
- It is an erroneous misapprehension that the Commissioner currently takes part in the deliberations of the Committee. She does not. Her presence has been to facilitate her general advisory functions to the Committee, not to take part in decisions on an individual case. Nonetheless, to avoid even the perception of partiality, the Commissioner should henceforward not be present during the Committee’s deliberations on an individual case.
- When a member of the Committee is unable to attend a meeting of the Committee about an individual inquiry, they should take no further part in the Committee’s process in that inquiry.
- There should be a right of appeal, subject to specified grounds of appeal, from the Committee to the Independent Expert Panel or a similar independent body with legal expertise. There should be a time limit for appeals.
- Recommendations for serious sanction (suspension or expulsion of a Member) which come before the House should be decided upon without debate or amendment.
- The existing investigatory panel procedure has not been used, should be regarded as redundant and should be removed from the standing orders.
- None of these recommendations for the future should be retrospectively applied to cases that are concluded. Each of the elements of good practice described in the review can be found in the practices adopted by the Commissioner and the Committee. What is needed is for that good practice to be clearly set out and explained.
Sir Ernest Ryder will be giving public evidence to the Committee to discuss his report on Tuesday 8 March. This evidence session can be watched live on Parliament TV.
In response to the review, the Committee on Standards have published a short report that launches a consultation period, inviting comments from within Parliament, members of the public and external organisations. This consultation period will close on Monday 28th March 2021.
The Committee will take into account consultation responses in making decisions on Sir Ernest's proposals. They will then put a package of proposals to the House for changes to the House’s standards system, which take into account Sir Ernest’s review and feedback on it, as well as proposals arising from the November 2021 report on the Code of Conduct and the consultation which followed that.
Chris Bryant MP, Chair of the Committee on Standards, recently said:
“I welcome Sir Ernest Ryder’s thorough review into the Standards system and thank him for the work he has done.
“The Committee remains committed to reviewing and further improving our processes, and I am now looking forward to the consultation process on his proposals and being able to put a package of reforms to the House in order to change our Standards system for the better.”
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