Committee examines details of Parliamentary Standards Bill

08 July 2009

The House of Lords Constitution Committee have today published their second report this week on the Parliamentary Standards Bill. While the first report, published on Tuesday 7 July, focused on criticism of the haste with which the Bill was being rushed through Parliament, the Committee now turn their attentions to the possible constitutional implications of the provisions in the Bill

The report looks at the proposals for the creation of Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and expresses surprise that the Bill does not make provisions for the party political affiliation of its membership. The Committee accept that the proposed institutional and procedural arrangements for IPSA meet the needs for formal independence but suggest that perceptions of independence might be improved by imposing a party political restriction. The Committee recognise that the IPSA member who is an ex-MP will have an identifiable party political affiliation but are concerned that a selection process based on merit may produce a composition that is perceived to favour one or more of the political parties. The report suggests that the Government must now explain why the Bill contains no provisions on the party political affiliations of the Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigations and IPSA membership.

The Committee go on to consider the potential for Members to appeal against decisions made by IPSA and the Commissioner. They recommend that as a constitutional principle the decision making powers of public authorities should be subject to the possibility of appeal to a different body. They suggest that, as identified by the Joint Committee of Human Rights, unless there is an appropriate body to hear appeals there is a risk of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg taking on that role. The Committee conclude by stating their disappointment that the fast-tracking of the bill has meant they are not able to reach a final conclusion on an appropriate method of dealing with appeals and find it "deeply troubling that the bill is proceeding without the necessary policy work and consultation on appeals being done."

Finally the Committee considers the creation of new criminal offences relating to MP’s allowance claims, failing to declare a financial interest and paid advocacy. They state that they do not support the creation of new offences applicable to a very small number of people whose potential misconduct is already governed by offences in general criminal law. They also point out that while the maximum sentence under the Fraud Act (the legislation that would be used currently to prosecute unlawful expenses claims by MPs) is 10 years the proposed maximum sentence under the Parliamentary Standards Bill would be limited to 12 months.

The report also raises doubts over the possibility of prosecutions of MPs for paid advocacy. They point out that now the clause in the original draft bill allowing Parliamentary proceedings to be used in court has been removed, a change they support, it is questionable how a prosecution could be mounted for paid advocacy as the key piece of evidence, statements made in Parliament, would now be inadmissible. The Committee also suggest that under the current wording of the Bill it is unclear whether prosecutions of Members of Parliament could be mounted under Scottish Law.

Commenting Lord Goodlad, Chairman of the Lords Constitution Committee, said:

"We have now produced two reports on the Parliamentary Standards Bill. In our first we raised considerable concerns about the unseemly haste with which the Bill was being rushed through Parliament and now we return to the Bill to look at the details.

"While the Bill has been improved in its passage through the Commons we still have concerns about the proposals for IPSA. The Government do not seem to have considered the political make up of the Authority and we feel this may become an important issue if and when IPSA is established. We also have concerns about the lack of clarity over any appeals process for MPs found to be in breach of the new rules.

"We are not convinced of the case for creating new criminal offences applicable only to MPs. If MPs are suspected of fraud they should be prosecuted under current general fraud legislation which allow for considerably stiffer sentences than those proposed in the bill. We also need far more clarity about how prosecutions could be brought against Scottish MPs as it is important all Members are subject to the same rules."

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