Sir Ernest Ryder said the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should not be both investigator and decision-maker in rule breach allegations.
04 March 2022
Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone should have her decision-making powers stripped back and the Commons be banned from amending reports into MPs’ rule breaches, a review of the standards system has recommended.
The Commons Committee on Standards last year appointed Sir Ernest Ryder to conduct a review of the Parliamentary standards procedures.
Although a review of the code of conduct for MPs had been in the works since September 2020, there was added impetus in the wake of the sleaze scandal which engulfed former Tory MP Owen Paterson in November last year.
Former North Shropshire MP Mr Paterson was found to have broken lobbying rules by Ms Stone, who said he repeatedly lobbied on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.
Mr Paterson claimed the investigation was unfairly conducted and argued the manner in which it was carried out had played a “major role” in his wife Rose’s suicide.
When the Commons was asked to approve his recommended 30 sitting-day suspension, the Government launched a staunch defence and attempted to stave off his punishment through a Tory amendment calling for a review of his case and wider procedures.
Following a furious backlash, there was a U-turn within 24 hours and Mr Paterson resigned. But concerns remained that changes still needed to be made to the system.
Now, among a number of recommendations, senior judge Sir Ernest said MPs should no longer be able to debate or make amendments to standards reports when they come to the Commons for approval.
If it had been in place in November, the move would have prevented former Commons leader Dame Andrea Leadsom from putting forward the amendment, backed by the Prime Minister, which also called for a Conservative-majority committee led by former culture secretary John Whittingdale to examine the standards system.
At the time, Tory MPs came under a three-line whip to support the amendment, which was passed with 250 votes to 232, majority 18, and temporarily saved Mr Paterson.
But later many MPs said they regretted the move and Boris Johnson conceded it could have been better handled.
Sir Ernest’s report, released by the Committee on Standards on Friday, noted how Ms Stone’s role was currently to be “both the investigator and the decision-maker” on whether an MP had broken conduct rules.
But Sir Ernest said the two should be separated and that in future her “findings” should be considered as her opinion to be delivered to the Committee on Standards, with the committee making the first decision over whether there had been a breach.
“In my judgment, it is unhelpful to characterise the commissioner’s findings as a first-instance decision or to treat the committee’s decision as an appeal from the commissioner,” he said.
“The commissioner should not be both the investigator and a decision-maker.”
He also said the conduct process should have a right of appeal for MPs outside of the commissioner and committee, perhaps utilising the Independent Expert Panel which is currently only for appeals and sanctions into bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct complaints.
But he said this should only be to appeal against procedure and proportionality, not over a ruling of whether rules had been breached.
Currently, the route of appeal is through the Committee on Standards. In November, committee chairman Chris Bryant said: “It is wrong, however, to say, (…) that there is no appeal process now. There is. A Member can appeal the commissioner’s decision that there has been a breach of the rules. The Committee on Standards hears that appeal.”
However it is understood this is not considered a formal route of appeal.
Sir Ernest also recommended that Ms Stone not be present at any committee meeting where the MP under investigation was not in attendance.
He said that although Ms Stone would ever only be there to “facilitate her general advisory functions to the committee not to take part in the decision in relation to the individual case”, it would prevent the “inadvertent impression of irregularity or unfairness”.
Labour MP Mr Bryant 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.”
The committee will consult on the changes until March 28, before deciding on Sir Ernest’s proposals. The final proposed changes will then be voted on by MPs.