It is, shall we say, difficult to credit John Bercow’s claim that he has been somehow stitched up by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The full report, which can be read online here, is damning.
Yet as we noted earlier this week, his claim that the disciplinary procedure is a ‘kangaroo court’ does echo the arguments put forward by Owen Paterson’s supporters back in November, when they decided to rig some explosives to the Government’s public standing with a fantastically ill-timed bid to change the rules on how MPs are investigated.
And whilst most involved will probably concede that the timing was abysmal – and may well have poisoned the well for any future reform effort – there are still MPs prepared (behind the scenes) to defend Andrea Leadsom’s amendment and what it was trying to do, and trying to find a way to bring forward reforms. Why?
Even her own attempt to justify the original move back in November (here is the video, here the Hansard) is dominated by other MPs asking variations on the theme of “why are you doing this now?”. But wade through that, and we get the following argument:
“…the question of whether our investigatory process should more closely reflect the laws of natural justice, where an accused Member can expect to have their own evidence taken into account, to put forward witnesses in their defence, to be interviewed early in the process and provide their own explanation and, vitally, to access an independent appeal process.”
According to those MPs still minded to support what Leadsom was trying to do, the root of the problem is that the way the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (as an institution, rather than Kathryn Stone as an individual) currently operates undermines the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), which Leadsom set up whilst Leader of the House and is meant to provide something like a proper HR complaints procedure.
Those advocating for the ICGS point out that, because it applies to everybody working on, or visiting, the parliamentary estate, it has the potential to create a uniform standard of accountability. The PCS, by contrast, applies only to MPs. Moreover, the ICGS employs specialist staff and logs more data about complaints, meaning it is better able to identify patterns of poor behaviour (or potentially malicious complaints), whereas the PCS is a lay individual with no legal background.
Some of the complaints raised by these MPs do seem legitimate. It seems strange, for example, that an MP wishing to appeal a PCS decision does so to the Committee on Standards, which as a select committee does not have compulsory attendance. This means that committee members could simply miss the evidence on which they’re supposed to judge an appeal. They also can’t have legal support.
Even stranger is the fact that once an appeal has been made, it falls to the PCS to advise the committee on how to assess the defence. From the outside, this looks a bit like having a prosecutor advise a jury (who may or may not have been actually present for important bits of the trial) on how to find the defendant.
However, MPs should be careful about pleading the case for reform on the grounds that the existing arrangements don’t mirror normal workplace procedures.
Yes, being forced to apologise to the House of Commons is not analogous to any corporate disciplinary procedure. But any system will have to reflect the unique role of MPs as elected representatives. They are not mere employees of the House, and their status necessarily means that they must have more leeway in certain areas than a normal employee might expect.
Such lassitude obviously doesn’t extend to bullying their staff. But any MP who refused unconscious bias training, or oppose the idea of having to sign up to a statement of principles, should be very careful about sabotaging their own claim to special status.
Nonetheless, one can at least see the case for a simultaneous review of the PCS and ICGS, not least to address concerns that they’re currently treading on each others’ toes. One MP put it that the former has started picking up the latter’s cases, serving to ‘gold-plate’ its punishments rather than policing a different class of behaviour. In theory, as originally envisioned the ICGS would have grown to cover normal HR matters – including sexual harassment and bullying – whilst the PCS covered behaviour specific to the role of MPs, such as lobbying and bringing Parliament into disrepute – although they concede that the ICGS has not grown into that role yet.
But given the abysmal handling of the issue last year, and the risk that any move now will just end up looking like a bid for vengeance, any such move will probably have to wait until at least the next Parliament. When you shoot yourself in the foot, proceeding at a crawl is sometimes the only option.