Outsiders to help decide fitting punishment for errant MPs

Members of the public are to sit in judgement on cheating MPs under reforms designed to counter the claim that parliamentary wrongdoing is punished with little more than a slap on the wrist.

A toughened Standards Committee would be created, in which up to four "lay members" could sit on the cross-party body which carries out inquiries into MPs' conduct.

Most recently it recommended a week-long suspension from the Commons for David Laws, the Liberal Democrat who quit as Chief Secretary to the Treasury after revelations that he broke expenses rules by claiming for rent in his partner's property. While many were sympathetic to his explanation that he did not want to reveal his sexuality to officials following a rule change, others felt he had been treated too leniently in a case involving £56,000.

Kevin Barron, the Labour MP who chairs the current standards and privileges committee, said the system was "well open to the accusation that it is Members of Parliament looking after Members of Parliament".

Mr Barron was giving evidence to an inquiry by the Commons' procedure committee into allowing members of the public to rule on MP misconduct. He recommended splitting the issues of "standards" from those of "privilege", because only MPs are covered by parliamentary privilege and lay members could not rule on it.

The idea of lay members has been supported in the past by Sir George Young, the Leader of the Commons, and Chris Mullin, the former Labour minister who used to chair the committee.

During the inquiry, Tory MP James Gray warned members of the public would not understand the complex matters. "If you have Mr and Mrs Average Layman off the street, surely they will simply be bamboozled by the very clever MPs on the Committee."