Senior judge recommends scaling back of Commons standards tsar’s dual role

Sir Ernest Ryder said the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should not be both investigator and decision-maker in rule breach allegations.

Geraldine Scott
Friday 04 March 2022 09:00
The Commons Committee on Standards last year appointed Sir Ernest Ryder to conduct a review of the Parliamentary standards procedures (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
The Commons Committee on Standards last year appointed Sir Ernest Ryder to conduct a review of the Parliamentary standards procedures (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

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.

Owen Paterson resigned as the MP for North Shropshire (Victoria Jones/PA)

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.

Labour MP Chris Bryant arrives at the Houses of Parliament in London (Jacob King/PA)

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in