t is clear, in retrospect, that it was a mistake to conflate the separate issues of the specific case with the general issues around the need to reform the current process. It was right for the Minister for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, to apologise to the House, on behalf of the Government. The whole issue has become so party-politicised that important considerations are in danger of being lost.
Let me deal firstly with the case of Owen Paterson and the general issues it raises. The amendment, tabled by the hugely respected former Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, represented an issue on which she has long campaigned. This, rather than any considerations around the specific case, is why I signed the amendment. It would not have changed the judgement on Owen Paterson but might have led to an appeal process which many, including myself, believe is missing from the current system.
On the specific case of Mr Paterson, it is clear he wanted to call no fewer than 17 witnesses to give evidence in support of his case, and he was not afforded the opportunity to do so.
As my colleague David Jones MP said in the Commons “I find it hard to see how the denial of a right to call witnesses and for those witnesses to be examined and cross-examined—a right that is taken for granted in civil and criminal proceedings in this country—can be compatible with natural justice. It is one thing to read written evidence, and it is another thing for that evidence to be tested in examination and cross-examination, and that was not allowed.”
It is entirely possible that this would have made no difference to the outcome of the Committee’s decision but it seems that natural justice would have been served.
On the more generic point, there is no provision for an independent appeals process under Standing Order No 150 of the House. I believe that provision should be made for a proper appeals procedure as there is under the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, where an appeal panel is chaired by a High Court judge.
This issue of legality was dealt with by the former Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, in the debate in the Commons.
In pointing out the complexity of the issue, he said: ”Although I accept as a matter of democratic principle that it is necessary for Members of Parliament to authorise a sanction involving suspension or expulsion from this House, it does not follow from that that it is either necessary or desirable for Members of Parliament to judge the merits of disciplinary proceedings against other Members of Parliament. If we needed a demonstration of how that can cause problems and undermine confidence in our rules, we surely had it last week. We must have reform, but reform must be undertaken with a clear head and in a balanced way.” I entirely agree with him.
While there is a strong case for a clear appeal procedure, it must be remembered that the Commissioner makes a recommendation, not a decision. The decision is made by the Committee on Standards, and it is that decision that would be subject to any appeal that we added to the current architecture.
Getting a genuinely independent mechanism for this would, I believe, avoid the potential situation where MPs were seen to be “marking their own homework” when it came to appealing a decision made by the Committee. It is a great pity that serious issues that need to be addressed were lost in the parliamentary shambles of recent days. I hope we all, including the government, will learn the appropriate lessons.