Debbie-Abrahams-WBD-102-scaled

Standards in Public Life (Codes of Conduct) | Commons debates

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a statutory code of conduct for Ministers of the Crown; for a statutory code of conduct for Members of the House of Commons and Members of the House of Lords; for a statutory code of conduct for councillors in England; and for connected purposes.

We are here today in the mother of Parliaments: a place that is steeped in our country’s history, from passing Acts of Union to overthrowing a tyrannical monarch; a place that Chartists and suffragettes fought for the right to be in; and a place that has approved our country’s most important human rights and equality legislation. However, many people across our great country and nation states feel that the MPs and Ministers who sit in the UK Parliament and make new laws on their behalf no longer represent them. People across the country feel that while they play by the rules, too often too many of us do not. They are engaged every five years or so in a general election, but rarely in between. While they struggle to make ends meet, public money is treated by some as a personal fiefdom to bestow on their chums and benefactors.

When people lose faith in democracy, they seek political extremes. Polling from the Institute for Government recently showed that two thirds of our constituents said that

“they do not think the current government behaves to high ethical standards”.

Likewise, polling from the UK Anti-Corruption Coalition found that two thirds of voters believe that UK politics is becoming more corrupt. Our democracy is fragile, and the reputation of those of us in this place as being in it for ourselves will, if not tackled, lay the groundwork for some of the country’s most abhorrent forces. That is what I seek to address in the Bill. While I am proud to be a Labour MP, the Bill is not party political. The reality is that when one party is seen as behaving in a way that lacks integrity, it affects not just that party but the reputation of politicians on both sides.

In the context of the cost of living crisis and the flailing economy, some might describe attempts at political reform as somehow ephemeral, but that misunderstands that our political and economic crises are two sides of the same coin. The failure to provide political stability has deterred the private sector investment that we need to supercharge economic growth. Taxpayers’ money is being wasted on scandals as wide-ranging as Carillion, Greensill and personal protective equipment procurement, precisely because the seven principles of public life, commonly referred to as the Nolan principles—selflessness, honesty, integrity, leadership, objectivity, accountability and openness—are not at the heart of public life.

My Bill sets out proposals to address the current gaps in achieving those principles by defining what is needed to promote, adopt and regulate the expected standards of behaviour of MPs, Ministers and councillors. First, my Bill would put the ministerial and Members’ codes of conduct on to a statutory footing, and introduce a national statutory code of conduct for local councillors. Secondly, it would establish a new commissioner for ministerial standards: a fully independent office protected by statute. Thirdly, to mirror that arrangement for MPs, it proposes that the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, which currently oversees the code of conduct for MPs, is established as an independent statutory office. Finally, it would establish a new ethics commission to review how our parliamentary system can develop to reflect the modern, inclusive, empowering democracy that we want to become in the 21st century and beyond.

I will take each measure in turn. My Bill proposes that the ministerial code, including the seven Nolan principles, be put on to the statute book. That would bring us in line with the code in Northern Ireland and add both greater credibility to, and awareness of, the code. This measure has received cross-party support. Even the former Chancellor George Osborne told the “Leading” podcast that

“it would be a great…agenda to put the ministerial code on a statutory footing”.

I wholeheartedly agree, and that is what my Bill would do. It is absolutely right that the Nolan principles, which are currently guiding principles, would also be codified. Right honourable and honourable and lay colleagues on the Committee on Standards have stated:

“Though the Independent Adviser has not, historically, launched investigations into breaches of process or constitutional principle, neither the code nor the Adviser’s terms of reference make this clear.”

My Bill would address that lack of clarity by empowering the new commissioner for ministerial standards to act independently from the Prime Minister and launch their own investigations into allegations of breaches of the code and/or the Nolan principles.

As an independent and statutory office, the office of the new commissioner for ministerial standards would also be protected from the vagaries or displeasures of Prime Ministers. We have very recently seen prominent examples of decisions not to ask the current adviser on ministerial standards to conduct investigations—decisions made by the Prime Minister on the whims of the day. The fact that in the last four years Parliament has seen two holders of the role resign indicates the tensions regarding those decisions. I know that this measure also enjoys deep and widespread support, including from the Institute for Government.

Furthermore, my Bill proposes that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should also become a statutory office and that, under its purview, in addition to Members being investigated for potential breaches of code of conduct rules, Members could be investigated for serious and serial breaches of the Nolan principles. Paragraph 17 of the Members’ code expressly prohibits the commissioner from investigating allegations solely about breaches of the seven principles of public life.

Reform of our politics also needs to extend to town halls across the country. We all know from our constituencies that the vast majority of councillors work tirelessly trying to make a difference in their communities, but unfortunately a minority use their positions for their own purposes and threaten our democracy as a result. My Bill would also apply to local councillors, who are often a member of the public’s first contact with an elected official. If we rightly want to empower councils and communities to do more, and because, as US Congress Speaker Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local”, we must strengthen codes of conduct in local government. My Bill proposes a standardised national councillor code of conduct, which includes the Nolan principles and is accompanied by a statutory accountability system.

Finally, I turn to how we address the issue that I raised at the beginning of my speech: the disengagement of people from the political process and the dangerous decline of our democracy. My Bill would set up an independent ethics commission of constitutional and legal experts to advise Parliament on system-wide reforms. The ethics commission would work alongside a citizens assembly to come up with recommendations to restore confidence and rebuild engagement in our political system, securing our democratic future. I urge Members on both sides to support my Bill, to strengthen our standards in public life and to restore the public’s trust in us as their elected representatives in Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Debbie Abrahams, Dr Dan Poulter, Layla Moran and Caroline Lucas present the Bill.

Debbie Abrahams accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 188).

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