Given how many recent external appointments the Government has made involving high profile members of their Conservative Party, we might imagine that they are in favour of involving people from political backgrounds. However on Tuesday there was this debate regarding an appointment of a Lay Member for of the Committee on Standards. The debate started off with this statement from Jacob Rees-Mogg who was clearly taking a different approach to the way in which Boris Johnson and Matthew Hancock have chosen to deal with such opportunities:
I beg to move, That, in accordance with Standing Order No. 149A, Professor Michael Maguire CBE be appointed as lay member of the Committee on Standards for a period of six years, with immediate effect. The motion today gives the House the opportunity to approve the appointment of Professor Michael Maguire CBE as a lay member of the Committee on Standards for a period of six years.
Apparently the straight forward appointment of Michael Maguire is very unusual as there should be two people put forward for the final decision to be made although one can assume that the Government will ultimately make the decision so it seems a bit strange that they would want to restrict the process. However a few moments later Jacob Rees-Mogg made the following comment:
The House will have realised that only one of the two candidates put forward by the House of Commons Commission is named in the motion today. As I have previously said, this has no bearing on the character of the other candidate. Instead, it reflects the fact that there is disquiet in certain quarters, as well as wider concerns over the recruitment process, and in particular the criteria relating to impartiality that were applied.
This of course sounds very concerning although in the House of Commons there are 650 MPs and while it is conceivable that some groups will be opposed to almost anyone being appointed, to claim that quarters of the MPs seems very unlikely. Almost immediately another Conservative MP, Bernard Jenkins who is also the Chair of the Liaison Committee said:
I very much regret it, but I do not think I can support my right hon. Friend on this particular matter, because I do not believe that being a member of a political party makes someone incapable of being impartial. Indeed, all the members of the Standards Committee who are Members of this House are members of political parties and we strive to be impartial, but my right hon. Friend has just indicated that we are not capable of doing that. Will he explain what he thinks was wrong with the appointment process that arrived at these two names? If there was no unauthorised departure from the appointment process—this is a question not of rubber-stamping but of making sure that a proper appointment process has been followed, and that seems to be the case—for us just to say, “We don’t like the look of this particular person so we are not going to approve them” does not seem to me to be a respectable way to conduct the business of this House.
Soon after that there was an explanation from Rees-Mogg regarding the political involvement of the person concerned.
Lay members should be genuinely independent and that did not seem to be the case, so questions were raised. It was at that point that it emerged that Ms Carter had joined the Labour party this year to vote in the Labour party leadership election.
One of the next people to speak was the Labour equivalent of Jacob Rees-Mogg who is Valerie Vaz and indeed she was making a proposed amendment to the decision that Rees-Mogg had made. However at the outset she decided to explain to all people listening what the process was:
Let me take hon. and right hon. Members through the process, because it is important for the House to know that there were 331 applicants. There was a sift and 10 applicants were interviewed. Those 10 applicants were actually whittled down through questions and an interview. That was all done by other impartial people, away from politics.
The applicants then went before an experienced panel that included Jane McCall, who is an external member of the House of Commons Commission. There was also my hon. Friend Kate Green, who chaired the Committee on Standards at the time. She had resigned because she had been given a new post, but we agreed that she would stay on even though my hon. Friend Chris Bryant was the new Chair of the Committee. The other members of the panel were Mark Hutton, the former Clerk of the Journals, and Dr Arun Midha, who is a lay member of the Committee on Standards. The top two applicants were chosen: Melanie Carter and Professor Michael Maguire—in that order. I thank the panel all for their hard work, because sifting through all those experienced applicants is not an easy task. We should be pleased that all those people applied for the post.
Another comment came from Chris Bryant to add an important element to the basis of the process which Melanie Carter will have been involved in. He stated that the rules do not require a non political membership!
The criteria that were sent out to all the candidates said that having been a party member need not be a bar and that, indeed, it may be an asset because they might understand politics better than some others. So we really are moving the goalposts, nine months after those people were invited to apply. I think that that shows us in a terrible light.
So in trying to understand who Melanie Carter was it was useful to have the following statement which came from Valerie Vaz
If Members are asking about impartiality, let me just set out exactly what Melanie Carter is. Her current role is senior partner and head of the public and regulatory law department at Bates Wells solicitors. She is an independent adjudicator for the Marine Stewardship Council. She is a tribunal judge. She is a founder member of the Public Law Solicitors Association. She has previously worked as a partner at DMH Stallard and a solicitor with Bindmans, as director of standards and deputy registrar with the General Optical Council, and with Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw solicitors. She also worked for the Government Legal Service. Her previous public appointments were as an independent member of Brighton and Hove Council standards committee, as the legal chair of the Adjudication Panel for England and as a magistrate on the south-west Bench in London.
Melanie Carter qualified as a barrister and a solicitor. As solicitors, we owe a duty to the court first. We have to uphold the truth and the rule of law. She does all that, and she does it independently. That is why the panel recommended her. Let me tell hon. Members exactly what the report says, through the Commission:
“The two candidates represent a combination of experience and qualities which should reinforce public confidence in the independent element in the House’s disciplinary processes.”
Now of course there does appear to be support for Melanie from several Labour MPs whilst the people opposed to her involvement seem to come from the Conservative Party. If they are opposed to appointing a political party member for this role, one would assume that they should be opposed to political appointments for roles such as the Chair of the Charitable Commission and the BBC along with a number of COVID product roles. Anyway to provide a local statement the only Sussex MP who got involved in the debate was Huw Merriman who said:
I cast no aspersions at all on the individual. She is clearly a very well qualified individual in her field. However, I take the point about the rules but, given that we have seven politicians who can be politically declared and seven lay members, surely we can accept that it makes sense for all those on the lay side of things to be completely beyond reproach, so that accusations cannot be made. I just wonder why we were unable to find people who were interested in being lay members but were not politically interested. I say that as, I hope, a very independent minded representative in this House.
Along with these words the votes to oppose the amendment came from 333 Conservative MPs who excluded Bernard Jenkins and Peter Bottomley from Worthing but sadly included all of the other Sussex Conservative MPs including Huw Merriman. The people supporting the amendment involved only 257 MPs but they included the three Brighton and Hove MPs so Labour and Greens and indeed all other parties and also David Davis from the Conservative Party. Sadly the dominance of one party was sufficient to prevent Melanie Carter from being considered. Perhaps our Politicians will need to consider a different way forward regarding future roles!