Govt in retreat over expenses privilege fear

Expenses watchdog poses parliamentary privilege risk
Expenses watchdog poses parliamentary privilege risk

By Alex Stevenson

Attempts to include a code of conduct for MPs in the parliamentary standards bill were dropped last night over fears it could fundamentally undermine Britain's constitution.

Today, Conservative MPs have put down amendments calling for the new criminal offences of knowingly making a false claim for an allowance, failing to register a relevant interest and breaking the rules on paid advocacy to be removed from the bill.

Justice secretary Jack Straw, leading for the government on the first of three days of debate, said he would accept the removal of the relevant clause "in the interests of consensus".

Comment: Dark secrets of the parliamentary standards bill

The clerk of the House had warned last week a potential ambiguity about the basis of the principles for the code meant parliament's privilege, established in the Bill of Rights, could be under threat.

Mr Straw insisted there was "nothing frightening or unacceptable" about the "consequences" of creating an external regulator.

He said courts' ability to judicially review the watchdog's conduct should not be feared as they would operate on "long-established principles".

"Judicial review is in no sense a challenge to the sovereignty of parliament," Mr Straw said.

"It will not affect the balance in our constitution between parliament and the courts. we can expect the courts to continue to acknowledge the fundamental constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers in any proceedings that arise from the procedures in the bill."

Conservative MPs like David Heathcoat-Amory reacted angrily, saying it would be "outrageous" if this "constitutional bill" was being treated like an emergency one.

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve appeared to agree with Mr Straw, saying "perhaps the goalposts must be moved in the case of parliamentary privilege, which is little understood outside the House".

But Mr Straw was prepared to back down nonetheless, winning applause from Tory backbencher John Redwood who congratulated him on an "excellent concession".

The justice secretary made clear he wanted to press on with the bill, which the government intends to rush through parliament and become law within the next three weeks.

"My view, and the view of the party leaders who speak for us as our leaders, is that such is the depth of public concern and such is the fundamental nature of the failings that we must act, and act speedily-not with haste and not without consideration, but through the kind of process in which we have engaged over the last few weeks," he finished.

The bill will be considered by the committee of the whole House today and tomorrow, before being sent to the Lords by Wednesday evening for scrutiny there.


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