The report’s most important aspect is its recommendation that the Assembly should appoint its own commissioner of standards, who would be independent and not subject to any political pressure. At present, there is widespread public concern at the actions of politicians, and that was highlighted again last week by the Laws case. There is great public disillusionment with politicians and with the democratic process. That is a threat to the future of our democratic system. There is a widespread feeling that those who hold public office are not sufficiently brought to account when they misbehave or, if they do misbehave, are let off lightly when they are judged by their peers. Therefore, it is important that the commissioner is fully independent and free from all political influences.
The appointment process must also be open and transparent to regain public trust in the Assembly. The Committee, therefore, agreed that the post of commissioner must have a statutory basis to ensure that he or she will be truly independent of the Assembly. That is essential, and it will allow the person who is appointed to act completely objectively in investigating any complaints. That should increase public confidence in the decisions of the statutory commissioner.
I strongly support recommendation 3, which allows the commissioner to initiate his or her own investigation into the conduct of a Member, and recommendation 9, which gives the commissioner statutory power to call witnesses and documents. Again, those will greatly increase the power and independence of the commissioner and should help to restore public confidence in politicians and the political process.
However, I feel that the recommendations should have gone further. In the light of the evidence that was given by the Chairperson of the Committee on Standards of Conduct at the National Assembly for Wales and Sir Christopher Kelly, the Chairperson of the Committee on Standards in Public Life at Westminster, I feel that we should have recommended changes to our Committee on Standards and Privileges. Such changes would also have increased public confidence. I believe that we should have reduced the number of members. The present Committee is too large, and decisions could be perceived to have been taken along party lines. The Welsh Committee has only four members, one from each of the parties.
Sir Christopher pointed out that the Standards and Privileges Committee at Westminster had accepted the principle of lay members but had not yet implemented it. He argued that many people believe that, even if MPs who misbehave are brought to book, they will not be dealt with in an adequate manner. On the other hand, the Committee’s treatment may seem to be unduly lenient to someone who has not seen the evidence and is going only by what they have read in the press, which may not always be accurate.
The presence of lay members on the Committee would reassure the public that it is not a question of Members being soft on each other. I believe that Sir Christopher’s case for lay members is strong, and the Committee should have included it in its recommendations. I hope that we can revisit the issue. Having said that, I fully support the Committee’s recommendations. They are a good start towards the restoration of public confidence in politicians and the political system. That confidence would be increased with the introduction of lay members to the Committee.