James Sunderland speaks in a debate on the House of Commons Commission Report into the risk-based exclusion of MPs

James Sunderland, who is a member of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, highlights the importance of ensuring that MPs who are accused of misconduct are treated fairly and that their rights are protected. He proposed a number of reforms to the current process that are necessary to ensure that the House of Commons is a fair and just workplace.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

As a member of the Procedure Committee, this subject is of great interest to me, as it is to all members of the Committee. My position may not be completely beholden to that of the Committee’s Chair, so I declare that interest straight away.

For three and a half years, I have spent much of my time in this place inadvertently comparing the two institutions in which I have served: the Ministry of Defence, and the Army in particular, for 26 years and this place, as an MP since 2019. They are quite different as institutions. I shall make just a few comparisons that are, I think, useful to the debate.

First, if a member of the armed forces is accused of a crime, serious or otherwise, there is a presumption of innocence. That should be at the heart of this particular debate, as we heard earlier. The MOD has a “leave no man or woman behind” policy. It is very important that an individual who is charged or under investigation for a serious complaint is not excommunicated. The MOD deals with that often by managing it in-house or, if necessary, by moving the individual to another unit so that they can continue their responsibilities and duties elsewhere. It is important, of course, that they are not separated from the chain of command. Why? Because it is important that the chain of command gives them the moral, legal and welfare support that they need, although they may well be separated from members of the unit who might be involved or who made the accusation. It is important that we manage it in the right way, and I think that that responsibility is important in the House, too.

I thank the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, as well as the Commission, for the effort that has gone into the report so far. We are 95% there and I am very happy with the recommendations as they stand, but I just want to draw attention to a couple of things that I think can be improved. The important thing for me is that we have a clear duty of care to all those in this place, no question about it, but that duty of care also exists towards the individual who might be accused of a particular offence. That is the theme I want to focus on.

I will be quite honest. I have been appalled at times by the ease with which we hang colleagues out to dry here in Westminster—not mentioning any names at all. When we come to this place, it is a big thing. We work hard to get here. Reputations are important and the way in which colleagues have been asked to leave the estate, or asked voluntarily to do so, for things that have been alleged is quite a brutal process. We have to respect the fact that that colleague might also need some support. We are, of course, a team, whether we are the Conservative party, the SNP, the Lib Dems or Labour, and we as Members have a responsibility to each other irrespective of the colour of our cloth.

When the headlines hit, phones can go silent. Colleagues are in the spotlight. They are vilified on social media and they are on their own. We must also remember that we are all colleagues, and all those who are not currently on the estate are also colleagues. Let us not forget that. Reputations are in tatters and it may be impossible for someone to recover from that, even if they are completely innocent of all the charges.

I think that we can do better in this place not just for the staff who are here, but for the accused. For me, the basic tenet of the entire debate is that colleagues have to be innocent until proven guilty. Yes, we are MPs; yes, we have to maintain a certain standard; but it cannot be the case that we are guilty until proven innocent. We must be innocent until proven guilty. That must lie at the heart of how we take this forward as a House.

I want to raise just three core tenets for the process. The first is the make-up and scope of panels. In this place, they have to be run by Members. For me, Members cannot be subjugated by a staff panel, irrespective of what job we are trying to do. Therefore, this must be managed and run by Members for the benefit of Members. 

When it comes to voting, it is up to this House to vote on which way we want to take it, not up to staff panels to do that on our behalf.

The second tenet is that the point of assessment for exclusion cannot be proposed at any point in the justice process, as is currently in the Commission’s report. In my view, it needs to be dependent on a charge being brought. In my view, just being accused of something is not justification enough for separating a Member from this place—we must be innocent until proven guilty. The report says:

“If charged, were it considered that a member was dangerous to the public, then he or she would be held on remand, and therefore, unable to be present on the estate…To exclude a member who has not even been charged, whatever accusations might be made, would be a fundamental denial of the principle that people are innocent until guilt is properly determined.”

That came out loud and clear in the report and, again, lies at the heart of the matter. A criminal charge, in my view, is the right threshold, although I accepted earlier there are difficulties with the point at which an arrest may be made and the time that it takes between the arrest and the charge. I do not have an answer for that particular issue.

Charlotte Nichols 

I want to make the hon. Gentleman aware that a charge in criminal law means there is a high likelihood that a jury, reasonably instructed, would find the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. That is what a charge means in law. It is not, “There is a case to answer. We’ll see you in court.” That is what it means. Does he not think that in a civil process, which this is—this is a workplace, it is a civil process—setting the point at which we as a House might act at that point in the criminal process is just too high?

James Sunderland 

The hon. Lady is not wrong and I concur with her point of view, but of course it is entirely possible that when a charge is brought an individual may be found not guilty in a court of law. A charge does not itself define guilt. By that same token, if someone is arrested on a charge, ultimately they have to allow that process to play out until the point at which they are castigated and removed from the estate voluntarily or otherwise. I take her point, but, for me, the Commission has work to do to draw a distinction between the point at which someone is arrested and the point at which a charge is made.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

The hon. Gentleman has just said that somebody can be charged but still be found not guilty, in the same way that somebody could be arrested and not charged. It is about the evidence that is presented. As he said at the start of his speech, we have a duty of care. We are talking about a risk-based exclusion process. It is not actually about the perpetrator, alleged or otherwise. It is about the evidence presented at that time of risk to those who remain. Can he say a little about what he proposes to do to tackle that risk if he wants to wait until charge, based on the evidence presented to the House by the police at that moment?

James Sunderland 

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and, again, she is not wrong. I do not have an answer, but this is the key thing for me: evidence is what is used in a court of law. Are we judge and jury? Is a staff panel judge and jury? Is the evidence presented to a quango body of individuals here enough, without a charge being brought, to exclude a Member from the Estate? As I said, I think there is work to be done between the point of arrest and the point of a charge being brought.

Stella Creasy 

By the hon. Gentleman’s logic, there is no evidence of risk that could be presented by the police to this place on which we could act. Is he really saying that, or do we need a process that could assess the evidence being presented? Is he that specific about it: there is nothing that he could be told about the risk posed by somebody to people in this place that would cause him to act?

James Sunderland 

Once again, I find myself concurring with a lot of what the hon. Lady is saying, but my view on this question is that because we are debating it now, the answer is not clear. Ultimately, we have to allow the Commission to make further findings in respect of what the evidence does. My personal feeling is that we have to wait for the charge to be brought before we give enough credence to the evidence. Arrest, in my view, is not enough.

The second issue is how we as a House manage complaints that may be vexatious. We discussed that question earlier, but I would like the Commission to do a bit more work on it. If a complaint has been made and it is entirely vexatious, we have to be able to spot that very early on and deal with it. For example, another Member said during the consultation that

“I am concerned about malicious claims towards MPs, which are constantly on the rise and members being excluded without it being a charge, often these are politically motivated.”

If we follow that logic through, it basically means that any Member can be asked to leave the estate for any reason. Therefore, we have to put in place a process whereby credence is given to an allegation. An arrest may or may not be made, and in my view, it is the point at which the charge is brought that gives that credence to the process. As such, we have to make sure that we can properly define the gap that is in the middle.

I would like to make a further point about management of risk. For me, the important thing in this debate is how we manage the risk-based exclusion, which again is not clear from the Commission. Basically, I want to better understand how we manage the risk: who is responsible for managing that risk? Who is responsible for determining the evidence, if it exists, and who is judge and jury? How do we manage that risk? Who decides, and what factors are involved? In my view, those questions need more work before we can go firm on any vote or otherwise.

The last issue I will address is that of the proxy vote. In my view, a proxy vote has to happen. MPs are elected to do a job, and they must do that job until the point at which they are no longer able to do it—again, innocent until proven guilty. There is a requirement for MPs to exercise their judgment and represent the interests of their constituents throughout the process. Therefore, unlike the earlier recommendation from the Procedure Committee, I am completely happy with the extension of the proxy vote in this case. MPs are still MPs; they are still part of the team and need support. They must not be left on the scrapheap, either. It is important for them—for their own peace of mind and their own validation—to be able to exercise that vote via a proxy. Again, I am not comfortable with the idea that the names of those who have a proxy vote would somehow be published. Those who have a proxy vote should not necessarily be identified as having one, for all the reasons of confidentiality that we have already discussed.

I also welcome the fact that the Commission is now actively considering extending the proxy vote scheme for other reasons. Historically and currently, it has been for maternity and paternity leave, but it should be extended beyond that, to illness and those who may be excluded from the estate.

Sir Christopher Chope 

At the moment, there is a question as to whether people who have voluntarily excluded themselves from the estate because of allegations made against them should be able to exercise proxy votes. I think the line has been taken that they should not be able to do so, because of the special circumstances surrounding their case. It would put them on a par with people who are very ill or on maternity leave.

James Sunderland 

My understanding is that proxy votes are part of this process. No doubt the Leader of the House will verify that in her summing-up remarks, but as far as I am concerned, it is entirely appropriate that if someone is elected as an MP to do a job, they have to be able to do that job if—for reasons of force majeure or otherwise—they cannot be on the estate. Therefore, I entirely support the notion that a proxy vote should be extended to all those with legitimate reasons to not be on the estate, and I welcome that further work by the Procedure Committee.

The first point of my conclusion is that exclusion should absolutely be a last resort, as I think we have agreed this afternoon. Ideally, it should also be at the behest of the individual. I totally agree that these are unique circumstances, and that what we are discussing deals with the unlikely event that a Member might not voluntarily exclude himself or herself from the estate. My second point is that both the Procedure Committee and the Committee on Standards have suggested that the final decision to exclude could or should be put to the House. I am absolutely clear, as an individual and a Member, that that is entirely right. It is up to us as Members to make the finding in such a case—it is up to us as Members to vote.

Sir Christopher Chope 

If it is put to the House on a vote, how will confidentiality be retained?

James Sunderland 

That is another element of what the Commission, the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader—the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire)—have to work through. Ultimately, I think it is up to us as Members to make that finding on behalf of fellow Members; it cannot be made for us by a sub-panel or a committee. Therefore, that is a further bit of work that the Committee has to go through.

My final point is an obvious one: should a Member be found guilty of a relevant offence, they would most likely receive a custodial sentence or otherwise and be subject to the Recall of MPs Act 2015. That is the point at which we are likely to cease being an MP, and I think that until that point is reached, due respect and credence should be given to all of us as MPs. A duty of care should also be given. In my view, Members should be careful what they wish for. This is a difficult debate and there is work to be done, so let us please not ignore both the duty of care that we have towards staff in this place and our duty of care to each other.


Later intervention in the same debate

James Sunderland 

I thank the hon. Member for his kind words earlier. He is making some persuasive comments, but is there a danger with how the House of Commons Commission might be taking this that somehow we need to be proving a higher level of law? In other words, the rights that exist for people generally across the UK will not necessarily be afforded to MPs, because we are intervening here much earlier in the process than other workplaces might be required to do. We are different in this place—Parliament is unique and sacrosanct—but are we not in danger of demeaning ourselves by allowing each of us a lower bar of legal representation and rights?

Sir Chris Bryant 

Well, no. The evidence given to the Standards Committee—if the hon. Member has time to read it, I urge him to do so—was that an awful lot of other workplaces do something similar and start considerably earlier than at charge. For instance, there are proper issues for a school, which is probably the only place where we would properly use the term “safeguarding”, and likewise for a youth service. For someone in the police, it is likely that the police would take far more precautionary action than we do, and far more than is even being suggested here. The bit that is different for us is that the scrutiny on us is acute. However, if we spoke to a teacher excluded from school at the point of arrest for a sexual or violent crime, they would say, “It may not have been on the front page of the Daily Mail, but everybody in my local community knows about it,” so there is enormous reputational risk.