William Wragg's honeytrap crisis, and is Speaker Hoyle under threat? - Parliament Matters podcast, episode 29 transcript

12 Apr 2024
©Patryk Kosmider / Adobe Stock
©Patryk Kosmider / Adobe Stock

This week the team discuss William Wragg’s fall from grace following a ‘honeytrap sting’; the future of Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle; the sanctions available to punish former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells if she has misled MPs; whether Jeffrey Donaldson MP will attend Westminster now he has been charged with criminal offences; and why there has been a 39% reduction in the number of All Party Parliamentary Groups following chnages to the registration rules.

This transcript is automatically generated. There are consequently minor errors and the text is not formatted according to our style guide. If you wish to reference or cite the transcript please first check against the audio version. Timestamps are provided above each paragraph for ease of reference.

00:00:00:00 - 00:00:31:06 You are listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society Production supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn More at Welcome to Parliament Matters, the podcast about the institution at the heart of our democracy, Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox. And I'm Mark D’Arcy. Coming up... 'torn to Wraggs': a fortnight ago, he reached the dizzying heights of being a Parliament Matters guest. 00:00:31:08 - 00:00:59:03 Now he's a parliamentary pariah. What next for William Wragg? Will they, won't they? Dare they? If the government does back a motion to investigate the Speaker's conduct, is that the end for Sir Lindsay Hoyle? Former Commons clerk Paul Evans drops by to ponder an emerging crisis and the mystery of the disappearing All-Party Parliamentary Groups. Have they really gone, or have they just gone underground? 00:00:59:05 - 00:01:27:19

But first William Wragg. What to say about this? This is quite extreme. As Ruth was saying, two weeks ago, William Wragg was a guest on this program talking about all sorts of high matters of public policy. And now he is a high matter of public policy, I suppose. It turns out that the Conservative MP for Hazel Grove and chair of the Public Administration Committee has been sending what are clearly termed as intimate pictures to someone he met on a dating app online. 00:01:27:21 - 00:01:49:24 And those pictures were then used to coerce him into giving contact details of other MPs and Westminster journalists. And this has launched a whole scandal around what's called spear phishing, the use of online coercion trying to get people to give up information, to get leverage against them I suppose. No one's actually quite sure who was doing this yet as well.

00:01:49:24 - 00:02:12:16 This was an anonymous attempt in the name of people calling themselves Abby and Charlie, and several MPs appear to have fallen for it. It's not just William Wragg. Two of the people whose contacts he gave up apparently also gave some of those coyly entitled 'intimate images' to these people, whoever they are. Is it a foreign government? Is it a journalist? 00:02:12:17 - 00:02:36:24 Is it some random person with some obscure agenda of their own to discredit Parliament or damage a particular political party? We just don't know at the moment. But it's left William Wragg a pretty discredited figure with a lot of people very angry at him. He's already resigned his post as vice chair of the 1922 Committee, and he's now decided that he's going to stand down as chair of the Public Administration Committee as well. 00:02:36:24 - 00:03:04:22 So this has cost him. It has. And he's also decided to give up voluntarily the Conservative whip. So he is now another MP sitting as an independent. There was quite a lot of criticism of Rishi Sunak's position from people who felt that he should have stripped him of the whip. That actually handing over confidential contact details of your colleagues, both fellow politicians and journalists, to an unknown person on the grounds that as William Wragg said 'that he had compromising things on me', 00:03:04:24 - 00:03:25:01 'they wouldn't leave me alone', so the price I paid was to hand this data over'. Yeah, that's quite a serious matter. And a lot of Conservatives felt that he should have been stripped of the whip. But in fact, the criticism has obviously been growing and he's voluntarily surrendered it. And of course, it's important to note that he was one of the first MPs to announce that he wasn't standing at the next election. 00:03:25:01 - 00:03:40:08 So he can continue for the rest of this Parliament as an independent MP, he's not going to worry about trying to get reelected and in these circumstances wouldn't I suspect. But I'm afraid his career is decimated by this. The other thing about this is he failed to follow his own advice. Yes, it was a couple of years ago. 00:03:40:08 - 00:03:59:03 He accused Downing Street under previous management of attempting to coerce him and bully him and even blackmail him. And he sat in the chair of his select committee in a public session and said that any MP who is faced with bullying or attempts at blackmail should contact the Speaker and if necessary, contact the police. And of course he did neither. 00:03:59:08 - 00:04:22:24 Yeah, and that has been a quite significant criticism. You know, the man in the glass house, he's had this reputation because he called in the police a couple of years ago, alleging this blackmail by Number Ten. He's pictured as a sort of pious beacon of morality, if you like, very open to criticizing the behavior of others. I mean, when we interviewed him just a couple of weeks ago, of course, he is the person who led the charge against the Speaker. 00:04:22:24 - 00:04:41:01 The motion of no confidence in the Speaker is in is in his name. And at this point, when we were interviewing him, these events had taken place. He knew what he'd done. And he talked about the fact that one of the reasons why, as somebody who'd previously supported the Speaker, he was so disappointed was because the Speaker had done the 'wrong' thing. 00:04:41:03 - 00:05:03:09 So again, that quite high minded morality element to his approach and he's now somewhat undone by it. His nickname in some circles at Westminster is 'toerag'. And there may yet be a sequel to this because it seems quite likely that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards will have to investigate his conduct. And what then? He might yet, I suppose, just resign his seat and walk away. 00:05:03:13 - 00:05:24:10 Yeah, and I think the other element in all of this, this particular time, a lot of people are sympathetic to him because he's as we found when we met him, he's a nice guy and a lot of people have been sympathetic, particularly in the Conservative ranks. I mean, Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, for example, was quite supportive in his remarks about him, talked about the fact he'd given a fulsome apology, he'd owned up to it and so on. 00:05:24:12 - 00:05:42:23 But there's also a concern he was 18 months or so ago, he took some time out from Westminster. He had some mental health concerns. One of the reasons he's standing down is tackling what he describes as the black dog, of course, which is that depression of which Churchill, of course, used to speak. So I think people are sympathetic to his concerns. 00:05:43:00 - 00:06:05:15 Well, with us also this week is Paul Evans, former Commons clerk. Paul, what's your take? I would come in a little more sympathetically in some ways, because William has a very strong track record as a very independent minded MP and he's led the Public Administration Committee, which is the sort of key constitutional committee about the centre quite effectively and much of what it's done has been good work. 00:06:05:17 - 00:06:44:16 And in some ways I think the story tells us, and perhaps tells the public, about the extraordinary pressures that there are on MPs and how challenging the job of surviving being an MP is. And we should be sympathetic. There's also the charge of hypocrisy. As we all know, hypocrisy at some level is a necessary element. And so this is perhaps an extreme example, but holding the government to account to its standards and maintaining your own personal integrity are probably two different tasks, and you can do the one quite well and the other quite badly and still be serving democracy. 00:06:44:19 - 00:07:24:05 Well, I'm not trying to exonerate Mr. Wragg entirely, but I do feel the story should tell us something about what the risks of being a serving MP are as well. I had this vision of the people in charge of cyber security in Parliament clapping their hands to their heads in despair and thinking to themselves that they can protect MPs from an awful lot of menaces, but they can't protect MPs from themselves. And it's just amazing that there is not one but three MPs who felt willing to share these in inverted commas, 'intimate images' with people that they had met online but didn't actually know very well. 00:07:24:05 - 00:07:43:23 And I can remember the days when veteran MP used to tell me that they were warned, 'you find yourself alone in a railway carriage with a woman, get out immediately and change carriages because you don't want the News of the World to come and get you with some allegation of sexual harassment later on'. So there used to be bloodcurdling warnings about the level of discretion a sitting MP needed to observe. 00:07:44:04 - 00:08:13:03 That seems to have gone out the window now. I mean, it sounds like some people are basically emotionally in the fourth form. And I suppose this is just another lesson about to pick up this phrase earlier, the glass box in which we all now live, because back in the day, I mean, the Edwardians were, I think, probably the masters of this, but they were absolutely rampant with mistresses left, right and centre. Lloyd George knew my mother you know. The MPs visiting guardsman in the park between divisions and all this kind of thing was going on all the time. 00:08:13:05 - 00:08:33:16 And most of it was kept under the lid, no doubt, partly a conspiracy between the media and and the elite, as it were. But it was also because there just wasn't a mechanism to distribute things. And I think the world we now live in has added a whole new level of exposure to the lives of MPs. And we're all sinners. 00:08:33:22 - 00:08:54:08 It's just that we hope that we're not found out sinning. Usually if you're an MP, you've got very little chance of getting away with it. Yeah, another strand to this, Paul, is William Wragg, having been described in the press as a 'senior' Conservative backbench MP and quite a few people being quite critical of that phrase because William is well in his early, mid thirties. 00:08:54:08 - 00:09:11:00

He's been in Parliament for nearly ten years. He's chair of a select committee, vice chair, as we said, of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee. But quite a number of people saying we can't really be a senior backbencher when you're only 30 odd. What are your thoughts? I mean, you know, there's been a lot of churn and turnover at Westminster. 00:09:11:06 - 00:09:51:24 Is it a justifiable description or not? Well, this may not be a name that resonates with many in our audience, but the perfect image of the senior backbencher is Sir Peter Tapsell, the former father of the House. And what we expect traditionally from senior backbenchers, first of all, that they're old, of 30, 40, 50 years service. Preferably quite bald and they have an air of gravitas and pomposity about them. It was, in a funny sort of way, an important thing back in the day because until the 1990s the acknowledged principle on which members were called in debates in order to speak, backbenchers, was seniority. 00:09:52:01 - 00:10:13:01 There was a special category of Privy Counsellors, and then basically the speakers tended to work by seniority, which meant if you were a new sprog with less than five years service, your chances of being called in debate, if it was an interesting debate of any kind, were quite small. So the senior backbenchers not only had this air of authority, but they had more airtime. 00:10:13:01 - 00:10:32:13 They were given the chance. I think undoubtedly being the chair of a select committee, which is quite unusual in the period that William Wragg managed to achieve that status nowadays makes you senior in some senses, but it's certainly not seen in the old fashioned sense. I suppose the other issue here is the internal Conservative political dimension to this. 00:10:32:13 - 00:10:53:14 William Wragg was one of the big critics of Boris Johnson, and I think a lot of people see this either as a comeuppance or alternatively see this as an example of the soft line that the Conservative leadership took in, not immediately removing the whip from him as an example of them protecting someone who was a key anti Johnson conspirator in their view. 00:10:53:16 - 00:11:27:12 I think it's always dangerous to ascribe more organizational subtlety to politics than actually exists. A phrase I've always treasured since I first heard it was 'you can either be a conspiracy theory of history person, you can be a cock up theory person. But the most sensible position is to be the cocked up conspiracy theorist.' And I just do not think that level of forward planning and strategic thinking about how to deploy your weapons is likely to have been in play. 00:11:27:12 - 00:11:49:11 In this particular case. I think it's a cock up in all senses of the word.

Well, in any event, the Commons Privileges Committee might be rather busy in the coming weeks because another strand of what's going on at the moment in Parliament is the suggestion that the government is going to back a motion to investigate the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle. Now this is over something we've discussed repeatedly in this podcast. 00:11:49:11 - 00:12:12:02 His decision to allow Labour to put down an amendment on Gaza and a ceasefire in Gaza during a Scottish National Party opposition day debate, which was a considerable breach of precedent at the time, which caused a huge furore. The SNP's already called for an investigation into the allegation that Sir Keir Starmer essentially bullied the Speaker into accepting that amendment. 00:12:12:04 - 00:12:32:19 And now it's suggested that the Leader of the Commons, Penny Mordaunt, is minded to allow a motion along those lines calling for an investigation to be put to the Commons. And Ruth, this is again a pretty unusual proceeding because the Commons doesn't normally investigate its speakers. No, and I think frankly, if we get to this point, I think Sir Lindsay's position becomes very, very difficult. 00:12:32:21 - 00:13:11:12 Clearly, Penny Mordaunt has her eye on Keir Starmer. That's who she really has in her sights. But I think the reality is that if the House of Commons were to vote for a motion that called into question and sought an inquiry into the conduct of the Speaker, Sir Lindsay's position becomes almost untenable. Can you imagine the scenario in which the speaker has to attend a public meeting of the Privileges Committee to be questioned about what was or was not said in a meeting with the Leader of the Opposition, where other people who may or may not have been in the room, whether that's clerks, whether that's Keir Starmer's staff, Sue Gray, for example, his chief 00:13:11:12 - 00:13:34:14 of staff is rumored to have been in the discussions. You know, these people are all hauled in to the inquiry and the discussions between the Speaker and the party business managers, between the leaders of the parties are supposed to be confidential. And if we're at this stage, I think his position is incredibly difficult. And Paul this is ripping the veil from the holy of holies isn't it? Cans of worms have nothing on this? 00:13:34:14 - 00:14:00:23 Because, of course, the Speaker is constantly talking to the leader of the parties, to the whips and the privacy of those conversations is sort of fundamental to the way it works. A Speaker must take responsibility ultimately for their own choices. It takes down the Speaker with anyone else it finds guilty in a sense if the Speaker allowed himself to be influenced unduly. 00:14:00:23 - 00:14:22:20 But what undue influence is is also a hugely complicated judgment to make. And as Ruth says, I mean, the idea that officials and others upon whose loyalty and confidentiality so much depends in terms of the smooth running of the operation and the effective operation of the speakership would be possibly brought in and put on oath and told to repeat what they'd heard. 00:14:23:00 - 00:14:44:09 It is quite mind boggling. And it would be a very unprecedented sight to see the Speaker themselves appearing possibly again to be put on oath before the Privileges Committee. I'm almost left speechless at the idea that this could happen, and I'm inclined to agree with Ruth that it's very hard to see if the Speaker found themselves in this position, 00:14:44:11 - 00:15:01:14 they'd be in a terrible dilemma about how to carry on. Let's go through some of the scenarios here then. Does the Speaker say in advance, if this motion is passed, I will have to step down because that would be attempting to influence the debate of the Commons. It's not something surely a Speaker would normally do, but it's about him. 00:15:01:14 - 00:15:31:00 So maybe his opinion is to some extent valuable on this. Alternatively, does the Speaker simply stay stum, allow one of his deputies to chair the debate and then announce, okay, since you passed this motion, I'm stepping down? How might it work? Well, I think you're right. It's impossible to imagine the Speaker chairing the debate and if the motion was agreed, the Speaker would have had to be in a clear position, but, you know, have made a decision whether they were going to step down. 00:15:31:02 - 00:15:51:17 It would theoretically be possible for them to say, I'm stepping aside from active service until the inquiry is concluded, I suppose, but that doesn't seem to me likely to work. Not least because the chances are that the inquiry won't conclude before the dissolution. They tend to be very long and drawn out. I mean, you could imagine delaying tactics could be deployed as well, frankly. 00:15:51:21 - 00:16:27:23 Yes, indeed. I mean, I'm shocked I say if that were to happen. But well, I mean, Boris Johnson cooperated at all stages with the inquiry and that took a long time. Let's say. So really, it's a very difficult picture to conjure up. I remember reading a piece by Michael Foot, former Labour Leader of the Commons about a previous Speaker, George Thomas, who had written a set of memoirs which revealed some of his discussions in the late 1970s when the Labour government went into minority status and had to really struggle to maintain control of Parliament and eventually lost a confidence vote in the end. 00:16:28:00 - 00:16:51:18 But Michael Foot was absolutely outraged that accounts of his conversations with George Thomas had been published in a book just a few years later. Absolutely venomous piece of writing. It's an essay called Brother George, which absolutely drips with fury from every sentence. I can imagine that there are plenty of people in the Commons who really wouldn't like their conversations with the speaker to become public knowledge. 00:16:51:24 - 00:17:11:05 There are a lot of people who would not want that conversation to become public. We should also perhaps recall that there was an attempt to do this through the 'Usual Channels', as it were, which is to have the privilege motion which the three deputy speakers were asked to decide. Normally, its the Speaker's choice whether to allow a motion for privilege to have precedence. 00:17:11:07 - 00:17:34:05 He rightly deputed this to his three deputies, who then wrote a letter saying they were not minded to allow it to go forward. So in a slight sense, you know, it brings the judgment of the three deputies into question as well. If this motion is passed, that would suggest that the House thinks they have misread the situation and come to the wrong determination when they were asked to do so. 00:17:34:07 - 00:17:54:11 Well, we don't know whether this is actually going to proceed. And, of course, we have news just after Easter that the Speaker's father, former Labour MP and Labour peer Lord Hoyle, sadly died. So I think there'll be some sympathy with him over the coming weeks. So that might put it off. They may decide not, not to proceed with it, but we'll have to see. 00:17:54:13 - 00:18:17:02

The other element that we've talked about, the Privileges Committee, another issue, the Privileges Committee may have to consider is the allegations that are coming out in relation to the Post Office inquiry. Again, this story has run and run. We had Lord Arbuthnot on the podcast beginning a January course. He appeared in the ITV drama that has brought this scandal to public attention on such a scale. 00:18:17:04 - 00:18:55:18 And he was appearing before the inquiry this week. But the critical thing for Parliament at the moment is that the former CEO of the Post Office, Paula Vennells, new recordings have emerged which suggest quite strongly that she may indeed have misled MPs, she may have misled the Select Committee on at least two occasions. And Liam Byrne, the current chair of the Business and Trade Committee, has said that he is exploring all the options regarding sanctions and all options are on the table if she has indeed misled Parliament. And Nazim Zahawi, who was one of the MPs on that committee at the time that questioned her and the other post office leadership about the scandal, 00:18:55:20 - 00:19:15:05 he said that they have to be careful because they don't want to prejudice the legal proceedings in the public inquiry. But he thinks that they may be open to corporate manslaughter investigation and possible charges. But if she has misled Parliament or if there is a case for exploring whether she's misled Parliament, Paul, what are all the options available? 00:19:15:07 - 00:19:39:24 The only option available really is a reference again to this now overburdened Privileges Committee. We can go back to see yes, we can go back to the phone hacking scandal, which some of our older listeners may remember where three representatives of News International were accused of lying to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and ten years ago that was referred to the Privileges Committee. 00:19:40:04 - 00:20:14:09 The inquiry dragged on for absolutely ages, partly because it had to be suspended every time a court case started. But because of the intervening election and so on. And eventually they came to the conclusion that two of the three accused had indeed deliberately misled Parliament. I mean, I have to be clear that Parliament only gets involved if Miss Vennells misled MPs in parliamentary proceedings, not actually misled them chatting in the corridor or in a APPG or wherever - an All Party Parliamentary Group - or some other contexts, relatively informal context. Only if it was in a committee. 00:20:14:13 - 00:20:50:06 That's the only time does the privilege bite. At the end of the inquiry, the two guilty men were admonished, which felt slightly like the punishment didn't fit the crime. There's an interesting case coming up in Ottawa next week where I don't know all the details of it, but someone who's given misleading answers to a select committee in the Canadian House of Commons is being brought to the bar of the House to be not only admonished formally, but then questioned about things that they alleged to have misled the committee about. 00:20:50:08 - 00:21:10:01 That's going to be a very interesting piece of theater, which some of the nerdiest people here will be staying up to watch. So turn on, tune in. There hasn't been a sort of miscreant brought to the bar of the House for decades in Britain, has there? Sir John Junor in I think the early 1950s, was editor of the Sunday Express. 00:21:10:01 - 00:21:34:08 I think someone had written the horrifying suggestion that some mops might have been essentially fiddling their petrol rations, and he was brought in and given a thorough telling off by the then Speaker. And no one's attempted to do that since. I think possibly on the fault that maybe looks a bit ridiculous. Yes. After that Parliament decided to try it again, partly because, of course everybody believed that politicians had been fiddling their petrol rations. 00:21:34:08 - 00:21:57:21 Perish the thought. So it didn't work and that really put them off. Now, we had a big Privileges Committee inquiry a couple of years ago, reported on what punishments are available for people who mislead committees or refuse to attend committees, which is the most common. Dominic Cummings was the notorious. He refused to turn up to a full committee hearing. 00:21:57:23 - 00:22:22:12 I could just imagine a scene where Dominic Cummings is brought to the bar of the House to be admonished and the Speaker dons a black tricorn hat and starts telling him off and he starts shouting back. And I think you could get something pretty undignified pretty rapidly at that point. You could indeed. You can fine, you can imprison in theory, but you can't in practice. So you're left basically with admonishment, which is a pretty damp squib. 00:22:22:18 - 00:22:40:21

What is the bar of the House, Paul? Just for the benefit of our listeners, just to explain the bar, because my understanding is there is actually a bar that comes out of the two seats at the back of the chamber. Is that right? There is a telescopic bar which can be drawn, its never seen. No alcohol is served on outwardly and closed. 00:22:40:21 - 00:23:02:01 So the bar of the house is the as you come in, as it were, the main entrance at the opposite end of the Speaker's chair. There's an area which is regarded as neutral territory. It's not actually inside the House. It's marked by a red line across the carpet between the two benches just in front of where the sergeant at arms or his deputy is sitting. 00:23:02:03 - 00:23:24:00 And that marks is neutral territory so that nonmembers can step into that area. And as you say, there is in fact a bar which can be extended and would be extended if Paula Vennells or anyone else is brought to the bar to show exactly where they had to stop. And you've discussed on the program before the idea that the Procedure Committee came up with 00:23:24:05 - 00:23:49:15 I think, of questioning Lord Cameron at the bar of the house. It has a very unfortunate ring to it, of course, because it doesn't normally mean that to the general public. But that's what it is. Well, of course, this bar of the House and bringing David Cameron there to answer Foreign Office questions is again back in the news and very pertinent because, you know, we've been talking about this on previous episodes. 00:23:49:17 - 00:24:13:00 You know, we talked about in the abstract, but it's now very real. David Lammy has written calling for Lord Cameron to appear at that bar to answer questions because of what's happening in Gaza, because of all the debate about whether or not the government's got legal advice about the Israeli government's behavior and whether that should affect whether or not there should be sales of weapons to Israel or whether contracts should continue. 00:24:13:02 - 00:24:36:14 And, of course, the terrible incident in Gaza where three British citizens, aid workers, were killed as a result of an Israeli strike. So it's really pertinent again. But, David Cameron last appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee on the 9th of January. And if you recall, Mark, when we talked to Alicia Kearns a few weeks ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee were wanting him to commit to meet every six weeks and could not get that commitment from him. 00:24:36:14 - 00:25:03:07 And as far as I'm aware, he hasn't agreed to it yet. So again, this is going to be interesting. Will they agree to him coming to the bar of the house? I'm somewhat skeptical. I think it also could look a bit ridiculous as I made clear in my evidence to the Procedure Committee. But I'm skeptical that he will he will ever appear there to answer questions. Like all things in Parliament, setting a precedent is a very dangerous matter and it would definitely set some kind of precedent. 00:25:03:09 - 00:25:23:05 Though it would also be going back to the days in history when witnesses before really select committees were in full fig and witnesses were examined at the bar in the house, most famously Benjamin Franklin, I think. But that's a long way in the past, very distant precedent. Well, I think, Ruth, that's probably a good moment for us to take a break. 00:25:23:07 - 00:25:27:13 Great. Thanks, Paul. 00:25:27:15 - 00:25:58:03 Eighty years ago, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, sitting together in the House of Commons smoking room, paid a £1 subscription and so became the first members of the Hansard Society. The challenges facing our democracy are different to those that motivated them to help found the Society in 1944, but they are just as urgent. So to mark this important milestone, we are launching the Churchill-Attlee Democracy Lecture and we're delighted that former Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed to give the inaugural speech on Tuesday 14th May. 00:25:58:05 - 00:26:24:12 She'll reflect on her life in Parliament, drawing on the unparalleled insights she's gleaned during her time as Prime Minister and as a backbench MP. With a wealth of experience in the corridors of Westminster her lecture will explore what's wrong with Parliament and why and how it must change. So why not join us as we honour the legacies of our first members, Churchill and Attlee, with what promises to be a thought provoking exploration of the challenges facing Parliament in the years ahead. 00:26:24:14 - 00:26:55:06 Go to the Hansard Society website, and book your ticket. That's

And Ruth we're back and continuing our excursion round events in Parliament. Parliament's not been sitting, but I suppose we've really got to talk about the resignation of Jeffrey Donaldson as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the major Protestant party in Northern Ireland, after he was charged with historic sex offences. 00:26:55:08 - 00:27:18:10 And this is something that came completely out of the blue, which is clearly going to have enormous implications for Northern Ireland politics, but also raises some very tricky problems for Westminster in terms of the way that MPs in this situation are handled by the system and the safety of staff and other users of the palace of Westminster is guaranteed when someone is charged with a sex offence. 00:27:18:12 - 00:27:40:15 Yeah, it was described in the media in Northern Ireland as a political earthquake just weeks after the restoration of power at Stormont, which he had been so instrumental in getting back up and running. We obviously can't say anything about the charges. That's that's now a legal matter and we don't know much detail other than that he's going to be appearing in court later this month and he's strenuously contesting all the charges, we should say that. 00:27:40:17 - 00:28:20:24

But in terms of the implications for Westminster, I mean, we talked a number of times now on the podcast in recent weeks about this difficult question of the risk based exclusion policy. You know, where an MP is accused of serious allegations, whether or not they should be permitted to be on the parliamentary estate. This is a contested policy that Penny Mordaunt and the House of Commons Commission, the sort of the senior MPs in charge of the governance of the House, if you like, they want a system where if an MP is accused of quite serious allegations, which would raise questions about security and safety - so basically sex and violence allegations - yeah, that they would be subject 00:28:20:24 - 00:28:40:17 to a process of the case would be investigated by a panel. They wouldn't necessarily know the identity of the MP at that time, but they'd know broadly what the nature of the investigation and the allegations were and they would make a judgment as to whether or not that member should be able to come to Westminster or whether they should be excluded from the estate for a period and should have in that period. 00:28:40:17 - 00:29:09:12 therefore, a proxy vote. Now, this has been subject to a lot of political debate. The trade unions representing staff, for example, are very clear that they want this to protect the security and safety of staff. But at a political level, it raises all sorts of constitutional questions about whether MPs should be excluded, particularly if they've only initially been investigated, and no charges have been made because you know the constitutional role, who would represent their constituents if they can't come into Westminster? 00:29:09:15 - 00:29:25:09 And also it could be gamed. You know, all you have to have is someone say making an allegation, it then has to be investigated. Oh look, they're being investigated, we can't let them on the estate. And as we talked about previously, you know, a number of these cases which are subject to investigation by the political parties are dragging on for a very long time. 00:29:25:09 - 00:29:46:20 And therefore, again, you know, if you are excluding members while they're under investigation, this can go on for years. So strong arguments on both sides. But the policy was withdrawn and they went back and had had a look at it. And as I understand it, they've sort of enhanced it. So that it wouldn't apply if MPs were simply being investigated, but it would apply if they were charged. 00:29:47:01 - 00:30:06:21 Now, of course, that is what has happened to Jeffrey Donaldson. But the policy has not yet been put to the Commons because certainly a number of Conservative MPs want to amend it - they bottled it. Yeah, you know, there's a number of backbench Conservative MP who are opposed to it, concerned about it. Want to amend it. So they've pulled it and it's still sitting there on the future business papers of the House of Commons. 00:30:06:21 - 00:30:27:06 But there's no timetable for it to be debated and voted on. And you've got to say that this is a moment in which having a solid agreed policy would have come in rather handy. Yes, because the question now is where does this leave Jeffrey Donaldson? Where does it leave his constituents? Where does it leave fellow MPs and staff at Westminster? 00:30:27:06 - 00:30:43:21 Because as far as I can tell, there is nothing that would prevent Jeffrey Donaldson coming to Westminster if he wants to. Some of these cases have been handled in the past on the basis of a sort of private agreement with the Speaker's office and the whips. Well, he doesn't have a whip now because he's no longer in effectively a member of the DUP's parliamentary party. 00:30:43:23 - 00:31:06:22 Of course, he's got a court case to fight. I doubt that he's going to want to resign because of the way in which that could be interpreted as a sort of admission of guilt, possibly. But his time and his attention is inevitably going to be spent in the law courts and the judicial process in Northern Ireland. So so once again, I'm afraid its got to be said the failure of the Commons to bite this particular bullet means that there isn't an agreed policy. 00:31:06:22 - 00:31:27:22 So you're stuck in this rather murky territory of gentlemen's agreements with the Speaker or the whips or whoever about the conduct of a person who's been charged with a serious offence. And it just sort of hangs there, as you say, in mid-air. And it's a pity that the Leader of the House didn't feel able to put the motion down and get it sorted, amended or otherwise. 00:31:27:24 - 00:31:50:01 So that there was a solid way of dealing with these situations because I'm sure this won't be the last time. We'll have to see what see what happens with that case and whether he does turn up at Westminster or not.

Well, let's turn our eyes to another intriguing issue, the mystery of the disappearing All-Party Parliamentary Groups. I suppose we'd better start by explaining exactly what an all party parliamentary group or APPG for short actually is. 00:31:50:01 - 00:32:19:11 Yes, it's a cross-party is, it implies All-Party Group of MPs. They're organized in either subjects, somatic subject areas, something that has all party groups on on countries that are all party groups of diseases or different types of camps or particular subject areas, you know, transport airports. Basically, if you've got a policy area or a campaign that you want to push, raise awareness of it. 00:32:19:12 - 00:32:48:13 A good way is an all party parliamentary group in which a number of MPs and peers who are interested in these issues can meet together and discuss the issues. And of course we talked earlier on an earlier episode with Theodora Clark, the Conservative MP who was leading the all party parliamentary group on baby loss. That was a good example of how she used that All-Party Parliamentary Group to raise awareness of the issue and to have an inquiry into some of the policy and legislative changes that are needed. 00:32:48:15 - 00:33:14:04 The other side of the coin, and it's been going for a long time, is criticism that's made of all party parliamentary groups that they are a back route for foreign influence. So foreign countries, foreign states paying for MPs to go on visits to countries, It's actually takes a group of MPs on that on a five star trip to some exotic place and basically, in effect is attempting to buy their goodwill while doing that. 00:33:14:06 - 00:33:30:04 And then, you know, the MPs go back to Westminster. They're very impressed by it all. And they start, you know, they ask questions, helpful, helpful questions. So it's sort of both both a criticism about how it impacts in terms of parliamentary process and their responsibilities. But also this argument that it's a you know, it's all a bit of a jolly. 00:33:30:06 - 00:34:00:05 The other one is that they are a route for corporate influence, that the secretariats that run and organize these All-Party parliamentary groups are often funded by the corporate sector. They are also funded and organized by charities. But the perception is that it's a way for big business to lobby and exercise influence behind the scenes and that there's not enough accountability. So what has happened is that there was a Standards Committee inquiry into All-Party Parliamentary Groups because there was this concern about potential for them being the next big scandal. 00:34:00:07 - 00:34:22:15 New rules have been introduced which came into effect at the end of March. They're about providing more robust transparency requirements, banning overseas funding, trying to reduce the foreign influence so you've got more enhanced financial reporting cracking down on the number of groups that MPs could be a member of because some MPs were signed up to so many so it clearly wasn't a serious endeavour. 00:34:22:17 - 00:34:38:18 They've got to have a minimum number of officers and MPs can only sit in a maximum of six groups in the next Parliament. That rule will come in in the in the next Parliament. They've got to be much more open about their income and their expenditure and who's running the organization and so on. And all this has had a visible effect now. 00:34:38:19 - 00:35:08:13 Yeah. So this is a story that - we should credit to mySociety, which is the organization you may have heard of them they run this the sites They Work For You, Fix My Street, Write To Them, What Do They Know? Those kinds of sort of active citizenship projects that are allied to using technology to help people engage in democracy. And they've been tracking the All-Party Parliamentary Group register and looking at the number of groups that were registered prior to the rule change and those that have registered this month. 00:35:08:13 - 00:35:31:20 And they have found that there's been a 39% reduction in the number of APPGs. So 288 of the 722 that existed last month, 288 of them appear to have disappeared from the register. In a puff of smoke. But the question is, have they disappeared altogether or have they, as it were, gone underground and stopped being formal All-Party Parliamentary Groups 00:35:31:20 - 00:35:56:11 and now they are some sort of slightly loose, nebulous network out there that doesn't fall foul of this regulation. Yeah, and that's something that the investigative journalist Peter Geoghegan has been looking at. Are they in fact taking on a different form? So they're not calling themselves All-Party Parliamentary Groups. They won't be able to use the Portcullis logo that's permitted for APPGs. 00:35:56:13 - 00:36:19:07 But in order to avoid the transparency and accountability that comes with these registration requirements, they're calling themselves something different, like a parliamentary liaison group for example. So he's been tracking, you know, a number of changes where the groups that were APPGs have now rebadged themselves. Now, you mentioned the logo. Are there any other advantages to being a full scale All-Party Parliamentary Group? 00:36:19:07 - 00:36:38:13 Do they, for example, carry some level of parliamentary privilege? I've been to evidence hearings held by All-Party Parliamentary Groups, where the Chair has started off by saying 'Order, Order' for all the world as if this was a select committee or something. Do they actually have some level of privilege so that, for example, people can't be sued for the evidence they give to an All Party Parliamentary Group? 00:36:38:13 - 00:37:07:04 No, I mean. All-Party Parliamentary Groups are not formal parliamentary proceedings, and they're not formal parliamentary bodies or committees. They have the aura of parliamentary authority and are often reported in that way by the media. But not the reality. For example, parliamentary staff, you know, the clerks of the House of Commons and the House of Lords are not involved in organizing and running them, which is why they need the secretariats organized by external bodies to help run them, or as we found with Theodora Clark's baby loss inquiry 00:37:07:09 - 00:37:31:08 they've got their own, effectively their own parliamentary staff, or perhaps working with with a charity. So no, they don't carry the imprimatur of Parliament itself, but a lot is in the name. Yeah, but clearly once these financial transparency and accountability rules are now biting there's a willingness to lose that and rebadge themselves to kind of carry on and exercise the influence and work in a different way. 00:37:31:11 - 00:37:48:06 Well, this is definitely a space that we'll have to watch. Well, let's take a look at some of the things that are coming up in Parliament in either next week or the near future not least the continuing saga of the Rwanda bill. The Rwanda bill has been through the Commons. It's been before the House of Lords. 00:37:48:06 - 00:38:05:24 The House of Lords has made a number of changes the Government doesn't like and the bill's been bouncing back between the Commons and the Lords and the fabled parliamentary ping pong to get them to agree the details and it's due back in front of their Lordships again this week. It is so I mean, first of all, the Commons have got consideration of Lords amendments on Monday for a couple of hours. 00:38:06:04 - 00:38:26:16 Oh, right. So the Commons have still got a round to go. So the expectation is the Government is going to say no to all the Lords amendments. So one assumes it will go back to the Lords, and the Lords will then face a question are they prepared to put back in the amendments or to some form of amendment of their amendments? 00:38:26:18 - 00:38:47:03 You could sometimes offer a slightly watered down version or a differently worded version, so not insisting on precisely the same thing again, but this is quite high powered stuff about, for example, the legal presumption that the government wishes to create that Rwanda is safe and that all sorts of removals from this country can't be challenged on the basis that Rwanda is not safe. 00:38:47:09 - 00:39:05:13 So the Lords want to take out all those rules that foreclose all kinds of challenges to deportations to Rwanda from that. And it may be that the Lords once again put their changes back in, and it has to be, the Bill has to be sent back to the Commons for MPs to take them out again. And it's a matter of who blinks first. 00:39:05:13 - 00:39:40:13 Yeah, and I think a lot is going to depend, as we've discussed previously, on what's the position of the crossbench peers here. Very cross in this case. But do they want to keep to keep pressing and just having another go and see? Well I don't think they're going to get anywhere with the government, but you know, to to try and put the pressure on the clearly digging into the hills in what classically happens on these occasions is that eventually the crossbenchers say, well, we've tried, yeah, and even if the opposition parties are whipping furiously to try and keep the bill in play, eventually the majority to do that dissolves. 00:39:40:15 - 00:39:57:06 And another thing to watch out for is whether some of the Conservative peers who so far haven't shown up to vote for the government line do eventually come in just on the basis of asserting that at some point the unelected chamber has to give way to the elected chamber. And the other thing to keep an eye on, of course, it's the first day back after the recess. 00:39:57:06 - 00:40:18:10 So will there be any ministerial statements? So yeah, will there be anything in terms of there's been some speculation in the media about whether or not the accommodation that's apparently being paid for to to house the asylum seekers and migrants, illegal migrants that the government wants to send to Rwanda, whether in fact those have actually already been allocated by the Rwandan government to some of their own population. 00:40:18:12 - 00:40:36:08 So possible ministerial statement or urgent question on that. But another thing to keep an eye on is the Public Accounts Committee on Monday has got the Home Office permanent secretary and some of the other Home Office officials back in front them to discuss asylum accommodation. And the UK Rwanda partnership have had a pretty rough handling from the Public Accounts Committee before. 00:40:36:09 - 00:40:57:02 They have and we've discussed on on the pod before that Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, has had a very rough ride. I suspect we'll get exactly the same again. These questions about what's happening with Rwanda, accommodation will be discussed. Does anything emerge from that hearing that will play into this wider debate during ping pong in the Commons? 00:40:57:02 - 00:41:14:08 and lords. We'll have to have to keep an eye out.

And on the legislative side of things, it's also going to be the week in which the Commons debates the Tobacco Bill. Rishi Sunak's attempt to eventually more or less phase smoking out. There'll be a sort of older and older age at which you're allowed to buy tobacco at. 00:41:14:14 - 00:41:36:03 Hopefully they reckon they stamp out an awful lot of smoking. Now Boris Johnson has weighed in on this this week saying that it's bizarre that the party of Churchill wants to outlaw cigars. And so I think we may find that this is a bill that upsets the sensibilities of quite a number of Conservative backbenchers. They may think it's just flatly unconservative to be trying to bring in a ban like this. 00:41:36:05 - 00:41:54:22 So it'll be quite a test of Rishi Sunak's authority whether he can actually get this bill through. Now it may not be that it fails at the second reading vote. No I think that's highly unlikely. Far more likely that someone puts down an amendment to try and gut the detail of the bill. I'd question, whether it would get Labour support or other opposition party support. 00:41:54:22 - 00:42:19:21 But it'll be a sign of Conservative backbench discontent. A lot of rumbling there and an embattled Prime Minister might find that somehow this is one of those issues that becomes a kind of rallying point with significance far beyond the actual legislation itself. We've also got this week the second reading of the Finance Bill, which of course enshrines many of the proposals that were set out in the Chancellor's budget a few weeks ago so that that will be underway. 00:42:19:23 - 00:42:58:20 And another thing to look out for is a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday, led by Labour MP Debbie Abrahams on citizens assemblies. Yeah, Citizens Assembly. So suddenly a very fashionable idea because of suggestions that a Keir Starmer government would use them to break number of sort of policy deadlock. So being old fashioned, I kind of slightly take the view that we've got a citizen's assembly already and it's called the House of Commons, but these have been very important in other countries for breaking political deadlocks, notably in Ireland, where a citizens assembly paved the way for the legalization of abortion so they can be a very interesting political tool. 00:42:58:22 - 00:43:23:18 And Debbie Abrahams being, I would imagine, a supporter of these will be quite interesting to see if any people who think that citizens assemblies are a bad idea or a kind of political constitutional cop out decide to come and have a bit of fun as well. Yeah, and then perhaps Mark to end where we started. William Wragg, he's actually on the order paper for a backbench business debate on access to redress schemes on Thursday. 00:43:23:18 - 00:43:45:07 So be interesting to see whether or not that takes place or whether he withdraws and he's keeping his head down. Well, these backbench motions are normally put by a group of MPs, so it may be that discretion is the better part of valor and somebody else fronts up this debate. If only so that the pros and cons of William Wragg's personal situation doesn't interfere with an issue that's pretty important in its own right. 00:43:45:09 - 00:44:08:09 Yeah. So with that, Mark, I think we'll leave it there for this week. Can I just say thank you to all our listeners. Whilst we've been having a short break over Easter, we've been doing some analysis of the podcast data, who's listening, who's out there, and apparently we've got listeners in 108 countries. So everything from America, Canada, Australia Germany, France to Seychelles and Myanmar. 00:44:08:09 - 00:44:36:01 So to everyone out there who is listening, we're really grateful to you. Let us know on social media or you can email us through the contact form, the urgent questions, at Let us know what you think and it's great to have you with us. See you soon. See you soon. Well, that's all from us for this week's episode of Parliament Matters. 00:44:36:03 - 00:44:53:05 Please hit the follow or subscribe button in your podcast app to get the next episode as soon as it lands and help us to make the podcast better by leaving a rating or review on Apple or Spotify and sharing your feedback. Our producer tells us it's important for the algorithm to give the show a boost. Mark, tell us more about the algorithm. 00:44:53:07 - 00:45:16:17 What do I know about algorithms? You know, I write my scripts with a quill pen on vellum and then send it in by carrier pigeon. Well, before we go, a quick reminder also that you can send us your questions on all things Parliament by visiting We'll be discussing them in future episodes, including our special Urgent Questions editions dedicated to what you want to know about Parliament. 00:45:16:20 - 00:45:52:20 And you can find us across social media @HansardSociety to get more content related to the show and the wider work of the hands of society. Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. For more information, visit or find us on social media @HansardSociety.

Parliament Matters is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

Parliament Matters is supported by a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker trust which engages in philanthropy and supports work on democratic accountability.

Subscribe to Parliament Matters

Use the links below to subscribe to the Hansard Society's Parliament Matters podcast on your preferred app, or search for 'Parliament Matters' on whichever podcasting service you use. If you are unable to find our podcast, please email us here.

News / Democratic decision-making in health emergencies: Learning the lessons of the Covid pandemic - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 37

This week we have a compelling conversation with human-rights barrister Adam Wagner as we delve into the findings of the Independent Commission on UK Public Health Emergency Powers. Just before the general election was called, the Commission published its final recommendations, aiming to reshape law-making in the event of a future health emergency in the UK.

31 May 2024
Read more

News / General election called: What now for Parliament? - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 36

This week, we dive into the unexpected political shake-up in Westminster, where Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a general election has thrown Parliament into turmoil. The Prime Minister’s surprising move to hold the election in early July, rather than waiting until Autumn, has sent shockwaves through the political landscape.

24 May 2024
Read more

Briefings / General election rules and regulations: what has changed?

With a general election on the horizon there has been a spate of new legislation and regulations to implement changes to the way the election will be run, with consequences for voters and electoral administrators. Parliament has not always had a role in approving these changes. This briefing sets out the core changes to the electoral process that have been implemented since the last general election in 2019, the role that Parliament has played in scrutinising and approving them, and the risks arising from these changes.

26 Apr 2024
Read more

Support / 80th Anniversary Appeal: support our work to make Parliament more effective

Faith in parliamentary democracy is waning at a critical time as we confront domestic and international challenges that are as significant as any the country has faced since the Society was founded 80 years ago.

11 May 2024
Read more

News / Democracy is in danger, warns Theresa May - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 35

In a powerful Churchill Attlee Lecture commemorating the Hansard Society's 80th anniversary, former Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a stark warning about the state of democracy. She expressed grave concerns about the waning trust in democratic institutions, particularly among young people.

17 May 2024
Read more