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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 22:09 GMT
Campaign against watchdog was 'real'
Commissioner for Standards Elizabeth Filkin.
Speaker says there was no plot to 'undermine' Filkin
By the former MP Martin Bell

A war of words is raging between the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, and the Commissioner for Standards, Elizabeth Filkin.

But it is a one-sided war of words.

The Speaker's faction, also known as the House of Commons Commission, can make whatever allegations it likes. Ms Filkin has been instructed to remain silent.

The immediate issue is the Speaker's challenge to her to name the MPs and others who she accused of conducting a whispering campaign against her.

Martin Bell
No ring for Bell
She has not done so for a very good reason. She learned about the campaign second hand.

She was not the one being whispered at. She was the one being whispered against.

I had the privilege of serving alongside Ms Filkin for 27 months on the Standards and Privileges Committee to which she reports.

The whispering campaign was not imaginary. It was real and intense.

It coincided with her investigations into complaints against Peter Mandelson, John Reid and Keith Vaz, who were not only Labour MPs but government ministers at the time.

Privileges

I am not blaming them for the campaign, but friends of theirs, or other MPs who felt they were acting in the best interests of those accused of breaking the rules.

The committee's proceedings have to remain confidential.

But it would be surprising indeed if the whispering campaign against her had not been discussed at some time in committee room 13, where it meets.

Of the 11 members of the Standards and Privileges Committee, only the Conservative MP Peter Bottomley has spoken up for her.

The silence of the others will be taken, if they are not careful, as the silence of the complicit.


She has been fair and thorough. Now she has been fired for doing her job too well
No reason has been given for the Commission's refusal to offer her a second term, or for its decision to downgrade the job to what seems like a part-time sinecure.

MPs have failed yet again to see themselves as others see them. They have appeared to care more about their privileges than their standards.

They have circled the wagons once too often and sent out a signal that they are not willing to put their own house in order.

The present system of self-regulation is a relatively new one. Its driving force is a truly independent investigator, and Ms Filkin is only the second person to hold that office.

Reputation

She has been fair and thorough. Now she has been fired for doing her job too well.

It takes courage for an MP to challenge the Speaker when he is right. It takes even more courage to challenge him when he is wrong.

And the issue of Ms Filkin is not one of those matters where there is something to be said for both sides. There isn't. She deserves more support than she has received.

My hope, a faint one at this late stage, is that the authorities of the House of Commons will come to see that the only viable successor to Ms Filkin is... Ms Filkin herself; that they will think again and ask her to serve for a further term with her resources increased and her mandate unchanged.

To do anything else will damage the reputation of Parliament still further.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andy Hosken
"The timing is not good for her"
Former Independent MP, Martin Bell
"Of course there was a whispering campaign"
See also:

21 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Filkin 'fails to prove hostile campaign'
11 Dec 01 | UK Politics
'No plot' to undermine watchdog
07 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Standards body backs MPs watchdog
06 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Sleaze watchdog's plea to MPs
05 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Speaker hits back in sleaze row
05 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Sleazebuster's high-profile scalps
05 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Profile of Elizabeth Filkin
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