Select Committee on Standards and Privileges First Report


  74. The complaints summarised in Section II above fall into two main classes:

    -    the acceptance of payments or other financial inducements in return for promoting certain matters in Parliament, or with Ministers, which might amount in some cases to bribery;

    -    a failure to register and/or declare such payments and other relevant financial interests in accordance with the rules of the House.

  75. These two classes of allegations differ both in their potential seriousness and in the extent to which the conduct complained of can be judged against clear, formalised rules of the House. I have had regard to these factors in evaluating the evidence - subject to my terms of reference, which require me to identify any breach of the rules "in the letter or in the spirit".


  76. There is no doubt that bribery of a Member of Parliament is, and for a very long time has been, against the law of Parliament (though, as the memorandum from the Attorney General to the Privileges Committee in 1994 made clear, whether it also constitutes a criminal offence remains uncertain until the position at common law has been considered at appellate level).[25]

  77. Formal expression was first given to this view in 1695, when the House of Commons resolved that:

    "the offer of money, or other advantage, to any Member of Parliament for the promoting of any matter whatsoever, depending or to be transacted in Parliament, is a high crime and misdemeanour and tends to the subversion of the English constitution."

  78. According to Erskine May[26] the spirit of this Resolution is interpreted as meaning that "the offering to a Member of either House of a bribe to influence him in his conduct as a Member, or of any fee or reward in connection with the promotion of, or opposition to, any bill, resolution, matter or thing submitted or intended to be submitted to the House or any committee thereof, has been treated as a breach of privilege."

  79. Nor is there any doubt that "the acceptance by any Member of either House of a bribe to influence him in his conduct as such Member, or of any fee, compensation or reward in connection with the promotion of, or opposition to, any bill, resolution, matter or thing submitted or intended to be submitted to the House or any committee thereof is a breach of privilege."[27] Indeed, Members of the House of Commons who have been found guilty of such an offence have been expelled or committed.

  80. As the Clerk of the House's memorandum to the Privileges Committee in 1994 explained, the great majority of cases of bribing a Member, especially in its crudest form, are extremely old, dating from the first few decades after the 1695 Resolution was passed. In modern times there have been comparatively few examples. This may be due in part to the evidential difficulties involved in establishing a clear link between the making, or offering, of a corrupt payment and the Parliamentary action for which it is alleged to be an inducement.

  81. The essence of the offence of bribing a Member lies in the attempt, by corrupt means, to influence him to adopt, or refrain from adopting, a particular course of action in Parliament. However, the House has also declared its disapproval of the misuse by a Member of his position in Parliament to advance a cause in which he has a paid professional interest, even where no question arises of his being improperly influenced by others.

  82. Thus, in 1858, it was resolved that:

    "it is contrary to the usage and derogatory to the dignity of this House that any of its Members should bring forward, promote or advocate in this House any proceeding or measure in which he may have acted or been concerned for or in consideration of any pecuniary fee or reward."

  83. Although it is couched in general terms, the particular concern which gave rise to this Resolution was the advocacy in Parliament by members of the Bar of cases in which they had a current interest.

  84. More recently, the House has extended the prohibition on the exercise, or attempted exercise, of undue influence on Members to cover cases where Members themselves voluntarily enter into formal relationships with outside bodies which have the effect of fettering their absolute discretion to speak or act as they think fit in Parliament.

  85. This principle was embodied in the Resolution of 15 July 1947, which declared that:

    "it is inconsistent with the dignity of the House, with the duty of a Member to his constituents, and with the maintenance of the privilege of freedom of speech, for any Member of this House to enter into any contractual agreement with an outside body, controlling or limiting the Member's complete independence and freedom of action in Parliament, or stipulating that he shall act in any way as the representative of such outside body in regard to any matters to be transacted in Parliament; the duty of a Member being to his constituents and to the country as a whole, rather than to any particular section thereof."

  86. This Resolution was originally aimed at deterring trade unions from seeking to bring improper pressure to bear on sponsored Members, though the element of financial reward is not specifically mentioned. But the `offence' thus created appears nonetheless to be a relatively narrow one and difficult to prove, depending as it does on the existence of some form of agreement between the Member concerned and an outside organisation.

  87. As can be seen, therefore, the House has, over the course of several centuries, expressed its disapprobation of various kinds of financial relationship between Members and others, ranging from outright bribery to arrangements which, whilst not corrupt, are wrong in principle because they are inconsistent with the duties and independence of a Member of Parliament.

  88. The position is somewhat clouded, however, by the fact that certain types of financial arrangements, notably consultancies, involving the provision by Members of Parliamentary services on behalf of commercial interests have not, until very recently, been expressly regulated or restricted. Indeed, the system of registration and declaration of interests implicitly recognises that some forms of remunerated Parliamentary activity fall within its ambit. (There can, after all, be no question of requiring Members to register and declare interests which are, in themselves, regarded by the House as illegitimate).

  89. The Resolution of 6 November 1995,[28] which amended the 1947 Resolution, codified and updated the general prohibition on paid advocacy, but left untouched[29] the status of consultancy agreements involving the provision of advice. The 1995 Resolution was not retrospective in its effect; the events with which my inquiry has been concerned all predate it.

  90. Equally, political lobbying - both of and by Members - has been, and remains, an entirely legitimate part of the democratic process.

  91. Even more problematically, so far as the approach to this inquiry is concerned, the piecemeal - and in some respects contradictory - evolution of the Parliamentary "rule book" and the relative paucity of case law make it difficult to match allegations within the first category under examination[30] to specific offences in existence at the times in question.

  92. As it happens, I do not believe that this matters in practice. The House has never regarded the absence of precise rules or prohibitions as a barrier to proceeding against Members on the grounds of conduct regarded as inconsistent with their Parliamentary status or otherwise judged to be unacceptable.

  93. This fact was most obviously exemplified by the report of the Privileges Committee in the original "cash for questions" case in 1995. The Committee explicitly did not rely, in reaching its findings, on there having been a breach of any specific rule of the House and, in particular, it did not regard the actions complained of as falling within the definition of bribery, either at common law or according to the law of Parliament.

  94. Instead, the Committee pointed to the "general obligation upon Members not to allow their conduct to fall below the standards which the House is entitled to expect of them".[31] In judging the seriousness of any such failure by Members to observe the required standard of behaviour, the Committee thought it appropriate to quote Erskine May's definition of contempt as "any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any Member or officer .... in the discharge of his duty". The Committee continued, again citing Erskine May,[32] that any act "which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results may be treated as a contempt", at which point May adds, crucially, "even though there is no precedent of the offence."[33] The Clerk of the House's memorandum to the Committee also makes clear that the definition of a contempt could include acts "which damage the standing or reputation of the House."[34]

  95. I have accordingly adopted these broad principles as my starting point in examining the first group of complaints.[35] The test I have applied is whether the allegations have been substantiated by the evidence adduced and whether the relevant conduct matches the criteria set out above. It is for the Select Committee to determine, if it accepts my conclusions, how seriously it views any misconduct and what penalty, if any, to recommend to the House.


  96. My task has been somewhat easier in dealing with those complaints which relate to a failure to register or to declare relevant interests. This is because, in this area at least, specific obligations are laid upon Members within a framework of formal, codified rules - even though there may be some scope for interpretation at the margins. It is therefore possible to say with reasonable certainty what the rules were (or were understood to be) at any given point in time since the Register and the duty to declare relevant interests were first introduced in the mid-1970s. But these rules, especially those relating to registration, cannot be viewed in isolation. They are intended to be interpreted and applied in the light of the statement of the Register's purpose which appears at the beginning of each published edition. This is important as a means of ensuring that the rules on registration are observed both in the letter and in the spirit.

  97. The House takes seriously the obligation to comply with the registration and declaration requirements. Breaches are not a mere technicality, although where the failure is due to a genuine oversight or misunderstanding the House normally accepts that in mitigation. But if dishonesty or deliberate concealment is involved, the offence is viewed especially sternly - as amounting even to a contempt. Both in the Poulson case[36] in 1977 and the John Browne case in 1991, the essence of the offences lay not in the nature of the relationships entered into with outside individuals or bodies, but in the use by the Members concerned of their privileged position in Parliament to promote unavowed interests. In the Poulson case, the Select Committee appointed to enquire into the allegations (which dated from the late 1960s and early 1970s) based its judgements of the conduct of the three Members on the rules and practice of the House prior to the two Resolutions agreed in 1974 on declaration and registration of interests.

  98. The rules relating to registration and declaration, and their development over the period covered by the allegations against Mr Hamilton and the other Members, are set out at Annex 5. It is, however, worth briefly referring here to the central points.

a) Registration

  99. The Register was established in 1975 with the purpose of providing:

    "information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a Member[37] may receive which might be thought to affect his conduct as a Member or influence his actions, speeches, or votes in Parliament."

  100. The introduction to the annually published Registers reminded Members that they were: "required to have this general purpose in mind when determining what interests should properly be declared".

  101. In June 1993, two amendments were agreed by the House to this statement of the purposes of the Register, which now reads (changes in italics):

    "The main purpose of the Register of Members' Interests is to provide information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament."

  102. The published Register also stated:

    "It is left to individual Members, with or without the advice of the Registrar, to give the required information, and any inconsistencies of style or content that are apparent in the Register spring from that fact. Each Member is responsible for what is recorded about himself here, as each is answerable to his fellow Members and the public."

  103. Members are required to notify any change in their registrable interests within four weeks of the change occurring.

  104. On 17 December 1985 the House passed a Resolution which, while it emphasised:

    "that it is the personal responsibility of each Member to have regard to his public position and the good name of Parliament in any work he undertakes or any interest he acquires"

went on to confirm:

    "that the scope of the requirements to register remunerated trades, professions or vocations includes any remunerated activity in the fields of public relations and political and parliamentary advice and consultancy; in particular agrees, [.......] in regard to the registration and declaring of clients, that the services which require such registration and, where appropriate, declaration include as well as any action connected with any proceedings in the House or its Committees, the sponsoring of functions in the Palace, making representations to Ministers, Civil Servants and other Members, accompanying delegations to Ministers and the like".[38]

  105. In 1992, in a Report subsequently approved by the House, the Select Committee on Members' Interests warned Members against believing "that correct registration and declaration adequately discharge their public responsibilities in respect of their private interests". In an Appendix to the Report, the then Speaker stated: "A Member must be vigilant that his actions do not tend to bring the House into disrepute"; and he added: "Members who hold consultancy and similar positions must ensure that they do not use their positions as Members improperly".

b) Declaration

  106. The rule relating to declaration of interests (introduced in 1974) is a requirement separate from, and additional to, registration. The latter is a permanent and continuous record of Members' interests while the former is a disclosure, during debate or other proceedings, of an interest specifically relevant to that debate or those proceedings. The requirement to declare an interest extends (and has extended since 1974) to any "transactions or communications which a Member may have with other Members or with Ministers or servants of the Crown". The duty covers any "relevant pecuniary interest or benefit of whatever nature, whether direct or indirect, that [the Member] may have had, may have, or may be expecting to have".[39]

  107. The definition of "proceedings" was extended to Early Day Motions in 1993 and to written questions (and notices of oral questions) in 1995.

25  HC (1994-95) 351-II, p 155. Back

26  21st edition, p 128. Back

27  Ibid, p 119; emphasis added. Back

28  Following a recommendation by the Select Committee on Standards in Public Life. Back

29  The House did, however, agree to a separate Resolution requiring the lodging of employment contracts and the disclosure, in bands of £5,000, of any remuneration received by a Member for services provided in his capacity as a Member. Back

30  See para 74. Back

31  HC (1994-95) 351-I, para 8. Back

32  21st edition, p 115. Back

33  Emphasis added. Back

34  HC (1994-95) 351-II, p 159, para 3. Back

35  This must, of course, be read in the context of the remarks at the end of para 89. Back

36  The Members involved were Mr Reginald Maudling, Mr John Cordle and Mr Albert Roberts. Back

37  The registration requirements apply equally to Ministers who are Members of the House of Commons. Back

38  Emphasis added. Back

39  Emphasis added. Back

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