40. During the course of our inquiry other concerns
were expressed and suggestions made about the rules for registration
and complaints procedures.
41. Mr Major suggested that the rules governing Members'
conduct should be set once a Parliament, and not be changed for
the duration of that Parliament.
The idea is an appealing one. Frequent changes to the rules can
be confusing to Members and we would not normally expect changes
to be made without a significant reason. Mr Major's views echoed
a perception we have detected among Members that the rules, or
their interpretation, are sometimes changed by means of a report
from this Committee, without Members being aware of any change.
The Leader of the House commented that:
"Such a process of extension
may well lead to Members inadvertently and in all innocence falling
foul of a new interpretation of the rules".
42. The rules relating to the conduct of Members
are not always entirely intuitive and cannot cover all eventualities.
They may require interpretation in the light of a complaint or
query. We contest the suggestion that the rules are being "extended"
or becoming more stringent incrementally; we simply provide interpretation
of the rules in new contexts.
43. It is not our intention when making judgements
to make the rules stricter or to change their interpretation;
it would be arbitrary and unfair to do so. We work on the presumption
that Members' private activities, those wholly unrelated to Parliament,
should be beyond the scope of the rules. There can be some dispute
over whether a particular activity is related to a Member's parliamentary
dutiesas in the case of speaking arrangements. Where there
is doubt, registration is the correct option. This does not
imply, as the Leader of the House suggested:
"... in practice it
is becoming rarelyif at allthat anyone approaching
the registrar for advice is told there is no need to register".
The Commissioner often gives such advice.
44. Members should not be concerned that they will
be "caught out" by new interpretations of the rules.
Any more detailed guidance provided by this Committee is not applied
retrospectively. We will not uphold complaints where a Member
has sought the advice of the Registrar or the Commissioner in
good faith and has acted upon it.
45. On occasion we have taken the opportunity of
a report on a complaint to provide new guidance for Members. We
recommend that where she considers it appropriate, the Commissioner
may at the end of an investigation decide not to produce a report
dealing with the specific complaint. She may instead report to
the Committee with a recommendation that the Committee issue a
guidance note for Members on her intention to interpret the rules
in a particular way on receipt of further complaints.
46. A number of Members expressed their concern about
frivolous or vexatious complaints made to the Commissioner. The
Commissioner is empowered to dismiss cases which she feels do
not merit further inquiry; but there will be occasions when complaints
that might be regarded as being malevolent in intent require investigation.
We received suggestions that complaints made by Members
were often politically motivated, with the Member complained about
often finding this out from the press.
We do not have the power to prevent complainants from telling
the media about the complaint they have made, nor do we have the
power to ensure that these are not "reported in a fairly
dramatic way", as Mr Clarke put it.
47. It is a basic courtesy that a Member making
a complaint to the Commissioner should at the same time send a
copy of the letter of complaint to the Member concerned. We
accept the suggestion that where we feel that a complaint from
a Member is frivolous or has been made only for partisan reasons,
we would expect to state this in any report we made about the
48. It is right that the Commissioner should have
the discretion not to pursue full investigation on minor issues
where, during preliminary consideration, it is clear that the
facts are not disputed and the Member immediately rectifies or
apologises for a failure to declare or register. Where this rectification
procedure is followed there should be a note to that effect in
49. It was suggested to us that Members who are the
subject of an investigation should have legal advice or access
to funding for legal representation. Recent experience has taught
us that where lawyers have become involved in cases they may unnecessarily
prolong the period of investigation of both the Commissioner and
this Committee. Some Members, their lawyers, and even witnesses,
have appeared to be operating under the misapprehension that an
inquiry by the Commissioner can be equated with a prosecution.
This is not the case. Members are not asked to prove their innocence
but rather to give a prompt, truthful account of the events in
question and provide the whole truth. The Commissioner's procedures
are clearly set out in our report on Complaints against Members:
the investigation process.
50. We understand that Members who are the subject
of a complaint will often feel that they wish to take legal advice.
They are perfectly entitled to do so. As Mr Major put it:
"The reason I took legal
advice was to make sure that the answers I gave to questions the
Commissioner was bound to put to me ... were clear and were accurate,
and I did not through ignorance, or any other reason, provide
a misleading reply ..."
Mr Major provided his own answers to the Commissioner
and the Committee. Members have a responsibility to answer queries
in relation to inquiries by the Commissioner and the Committee
honestly, fully and promptly. We expect Members to respond to
inquiries themselves and not through legal intermediaries.
51. The process of investigation is not an adversarial
one. We do not believe it appropriate for the House to pay the
legal costs of Members who are under investigation. Advice on
the rules of procedure for investigations is always available
from the Commissioner.
52. There is a case for making available, at the
expense of the House, limited independent legal advice for Members
preparing their own prompt, honest and full answers to the Commissioner
and the Committee and assembling relevant papers. We invite our
successors and the House to give consideration to suitable standing
arrangements. The House should not pay for legal representation.
53. Mr Major and Sir Nicholas Lyell suggested that
the Committee would benefit from more legal expertise amongst
its members, and access to a legal adviser.
Under the Standing Order governing this Committee
the Attorney General, Advocate General and Solicitor General (when
they are Members of the House of Commons) may attend our meetings,
take part in deliberation or offer other assistance. This has
not happened during this Parliament, except for one occasion on
which we sought written advice on a point of law from the Solicitor
General. In any case these Ministers are busy and likely to have
little time to devote to the Committee.
During this Parliament one of the Members of this Committee has
a legal background. It assists us in our work to have a legal
perspective and we recommend that the House bear this in mind
whenever it considers appointments to the Committee.
54. In our report on appeal procedures,
which has not been considered by the House, we recommended that
Standing Orders be amended so as to permit the appointment of
a legally qualified assessor to assist the Commissioner in serious
cases. The House should now agree this.
55. The Committee on Standards in Public Life (then
known as the Neill Committee) considered our report on appeals
in its January 2000 report, Reinforcing Standards.
While we agreed with several of the Neill Committee's recommendations
about this Committee's work, we did not agree with a number of
others. The correspondence between Lord Neill and our Chairman
is appended to this Report.
56. We were asked for guidance on Members' declaration
of interests during debate. Concern was expressed that the action
of a Member in merely drawing attention to the fact that he or
she had a relevant entry in the Register, without specifying its
nature, was insufficient to inform the listener of the interest.
The Guide to the Rules states that "a declaration
should be brief but sufficiently informative to enable a listener
to understand the nature of the Member's interest".
In our view a simple statement referring to an entry in the Register
is insufficient for this purpose. Members should be aware that
not all listeners have easy or immediate access to the Register.
Where Members have a number of different interests, and where
it may not be immediately apparent to which interest they are
referring, Members have a duty to ensure that their declaration
is clear and unambiguous. The Guide to the Rules
should be revised to read "a declaration should be brief
but should make specific reference to the nature of the Member's
6 Consultation on Proposed Amendments to the Rules relating
to the Conduct of Members,
HC 710, Session 1999-2000.