Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Annual Report 2002-03


Annual Report 2002-03

Foreword by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

This Report, the first of its type, covers the period 1 March 2002 to 31 March 2003. It represents a significant step forward in informing Members of Parliament and the public about how the system for maintaining high standards of conduct among Members is working. Its publication reflects the commitment of the House, the Committee on Standards and Privileges and myself to ensure openness about the system, including the processes for handling complaints, coupled with a proper degree of confidentiality about individual cases.

I took up post amid anxiety that the way in which my predecessor had left office had called into question public, and some parliamentary confidence in the arrangements for regulating standards. That concern prompted a study by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (currently known as the Wicks Committee) which found, after extensive study, that the fundamental structure of the present arrangements is sound. It also concluded that the overwhelming majority of MPs act honourably:

We endorse the view that standards in the House of Commons are generally high, and that the overwhelming majority of Members seek to, and in practice do, uphold high standards of propriety. (Cm 5663, paragraph 2.7)

The Committee nonetheless made a number of recommendations designed, in its view, to strengthen the current system, including the authority of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the position of the Commissioner as the key independent element in that system. In its advice to the House, the Committee on Standards and Privileges recommended accepting most of those recommendations. Where it believed that a particular recommendation raised difficulties, it put forward alternatives, as did the House of Commons Commission on those recommendations which fell within its remit. This constructive approach was welcomed by the Wicks Committee. A fuller account of this process is given in section 2. On 26 June 2003, the House of Commons accepted the advice it had received. The result is a significant strengthening of its standards arrangements.

In its analysis, the Wicks Committee pointed out that the system for regulating standards of conduct among MPs is about more than the investigation of complaints. Its purpose also is to raise public confidence in Parliament itself by promoting a culture amongst Members which supports and sustains ethical behaviour. It is because I take a similar view that, since coming into office, I have been trying (with the active encouragement and support of the Committee on Standards and Privileges) to take a strategic approach to my task. This has meant putting more emphasis on prevention and education, in order to help avoid problems arising in the first place. An account of what this has meant in practice is in section 3.

Complaints will nonetheless be made and they need considering and, where appropriate, investigating. In this report I am happy to make more information on the handling of complaints publicly available than ever before. As the figures in section 4 show, the number of letters of complaint (referrals) received in my office over the period 1 April 2002 to 31 March 2003 was significantly down on the number in the previous year. Historically, the pattern of complaints has fluctuated and it is generally unwise to place too much weight on a single year's experience. Moreover, just as the number of complaints can vary so can the complexity of each one.

As is understandable, it is the House of Commons' arrangements for regulating standards of conduct among its own Members which attract most public attention. But my small office is also responsible for overseeing the registers of interests relating to:

The nature of this work is described in section 5. Its importance is underlined by the fact that this year, I received for the first time two complaints about Members' staff. The outcome of these cases is described briefly in that section.

Although the number of letters of complaint fell in the past year, the work arising out of the Wicks Committee and the publication of the new Register of Members' Interests in December 2002 has meant that it has nonetheless been a busy one. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my staff, who have coped successfully with that work as well as with the arrival of a new Commissioner, and to all those others (Members and staff of the House) who have given me their unfailing help and support.

To sum up, the past year has seen real progress in:

  • strengthening the machinery for sustaining high standards of conduct among MPs;
  • putting more effort into preventing problems before they arise;
  • greater openness about how the system works.

There is more to do, but we are off to a good start.

4 July 2003        Sir Philip Mawer

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Prepared 17 July 2003