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
- Members' staff and research assistants;
- Parliamentary lobby journalists;
- All Party Parliamentary Groups.
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