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


1. Regulating Standards of Conduct in Parliament

1.1  As this, the first annual report by a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, takes a broad view of the arrangements for regulating standards of conduct in the House of Commons, it seems appropriate to begin by describing the essential nature of those arrangements.

Brief History

1.2  Like many other aspects of the United Kingdom political system, the arrangements for regulating standards in the House have developed over time and often in response to particular events. As long ago as 1695, the House of Commons passed a resolution declaring bribery of Members a high crime and misdemeanour. For centuries thereafter, misconduct by Members was handled ad hoc and often informally as it arose (which was relatively rarely). In 1858, the House passed a Resolution prohibiting advocacy for fee or reward and in 1947 a further resolution banning Members from entering contracts or agreements which restrict their freedom to act and speak, or require them to act as a representative of outside bodies.

1.3  A resolution of 1974 confirmed a long-standing convention that relevant pecuniary (i.e. financial) interests should be declared in the House and its Committees, and in communications with Ministers and officials. The first Register of Members' Interests was created in 1975 (following the Poulson case). Rules about registering or declaring interests developed gradually thereafter and were first codified and substantially revised in 1992.

1.4  The key features of the present arrangements came into being in 1995 following recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (at the time chaired by Lord Nolan) and the Select Committee of the House on Standards in Public Life. These recommendations were for:

The first Commissioner (Sir Gordon Downey) was appointed in 1995 and a Code of Conduct for Members was approved by the House and published the following year.

Principles

1.5  The nature of the arrangements reflects a concern to ensure effective machinery for upholding high standards of conduct, containing a strong independent element, whilst preserving Parliament's control over its own affairs. For centuries, Parliament fought to establish its right to control its own affairs, free from interference by either the Monarch or the courts. This freedom was confirmed by Article 9 of the Bill of Rights of 1689 which provided:

That the Freedom of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parliament.

1.6  The House's right to discipline its own Members is a central element in this. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life observed in 1995 when recommending the present arrangements:

The House collectively has a responsibility to safeguard the public interest against the possible misjudgements of individual Members, and it has the ability to do so. It also needs to reassert forcefully to the public that Members of Parliament, collectively and individually, have a sense of both the responsibilities and the dignity of the role with which they are entrusted. We believe that the House can do this itself, and that the package which we set out below will help to do so. It is a powerful and flexible mixture of disclosure and enforcement which will serve the public interest better than the inflexibility of statutory procedures. (Cm.2850-I, paragraph 59).

1.7  The system for upholding standards of conduct in Parliament is often described as one of 'self-regulation'. This is, however, a substantial over-simplification. It is correct in the sense that the House of Commons retains the ultimate responsibility for deciding the shape of the system and for disposing of individual cases arising under it. It is incorrect, however, in so far as the decision whether to investigate a complaint, as well as a recommendation on findings, are the responsibility of an independent Commissioner. The reports of his investigations and the subsequent reports of the Committee on Standards and Privileges to the House are published. When the House needs to debate such reports, it invariably does so in public. The effectiveness of the arrangements as a whole is also open to periodic review by the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life.

1.8  In this context, it is worth noting that the immunity of an individual Member of Parliament from legal action in the courts is more limited than the immunity given to parliamentarians in many other legislative assemblies, being restricted to proceedings in Parliament (that is, broadly to participation in debates in the House, in Committees and other forms of proceeding). In other respects, an MP stands in the same position in relation to the law as does any other citizen.

1.9  Members, individually and collectively, are ultimately and regularly subject to the judgement of their fellow citizens through the ballot box. As past events have shown, this can be an effective final sanction.

The Key Elements in the System

1. The Code of Conduct

1.10  The Code of Conduct applies to Members' public life, not to their purely private and personal lives. It is relatively short, incorporating the substance of various resolutions on conduct passed by the House and the Nolan Committee's 'seven principles of public life'.. Its purpose is "to assist Members in the discharge of their obligations to the House, their constituents and the public at large".

1.11  The text of the Code can be found at www.parliament.uk/about_commons/pcfs. cfm. In summary, it requires Members to:

2. The Register of Members' Interests

1.12  The main purpose of the Register 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.

1.13  The appearance of an entry in the Register simply constitutes a record of a registrable interest. It implies no element of judgement on the substance of the interest. The purpose of registration is openness, to give other Members and the public the opportunity to know about interests which may be thought to influence a Member's actions in his or her parliamentary capacity, and to make their own assessment of their significance. The Rules on registration—which were comprehensively revised in May 2002 (see section 2)—lay down, essentially as an administrative convenience, 10 categories of interest to be registered. They also place Members under a more general obligation to keep the overall purpose of the Register in mind when registering or declaring an interest.

1.14  The obligation to declare relevant interests in a debate or committee proceeding is not restricted to those interests which are the subject of an entry in the Register. It also includes interests which have been held in the recent past or of which the Member has a reasonable expectation in the future, and Members are advised to declare certain non-registrable interests where relevant.

1.15  The Register is compiled afresh at the start of every Parliament or, as last year (see section 2) following a major revision of the Rules. One bound, printed edition is published every year and the text is also available on the web-site at www.parliament.uk/about_commons/pcfs.cfm or at the House for Members or the public to study. In addition, the Register is updated every 6-8 weeks to include fresh information supplied by Members. The text of these updated editions is also published on the web-site, and is available, by appointment, for inspection in hard copy form.

3. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards 

1.16  The Commissioner is the independent element in the system for regulating standards in the House of Commons. Whilst he is an officer appointed pursuant to a Resolution of the House, he is expected to act independently in discharging his responsibilities. The duties of the Commissioner are embodied in Standing Order No.150. The main duties are:

The Commissioner is now appointed for a fixed, non-renewable term and is not liable to dismissal except on a resolution of the House.

1.17  A number of recommendations have been made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life for clarifying and strengthening the status and powers of the Commissioner. These are discussed in section 2.

4. The Committee on Standards and Privileges

1.18  Standing Order No.149 places on the Committee on Standards and Privileges the responsibility:

  

The Committee is also responsible for considering specific matters relating to privileges referred to it by the House.

Does the System Work?

1.19  The adequacy of these arrangements has been twice reviewed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life during the 8 years since they came into being. In its Sixth Report in January 2000, the Committee expressed confidence that there had been an improvement in the standards applying to Members and stated:

We have no doubt that the establishment of [the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards] has made a significant contribution to the promotion of, and public's confidence in, standards in the House of Commons. (Cm 4557-1, paragraph 3.2).

More recently, the arrangements were the subject of further extensive scrutiny by the Committee. Their findings and recommendations are discussed in the next section of this report.


 
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Prepared 17 July 2003