Simplifying and Clarifying the
Rules for Members
2.8 On 14 May 2002 the House of Commons approved
a new Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules for Members. The
revision was the result of recommendations by the Committee on
Standards and Privileges in two reports (Fifth Report, Session
2000-01, HC 267 and Ninth Report, session 2001-02, HC 763).
2.9 The change to the Code was minimal. Its effect
was to clarify that the Code applies to Members in all aspects
of their public life, not in their purely private and personal
lives. The Committee and I plan to begin further work on a more
comprehensive review of the Code during the coming year.
2.10 The changes to the Guide to the Rules were
far more extensive. Principal among them was a narrowing of the
'advocacy rule', the rule which had forbidden Members from initiating
any parliamentary proceeding which related specifically and directly
to the affairs of a body (or of a wider group) in which they had
(or expected to have) a pecuniary interest. This had been found
too restrictive, in that it was preventing knowledgeable Members
from contributing effectively to the proceedings of the House.
Following a process of consultation, the Committee advised the
House to adopt a proposal by the Committee on Standards in Public
Life that an 'exclusive benefit' rule be substituted for the existing
rule. This forbids a Member from seeking to confer benefit exclusively
on a body in which he or she has (or expects to have) a pecuniary
interest. So far, the operation of the new rule has proved more
satisfactory, both in terms of the contributions to debate and
of the relative ease of its administration.
2.11 The Committee on Standards and Privileges
also took the opportunity of the revision to clarify and simplify
other Rules relating to the registration and declaration of interests,
without losing rigour. So, for example, new, more realistic thresholds
were set for registering gifts and benefits, which were expressed
in terms of percentages of the parliamentary salary. Various of
these thresholds were aligned and, for the first time, a monetary
value (again linked to a percentage of the parliamentary salary)
was set for the registration of property. The threshold for registering
political donations was brought into line with the figure set
by the Electoral Commission. Partners were included as well as
spouses in a number of categories. And overseas trusts and share
options were brought within the category of shareholdings to be
registered. The Committee also recommended the exclusion from
the Register of most unremunerated interests, and that advice
has been followed.
2.12 So extensive were the changes in the Rules
that the Committee on Standards and Privileges decided that the
most sensible course was to compile a completely new Register
of Members' Interests. This is normally only done at the beginning
of each Parliament. My office arranged four seminars to brief
Members on the new requirements. We distributed an entirely revised
Register form to all Members and subsequently advised many Members
individually on its completion. Each Member was then sent a draft
of their own Register entry for checking, before the new Registeraccurate
as at 26 November 2002was printed and published on 5 December.
The revision was a major logistical exercise, made more complicated
on this occasion by the need to address several novel points in
interpreting and applying the revised Rules. Thanks are due particularly
to the Registrar and to my Personal Assistant for their work in
the Register's accurate and timely production.
2.13 The task of revising the Register is, however,
ongoing. Members' circumstances change. They are required to notify
the Registrar of a registrable event within 4 weeks of it happening.
Fresh editions of the Register are therefore produced every 6-8
weeks and posted on the internet. A new printed edition of the
Register is produced each year, and also posted on the internet
as well as being available in hard copy. In this way, Members,
the public and the press have access to a regularly updated record
of Members' registrable interests.
2.14 A third way in which the arrangements for
regulating standards of conduct among Members have been strengthened
during the year under review has been by codifying, and in the
process improving, the procedures followed in handling complaints
against Members. Hitherto, the principal statement of practice
in this respect was a memorandum which my predecessor had produced
at the request of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and
which the Committee published as an appendix to its Ninth Report
of Session 1999-2000 (HC 403). Following my appointment, and with
the encouragement of the Committee, I took the opportunity to
review these procedures and to set them out in more comprehensive
form, in a series of guidance notes which can now be made available
at the start of any complaint investigation to the complainant,
the Member who is the subject of the complaint and to any witnesses.
Copies of these notes have also been made available to all Members
and published on the parliamentary web-site.
2.15 The production of these noteswhich
I submitted for approval by the Committee on Standards and Privilegesgave
both the Committee and me an opportunity to clarify and in some
respects modify existing arrangements. One example of this, affecting
the procedures followed by the Committee, is that after I have
submitted my report on a complaint to the Committee, its Clerk
now lets the Member concerned have a copy of that report shortly
before the Committee first meets to consider it. The Member thus
has opportunity, if he or she so wishes, to let the Committee
have any written comments on the report and to offer to give oral
evidence. The notes also clarify that the role of the Commissioner
as an investigator is to report the facts as he has found them
and, wherever possible, offer his own opinion on whether the Code
has been breached.
2.16 The Committee on Standards and Privileges
and I intend to keep the way existing procedures operate under
regular review, and to clarify and improve them wherever possible.
As the year under review ended, work was under way, for example,
to define how the Committee and the Commissioner deal with frivolous
or vexatious complaints, on which a further procedural guidance
note is shortly expected to be issued.
1 HC 422 (2002-03) Back
HC 516 (2002-03) Back