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

2. Strengthening the System

The Committee on Standards in Public Life

2.1  The most significant event of the past year was the publication on 21 November 2002 of the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, following its review of Standards of Conduct in the House of Commons (Cm 5663). This independent Committee, now chaired by Sir Nigel Wicks, reporting to the Prime Minister, had announced its decision to review the arrangements for regulating standards in the House in December 2001, following some disquiet in Parliament and more widely about the decision not to re-appoint my predecessor automatically for a further term of office.

2.2  The Wicks Committee published a consultation paper in February 2002 setting out the principal areas on which it intended to focus, and invited written submissions. In my own submission, I emphasised the need to ensure that the arrangements in place carried the confidence of both the public and Members of the House. I stressed the value of arrangements embodying an important independent element in the form of the Commissioner but of which the House itself felt ownership. I urged a number of steps designed to strengthen the independent role of the Commissioner, within an overall framework of accountability to the House, and through the House, to the public. And I set out my own intention, working with the Committee on Standards and Privileges of the House, to seek to simplify and clarify expectations of Members, to build up the preventive work of my office and to continue to ensure effective yet fair investigation of complaints against Members.

2.3  The Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, the Rt. Hon. Sir George Young MP, also made written and oral submissions to the Committee, as did the Leader of the House of Commons and the Clerk of the House, as well as a number of Members and others, including my two predecessors. I appeared before the Committee to give oral evidence on 13 May and again on 18 September (on this latter occasion in company with the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges). Transcripts of all the evidence are available on the web-site of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

2.4  At the end of extensive gathering of information and analysis the Committee concluded:

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 went on:

We believe, along with many of our witnesses, that the fundamental structure of the current system for regulating standards of conduct in the House of Commons is sound. However, it requires some considerable strengthening of the system's components to meet the areas of concern … and to provide effective regulation of standards. (Cm 5663, paragraph 3.23)

2.5  The recommendations of the Committee were designed to provide such strengthening. They focussed primarily on buttressing the independence of the Commissioner and on underpinning the impartial and authoritative role of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. They included, for example, provision for the appointment of the Commissioner for a non-renewable term of between 5 and 7 years and for an even balance of representation from the Government and Opposition political parties in the Committee's membership.

2.6  The Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and I welcomed the report immediately it was published. Both the Committee, in its Second Report of the current session (HC 403), and the House of Commons Commission[1] subsequently made what the Wicks Committee itself characterised as a "constructive" response to the report. In most cases, the Committee on Standards and Privileges advised the House to accept the Wicks Committee's recommendations. In the few cases where, for good reason, it did not feel able to do this, it put forward alternative proposals. Sir Nigel Wicks wrote to the Speaker and Sir George Young on behalf of his Committee giving the Committee's views on the responses made. He stated that the Committee believed that the recommendations of the Committee on Standards and Privileges "will be a significant improvement on the current arrangements".[2]

2.7  On 26 June 2003, the House debated the advice it had received from the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the House of Commons Commission on the Wicks Committee's recommendations. The advice was accepted with support from all sides of the House. A detailed summary of the changes agreed is for next year's report. The result is a significant strengthening of the existing arrangements for sustaining high standards of conduct in the House and a boost to public confidence in those arrangements.

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 Register—accurate as at 26 November 2002—was 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.

Codifying Procedures

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 notes—which I submitted for approval by the Committee on Standards and Privileges—gave 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

2   HC 516 (2002-03) Back

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Prepared 17 July 2003