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

3. Emphasising Prevention

3.1  Many people's perception of the current arrangements for regulating the conduct of Members of Parliament is "complaints-dominated". The tone is set by the headlines attracted by the latest report on a particular Member's alleged misconduct. Whilst it is important to have fair and effective arrangements for investigating complaints against Members, it is at least as important to try to avoid complaints arising in the first place. Prevention is, here as elsewhere, preferable to cure.

3.2  Ensuring the provision of advice on conduct issues to individual Members has been an important part of the role of successive Commissioners. In practical terms, most issues to do with the registration or declaration of interests are handled by either the Registrar of Members' Interests or the Commissioner's staff. More complicated matters are, however, referred to the Commissioner. If they raise an issue of general application, he may in turn seek a ruling on them from the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

3.3  The provision of advice to Members is a large part of the day-to-day work of the Commissioner's office. During a typical three-week period in March 2003, for example, my office dealt with 182 items of correspondence and 132 telephone calls, many of which involved requests for advice from Members.

3.4  Difficulties tend to arise when advice is not sought or, if sought, is not taken. The most helpful piece of advice any Commissioner can give a Member is:

  • If in doubt, seek advice from the Registrar or the Commissioner's office.

The Committee on Standards and Privileges has made clear that it would never criticise a Member for acting on advice sought and given in good faith.

Forming a Strategy for Prevention

3.5  Although providing advice has always been a key function of the Commissioner, it has not perhaps hitherto been seen as a core part in an overall strategy for trying to prevent situations arising that may give rise to complaints. Together with my colleagues—and with the support of the Committee on Standards and Privileges—I have been trying over the last year to develop such a strategy, with the following elements in addition to the provision of tailored advice to individual Members.

1. Simplifying and Clarifying what is expected of Members

3.6  There is a danger that when rules are laid down, they accumulate layers of complexity and interpretation as individual cases are considered over time. As already described in Section 2, one of the thrusts of the revision of the Rules for Members during the past year has been to simplify and clarify what is expected of Members and to focus the Register of Members' Interests once more on its key purpose. This is an ongoing task, to be borne in mind during each successive revision of the Code and the Rules.

2. Providing Training

3.7  The revision of the Rules in May 2002 provided an opportunity to mount a series of seminars for all Members to explain the main changes to them. Although the turn-out for these events was lower than I had hoped for, informal feed-back suggested that they had been found helpful by Members who attended.

3.8  In the past, the office of the Commissioner has contributed to induction arrangements for new Members entering the House following a General Election. It is clear that, as well as continuing to make such a contribution in future, we shall need to ensure the provision of occasional training opportunities which are open to existing Members as well as to new ones. The Wicks Committee has emphasised the importance of training and recommended that the Commissioner periodically review, in conjunction with the party Whips and the House authorities, the effectiveness of the provision for training and guidance on standards of conduct. This is a task which I expect to undertake in the coming year.

3.9  I believe that it will be important to involve the staff of Members, as well as Members themselves, in these training arrangements. Members rely heavily on their secretaries and research assistants to help them cope with the myriad demands of their busy lives. A staff well-informed on conduct issues is likely to be an important tool in helping ensure Members' compliance with standards requirements.

3. Offering Written Advice and Guidance

3.10  I have already stressed the importance of offering Members individual guidance and advice on issues raised by their own particular circumstances. But there are also many issues which are raised regularly by Members with my office, or which arise from the Committee on Standards and Privileges's consideration of particular cases. Working with the Committee and the Registrar, I have therefore embarked on the provision of occasional advice notes for Members. The first of these, issued in January 2003, concerned the circumstances in which Members should declare an interest in debates on Equitable Life, a matter of immediate concern to many Members. As the year covered by this report ended, we were finalising a note containing answers to many questions which are commonly asked of my office by Members. We were also making plans to distribute a specially designed folder to all Members, in which they can keep standards-related material, including the Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules for Members, the guidance notes on procedural matters referred to in Section 2 of this report and the advice notes I have mentioned.

3.11  I hope that, over time, this will build up into a useful compendium of reference material for Members on standards matters. It is important to emphasise that this material, (which is also available to Members and their staff on the parliamentary intranet) does not represent more regulation but rather a distillation of advice on existing practice.

4. Working with Other Agencies

3.12  One of the difficulties facing Members of Parliament is the increasing complexity of the regulatory environment in which they find themselves. All Members are not only subject to the Code and Rules approved by the House, but also to the requirements agreed by the Speaker—relating, for example, to the payment of parliamentary allowances or the use of the facilities of the House—which are administered by other Departments of the House such as the Finance and Administration Department or the Department of the Serjeant at Arms. Since the coming into force of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act in 2000, Members have also been subject to the supervision of the Electoral Commission in respect of the registration of political donations. Members who are Ministers of the Crown are also subject to the Code of Conduct and Guidance on Procedures for Ministers (the Ministerial Code) approved by the Prime Minister.

3.13  There is a need to keep the cost/benefit of these sometimes overlapping regulatory regimes under regular review. This is a matter for the Government and for the House itself. Those appointed to administer these regimes need to maintain regular liaison to try to simplify and align requirements wherever possible and to avoid unnecessary duplication or conflicting interpretations of similar requirements.

3.14  With this in mind, my office is seeking to work increasingly closely with the various bodies I have already mentioned. The Electoral Commission participated in the seminars put on for Members last year and we plan to include relevant information prepared by them in the folder of standards material we are preparing for Members. There is, however, more work to be done in seeking to simplify and align the House's requirements and those of the Commission. We will not be able to achieve complete alignment, because of the different purposes of the two regimes but, as I made clear in my submission to the Commission's interim review of the 2000 Act, there is still, in my view, scope for improvement.

3.15  This may be an appropriate point at which to mention that the Registrar and I also maintain regular contact with our opposite numbers in the House of Lords, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas, as well as with colleagues in the Standards Board for England (which is responsible for the oversight of conduct issues in local government in England). Although there are significant differences in regulatory framework, there is much that we can learn from each other's practice and, if we can also use what we learn to reduce the complexity of regulatory requirements, that will be a valuable outcome for all.

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