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


4. Investigating Complaints

4.1  However hard we work at trying to avoid the necessity for complaints, effective arrangements need to be in place for handling them when they do arise. Complaints that Members of Parliament have breached the Code of Conduct or the Rules on the registration and declaration of interests may be sent to me by other Members of the House or by members of the public. For me to consider them, they must be submitted in writing, be signed and with sufficient supporting evidence to warrant at least preliminary inquiry. A number of would-be complainants make initial contact through e-mail. If so, they are always advised to write forwarding their evidence so that their complaint may be considered.

4.2  On receiving a complaint, the first thing I do is to check whether it falls within my terms of reference. Many complaints do not. The largest category of these is complaints that a Member has not handled a constituent's case as the constituent would have liked. How to handle a constituent's case is a matter of judgement for the Member concerned and, if a constituent is unhappy on this score, the remedy is for them to vote against the Member at the next General Election.

4.3  Other types of complaint which fall outside my terms of reference include those in which the complainant takes issue with something the Member concerned has said. An MP's views on the case for war in the Middle East, for example, may not be in tune with the thinking of all of his or her constituents but that too is a matter to be resolved through the ballot box.

4.4  A further restriction is that I may not inquire into the actions of a Member who is a Minister, where those actions are taken purely in his or her Ministerial capacity. Such matters are subject to a separate Code, promulgated by the Prime Minister. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently put forward in its Ninth Report (Cm 5775), published in April 2003, proposals for strengthening the advisory and investigative arrangements in respect of these matters.

4.5  Sometimes a complaint may, as a matter of practice, more appropriately be investigated by another department of the House or external agency. Suggestions that a Member has misused stationery supplied by the House are, for example, usually investigated by the Serjeant at Arms. More obviously, a complaint alleging criminal activity by a Member would be for the police to investigate. In such cases I will either suggest that the complainant themselves passes on the complaint or do so myself.

4.6  Where a complaint is within my terms of reference and supported by evidence, my next step is to seek an explanation from the Member concerned. What is asked of the Member is a full and truthful account of the matters in question. This may enable me to dismiss the complaint or, in cases where the matter raised is minor, to agree suitable remedial action with the Member under what is known as the rectification procedure. (A brief description of this procedure is at Appendix 1.) An example of the use of the latter during the past year concerned a Member who failed to declare when speaking about hunting that, according to the Register of Members' Interests then current, a pro-hunting group was a client of his parliamentary consultancy. In fact, the group had ceased to be a client some months previously. Nonetheless, this relevant past interest should have been declared. When the Member concerned was alerted to the point, he immediately expressed regret for his oversight and subsequently apologised publicly to the House. If a minor infringement involves a failure to Register, a special entry may be made with an explanation that this has been done to remedy an omission.

4.7  It may be, however, that the Member's response does not enable me to resolve the complaint immediately. In this case, I proceed to a full investigation. In some cases, the boundary between preliminary inquiry and formal investigation is clear cut. In others, it may be blurred, in the sense that inquiries of people other than the Member may be required before I can judge whether a particular complaint has substance.

4.8  It is not necessary for me to rehearse here the procedure I follow in conducting an inquiry. An account of this is already publicly available via the parliamentary web-site. However, it is relevant to point out that I seek to be scrupulously fair throughout. Thus, for example, I share with the Member concerned the draft of my findings of fact and seek to take into account any comments he or she may make before finalising my report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Complaints in 2002-03

4.9  During the 13½ month period from 14 February 2002 to 31 March 2003, a total of 90 matters of complaint were referred to my office either by Members of the House or members of the public. 9 of these 90 concerned similar allegations about one Member. The table below gives a breakdown on a quarterly basis of the number of referrals received and shows how they were then handled.
Feb-Mar

2002

April-June

2002

July-Sept

2002

Oct-Dec

2002

Jan-Mar

2003

All referrals received23 1413222 18
Specific complaint

against a named Member

18961 19218
Not proceeded with: reason (a) outside remit; (b) other (a) 11

(b) 1

(a) 5

(b) 3

(a) 3

(b) 1

(a) 3

(b) 3

(a) 9

(b) 1

Complaint subject of preliminary inquiry then dismissed
4

0

2

3

5
Complaint dealt with by rectification procedure/ apology to the House
0

0

0

1

0
Complaint subject of further investigation
2

1

0

92

1
Complaint subject of a report to Committee on Standards and Privileges3
2

1

0

92

0
Complaint under inquiry at end of reporting period
0

0

0

2

3

1 Includes 1 complaint against MP's researcher

2 Includes 9 separate letters of complaint against a single Member

3 Reports have been published on all these complaints

It can be seen from this table that of the 90 referrals, a significant number (20) did not get past the first fence in that they did not contain a specific complaint against a named Member. Of the remaining 70, over half (40) were not proceeded with, either because they fell outside my remit (for the sort of reasons described in paragraphs 4.2-4.5 above) or (in 9 of the 40 cases) for other reasons, such as that the complainant did not provide sufficient evidence to begin to substantiate their complaint. 14 of the remaining 30 referrals were dismissed after preliminary inquiry and another one was resolved by an apology to the House (in the case of a minor failure to declare a relevant interest). Of the remaining 15 referrals (9 of which concerned allegations against the same Member), 3 were still under inquiry at the end of March 2003 and the remainder have been the subject of reports to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

4.10  How does this pattern compare with that of previous years? Unfortunately, comprehensive statistics on the same basis have not routinely been collected hitherto, so a direct comparison with earlier years is not possible. However, those limited figures which are available suggest that the overall number of referrals (letters of complaint) has fallen over the last three years, from 137 between 1 April 2000 and 31 March 2001, to 118 between 1 April 2001 and 31 March 2002, to 67 between 1 April 2002 and 31 March 2003. The figures also demonstrate that the number of referrals can fluctuate considerably from quarter to quarter within any one year. And, just as the volume of complaints can vary, so too can the complexity and seriousness of the individual cases raised.

4.11  As the arrangements for collecting comprehensive statistics which I have implemented bed down, it will be possible over time to assess not only fluctuations in the pattern of complaints but in their outcome. I hope this will provide a useful basis on which, in future years, Members and the public will be able to get a better feel of how the House's standards arrangements are working in practice.

4.12  The subject matter of complaints also varies. Although no firm figures have been kept of this, impressionistically, in the initial days of the present standards arrangements, the focus was on allegations that Members had abused their office by, for example, tabling questions in return for reward. Attention then shifted to complaints that Members had failed to register or declare a relevant interest. In recent times, there has perhaps been more of a focus on complaints alleging the improper use of parliamentary allowances.

Reports to the Committee in 2002-03

4.13  I report to every meeting of the Committee on Standards and Privileges on the number of complaints (referrals) I have received since the last meeting and what has happened to each one, as well as on the progress of any outstanding inquiries. By this means, the Committee is able to keep under regular review both the way in which inquiries are proceeding and the wider work of my office.

4.14  I also report individually on those cases of complaint which seem to me to merit full investigation. During the period 1 April 2002-31 March 2003, I submitted 4 such memoranda. As all of these were published as an appendix to a report by the Committee, it is not necessary to report their substance here.

4.15  Individual cases often give rise to general issues on which it is appropriate for the Committee to pronounce. So in relation to a complaint made against a former Member of the House, the Committee on Standards and Privileges made clear that where a complaint raises a question of parliamentary privilege, it would expect that aspect to have precedence over any issue of conduct. Where a Member wished to raise a matter which could be handled either as a privilege or a standards issue, he or she should raise it as a question of privilege with the Speaker in writing as soon as reasonably practicable. If the matter is then dealt with as a question of privilege, the Committee would not normally expect the Member subsequently to make precisely the same matter the subject of a complaint to me[3].

4.16  In 2 other cases relating to allowances claims made by Members, the Committee was able to welcome steps taken to clarify the information required of Members in support of a claim[4]. It also endorsed proposals I made for strengthening the system for ensuring the accuracy of allowance claims by Members, concluding:

We agree that, whatever the precise solutions adopted, at the end of the day, the House must be able to show that the requirements for auditing which it imposes on itself are no less effective than those it would expect of others responsible for the expenditure of public money.[5]



3   Tenth Report, Session 2001-02 (HC 1147) Back

4   First Report, Session 2002-03 (HC 195) Back

5   Third Report, Session 2002-03 (HC 435)  Back


 
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