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

6. Ensuring Accountability

6.1  Difficult questions surround the release of information about the work of my office. On the one hand, both Members of Parliament and the public need information on the basis of which to assess the effectiveness of the House's standards arrangements. On the other, the rights of individuals to a fair and confidential handling of often sensitive information about them must be observed.

6.2  The difficulty of striking the right balance has often focussed on uncertainty about the proper relationship between the Commissioner's office and the press. In its Eighth Report, the Committee on Standards in Public Life said:

The relationship between the Commissioner and the media should be more formally defined. The existence of such a published strategy statement, which would set out what is to be expected when enquiries are made of the Commissioner, would give the clarity which has hitherto been lacking. (Cm 5663, paragraph 8.56)

This recommendation reflected concern that the ground rules about the publication of information on the House's standards arrangements—and particularly those concerning the handling of complaints—have in the past been unclear to Members, the Commissioner and the press. This has potentially left all concerned in a position of uncertainty and vulnerability.

6.3  I rapidly became aware of this upon my appointment, and so began work with the Committee on Standards and Privileges to establish an agreed policy on the disclosure of information.. Our approach was based on the assumption that we should make available as much information as possible about the way the present system works, whilst preserving confidentiality during the investigation and consideration of individual cases.

6.4  Behind this approach lies the concern of both the Committee and myself, not only to establish clarity, but to encourage public confidence in the House's standards arrangements by, among other things, doing as much as we can to explain them. We are also anxious to ensure the accountability of those arrangements to both the House and the public.

6.5  The resulting statement of policy was published on 10 April 2003, just after the period formally covered by this report ended. Nonetheless, since the document was prepared and agreed in the year under review, I have reproduced the text of it at Appendix 2. Summing up the document, the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges said when it was published:

We intend to be as open as we can about what we are doing to encourage high standards, and about how complaints are handled. We shall preserve confidentiality during the investigation of individual complaints—in the interest both of the complainant and of a fair and effective investigation of the Member concerned—whilst continuing to publish reports on the outcome of those investigations which all may study.

6.6  The publication of the present report is part of this approach. So too is the publication of the various notes on procedure mentioned earlier in this report, and the creation of a section within the parliamentary web-site dedicated to standards matters. This contains the texts of the Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules, the various Registers of Interests, the procedural notes, and relevant reports and press notices. In this way, more information is being made available more systematically to Members and the public than ever before.

6.7  The Committee and I also took the opportunity to revise our procedures in relation to complaints, again in the direction of greater openness. Hitherto, my office would neither confirm nor deny when a complaint had been received. My office will now be prepared, as soon as the complainant and the Member concerned have been notified, to make clear in response to inquiries both when I have received a complaint and when I have either dismissed it or reported on it to the Committee.

6.8  In addition to these methods of informing the public and Members about the way in which standards arrangements are working, the Registrar of Members' Interests and I undertake a regular programme of talks on the subject to a wide variety of different groups. Many of these include overseas parliamentarians, particularly from the Commonwealth or parts of the former Soviet Union. During the months covered by this report, I addressed 11 such groups, including parliamentarians from Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ghana, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia. I also met, to discuss our arrangements, a number of individual overseas visitors from Australia, Japan, Malawi, Papua New Guinea and the United States, as well as academics and industrialists from the UK (the latter under the auspices of the Industry and Parliament Trust). In November 2002, I was privileged to be able to pay a short visit to the United States Congress to learn how standards matters are regulated there. These are all valuable opportunities, not only to explain what we are doing, but to learn from the experience of others and to assess whether any of it might be applied with benefit in our own situation.

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Prepared 17 July 2003