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
arrangementsand particularly those concerning the handling
of complaintshave 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 complaintsin the interest both of the complainant
and of a fair and effective investigation of the Member concernedwhilst
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.