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

Appendix 2: Parliamentary Standards: policy on the disclosure of information about the handling of complaints against Members of Parliament

1.  This note sets out the policy, agreed by the Committee on Standards and Privileges ("the Committee") and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards ("the Commissioner"), on the disclosure of information about the handling of complaints against Members of Parliament. Its publication meets the suggestion by the Committee on Standards in Public Life that:

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. (Eighth Report, Cm 5663, para 8.56).

General approach

2.   Both the Committee and the Commissioner will seek to be as open as they can about complaints and the operation of the complaints system, consistent with maintaining the integrity of that system and ensuring fairness both to the complainant and to a Member who is the subject of a complaint. In practice this means that they will aim for:

?  as much openness as is possible about the process followed in considering a complaint;

?  confidentiality wherever appropriate about individuals, especially during the investigation of a complaint.

3. This approach reflects the need to hold several, potentially conflicting, principles in balance. One is the public's right to know, not least in order to have confidence in the effectiveness of the system for considering complaints. On the other hand, accused Members are entitled to a fair consideration of the complaint against them. Their public reputation is at stake and should not be put at hazard without proper cause. Nor is it necessarily in the interest of complainants for information to be disclosed, for example if this would prejudice a successful investigation of their complaint or put potential witnesses under pressure.

Information about the complaints process

4.  The Committee has agreed that in future the Commissioner should report annually on the system for promoting and sustaining high standards of conduct among Members and on the operation of the complaints process. These reports will be published. On each occasion, the Committee will consider taking evidence from the Commissioner in public on his report.

5.  The Commissioner's report will include information on the number and types of complaints received and their outcome, including those cases dealt with by the Commissioner under the rectification procedure. Such information is not routinely published at present. The first report is expected to be published in the summer of 2003.

6.  Working together, the Committee and the Commissioner also intend that policy or practice notes should be published, making clear the approach which they take to various procedural issues, and in such other circumstances as are considered appropriate. In February 2003, guidance notes were published setting out the procedure for considering complaints against Members. The Committee and the Commissioner hope these will be helpful both to Members and to the public.

7.  A distinct section of the Parliamentary web-site has been established, containing information about the Code of Conduct for Members, the Register of Members' Interests and the system for considering complaints against Members, to ensure that this information is more readily available to the public.

Information about individual complaints

8.  Neither the Committee nor the Commissioner considers it appropriate to release information to the media or the public about individual cases before these have been the subject of full and proper inquiry by the Commissioner, and the Committee where appropriate, and the latter has decided, in cases coming before it, in what terms it wishes to report to the House. Premature release of information may jeopardise effective inquiry into a complaint as well as the chances of a fair hearing for the Member concerned.

9.  With this in mind, on receipt of the complaint, the Commissioner will take steps aimed at ensuring that the Member concerned is immediately informed of this, and of the nature of the allegations. However, he will not otherwise take the initiative in announcing that he has received a complaint. His office will nonetheless respond to inquiries, and in the case of an inquiry that relates specifically to a complaint that has been received, will be prepared, other than in exceptional circumstances, to confirm its receipt. At no time will the Commissioner reveal the specific details of inquiries he may be making.

10.  When acknowledging that a complaint has been received, the Commissioner's office will make clear that the mere fact that a complaint has been received does not signify that it is well-founded. This approach is consistent with that recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its Eighth Report (Cm 5663, recommendation 25(a)).

11.    The Commissioner's office will also be ready (again, if asked) to acknowledge:

a.  when the Commissioner has dismissed a complaint (because, on the evidence available, it did not meet the criteria for further investigation or further investigation of the matter by him was not, in his view, justified); or

b.  when an inquiry has been postponed or suspended because the subject matter of the investigation is the subject of a police investigation or court proceedings; or

c.  when he has submitted his report on a complaint to the Committee. In these circumstances, the Commissioner's office will make clear that the fact that he has reported to the Committee simply means that the Commissioner has completed his inquiries: no inference can be drawn from this as to the outcome of those inquiries.

The Commissioner will ensure that both the Member complained against and the complainant are aware of the position before he releases any such information.

12.  When the Commissioner has submitted a report on a complaint to the Committee, the Chairman (or the Clerk acting on his behalf) will, if asked, confirm that it has been received. While they will be prepared to indicate when the Committee is next meeting, they will not give any information as to when the Committee might be expected to consider the Commissioner's report, nor will they speculate on whether (or when) the Member might be called to give evidence or on when the Committee might be expected to agree a report to the House.

13.  When the Committee has agreed a report, the Clerk informs the Member and the complainant of the publication arrangements.. Once this has been done, the Chairman and the Clerk will, if asked, give out details of these arrangements in response to inquiries.

Publication of the Commissioner's Report

14.  The Commissioner's report will continue to be published as an appendix to the report of the Committee to the House.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and his staff

15.  The Commissioner is an Officer of the House who at the same time is appointed from outside to provide an element, independent of Members, in the monitoring and enforcement of the Code of Conduct and Rules for Members. It is important that Members have confidence in the confidentiality of their dealings with the Commissioner and that the public know and understand the arrangements for upholding standards and considering complaints.

16.  Accordingly, the Commissioner and the Committee have agreed that he and his staff should and will be free to talk at any point, in general terms, to the press and others about the system for regulating Members' conduct and investigating complaints.

17.  They have also agreed that neither the Commissioner nor his staff will talk to the press or others, whether in the context of any more general interview or otherwise, about any individual complaint, other than within the framework laid down in this note, unless it has been finally disposed of. In the case of a complaint in respect of which the Committee has recommended further action against the Member by the House, this period will be regarded as having ended when the House has come to a decision on the recommendation.

18.  This means that the Commissioner would not normally expect to have contact with the press about individual cases (except where indicated earlier in this note or if individual journalists are themselves involved in a particular complaint). The Chairman of the Committee will normally take the lead in dealing with inquiries from the press about the published reports of the Committee, and will discuss with the Commissioner the handling of press interest in each particular case.

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Prepared 17 July 2003