Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Annual Report 2003-04

1 Strengthening the standards system

1.1 During the past year, a number of steps have been taken to carry forward the programme of strengthening the House's arrangements for regulating standards of conduct which I described in my last report.[3]

Response to the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

1.2 In Section 2 of my last report, I described the review of the effectiveness of the standards arrangements in the House of Commons undertaken by the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life under its then chairman, Sir Nigel Wicks. In its Eighth Report published in November 2002, the Committee found that:

"… standards in the House of Commons are generally high and that the overwhelming majority of Members seek to, and in practice do, uphold high standards of propriety."[4]

The Committee also concluded that:

"… the fundamental structure of the current system for regulating standards of conduct in the House of Commons is sound. However, it requires some considerable strengthening of the system's components to meet the areas of concern … and to provide effective regulation of standards." [5]

1.3 The House debated its response to the Committee's report on 26 June 2003, on the basis of advice from the Committee on Standards and Privileges (in the formulation of which I participated) and the House of Commons Commission.[6] In most cases, the House accepted the Wicks Committee's recommendations. In the few cases where it did not do so, it adopted alternative proposals put forward by the Committee on Standards and Privileges and designed to meet the Committee's objectives. Many of the changes agreed were embodied in amendments to the Standing Orders of the House which govern the work of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.[7] A copy of these revised Standing Orders as agreed by the House last June is at Appendix 1. Other changes have been implemented administratively.

1.4 The main changes, agreed with support from all sides of the House, were:

  • The composition of the Committee on Standards and Privileges will consist of an equal number of Members drawn from the party of Government and the Opposition parties. This change became effective on 11 May 2004.
  • Parliamentary Private Secretaries will not be nominated for appointment to the Committee. This decision has been implemented gradually in respect of Parliamentary Private Secretaries who were already members, so as to avoid a sudden loss of continuity in the Committee, and has been wholly effective since 11 May 2004.
  • The term of office of the Commissioner was amended to run for a period of 5 years, non-renewable. As a result of this decision, I was reappointed by Resolution of the House on the day of the debate for a 5 year term, expiring on 25 June 2008.
  • Provision was made for me to be assisted by an investigating panel—to be appointed either on the Committee's initiative or my own—in any case in which the appointment of a panel may help in resolving a fundamental dispute about the facts underlying a complaint.

1.5 Prior to the debate, Sir Nigel Wicks described the proposals before the House, which were based on the report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, as "a significant improvement on the current arrangements".[8] There is no doubt that the result of the House's deliberations is a real strengthening of the system for encouraging high standards, an outcome from which both the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Committee on Standards and Privileges can derive some satisfaction.

1.6 As well as those recommendations which necessitated changes in the Standing Orders of the House, the Committee on Standards in Public Life made a number of others which could be implemented administratively. By the late summer of 2003, all but two of the Committee's 26 recommendations had been implemented. The two recommendations on which action was still in progress at the end of the period covered by this report concerned the planned review of the Code of Conduct for Members and a review of the strategy for training Members in standards matters.

1.7 As regards the planned Review of the Code, the Committee on Standards and Privileges approved in the autumn of 2003 proposals for the conduct of the review. Unfortunately, work on the review had to be temporarily set aside shortly thereafter to accommodate the inquiry into the complaint against the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP. However, this work has since been resumed and it is hoped to publish later this year a consultation document on the issues to be considered in the Review.

1.8 The Review of Training Strategy began in September 2003, when I wrote to the Leader of the House, the Government Chief Whip and their opposite numbers in the other parties represented in the House asking them what advice they offer their Members on standards related matters and inviting their views on how guidance and training offered by my office and the House authorities can be improved. The questions I put to them included:

a)  What provision do the political parties make at present for briefing new Members or guiding existing ones on standards matters? Should this provision be improved? How best can it be coordinated with training and guidance provided by the House authorities (for example through the Parliamentary Learning and Development Project or through the Commissioner's office).

b)  How can the induction arrangements made by the House authorities including the Commissioner's office for educating new Members on standards matters be improved, both as regards Members returned at a General Election and those returned at a by-election?

c)  Would the provision of training for existing Members be helpful? If so, how is this best provided? Would occasional workshops (perhaps put on jointly by the Commissioner's office, other relevant Departments of the House of Commons and the Electoral Commission) be useful? Should any such workshops be open to Members' staff as well as Members themselves? How frequently should they be arranged? How can attendance levels be improved?

d)  Are the procedural guidance notes and other advice notes now being provided for Members helpful? Can they be improved? How?

e)  Recognising that each Member's circumstances are different, what generally can be done to encourage Members to seek timely advice from the Registrar or Commissioner on their own particular case?

I have received a number of helpful replies to my approach, in the light of which I put proposals for strengthening existing provision to the Committee on Standards and Privileges in May 2004. A full account of the steps taken will be included in next year's report.

Frivolous or vexatious complaints

1.9 One of the recommendations in the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was that the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the Commissioner should clarify the means by which they would deal with frivolous or vexatious complaints. Behind this recommendation lay the concern expressed by many who gave evidence to the Committee about the damage such complaints could do, in bringing the system into disrepute and in tying up resources unnecessarily.

1.10 Accordingly the Committee on Standards and Privileges approved a procedural note in September 2003 in which it made clear that all complaints received by the Commissioner would continue to be examined on their merits but that the Committee would be concerned about any evidence that the system was being abused in this way. If the Commissioner became aware of apparent abuse, he would draw it to the attention of the Committee. If the Committee shared the Commissioner's concerns, it would take informal action or, if that proved ineffective, report formally on the matter to the House. A copy of the note approved by the Committee is at Appendix 2. No cases requiring action under this procedure have arisen during the period of this report.

Draft Corruption Bill

1.11 A draft Corruption Bill was presented by the Government to Parliament on 24 March 2003.[9] The bill, if enacted as originally drafted, would abolish the existing common law offence of bribery and existing statutory corruption offences, creating three new statutory offences of general application relating to:-

  • corruptly conferring an advantage
  • corruptly obtaining an advantage and
  • performing functions as an agent corruptly

The proposed new offences would apply to Members as to all other citizens, thus fulfilling the objective of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege of ensuring that Members fall clearly and unambiguously within the scope of the criminal law on corruption.[10]

1.12 There is no evidence that corruption involving Members of Parliament has in recent years been a problem of any significance. Indeed, there is only one known case of a prosecution of a Member for a corruption offence (and then not for actions during proceedings in Parliament) and in that case, the Member was acquitted.[11] Nonetheless, the Committee on Standards and Privileges welcomed the draft Bill. In a submission to the Joint Committee of both Houses which was set up to consider the Bill, the Committee noted that if the Bill was enacted as drafted it was possible that some actions which would previously have been considered purely disciplinary matters for the House to deal with under the Code might also be viewed as possible criminal offences.

1.13 Whilst noting that the possibility of criminal liability arising in relation to conduct complained of did not prevent the House from imposing an appropriate disciplinary penalty for breach of the Code, the Committee on Standards and Privileges indicated that criminal proceedings should normally take precedence over the House's disciplinary proceedings, provided that this did not mean undue delay. Where a complaint was made to the Commissioner alleging criminal conduct, and the Commissioner considered that the matter should be further investigated by the police, the Committee would therefore expect him to report the facts to it with a recommendation that the matter be referred to the police for further investigation. Similarly if the Commissioner became aware that police inquiries were in hand in relation to a matter on which he had received a complaint, the Committee would normally expect the Commissioner to recommend suspending his inquiry until the police investigation had been completed and a decision taken on whether the Member should be charged.

1.14 Clause 12 of the draft Bill proposed the removal from parliamentary proceedings of the protection of Article IX of the Bill of Rights in relation to prosecutions for the new corruption offences. The Committee supported on balance the proposed removal in relation to corruption cases where Members were involved. However, it noted that the effect of the clause as set out in the draft bill would be to remove the protection in all cases involving corruption offences, whether or not Members were involved, and in respect of a wide range of proceedings in Parliament. The Joint Committee considering the Bill favoured narrowing the clause and proposed a revised version.[12] In its response to the Joint Committee's report published on 18 December 2003, the Government said that it would like the opportunity to listen further to both Houses of Parliament on the point before reaching a firm conclusion.[13]

1.15 The Ministerial statement announcing the publication of the White Paper said that "a revised Bill will be introduced when Parliamentary time permits". It must in principle be right that the law on corruption applies clearly to Members as to other citizens and I await with interest the promised introduction of the Bill.

Pay for select committee chairmen

1.16 A report by the Review Body on Senior Salaries (SSRB), published by the Government on 17 July 2003 as Cm 5673, included a recommendation that the House should decide, before introducing extra payment for chairmen of select committees, whether they should be required to relinquish 'paid or conflicting' outside interests as a condition of receiving payment.[14] The Leader of the House sought the advice of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and the Committee reported its views on 15 October 2003.[15]

1.17 The Committee did not find any evidence of shortcomings in the existing arrangements aimed at preventing a conflict between the outside interests of chairmen of select committees and their responsibilities as chairmen. It did not therefore recommend the imposition of any additional restrictions on their outside interests as a result of the introduction of payment.

1.18 However, the Committee recommended arrangements to ensure that select committee chairmen's declared interests become a matter of public knowledge as soon as possible after they have been chosen by their committees. It also suggested that if chairmen were to be paid from public funds, there should be no question of, nor any appearance of, any double payment—from both a chairman's salary and an outside interest—for an outside activity arising primarily as a result of the chairmanship. Nor, like Ministers, should chairmen gain private benefit from work done, in whole or in part, with any assistance from public resources.[16] The Committee offered to bring forward guidelines on these matters for the House's consideration.

1.19 When the House considered the matter on 30 October 2003, and decided that certain select committee chairmen should be paid from the start of the next Session, it endorsed the approach advocated by the Committee. The Committee subsequently prepared guidance for chairmen and members of select committees on the avoidance of conflict of interests, which was published as the Committee's Seventh Report of Session 2002-03.[17] A copy of this guidance (in the preparation of which I was involved) is at Appendix 3 to this report.

1.20 So far, the guidance has proved satisfactory. The Registrar of Members' Interests and I will keep its operation under review and report any practical issues which may arise to the Committee as necessary.

3   A note briefly describing those arrangements is at Appendix 4  Back

4   Cm 5663, Paragraph 2.7  Back

5   Committee on Standards in Public Life, Cm 5663, paragraph 3.23 Back

6   See respectively HC 403, 2002-03, Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life: "Standards of Conduct in the House of Commons" & HC 422, 2002-03, Response to the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life: "Standards of Conduct in the House of Commons", respectively Back

7   SO Nos 149 & 150 respectively  Back

8   HC 516, Session 2002-03 Back

9   Cm 6068 Back

10   Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, HC 214-I, Session 1998-99, paragraph 166-169 Back

11   Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, HC 214-I, Session 1998-99, paragraph 136 Back

12   HC 705, Session 2002-03, paragraphs 134-5 Back

13   Cm 6068, Session 2002-03 Back

14   Cm 5673, Session 2002-03, paragraph 234  Back

15   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Sixth Report, Session 2002-03, HC 1150 Back

16   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Sixth Report, Session 2002-03, HC 1150, paragraph 16 Back

17   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Seventh Report, Session 2002-03, HC 1292  Back

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Prepared 6 July 2004