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


3 Investigating complaints

3.1 Investigating complaints against Members is not the only important part of the work of my office but it is that which attracts most attention. It is a strength of the system that complaints may be sent directly to me by members of the public as well as by Members of Parliament. Complaints from the public do not go through the filter of an MP. To be considered, however, they have to be submitted in writing, make a specific complaint against one or more Members, be signed and come with sufficient supporting evidence to warrant at least a preliminary inquiry.

3.2 Sometimes members of the public ring up or e-mail with an initial inquiry. My office will do its best in such situations to advise on the procedure for making a complaint and on whether the issue is one which is likely to fall within my terms of reference. Where appropriate we will seek to point towards a more relevant agency or means of a potential complainant resolving their concern. At the end of the day, however, it is for the individual concerned to decide whether or not to make a complaint.

Sifting complaints

3.3 The number of complaints which result in a report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges is relatively few, since many of those which I receive fall outside my terms of reference as set out in Standing Order No 150 of the House and amplified in the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members.[19] It is, perhaps, noteworthy that over a third of the complaints I received in 2003-04 failed to make a specific complaint against a named Member and did not therefore fall to be considered by me. Beyond that, the most frequent reason why they fell outside my terms of reference was that they concerned the way a Member had responded to a constituent's request for assistance. In many of these cases it is evident from the material sent by the complainant that the Member has tried conscientiously to deal with the constituent's problem (often over a long period) but without succeeding in resolving it to the constituent's satisfaction. The constituent then writes to me to complain about the Member.

3.4 Such complaints are outside my terms of reference for good reason. In a parliamentary democracy, it should not be for the Commissioner to substitute his judgement for that of the Member. The proper avenue of redress for a constituent who disagrees with their Member's judgement, or is dissatisfied with the service their Member has provided, is the ballot box.

3.5 Other reasons why a complaint may fall outside my terms of reference include:

  • It may involve matters of policy
  • It may be a complaint about the views or opinions expressed by a Member
  • It may primarily concern a Member's actions as a Government Minister rather than as a Member of the House. Cases of this sort fall to be handled under the Code of Conduct for Ministers (the Ministerial Code), which is promulgated by the Prime Minister.

3.6 Occasionally I receive complaints about what a Member has said during proceedings in the House. Such remarks are, of course, protected by Parliamentary privilege from actions for defamation in the courts. The complainant may allege that the Member has lied or otherwise misled the House in what they have said, and that they have no comparable opportunity to respond.

3.7 I approach such complaints with considerable caution. Complaints about a Member's views and opinions are outside my terms of reference. Freedom of speech and debate are fundamental to the effective functioning of the House. I do not believe that, in setting up the present system for independent investigation of complaints, the House of Commons intended the Commissioner to substitute his own judgement for that of the Member concerned in exercising the ancient Parliamentary privilege of freedom of speech, or for that of the occupant of the Chair in deciding on matters of order. It must be for the House itself to decide if a Member has abused its privileges.

The recording of complaints

3.8 During the past year my office continued its efforts to refine its system for recording complaints and the action taken in response to them. As anyone who has assembled such information knows, deciding what constitutes a complaint for recording purposes requires judgement and the adoption of a consistent approach over time. Nonetheless our ability to keep track of developments is improving year-on-year.

Complaints in 2003-04

3.9 During the 12 months from 1 April 2003 to 31 March 2004, 152 letters of complaint from Members of the House or members of the public were received in my office. Of these, 96 contained specific complaints against a named Member. The following table gives a quarterly breakdown of these figures and of the outcome.
Apr-June

2003

July-Sept

2003

Oct-Dec

2003

Jan-Mar

2004

Totals:

April 03-March 04

Totals: April 02-March 03
1. All Matters of Complaint received 29128 56439 3 15267
2. Specific complaints against a named Member 19119 36422 3 9652
3. Total number of Members involved 1319 2621 7943
4. Complaints not proceeded with:

(a) outside remit;

(b) other



(a) 122


(a) 16


(a) 295


(a) 19


76


20
(b) 3 (b) 0 (b) 33 (b) 0 6 8
5. Complaints proceeded with 43 43 1424
6. Complaints subject of preliminary inquiry then dismissed 21 12 610
7. Complaints subject of further investigation 232 330 711
8. Complaints dealt with by rectification procedure 00 01 11
9. Complaints subject of a report to Committee on Standards and Privileges7 261 330 6108

1  7 of these were about the same Member

2  4 of these were about the same Member

3  2 of these were about the same Member

4  6 of these were about one Member; 5 about another; 2 about a third

5  4 of these were about one Member; 2 about another

6  Interim report (both complaints were about the same Member)

7   Reports not necessarily made in the same quarter as that in which complaints received

8  9 of these complaints were about the same Member

In addition, 3 complaints which were under investigation at the end of the previous reporting period were the subject of reports to the Committee on Standards and Privileges during 2003-04.

3.10 Both the number of matters referred to my office and the number of specific complaints against a named Member increased markedly in the year which is the subject of this report, from 67 to 152 and 52 to 96 respectively. This followed a number of years in which they had declined steadily, as noted in my previous report.[20] Part of the reason for the increase in the number of specific complaints is that several of the complaints made concerned the same Member and often the same set of circumstances. So 22 of the 96 specific complaints against a named individual Member concerned just 5 Members of the House.

3.11 It is clear from the figures available that the number of letters of complaint received can fluctuate markedly from quarter to quarter and year to year. There is some anecdotal evidence that the prominence given to certain stories by the media and the extent of public interest in an issue may give rise to the receipt of multiple complaints. So, for example, a number of the complaints received during the last year concerned matters relating to events in or in connection with Iraq. Others appeared to be stimulated by coverage of allegations against the former Leader of the Conservative Party.

3.12 Of the 96 specific complaints against a named Member which I received, 82 were not proceeded with after examination. As the table shows, most of these fell outside my terms of reference, for one or more of the reasons which I have described earlier, but a small number were dismissed for other reasons, for example because the person complaining failed to provide any credible evidence in support of their complaint.

3.13 Of the remaining complaints, 6 were dismissed after preliminary inquiries of the Member concerned. In 2 of those 6 cases, the person complaining wrote subsequently indicating that they were satisfied with the explanation given.

Rectification procedure

3.14 One complaint was dealt with through the rectification procedure now incorporated by the House into Standing Order No. 150 following a recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.[21] The complaint, which concerned the failure of a Member to register some earnings from media work, arrived very shortly after I had reported on a similar complaint against the same Member. As the second complaint essentially covered the same ground and arose out of the same set of circumstances as the first, I exercised the discretion given me by the House to make a belated entry in the Register with an appropriate explanatory note.

Reports to the Committee in 2003-04

3.15 During the year in question I made 6 reports to the Committee, which between them covered a total of 9 complaints. 3 of these complaints had been received prior to this reporting year. 3 complaints received during the present reporting year remained under inquiry at the end of the year (although 2 of these have already been the subject of an interim report).

3.16 I completed 6 written reports to the Committee on individual complaints during 2003-04, two more than in the previous 12 months. These were published with the relevant report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. One was in the nature of an interim report concerning an investigation which, on legal advice, it would not be appropriate to conclude until a related action for libel is over. The hearing of the action is expected to take place towards the end of 2004.[22]

3.17 It is not necessary for me to repeat here the substance of the other reports, as they are already in the public domain and can be studied on the world-wide web. As usual, however, the Committee's consideration of these individual cases gave rise to certain general observations which it may be helpful to highlight.

3.18 One case, concerning a former Member, involved the sub-letting for a considerable number of years of part of his constituency office paid for out of the relevant parliamentary allowance.[23] In its report, the Committee was pleased to note that in January 2002, the House's Department of Finance and Administration had issued new guidance, approved by Mr Speaker, on the arrangements for Members' offices and surgeries outside Westminster. This strongly advised, on practical grounds, against Members sub-letting leased accommodation paid for out of allowances, and imposed additional requirements if continuation of sub-letting was unavoidable. The Committee welcomed this tightening of arrangements.

3.19 A second case was noteworthy because, following newspaper stories, the Member who was the subject of the stories wrote to me seeking an investigation of the propriety of his own actions, in the context of the Code of Conduct for Members. I reported this to the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the Committee authorised me to investigate.

3.20 This decision by the Committee represents a helpful strengthening of arrangements. Normally a newspaper story alleging misconduct by a Member will follow or soon be followed by a complaint. On this occasion, however, there was a considerable delay before a complaint arrived. This can leave the Member involved in a state of uncertainty and may lead the public to question why no action appears to be being taken. It is now clear that, in cases where the Commissioner believes that there is considerable evidence of a serious mischief, which in his view merits further investigation but in respect of which no formal complaint has been received, he may report to the Committee and that the Committee will normally authorise the Commissioner to proceed. In the event, in this particular case a complaint from a Member of the public reached me later in the day on which the Committee had authorised me to investigate.[24]

3.21 This case was also significant in that it caused me to consider what are the relevant factors to be taken into account when considering complaints relating to a Members' use of the parliamentary staffing allowance. I suggested that Members should have 4 questions in mind when using the allowance:

  • Is the person employed to meet a genuine need in supporting the Member in performing their Parliamentary duties?
  • Are they qualified/able to do the job?
  • Do they actually do the job?
  • Are the resulting costs, in so far as they are charged to the allowance, reasonable and entirely attributable to the Member's Parliamentary work?

These tests also proved relevant in a later case which arose during the same year.[25]

3.22 Of the three remaining cases, one concerned the failure of a Member to register earnings from media work. The Member had included in previous Registers a general entry indicating that she undertook occasional lecturing and journalism but had failed to realise that changes to the Rules relating to the registration of media work which the House had approved in May 2002 meant that such a general entry was no longer sufficient. Members are now required to make a specific entry where earnings for media work from a particular source exceed 1% of a Member's salary (£550 during the period in question).[26]

3.23 A further case concerned a Member's failure to declare in the Register of Members' Interests the net benefit of subsidised office accommodation with which he was provided.[27] The case was noteworthy because it also involved a Members' obligation under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) to register certain donations with the Electoral Commission. The Committee noted in its report:

"In cases [involving] the provision of property, services or facilities other than on commercial terms, Members may be well advised to consult the Registrar of Members' Interests, if the interest is not already registered, if there is a reasonable expectation that the Electoral Commission will take the view that this constitutes a recordable donation for the purposes of PPERA."[28]

3.24 The final report submitted to the Committee in the period under review concerned the result of a complex and extensive inquiry into a complaint that a Member had improperly paid his wife out of his parliamentary staffing allowance for work which she had not undertaken or which should not have been reimbursed from the allowance.[29] A number of broader matters concerning allowances, the use of Short money (ie financial assistance to Opposition parties) and the unauthorised release of information given to an inquiry were the subject of comment in the Committee's report.

Media policy

3.25 During the past year my office has continued to operate the policy in relation to the release of information about its work described in section 6 and Appendix 2 of my last report.[30] This involves as much openness as possible about the way the system for regulating standards works and preserving confidentiality during the investigation and consideration of individual cases. We also 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 on Standards and Privileges. This approach—approved by the Committee—seems to have secured the understanding of press and public and, so far, appears to have worked well.


19   SO No 150, see Appendix 1. Guide to Rules, see HC 841, Session 2001-02  Back

20   HC 905, Session 2002-03, paragraph 4.10 Back

21   Standing Order No 150 (3)  Back

22   Committee on Standards and Privileges, First Report, Session 2003-04, HC 73 Back

23   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Fourth Report, Session 2002-03, HC 946 Back

24   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Fifth Report , Session 2002-03, HC 947  Back

25   See paragraph 3.24 below Back

26   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Second Report, Session 2003-04, HC 285 Back

27   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Third Report, Session 2003-04, HC 339 Back

28   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Third Report, Session 2003-04, HC 339, paragraph 8  Back

29   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Fourth Report, Session 2003-04, HC 476-I Back

30   HC 905, Session 2002-03 Back


 
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