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


Appendix 2: Frivolous or vexatious complaints

Introduction

1.  In paragraph 5.13 of its Eighth Report on "Standards in the House of Commons" (Cm 5663), the Committee on Standards in Public Life (the Wicks Committee) said:

"Many of our witnesses were united in their concern about the damage that could be caused by frivolous or vexatious complaints or 'tit-for-tatting'. These were seen as bringing the system into disrepute as well as tying up resources unnecessarily".

The Committee noted that a number of different actions for dealing with complaints of this nature had been referred to either in documents or oral evidence. The Committee accordingly recommended that the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members of the House of Commons should be amended "to set out clearly the means by which the Committee of Standards and Privileges would deal with frivolous or vexatious complaints".

2.  As the Guide to the Rules was revised only in May 2002 and is unlikely to be amended again in the lifetime of the present Parliament, the Committee on Standards and Privileges, in discussion with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, has decided to set out its practice in this matter in this procedural guidance note. It will review its practice in the light of experience, and of any comments it receives on this note, before the Guide to the Rules is next revised.

Principles

3.  The House of Commons, through its Code of Conduct and Rules on registration and declaration of interests, is determined that its Members should observe high ethical standards. It has set up effective arrangements for investigation of complaints that its Members have failed to live up to those standards, and to punish Members in cases where complaints are upheld.

4.  Anyone with a complaint that a Member of Parliament has contravened the Code of Conduct or Rules approved by the House should be able to make that complaint confident that it will be properly and fairly considered by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and, if appropriate after due investigation by the Commissioner, by the Committee on Standards and Privileges. They are also entitled to be assured that they themselves will not be subject to improper or arbitrary action for having made it. All complaints received by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards are examined by the Commissioner on their merits, no matter what their nature or source.

5.  A complaint of misconduct against any person is, however, a serious matter. It is particularly so perhaps for those in public life, such as Members of Parliament, whose reputation is critical to their continued ability to operate effectively in that sphere. Furthermore, the mere existence of a complaint—justified or unjustified—can also damage the standing of the institution of which the person concerned is part. Complaints against a Member of Parliament should therefore never be entered into frivolously or vexatiously, whether through motives of political point-scoring, revenge or for any other reason. Besides the risk of damage to the reputation of both the Member and the House, such cases are liable to divert finite investigatory resources from other, more important inquiries.

6.  The Committee on Standards and Privileges and the Commissioner would be concerned about any evidence that the system for considering alleged infractions of the Code and Rules was being used for purposes other than that for which it is intended, whether for party political or other motives. Potential evidence of abuse might include one or more of the following:

  • a succession of complaints made without reasonable grounds from one source against the same individual or group of individuals
  • a series of complaints between two or more people, one apparently made in response to another (so called 'tit-for-tat' complaints)
  • one or more complaints only flimsily backed by any evidence
  • further allegations, representing minor variations on the original, coming forward when the first has been dismissed.

Parliamentary privilege

7.  When making a complaint against a Member of Parliament, a complainant is not protected from legal action (for example, for defamation of character) unless and until the Commissioner decides that the complaint in question is appropriate for inquiry. Even then, parliamentary privilege will only protect material submitted to the Commissioner or to the Committee on Standards and Privileges as part of the complaint and any subsequent inquiry. It will not protect anything said to the press, for example. Publication of evidence or correspondence, or its disclosure to anyone other than the Commissioner or Standards and Privileges Committee without the Committee's prior agreement, would be a contempt of the House.

Procedure

8.  The Commissioner considers initially all complaints received. He weighs each one and the evidence in support of it carefully. He will not, however, accept even for preliminary inquiry any complaints which:

  • are anonymous
  • fall outside his terms of reference (for a definition of which see Procedural Notes 1-3)
  • are unsupported by any evidence
  • appear to raise issues so minor as to make the use of the complaints machinery in relation to them entirely disproportionate.

9.  If the Commissioner is concerned upon examination that any particular complaint or series of complaints may represent an abuse of the complaints process, he will—whether or not he has inquired further into the complaint(s)—draw his concerns to the attention of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Among the factors he will take into account in assessing whether or not a complaint is frivolous or vexatious are:

  • the weight of the complaint
  • the evidence offered in its support
  • the pattern of behaviour around the making of the complaint
  • things said in connection with the submission or receipt of the complaint.

In making his assessment, the Commissioner will take into account the whole history of the matter under consideration.

10.  If, having considered the matter, the Committee shares the Commissioner's concerns, it may institute any of the following action.

(a) If the complainant is a Member of the House

11.  The Committee may:

  • invite the Chairman of the Committee to raise the Commissioner's concerns informally with the Member(s) involved, either orally or in writing
  • invite the Chairman to raise the Commissioner's concerns with the Party Whips of the Member(s) involved
  • invite the Chairman to write a formal letter of advice to the Member(s) involved, which could be made public.

12.  If the unacceptable behaviour involved is, in the Committee's view, sufficiently flagrant or a pattern of unacceptable behaviour continues, the Committee may make its concerns public through the medium of one of its reports. In extreme circumstances, it would be open to the Commissioner to investigate (either on receipt of a complaint or on the authority of the Committee) whether, in lodging complaints frivolously or vexatiously, a Member has themselves breached the Code by acting in a way which tended to weaken or undermine public trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and to bring the House, or its Members generally, into disrepute.

(b) If the complainant is not a Member of the House

13.  The Committee may:

  • invite its Chairman to write to the person concerned, asking them to desist from their actions
  • make known that they have done so
  • name the person concerned in a published report to the House.

Conclusion

14.  The precise action appropriate in relation to any complaint which is judged by the Committee on Standards and Privileges to be either frivolous or vexatious will depend on the circumstances of the particular case. The House is committed to having an effective system for assessing complaints, in which those which are properly brought are fairly and appropriately assessed. Action will only be taken in the case of complaints which are frivolous or vexatious in order to prevent abuse of that system and to ensure that public confidence in the House and the system for assessing complaints can continue to be well-placed.

September 2003  Sir Philip Mawer


 
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