Appendix 2: Frivolous or vexatious complaints
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
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.
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 complaintjustified
or unjustifiedcan 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
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'
- one or more complaints only flimsily backed by
- further allegations, representing minor variations
on the original, coming forward when the first has been dismissed.
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.
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 willwhether 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
- 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
(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,
(b) If the complainant is not a Member of the
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.
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