Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Report

1  Strengthening the Standards System

Review of the Code of Conduct

1.1 On 13 July 2005, after a short debate, the House approved a revised Code of Conduct for Members. The revised Code was the product of a process of review initiated the previous year, following a recommendation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the Code should be reviewed once in the lifetime of each Parliament.[4] Preparation of the revised Code included a process of public consultation, which I described in full in my last annual report.[5]

1.2 In its report to the House recommending the revised Code,[6] the then Committee on Standards and Privileges identified the main changes proposed as:

a)  The addition of provisions to make clearer the purpose and scope of the Code;

b)  New statements of Members' duties in respect of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee on Standards and Privileges, implementing recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life; and

c)  The extension of the existing provisions regarding misuse of Parliamentary allowances to misuse of facilities and services provided by the House.

The amended Code also included an explicit commitment to equality, in the shape of a new provision committing Members to uphold their legal obligations in this respect.

1.3 The extension of the Code to include misuse of facilities and services meant an increase in the scope of the complaints I can consider, and the Committee on Standards and Privileges expressed its concern that this should not lead to the overloading of my office. As I describe in Section 3 of this report, there has been a noticeable impact from this change so far, particularly in relation to complaints of alleged misuse of official House stationery and post-paid envelopes. This has necessitated the development of a closer working relationship with the Serjeant at Arms and his staff, on whom rests the day-to-day responsibility of administering the House's arrangements in this area. I am grateful for their help in discharging my new responsibilities.

1.4 The Committee on Standards and Privileges recommended, and the House accepted, that Standing Order No. 150 should be amended to enable me to dispose of minor cases of misuse of allowances or of facilities and services by, with the agreement of the Member concerned, referring them to the relevant Officer of the House for the Member to make appropriate reimbursement. This provision parallels the arrangement which has for a longer period empowered me to dispose of minor cases of failure to register or declare interests under what is known as the 'rectification procedure'.[7] Changes to the Standing Order implementing this recommendation were approved at the conclusion of the debate on the amended Code, along with other minor amendments to Standing Order No. 149, which provides the order of reference for the Committee on Standards and Privileges, including a reduction in the size of the Committee from 11 Members to 10. This particular change followed agreement in the last Parliament that there should be a gradual movement towards a Committee of 10 members in which no party had overall control, and again implemented a recommendation in the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

1.5 The text of Standing Orders Nos. 149 and 150 as amended at the end of the debate is reproduced at Appendix 1 of this report.

1.6 Speaking in the debate on the approval of the revised Code, the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, the Rt Hon Sir George Young, said:

"The proposed new code strengthens in a proportionate way the expectations of both the House and the public as regards Members' conduct."

It is pleasing to report that, at the end of the debate, the motions before the House were approved without a Division.

Review of the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members

1.7 The adoption of the amended Code shortly after the start of the current Parliament in 2005 both fulfilled one of the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and paved the way for a review of the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members. The Guide is, of course, the detailed document which sets out the Rules relating to the registration and declaration of interests by Members, and outlines the procedure for handling complaints.

1.8 The Registrar of Members' Interests and I took proposals to the Committee on Standards and Privileges early in 2006 for the conduct of this review, which is now underway. As with the review of the Code, our overall aim will be to simplify and clarify expectations of Members whenever possible, and generally to make the Guide more accessible to both Members and the public. I shall report more fully in 2007, by which time I expect the review to have been concluded. This will mean that both the Code and the Guide - the two key documents embodying the House's standards arrangements - will have been revised relatively early in the life of the current Parliament. In future Parliaments, I expect the process of review of both documents to be combined.

The Electoral Administration Bill

1.9 At the same time as seeking opportunities to strengthen and make more effective the House's standards arrangements, the Committee on Standards and Privileges and I are also anxious to ensure that the burden they impose on Members is not disproportionate. An opportunity to make progress on both objectives arose during the past year following the Government's introduction of the Electoral Administration Bill.

1.10 At present Members are required by the Rules of the House to register and declare donations, gifts and benefits (including certain categories of overseas travel) they receive in their capacity as a Member of the House. Under Schedule 7 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000 (PPERA), they are also required to report such benefits received in their political capacity (ie, not only as a Member but as a candidate) to the Electoral Commission. A similar requirement applies to other holders of 'relevant elective office', such as United Kingdom members of the European Parliament, and Members of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local authority.

1.11 In recent years, the House has sought to reduce the scope for uncertainty among Members about these obligations by, for example, aligning the threshold for registration of donations and sponsorship under category 4 of the Guide to the Rules with the threshold for registering similar benefits with the Commission. However, the dual reporting requirement - with its overlapping but, in certain respects, slightly different demands for information about essentially the same set of circumstances - continues to be a potential source of confusion, as recent events have demonstrated,[8] as well as imposing additional burdens, neither of which assist effective compliance.

1.12 Following initial conversations the Registrar and I had with the Electoral Commission and indications from the Commission that it was fully alive to the problems caused by the dual reporting requirement, and after discussion in the Committee on Standards and Privileges in the wake of consideration of a particular case (on which I report in paragraph 3.13 below), the Chairman of the Committee wrote to the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, urging consideration of a 'one-stop shop' arrangement under which Members would report all necessary information relating to their role as Members to the Registrar of Members' Interests. This information would then be available to the Commission from the published Register, so enabling it to fulfill its statutory duties. The Government responded favourably to this proposal and at the Commons' Report stage of the Electoral Administration Bill the House added a provision which will enable the Commission to cease to require the reporting to it of the required information once it is satisfied that this is available through the House's own arrangements. Similar arrangements will be able to be made in respect of other categories of elected representative covered by PPERA. The Committee on Standards and Privileges reported these developments to the House in its Fifth Report of Session 2005-06, HC 807.

1.13 The Registrar and I are discussing with the Electoral Commission what would be the precise consequences for the House's registration regime of seeking to combine the House's present Rules with the Commission's current requirements. We will be reporting the outcome of that discussion to the Committee on Standard and Privileges. It will then be for the Committee to advise the House on whether or not to proceed to a 'one-stop shop' registration arrangement. Such a change will undoubtedly require Members to furnish rather more information to the Registrar than they do at present.[9] On the other hand, this is information which Members would in any case need to continue to supply separately to the Commission if the 'one-stop' arrangement is not introduced. If the 'one-stop' arrangement can be successfully introduced, it should reduce the scope for confusion and ease the overall reporting burden on Members, without a reduction in transparency to the public, thus assisting more effective compliance.

Draft Corruption Bill

1.14 In my last report I mentioned that the Government had still not produced a revised draft of this Bill, following the report of the Joint Committee on an earlier version of the Bill.[10] That remains the position. While appreciating the many pressures on the legislative programme, it is a matter of some concern that this important measure - which will clarify the law on corruption, including putting beyond doubt the fact that it applies to Members as to other citizens - has not yet been introduced.

Appointment of Adviser on Ministerial Interests

1.15 Although the House's Code of Conduct applies to all Members, including those who are Government Ministers, the conduct of Ministers in that capacity is subject to a separate Code - the Ministerial Code - promulgated by the Prime Minister.[11] The absence of any independent element in the arrangements for advising Ministers on the avoidance of potential conflicts of interest and for applying the Ministerial Code was the subject of recommendations in the Ninth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.[12]

1.16 The distinction between the conduct of Ministers in that capacity and their conduct in their capacity as Members of Parliament is not one which it is always easy for the public to follow and the absence of equivalent arrangements for regulating Ministerial conduct to those which apply in the Parliamentary sphere causes a number of my correspondents to be puzzled. The Prime Minister's announcement in March of his appointment of Sir John Bourn KCB as the independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests is therefore a welcome step in providing the public with greater reassurance in this area. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life has noted, there are still questions surrounding certain aspects of this new arrangement, and other issues identified in the Committee's Ninth Report have still not been addressed. Nonetheless Sir John's appointment is a step forward, and I welcome it.

1.17 As I have indicated, the boundary between the Parliamentary and the Ministerial is not always easy to determine and there will therefore need, on occasion, to be close liaison between Sir John's office and my own. With this in mind, I have already had a preliminary meeting with Sir John and look forward to building a strong working relationship in future.

4   Eighth Report, Cm 5663  Back

5   HC 264, Session 2004-05  Back

6   Fourth Report of Session 2004-05, HC 472  Back

7   For a full description of this procedure, see Appendix 1 to my report for 2002-03, HC 905 Back

8   In the spring of 2006, the press reported that certain Members, who had complied with their obligations to the House to register certain overseas visits, had failed to register similar information as required with the Electoral Commission  Back

9   Not least because one of the provisions of the Electoral Administration Bill will extend the reporting requirement under PPERA to loans as well as donations made for a political purpose  Back

10   HC 705, Session 2002-03 Back

11   The text of the Ministerial Code can be found at  Back

12   Cm 5775  Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 25 July 2006