Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Report

2  Emphasising Prevention

Briefing Members

2.1 The calling of a General Election in the spring of 2005 meant the activation of the plans I detailed in paragraph 1.11 of my previous report for inducting new and returning Members of the House in their standards responsibilities. In the run-up to a possible election, the Registrar of Members' Interests and I had taken steps to remind Members of their obligations under category 4 of the Guide to the Rules in respect of the registration of political donations or sponsorship. In preparation for the return of the new House, we cleared with the former Committee on Standards and Privileges the text of a note advising Members on the obligation to declare their interests, an obligation of particular importance in the early months of a new Parliament before a printed Register of those interests has been published.

2.2 Copies of this note were sent to all Members shortly after the results of the election were known, along with a covering letter from me, other standards material and details of a series of briefings we put on for both those Members newly arrived in, and those returning to, the House. This programme of briefings was complementary to a wider set of induction seminars arranged by the House authorities. Our own programme involved:

2.3 This programme - along with our participation in the induction 'fair' arranged over several days for new Members - was a significant commitment for my small office, and I am grateful for the way in which all colleagues committed themselves to the task. Of these various initiatives, the most successful proved to be the induction days put on for new Members by the three main political parties, our participation in which enabled us to reach virtually all the newly elected Members in the House.[13] Attendance at the other briefings was low, although it is encouraging that a number of long-established Members used them as an opportunity to brush up their knowledge. I am grateful for the help of the Whips in ensuring that we were able to deliver a consistent message about standards to virtually all Members newly elected to the House.

2.4 We also experimented with a briefing for Members' staff, many of whom of course also change at the beginning of a new Parliament. Whilst the responsibility for complying with the Code and the Guide rests squarely on Members, in this area as in others Members frequently rely heavily on their staff for help and advice. Attendance at this briefing was, however, very thin, perhaps because of the other demands on the time of staff on the day. However, the Assistant Registrar now has a regular opportunity to brief newly arrived Members' staff at the training sessions put on for them by the House. This has proved a more consistently effective means of engaging with such staff, both about their obligations in respect of the registration of their own financial interests (see Section 4) and about the obligations resting on those for whom they work.

Preparation of the First Register of the New Parliament

2.5 Alongside this extensive programme of briefings, the Registrar and Executive Assistant engaged in advising many individual Members, both new and returning, on the implications of the Code and Rules for their own particular circumstances. Members are required to complete a registration form and submit it to my office within three months of their election to the House. This meant that returns should have been submitted by 11 August 2005 but in the event a significant number had still not been received on the due date and, where they had been received, many queries were outstanding. However, vigorous follow-up meant that all entries were completed in time for us to publish the first Register of the new Parliament on 1st November 2005. I pay tribute to the hard work of the Registrar and the Executive Assistant in achieving this.

2.6 Since the first printed Register of the current Parliament was issued, my office has continued to publish updated editions of the Register on the internet at 6-8 week intervals. We reviewed this frequency of updating recently and believe it feasible in future to update the web edition of the Register twice a month while the House is sitting. This will ensure that both Members and the public have a more up-to-date Register available for scrutiny. We intend to pilot this new arrangement after the summer 2006 recess.

Advising the House and Individual Members

2.7 The advice given to many Members prior to publication of the first Register was simply one instance of the core task of my office in advising Members on how to meet their obligations under the Code and the Rules. As can be seen, we do this both by issuing general advice and by responding to requests for advice from individual Members. This responsibility falls primarily on the Registrar and Executive Assistant, consulting me as necessary in particularly difficult or complex cases.

2.8 I take this opportunity to underline once again the importance of Members seeking advice, especially in any circumstance which is unusual or in which they are uncertain how to proceed. Advice taken in advance of commitment to a particular course of action can save difficulty and embarrassment later, as well as ensure that the public interest is protected.

2.9 I am sometimes asked if there is not an inherent conflict between my role as adviser in individual cases and my role in investigating complaints. I seek to diminish any such conflict by trying to ensure that the Registrar is seen by Members as the first port of call for advice. Only if she or the Executive Assistant (both of whom now have considerable experience in these matters) are faced with a novel or particularly complex set of circumstances do they come to me for a second opinion. In over 4 years now in my role, I have not found any conflict between the two functions. In fact one helpfully informs the other. And if a complication were to arise, the way forward would be to make it known to the Committee on Standards and Privileges so that it could rule on the way forward.

13   We arranged individual briefings for the few new Members not at these events  Back

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