3 Considering Complaints |
Overview: A Pleasing Reduction
3.1 The handling of complaints is not the only important
aspect of my work but it is the one which attracts most public,
and certainly media, attention. As the table below shows, the
number of letters of complaint received in my office in 2005-06
was broadly the same as that in 2004-05 (134 as against 137).
The number of specific letters of complaint against a named Member
rose from 118 to 130. However 40 of those letters of complaint
(along with 39 e-mails on the same subject) were about the decision
of one Member to appear in a television 'reality show' in January
2006. When those 40 are subtracted, the number of specific complaints
against a named Member shows a pleasing reduction from 118 to
90. Although some of this reduction may be attributable to the
fact that the House was dissolved for a month during the General
Election campaign, not all of it can be accounted for in that
way. Similarly the number of complaints proceeded with (ie those
complaints which were the subject of either preliminary or full
investigation) fell from 42 to 23. I submitted 3 reports to the
Committee on Standards and Privileges: all of these related to
complaints carried over from the previous year.
Complaints in 2005-06
|Totals: April 05- March 06
||Totals: April 04- March 05
|1. All Matters of Complaint received
|2. Specific complaints against a named Member
|3. Not proceeded with: reason (a) outside remit;
|(a) 16||(a) 10
||(a) 19||(a) 60
||(b) 1||(b) 0
||(b) 0 ||1
|4. Complaints proceeded with
|5. Complaints subject of preliminary inquiry then dismissed
|6. Complaints subject of further investigation
|7. Complaints dealt with by rectification procedure
|8. Complaints subject of a report to Committee on Standards and Privileges
3.2 As the table shows, a large proportion of the
letters of complaint I receive raise matters outside my terms
of reference. Some of the complaints I am able to refer to other
appropriate authorities. During the past year, 10 of the 105 cases
which fell outside my remit were, for example, referred to the
Serjeant at Arms, since they involved minor complaints of misuse
of House of Commons stationery or post-paid envelopes. Even so
I considered a number of stationery - related complaints in the
year, following the extension in July 2005 of the scope of the
Code to embrace misuse of facilities and services which I have
noted in Section 1. The overall reduction in the number of complaints
falling within my terms of reference is particularly positive
given that it occurred during a year when the scope of my remit
was widened by this amendment to the Code.
3.3 The great majority of complaints which fall outside
my terms of reference concern a Members' handling of a constituent's
case. Here I am sometimes able, as a result of the correspondence
I receive, to alert the Member to some new factor which they have
not previously been able to consider, but it is essentially a
matter for the judgement of the elected Member (not an unelected
Commissioner) how best to discharge their obligation to their
constituent. Often these cases show evidence of sustained effort
by a Member to help their constituent; and the reason that this
effort has not brought the constituent (and complainant) the answer
they wanted lies elsewhere.
3.4 I also do not consider complaints about the views
or opinions expressed by a Member, or which boil down to a difference
of view with the Member about how he or she should be doing their
job. This was the reason why I declined to pursue the 40 letters
of complaint I received about a Member's appearance on a reality
television show. Those who complained to me felt that such an
appearance took the Member away from his basic task of representing
his constituents in the House and dealing with their problems.
The Member felt that it was in his constituents' interest to take
the opportunity the show provided to advance arguments and policies
in which he believed, and to reach out to an audience he might
not otherwise have gained for them.
3.5 As I pointed out to those who complained, there
is no generally accepted job description for a Member. How Members
do their job is a matter for each one of them to decide. They
are answerable for their decisions about this to the electorate.
In essence, if a constituent is unhappy either about the way their
Member of Parliament is carrying out his or her job, either in
general or in handling their own case in particular, the remedy
available to them is through the ballot box.
3.6 During the year covered by this report, 15 complaints
which fell within the ambit of the Code were dismissed after preliminary
investigation. Sometimes these investigations are limited to initial
contact with the Member: it is clear from the response given by
the Member to the complaint that there is a simple explanation
for what has happened and that no breach of the Code has occurred.
In others, the position is not so straightforward and I become
involved in quite extensive inquiries to establish if there is
clear evidence of a breach of the Code. This was the position
in relation to a number of complaints during the last year. In
all cases in which I decide that the evidence does not warrant
me proceeding to a report to the Committee, I try to give the
complainant a clear explanation of the circumstances which have
led me to that decision.
3.7 None of the complaints I received in 2005-06
were the subject of a formal report to the Committee on Standards
and Privileges in the same year. Eight cases (7 of which had been
received in the last quarter of the year) were outstanding at
the end of the year. However, all but one of these had been reported
to the Committee by the time of writing of this report. 3 reports
relating to complaints received in 2004-05 had been submitted
to the Committee during the period covered by this report: I briefly
describe the nature of these below.
Members the Subject of Complaints
3.8 Last year I included in my report for the first
time a table showing the number of Members who were the subject
of a specific complaint in the year in question. I append a similar
table below. Readers will see that the number of Members who were
the subject of a specific complaint fell from 93 to 79.
|April - June 2005
||July - Sept
|Oct - Dec
|Jan - March
|Total April 05-March 06
||Total April 04 - March 05
|1. No. of Members the subject of a specific complaint
|2. No. of Members involved in complaints proceeded with
|3. No. of Members involved in complaints the subject of further investigation
|4. No. of above Members the subject of a report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges
Whilst no reports were made in the same year on Members who were
the subject of a complaint in 2005-06, reports had been submitted
on all but one of these Members by the time of writing this report.
Three reports on Members who were the subject of complaints in
2004-05 were presented to the Committee in 2005-06, and to these
I now turn.
Reports to the Committee in 2005-06
3.9 As explained above, I made three reports to the Committee
on Standards and Privileges during the past year. All of these
reports related to complaints received during the previous year.
Consideration of the reports had to await the establishment of
the Committee in the new Parliament.
3.10 The first was by way of follow-up to an earlier
report on the same Member.
It focused on discrepancies in the Member's claims under the Additional
Costs Allowance (ACA). I reported that the Member (who had in
fact retired from the House at the end of the previous Parliament)
had repaid a total of £16,613.67 to the House.
3.11 The Committee upheld my view that the Member
had not properly observed the administrative rules relating to
the allowance. Had the Member not left the House at the end of
the previous Parliament, the Committee would have given serious
consideration to suspending him from the House for a further period.
3.12 The second report concerned complaints that
two Members (one of whom had not been re-elected to the House
in May 2005) had failed to register as sponsorship under category
4(a) of the Guide to the Rules certain donations received by their
respective Constituency Associations.
I dismissed one of these complaints following preliminary investigation
because the Member concerned had personally played no part in
soliciting the sponsorship. The second Member had, however, been
involved personally in soliciting the sponsorship. Although the
sponsorship had been reported to the Electoral Commission, and
information about it was thereby in the public domain, it had
not been recorded in the Register of Members' Interests. I therefore
recommended that the Committee on Standards and Privileges uphold
3.13 The Committee accepted my recommendation and
an appropriate late entry was made in the Register, in the distinctive
style used under the rectification procedure, the Member concerned
having apologised for his oversight. Noting the duplication of
reporting required of Members, the Committee urged the introduction
of a single system through the creation of a one-stop reporting
arrangement. This led eventually to the Committee's Fifth Report
of Session 2005-06 (HC 807) and the addition of the provision
in the Electoral Administration Bill which I have described in
3.14 The third report concerned a complaint alleging
that a Member had used official House of Commons stationery to
further a business interest and had failed fully to disclose the
nature of that interest when writing to a Government Minister.
The Committee agreed with my conclusion that the Member concerned
had failed to exercise sufficient care in separating his public
role from his private business interests. As a result, he had
breached the requirements of the Code of Conduct in a number of
respects. The Member subsequently apologised to the House by way
of a personal statement.
Use of Rectification Procedure
3.15 None of the cases considered in the year were
resolved by the use of the rectification procedure.
However, as previously mentioned (paragraph 3.13), a similar style
entry was made in the Register at the conclusion of one case reported
to the Committee.
Frivolous and Vexatious Complaints
3.16 I drew the attention of one complainant to the
existence of the procedure for handling complaints of this sort
following extensive inquiries I made into his complaint, which
not only suggested that it was groundless but that an element
of malice might be involved.
No complaints were formally referred to the Committee on this
14 See paragraph 3.7 below Back
Fifth Report of Session 2004-05 HC 473 Back
First Report of Session 2005-06, HC 419 Back
Second Report of Session 2005-06, HC 420 Back
Third Report of Session 2005-06, HC 421 Back
For a description of the procedure see Appendix 1 to my Annual
Report for 2002-03 Back
The procedure for handling complaints of this nature was set out
in Appendix 2 to my Annual Report for 2003-04 Back