Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Report


4  The Other Registers

4.1 Ten years after the introduction of the Register of Members' Interests in 1974, the Select Committee on Members' Interests (a predecessor of the Committee on Standards and Privileges) conducted an inquiry into concerns about parliamentary lobbying and recommended that:

"When they are approached, Members of the House must be able readily to identify the source and true nature of the approach. Equally the full purposes of those with access to Parliament should be known. We are convinced that greater openness would now be beneficial in certain areas."[21]

4.2 To meet those concerns the Committee concluded that registers should be set up for Members' staff, journalists and All-Party Groups. The Committee's recommendations were subsequently agreed by the House on 17 December 1985 and the first registers were published in 1986. The form and substance of each register are detailed in the sections below.

Members' Staff Register

4.3 Those holding a parliamentary pass as a Member's secretary or research assistant are required to register any other occupation or employment from which they receive income exceeding half of one per cent of a Member's salary from the same source in the course of a calendar year, if that occupation or employment is in any way advantaged by the privileged access to Parliament afforded by their pass.[22] They also have to register any tangible gift (e.g. glassware) and any other benefit (e.g. hospitality, service or facilities provided) which they receive, if the value of the gift or benefit exceeds that sum and relates in any way to their work in Parliament.

4.4 The number of staff on the register rose slightly, from 1536 on 31 March 2005 to 1553 on 31 March 2006. The number of these registering an interest fell, from 375 to 327.

Journalists' Register

4.5 Those holding a pass as a lobby journalist accredited to the Parliamentary Press Gallery or for parliamentary broadcasting are required to register any occupation or employment from which they receive income exceeding one per cent of a Member's salary from the same source in the course of a calendar year, if that occupation or employment is in any way advantaged by the privileged access to Parliament afforded by their pass.[23]

4.6 Turnover on the register is low. Of the 375 journalists on the register as at 31 March 2006, 76 had registered interests. This compares with 397 and 70 respectively at 31 March 2005.

All-Party Groups' Register

4.7 The membership of All-Party Groups consists mainly of backbench Members of the House of Commons and Lords but may also include ministers and non-parliamentarians. There are two types of group: subject groups (relating to a particular topic, e.g. forestry) and country groups (relating to a particular country or region).

4.8 Inclusion on the Register of All-Party Groups is compulsory for any group which includes Members of the Commons from more than one party and has at least one officer who is from the Commons. Such groups are required to register the group's title and the names of its officers. Financial and material benefits received by the group as a whole must also be registered, where the group receives during a calendar year one or more benefits from the same source whose total value is £1000 or more. Lastly, the group must register the name and paid employment or occupation outside Parliament of any staff servicing the group who hold a parliamentary pass, if that occupation or employment is advantaged by the passholder's privileged access to Parliament.

4.9 Groups that qualify for inclusion on the Register of All-Party Groups may also apply for inclusion on the Approved List. Both are compiled by my office. By being on the Approved List, a group qualifies for certain entitlements, largely to do with use of the House's facilities. Additional rules apply to groups on the List. For example, they must hold annual elections for their officers and must also register the names of a minimum of ten Members from the Government party and ten from the Opposition parties. All but 6 groups are on both the Register and the Approved List.

4.10 The number of registered groups as at 31 March 2006 was 422, as opposed to 443 in March 2005. The usual pattern is for the number of groups to be at its highest towards the end of a parliament, to then drop after a general election (when all groups have to re-register), before rising again to equal or exceed the previous Parliament's total. Of the 2006 total, 111 were country groups and 311 were subject groups whilst the corresponding figures for 2005 were 122 and 321. The number of groups registering the receipt of financial or material benefits fell during the same period from 269 to 259.

Overlap between the Registers

4.11 Overlap between the various Registers kept by my office is an increasingly common occurrence. Subject to the different financial thresholds that apply to each of the registers, examples arise when:

a)  Hospitality (eg relating to overseas visits) is received by an all-party group. This should be registered on both the Groups' and Members' register (and may also need to be registered with the Electoral Commission, depending on its value to each individual Member).

b)  An external organisation or individual subsidises a staff member's salary. This should be registered on both the Staff and Members' register, and if the staff member acts as part of the staff to an All-Party Group, on the Groups' register as well.

4.12 It is important that Members keep in mind the potential need to make entries in more than one of the Registers arising from the same circumstances.

Access to the Registers

4.13 The three registers are not published in hard copy form but are published on Parliament's internet website. A paper copy of each register is also held at the House of Commons where anyone may inspect it by arrangement.[24] An updated edition of each register is usually issued every 4-6 weeks when the House is sitting.

Complaints

4.14 In contrast with the preceding year, in which I received no complaints relating to the other Registers, the past year was unusually busy in this respect.

(I) COMPLAINTS AGAINST MEMBERS' STAFF

4.15 I received two complaints that staff employed by Members who held passes giving them access to the Palace of Westminster had failed to register an occupation or employment, from which they received income exceeding £295 in one year, which might be advantaged by the privileged access to Parliament afforded by their pass. Both cases involved staff who were also local authority councillors. After making inquiries, I upheld both complaints. Since both appeared to be the result of a genuine oversight combined with a failure properly to understand the Rules, I decided to handle both by applying to them an approach similar to the rectification procedure which can be applied to a minor, inadvertent and admitted failure to register an interest by a Member.[25] Accordingly, appropriate late entries were made in the relevant Register and I reported the outcome informally to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

4.16 I also took the opportunity to remind Members' staff, and Members themselves of the relevant Rules through a notice circulated in the All Party Whip. This drew attention to the fact that, as is the case with Members, remunerated employment includes not only that for which a salary or fee is received but also one where the remuneration consists of taxable expenses, allowances or benefits.[26] The 'advantage' which possession of a pass may bring is not limited to a financial advantage but is anything which might reasonably be thought to benefit the person concerned in relation to carrying out their remunerated occupation or employment. Thus the privileged access to Members and others, and to the facilities of the House, afforded by a pass might readily be seen as an advantage to any local councillor.

4.17 In one of the two cases, the local councillor concerned had given her parliamentary e-mail address as a means of contacting her on a newsletter circulated locally by her party. I advised her that this was inappropriate and that she should have given her local authority or local party address. Since the person concerned retired as a councillor at the May 2006 elections, there was no question of her having derived any personal political benefit from the arrangement.

(II) COMPLAINTS ABOUT ALL-PARTY GROUPS

4.18 In the autumn of 2005 I received a number of complaints relating to one of the many All-Party Groups in the House which focuses on a particular health-related illness or condition. The letters alleged that a particular patient support group concerned with this condition had been excluded from meetings of the Group and that the Group's agenda was effectively being set by two other patient support groups whose approach to the matter was different from the first group's and which provided administrative assistance to the All-Party Group.

4.19 The House's approach to the regulation of All-Party Groups seeks to apply the minimum of rules necessary in the public interest while giving Groups a large degree of autonomy in the conduct of their internal affairs. There was no evidence that the All-Party Group in question had failed to observe the House's Rules. I therefore advised the complainants accordingly. However, I also alerted the Chairman of the Group to the concerns which had been expressed, and he made clear that there was no question of the patient support group of which they were members being excluded from meetings of the All-Party Group. I was therefore able to convey this assurance to the complainants.

4.20 On 13 and 14 January 2006, The Times newspaper ran a story alleging that a number of All-Party Groups had failed to comply with the Rules, in that they had failed to include in the Register the name of the ultimate client of the public affairs company which was providing administrative support for each Group in question. I subsequently received a formal complaint to this effect from the Editor of "The Times". In his letter, the Editor also raised a number of wider questions about the framework of regulation of Groups laid down by the House.

4.21 Not only was the complaint the first of substance to be raised since that framework had been laid down in 1985, it also combined both specific allegations about 6 named Groups with more general questions of principle about the House's Rules. I therefore decided on a twin-track approach, in which I conducted specific inquiries of the named Groups alongside a more general consultation process with Members, representatives of the public affairs industry and charitable bodies with a particular interest in the functioning of All-Party Groups.

4.22 In my report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges (delivered just outside the period of this report) I recommended that the complaint be upheld against 3 of the 6 named Groups. I also made a number of recommendations designed to strengthen the House's regulatory framework, while preserving as much flexibility as possible for Groups to get on with their work. The Committee upheld my findings on the specific complaints and agreed to consult more widely on my recommendations for change in the regulatory framework.[27] That consultation process is currently underway and I expect to be able to indicate the outcome in my next annual report.

Publication of the Register of Members' Secretaries and Research Assistants

4.23 During the autumn of 2005, the Committee on Standards and Privileges and I considered whether there were grounds for changing the present practice of publishing this Register ("the Members' Staff Register") on the internet in the light of changing concerns about security. Having taken appropriate advice, the Committee agreed with my recommendation that no change in current practice would be justified at this point. There is no evidence at the present time that the staff of Members who hold Parliamentary passes are particularly vulnerable and the Register is only one way in which the names of such staff enter the public domain. Many are, for example, listed by Members on their websites or in other contexts as a means of enabling constituents to make contact with their Member.

4.24 The Committee was, rightly, concerned that staff representatives should be consulted about this question. Staff representatives agreed with the Committee's conclusion that, at the moment, the balance of advantage continues to lie in the greater transparency which publication of the Members' Staff Register on the internet affords. However, both the Committee and I intend to keep the position under regular review and if there is any indication of a need to consider changing current practice, we will not hesitate to do so.


21   Select Committee on Members' Interests, First Report, Session 1984-85, HC 261 Back

22   Over £295 during the period of this report  Back

23   Over £590 during the period of this report  Back

24   Requests to consult the registers should be made to the main Committee Office at the House of Commons by calling 020 7219 4300 Back

25   For a description of the rectification procedure, see Appendix 1 to my Annual Report for 2002-03, HC 905  Back

26   For the applicable definition of "remuneration", see paragraph 17 of the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members, HC 351, Session 2005-06 Back

27   Ninth Report of Session 2005-06, HC 1145  Back


 
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Prepared 25 July 2006