Appendix 3: The Frank Stacey Memorial
Lecture, 2005 |
"Trust in Politicians: Standards in the House
I am honoured to have been invited to give this lecture
in memory of Frank Stacey. At the time he published his seminal
book "The British Ombudsman", I was just graduating
in politics from the University of Edinburgh. His earlier work
- the influential 'Government of Modern Britain" - had been
a set text. He was an academic name to conjure with, and his influence
continues through his students and, not least, the Public Administration
Committee of the Joint University Council, of which he was a distinguished
Frank Stacey was not only interested in politics
and public life as a subject of academic study but believed in
the desirability of active participation in that life. Without
compromising his academic standards or principles, he rolled up
his sleeves and became involved. Clearly one of his abiding concerns
was the provision in the modern world of effective remedies for
the redress of individual citizens' grievances. His academic interest
in the development of the Ombudsman system reflected his strong
personal commitment to the pursuit of justice and fairness.
I am confident that, as well as recognising the potential
of Ombudsmen as a means of redressing individual grievances and
securing justice for those concerned, Frank would have recognised
that Ombudsmen - and their contemporary analogues like Commissioners
for Standards - play a deeper role as one of the mechanisms for
increasing public confidence in the operation of civil society.
Their task is not simply to criticise politicians or public officials
but at the same time to help build confidence in the institutions
Trust and confidence in politicians - or rather the
alleged lack of it - was one of the key issues in the General
Election earlier this year. A number of commentators have attributed
declining levels of voter turnout to declining levels of this
As I shall explain later, the issue of public trust
in politics and politicians goes, in my view, far deeper than
issues which are capable of being tackled by the Parliamentary
Commissioner for Standards. But there is no doubt that concerns
about corruption, or "sleaze" as the tabloid press describes
it, were at the heart of the origin of my role.
These concerns focussed in the "Cash for Questions"
affair in the early to mid 1990s. The arrangements of which my
role forms part were a typically British response to those concerns.
In the first part of my remarks this evening, I want (with apologies
to any of you who may already be familiar with them) to sketch
out the origin and essential features of those arrangements.
Secondly, I shall describe my impressions of the
arrangements when I took up office in March 2002 and what I have
since being doing to try to strengthen them.
Finally, I shall return to the issue of public trust
and ask how effective the arrangements have been in improving
standards and encouraging public trust in politicians and the
Origin and Principles
I said a moment ago that the arrangements of which
my office is part constituted a typically British response to
the problem of "sleaze". They emerged from the equivalent
of a Departmental Committee or Royal Commission - in this case,
the Committee on Standards in Public Life led by its first chairman,
Lord Nolan. They were built in part on pre-existing Parliamentary
machinery. They were implemented by non-statutory means. Like
many other elements in British public life, the arrangements came
into being in response to a specific set of events, were built
pragmatically on existing institutions, and are still evolving.
Prior to 1995, controls over the conduct of Members
of Parliament were largely informal. The House of Commons was
a club (for the most part, a gentleman's club). The first Register
of Members' Interests had come into being after the Poulson affair
some twenty years earlier but the rules on what and when to register
had not been codified and publicised until 1992.
The arrangements introduced following the recommendations
of Lord Nolan's Committee and those made in a subsequent report
by the then Select Committee on Members' Interests, can best be
described as 'self-regulation with a strong independent element'.
'Self regulation' because the House of Commons ultimately sits
in judgement on the conduct of its own Members. "With a strong
independent element" because a key constituent of the arrangements
is the appointment of a Commissioner required to bring his or
her independent judgement to bear, not only on whether and how
individual complaints are to be investigated but on whether the
conduct complained of is indeed a breach of the required standards.
Self-regulation has its critics, in the Parliamentary
as in other fields. In the case of the House of Commons it needs
primarily to be understood, not as an expression of Parliamentary
self-interest but of the, in my view understandable, reluctance
of MPs to allow the courts to interfere in the regulation of Parliament's
own internal affairs. Standing behind this is the concept of the
separation of powers, Article 9 of the Bill of Rights of 1689
and the doctrine of "exclusive cognisance". I would
have to concede that scepticism about lawyers and an aversion
to the introduction of overly legalistic processes into the regulation
of Members' conduct is another factor.
The arrangements should also be viewed in the context
of the very limited immunity given MPs against criminal and civil
action in the courts, an immunity which is restricted purely to
things said or done by them during proceedings in Parliament.
What then is the nature of the Commons standards
arrangements? There are 4 main elements:
A Code of Conduct
The Code - which has recently been revised - applies
to Members in all aspects of their public life, not in their purely
private and personal lives. Its purpose is to provide guidance
on the standards of conduct expected of Members in discharging
their parliamentary and public duties, and in so doing to provide
the openness and accountability necessary to reinforce public
confidence in the way they perform those duties.
The Code consists of 3 broad statements of public
duty, accompanied by 8 specific rules of conduct. It also incorporates
the Nolan Committee's 'Seven principles of public life' - honesty,
integrity, and so on - principles which are to be taken into consideration
when any complaint is received of breaches of the other provisions
of the Code.
As you would expect, interpreting the Code and applying
it to individual sets of circumstances is not always easy. Therein
lies one of the challenges of my role.
The Register of Members' Interests
The main purpose of the Register is "to provide
information of any pecuniary or other material benefit which a
Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to
influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament,
or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament."
Note that the test for registration is not what the
Member thinks might influence them but what "might reasonably
be thought by others" to influence them. One task of the
Commissioner is to be the reasonable outsider in applying this
Registration does not imply wrongdoing. Its object
is to promote openness, and through openness, accountability.
As well as the obligation on Members to register
their interests, they are obliged to declare them when relevant
during debates and other proceedings in the House. In fact the
obligation to declare an interest is in some respects wider than
the obligation to register, embracing, for example, relevant past
and future as well as present interests.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards
The Commissioner provides the independent element
in the system. His or her role includes advising individual MPs
and the House on matters of conduct, and considering and investigating
Complaints can come from other Members of the House
or from any member of the public. The number tends to fluctuate
from year to year, and can be heavily influenced by such factors
as the approach of a general election or publicity surrounding
the actions of a particularly prominent politician.
Many of the complaints I receive come from constituents
disgruntled about the way their MP has handled their own case.
Complaints of this nature, however, are outside my remit. I will
not bore you with a description of the process for handling complaints
but will be happy to answer questions if anyone wishes to explore
The Commissioner is appointed by a Resolution of
the House, on the recommendation of the House of Commons Commission
and following a process of competitive interview which, on the
last occasion, was externally monitored. The appointment is now
for a 5 year, non-renewable term.
The Committee on Standards and Privileges
Is the final element in the arrangements. It oversees
the work of the Commissioner and advises the House on matters
within its remit. In respect of complaints, it assesses guilt
or innocence, on the basis of the reports prepared by the Commissioner,
and advises the House on the appropriate penalty.
Following recommendations by the Committee on Standards
in Public Life in its Eighth Report (Cm 5663), the membership
of the Committee is now evenly divided between Government and
Opposition back benchers. Parliamentary Private Secretaries are
no longer members and the Chairman is a distinguished, senior,
Opposition back-bencher, currently Sir George Young.
My Approach to the Role
Having outlined the nature and some of the rationale
of the system for regulating MPs' conduct, I turn to describe
how I have approached the role of Parliamentary Commissioner since
my appointment in March 2002.
One of the principal challenges facing any Standards
Commissioner -and one principal requirement if they are to be
effective in the post - is to retain the confidence of both the
public and MPs in the way they discharge their role. The public
must be confident of the Commissioner's independence and integrity,
and their willingness to hold erring Members to account. MPs must
also believe in the Commissioner's integrity, and in the Commissioner's
capacity to understand the particular character of the House of
Commons and to treat them fairly, confidentially and with good
judgement. There is no doubt that confidence in both groups had
been weakened by the circumstances surrounding my predecessor,
Elizabeth Filkin's departure from office.
My immediate aim on arrival in post was to emphasise
that I was not some tame successor to Elizabeth but my own man.
I also made clear - a message more for the politicians - that
I would not countenance the abuse of the complaints process through
attempts to pursue trivial complaints in a vindictive or partisan
Throughout, I have sought to adopt an approach which
is strategic and proportionate: strategic in the sense that it
is proactive and focuses on the key issues; proportionate in that
both policy matters and cases are handled in a manner appropriate
to the intrinsic weight of the issues at stake.
Years ago, I learned that it is a salutary discipline
to write down your initial impressions after your first few months
in a job and to review them from time to time, as the sharpness
and clarity of your initial insights inevitably begin to fade.
In preparing this talk I looked again at the list
I produced after my first few months as Commissioner. Here are
a few of the impressions I wrote down.
- Public and press perceptions
of the system are 'case driven'. There is a need for a strategic
approach to the operation of the system as a whole.
- It is essential to build Member as well as public
confidence. More emphasis is needed on advice and education.
- The Code of Conduct is a bit of a rag-bag. It
is hardly a coherent statement of what we expect of Members.
- The rules on registering interests are complex,
although simpler after changes in May 2002 than they were.
- Procedures need spelling out clearly, so that
all concerned are aware of them from the outset.
Flowing from that analysis, I have tried to:
- Help strengthen the machinery
for sustaining high standards among Members.
- Put more emphasis on preventing problems before
they arise - with the aim of developing a culture of compliance
with the House's rules - rather than simply picking up the pieces
- Review the Code of Conduct, and clarify and codify
the procedures for enforcing it.
- Establish clear ground rules for informing the
press and the public about how the system operates in general
and about the handling of individual cases, and agree a clear
public information policy.
Strengthening the System
In its review of Standards of Conduct in the Commons
published in November 2002 the independent Committee on Standards
in Public Life said:
"We believe, along with many of our witnesses,
that the fundamental structure of the current system for regulating
standards of conduct in the House of Commons is sound. However,
it requires some considerable strengthening of the system's components
to meet the areas of concern described
and to provide effective
regulation of standards." Cm 5663, para. 3.23.
The recommendations of the Committee - to which I
was among those giving evidence - focussed primarily on buttressing
the independence of the Commissioner and underpinning the impartial
and authoritative role of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
The House responded positively to these recommendations and they
are now reflected in the arrangements I outlined to you earlier.
They include the even balance between Government and Opposition
on the Select Committee, the exclusion of PPSs from membership,
the Committee's chairmanship by a senior Opposition backbencher,
and the fixed term of appointment for the Commissioner.
With the approval of the Committee on Standards and
Privileges, my colleague the Registrar of Members' Interests and
I have produced a series of occasional advice notes on particular
topics, supplementing the material already in the published Rules.
We have arranged comprehensive briefings for Members and their
staff, particularly those Members newly elected to the House this
year. And we have occasionally attended, by invitation, meetings
of the parliamentary parties to speak on particular topics.
We have also continued the extensive provision of
advice to individual Members on their own particular circumstances.
The Committee and I have also tried to identify lessons
to be drawn from individual cases and to use our reports on those
cases as a means of encouraging sensible improvement of the House's
regulatory arrangements, eg in respect of some aspects of Members'
Reviewing the Code
A review of the Code was completed this year and
the House has accepted its outcome. I believe that the resulting
document is more coherent, better presented and more user-friendly.
The procedures for handling complaints - including complaints
of a frivolous or vexatious nature - have been written up and
made available for all to access on the world-wide web.
Public Information Policy
The public information policy agreed with the Committee
on Standards and Privileges is also available on the web. It may
be summed up as openness about the way the system operates, combined
with confidentiality about the handling of individual cases during
the investigation and deliberation phase. Of course, once the
Committee reports to the House, all the material it has considered,
along with my recommendations and the Committee's own deliberations,
are published for all to see.
More generally, I hope that knowledge about the way
the system operates has been assisted by my publication of an
annual report, which includes information about policy and procedural
developments and statistics on the number of complaints handled.
Taken together, I believe that these and other changes
I have not time to mention represent a real strengthening of the
Commons standards arrangements. It was encouraging to see Peter
Riddell, the respected Chief Political Commentator of the Times,
say earlier this year in a review of the first ten years of existence
of the Committee on Standards in Public Life:
"The revamped system of Commons self-regulation
and disclosure is now operating pretty well. . ." (Committee
on Standards in Public Life, Annual Report, 2004)
Any improvement there may have been is the result
of concerted effort by the Committee on Standards and Privileges,
the authorities and senior officers as well as the Members of
the House, with the benefit of the assistance of outside commentators
including the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Public Confidence - are the arrangements working?
Is the system working? Is the evidence of 'sleaze'
in the House diminishing? While the number of cases of complaint
fluctuates, indications overall are that the number of Members
who are the subject of a complaint within the scope of the Code
is diminishing. There is no evidence of widespread graft and corruption.
Such cases of misconduct as emerge appear to be aberrations, often
the result of lack of sufficient care or forethought rather than
deliberate contravention of the rules.
Of course, we must never be complacent. MPs are as
much part of fallen humanity as the rest of us. From time to time,
there will be instances of misconduct. On any international comparison,
however, standards in the House of Commons remain high. As the
Committee on Standards in Public Life put it in its Eighth Report:
"We endorse the view that standards in the
House of Commons are generally high, and that the overwhelming
majority of Members seek to and in practice do, uphold high standards
of propriety." (Cm 5663, paragraph 2.7)
Have the arrangements I have described done anything
to bolster public confidence that sleaze is being tackled effectively?
There is some collateral evidence that they have in the results
of a survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life,
published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in September
last year. The survey revealed that 'spin' has replaced 'sleaze'
as a major focus of public concern. Few thought that MPs take
bribes or base their decisions on self interest. Only 11% rated
standards in public life as low or very low.
The survey also disclosed that the public hold comprehensive
and sophisticated, but sometimes apparently contradictory views
on standards issues. They tend to draw a clear distinction between
their local MP (whom they may know) and MPs in general. Asked
whether they generally trusted their local MP to tell the truth,
47% of those surveyed said yes, 45% said no, a net trust rating
of +2%. Asked the same question in relation to MPs in general,
the figures were 27% and 67%, a net trust rating of -40%. I wonder
whether part of what is at work here is the general human tendency
to stereotype people as a group, whilst frequently making exceptions
of those we know within that group.
Finally the survey confirmed the powerful role of
the media in influencing public attitudes on these issues - although
it also found that journalists on tabloid newspapers rank well
below MPs in the list of those who the public trust.
Strengthening Trust in Politicians
Even so a net trust rating of +2% in your local Member
(which incidentally was about the same as that reported for television
news journalists) is hardly stunning. There is clearly more work
to be done if public confidence in MPs' conduct is to be improved.
Part of the answer, the research suggests, may lie
in informing the public more about what is done to uphold standards.
But it seems clear that we need to look beyond the conduct of
politicians alone, or the distribution of more information about
how misconduct is handled, to find the reasons fuelling the present
lack of public trust in those active in political life.
Part of the explanation may lie in the lack of appreciation
or understanding of the role of politics itself in society. Part
may reside in doubt about the effectiveness of our political institutions.
Part may lie in the cynicism surrounding all institutions - from
the monarchy and the Church downwards. Part may lie in the individualistic,
consumerist nature of contemporary society. Part may rest with
a media which believes that truth only emerges from confrontation
and which - together, it has to be said, with many in politics
- is too ready to reduce complex issues to misleading banner headlines
and glib sound-bites.
How do we recover trust? By recognising that it has
to be both earned and granted. Politicians have to be more ready
to give straight answers, to say it how it is, to match words
with actions, to admit error. Aided and prodded by people like
me - and by a vigilant press - they have to aspire to and maintain
high standards of conduct.
But we, the public have to recognise our responsibility
too. Our responsibility to recognise that, like any other group
of people, politicians deserve to be assessed on their merits
and not simply pilloried as a class. Our responsibility when making
that assessment to recognise that - like, for example, running
a business or a university - government mostly involves the exercise
of judgement in making difficult decisions in complex circumstances.
Our responsibility also to recognise that, between elections,
politicians need to be given space to make those judgements and,
yes, even occasionally to make mistakes.
Mr Chairman, I believe that Frank Stacey would have
recognised that such reciprocal sets of obligations and responsibilities
are at the heart of civil society itself. Ombudsmen, Standards
Commissioners and the like can encourage, stimulate and assist
the adoption of good standards but they cannot will them into
being. William Gladstone said that "the British constitution
presumes on the good will of everyone in it." That remains
as true today as it was in the Victorian era. It is the responsibility
of all of us - politicians, academics, media and public - to safeguard
the continuation of that good will into the future.