Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Report

Appendix 3: The Frank Stacey Memorial Lecture, 2005

"Trust in Politicians: Standards in the House of Commons"


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 chairman.

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 they police.

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 trust.

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 political process.

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 test.

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.

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 this.

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 fashion.

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 afterwards.
  • 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.

Emphasising Prevention

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' allowances.

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.

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Prepared 25 July 2006