Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Report

1  The standards system

1.1  Three developments in the course of the year had an impact on the standards regime and the work of the Commissioner. The first two of these—the introduction of the Communications Allowance and the implementation of changes in the regulations on the use of dining facilities—were foreshadowed in my predecessor's Report for 2006-07. The third development - the registration of the employment by Members of relatives - arose out of a memorandum of my predecessor and a report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Introduction of the Communications Allowance

1.2  In November 2006 the House welcomed the principle of establishing a separate allowance for Members "to assist in the work of communicating with the public on parliamentary business", and the new Communications Allowance—at a level initially set at £10,000 per year—came into effect on 1 April 2007. The accompanying guidance made clear that the new allowance is there to enable Members to communicate proactively with their constituents. It also imposed a financial cap on Members' use of pre-paid envelopes and emphasised that these may be used only for replying to letters received and for writing to individuals and organisations in pursuit of parliamentary business. The guidance clearly distinguished between parliamentary communications, which can properly be funded from the allowances, and communications for party political and campaigning purposes, which cannot.

1.3  Despite the care with which the guidance was framed, it was perhaps not surprising, in view of the May 2007 elections to local authorities and devolved bodies, that the first complaint about the use of this new allowance should arise very soon after its introduction. Use of this allowance continued to give rise to complaints throughout the year. During 2007-08 my predecessor and I produced Memoranda relating to a total of nine inquiries arising from the content and circulation of Members' newsletters and other material. My predecessor also made a general report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges recommending possible improvements to the regime governing the allowance, to which I refer later.[1]

Changes to the regulations on the use of dining facilities

1.4  The Committee's Third Report of Session 2006-07 concerned complaints about the use of House of Commons dining facilities.[2] The complaints in question arose out of the long-standing practice of Members sponsoring dinners in the House by dining clubs which contributed to party funds, thus, arguably, using the facilities for indirect gain to the party. Unlike direct fundraising, indirect fundraising by political parties was not then explicitly prohibited by the regulations of the House.

1.5  The Committee agreed with the Commissioner that there was no commonly-agreed interpretation of the regulations as applied to the practice complained of and that the Members concerned had acted in good faith. The Committee nevertheless concluded, without singling out any individual Members for action by the House, that the practice had given the impression that the House facilities had been used improperly for fundraising and recommended that the regulations should be amended to make clear that indirect as well as direct fundraising was prohibited. They advised that in future Members sponsoring in their own name functions of a political nature in the private dining rooms should satisfy themselves that no political party would benefit financially from the event. The matter was remitted to the Administration Committee to consider changes to the regulations. In the interim the Committee on Standards and Privileges felt that 'it was not reasonable, given the long history of such events, to require Members to cancel them in circumstances which would leave them with a personal financial liability to the Refreshment Department'.[3] They therefore agreed that they would apply the new criteria only to events booked after 18 June 2007. Until that date my office had advised those Members who sought advice on the propriety of booking functions that in order to protect themselves against the possibility of a complaint they would be wise to act as if the change had already been made.

1.6  The Administration Committee approved the necessary changes to the regulations to prohibit indirect fundraising in November 2007, at the same time extending the prohibition on direct and indirect fundraising to All-Party Groups.

Registration of employment of Members' family

1.7  The third significant development also followed an inquiry by the Commissioner and a report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, in this case into a complaint about a Member's employment of a relative paid from the parliamentary allowances.[4] It is open to Members to employ their relatives as long as the usual regulations of the House in respect of employment of Members' staff are adhered to. Many Members are known to employ relatives, though there has hitherto been no reliable method of estimating the numbers.

1.8  In the complaint in question my predecessor found that the employee concerned had been overpaid for the work which he was likely to have done. The case gave rise to a considerable amount of negative publicity, not only about the individual concerned, but also about the system as a whole. The Committee on Standards and Privileges therefore considered whether Members ought to be required to disclose details of those relatives whom they employed. They weighed up various options, and the data protection and freedom of information implications of each, and published initially a consultation document and subsequently a set of recommendations.[5]

1.9  On 27 March, the House endorsed the recommendation of the Committee that Members should record on the Register of Members' Interests any employment of family members paid from parliamentary allowances. The result was that from 1 April 2008 Members were able to enter in a new Category 11 of the Register, published as Part 2, the name, relationship to them and standard job title of any relatives (by marriage or partnership equivalent to marriage or by blood) employed and paid from the parliamentary allowances, together with whether that employment was full or part time. From 1 August 2008 such registration is to be compulsory. The description of the purpose of the Register was amended to read "To provide information of any pecuniary interest 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 and such other information as the House may from time to time require".[6]

1.10  In most respects it was left to Members to decide the degree of relationship in respect of which registration was appropriate. The employment of former spouses and partners is to be registered for three years after the end of the relationship.

1.11  The first edition of the new-format Register, giving information about employment of family members, was published on 23 April 2008.

1   See paragraphs 3.24-3.25 below Back

2   Third Report of Session 2006-07, HC 431 Back

3   Fifth Report of Session 2006-07, HC 683 Back

4   Fourth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 280 Back

5   Sixth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 383 and Seventh Report of Session 2007-08, HC 436 Back

6   HC Deb 27 March 2008, col 382-394. The addition agreed on that date is underlined. Back

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Prepared 17 July 2008