Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Report

2  Advice, prevention and the dissemination of information

Advising Members and others

2.1  My office is pleased to advise Members and others on the requirements of the Code of Conduct and the rules governing registration. Members are understandably anxious to abide by the rules of the House and it is an important part of our work to help them to do so. With so many other calls on their time and attention, it is nevertheless very important that Members and their staff know their way round the rules and that everybody takes responsibility for ensuring that their arrangements comply.

2.2  The advice offered takes two main forms: briefing sessions to groups, which normally cover the requirements in general, although individual problems may be raised in question and answer sessions, and advice to individuals on specific issues. This last may be face-to-face, over the telephone or by letter and are usually given by the Registrar, Assistant Registrar or Executive Assistant. Advice given to individual Members is noted and retained for future reference if required.

2.3  It is our practice to arrange major briefing sessions for Members after a General Election or as necessary. The office remains ready to respond to requests to address groups of Members at any time. The Registrar, together with representatives of the Electoral Commission, was pleased to have the opportunity on 19 February 2008 to speak to a meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs to explain and answer questions on the various requirements, and to hear their concerns. Such briefings are available for any group of Members in the House.

2.4  My office also takes care to brief Members returned at by-elections, of which there were two during the period covered by this report, both in July 2007. Each new Member receives a letter from the Commissioner, a folder containing the Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules, a registration form, procedural and advice notes and information about the requirements of the Electoral Commission, and is offered an individual meeting with the Registrar.

2.5  The Assistant Registrar carries out the advice function in respect of the obligations placed by the House on Members' staff, All-Party Groups and journalists. Advice is given by telephone, letter, e-mail and face-to-face. She contributes to the House's induction sessions for new employees of Members, which are held approximately every 6-8 weeks.

2.6  Information is also given through notices in the All-Party Whip. In all cases where a response from all Members is required we maintain close liaison with the party Whips' offices. When my office finds it necessary to communicate with all Members it has traditionally done so by hard-copy letter from the Commissioner or Registrar. We expect to make more use of e-mail in future.

Relations with the Media

2.7  While I am as open as possible about the procedures I follow when conducting any inquiry into complaints against Members, I believe it is right that my inquiry should not be the subject of public report while the inquiry is continuing. A Member's reputation can be at stake, and to release information to the media or the public before a full inquiry has been completed could both prejudice that inquiry and run the risk of unfairly jeopardising the Member's good standing either in the local community or more widely. My office therefore aims, as agreed with the Committee on Standards and Privileges in 2003, to provide as much information as possible about the process followed in considering a complaint, while maintaining confidentiality about individuals. In practice this means that we are willing to give information in response to media inquiries about standards issues in general, and my office will confirm (if asked) whether a complaint has been received, dismissed or suspended, and when the Commissioner has submitted a report to the Committee. But neither my office nor I will otherwise provide information or comment in response to media inquiries about individual cases. After I have submitted my memorandum to the Committee, all media inquiries are directed to the Committee.

2.8  I recognise that this approach is not always welcome to the media who want to give the public as much information as possible about cases which are in the public eye. Nevertheless, I believe that the overwhelming public interest lies in ensuring a fair investigation of any complaint, and that can best be achieved by me being able to pursue an inquiry without details of it being disclosed prematurely. In cases where I report on a complaint to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, my memorandum is detailed and is published—together with the evidence—as an Appendix to the Committee's report, which is then made available from the Stationery Office and on Parliament's website.

Dealing with the general public

2.9  Members of the public frequently contact my office by phone, by e-mail and in writing to inquire about the standards system or to lodge complaints. In the latter case the complainant has often already approached a number of different agencies in their search for a remedy. Each approach receives a separate response, and wherever possible we advise the person concerned of the person or agency, if such exists, who is best placed to consider the complaint if it does not come within my remit.

2.10   Anyone interested in my work can also access the Standards webpage on the Parliament website, where procedural notes and other information can be found alongside useful links.[7]

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