Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Report

3  Complaints

The Commissioner's remit

3.1  Under the Standing Orders of the House, I have the remit to receive, and if I think fit investigate, complaints of misconduct by a Member. My remit includes such matters as breaches of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament and the associated Rules, and failure to register or declare interests or benefits as required by the House. It excludes such matters as policy issues and Members' views or opinions, Members' handling of constituency casework, actions taken by Members in their capacity as government Ministers, and what Members do in their purely private and personal lives. Where there has been a significant breach, or wider issues are raised by my investigation of the complaint, I report my findings to the Committee on Standards and Privileges which in turn adjudicates the complaint and if it thinks fit, makes recommendations to the House about any penalty.

Complaints received in 2007-08

3.2  During the year beginning 1 April 2007 my predecessor and I received a total of 226 complaints against named Members. We dealt with 204 of these, in addition to four complaints which had been received in 2006-07, making a total of 208 complaints dealt with during the year. This included two dismissed early in 2008-09 after preliminary inquiry in 2007-08. At the end of the year, I carried forward to 2008-09 22 complaints, including the two dismissed early in 2008-09.

3.3  Table 1 shows how the formal complaints received in 2007-08 were dealt with. The number of complaints received rose in the third and fourth quarters of the year. Several factors may have contributed to the increase in the third quarter. One was the extensive media coverage given to three inquiries during the period, which prompted a large volume of correspondence. Another was our practice of counting as discrete complaints a single letter which names a number of Members. This can inflate the statistics. For example, during this quarter, a single individual submitted complaints, all of which were dismissed after preliminary inquiry, against 12 Members. A further factor leading to an increase in complaints submitted in the last quarter of the year may have been the high profile given by the media to the review of Members' allowances by the Members Estimate Committee, which reported on 25 June 2008, and to Members' allowances generally.

Table 1: Formal complaints in 2007-08
Complaints[8] received in 2007-08 April 2007-June 2007 July 2007-Septem-ber 2007 October 2007-Decem-ber 2007 January 2008-March 2008 Total
1. All complaints received[9] 5116 59122 248
2. Specific complaints against a named Member 4216 55113 226
3. Complaints not proceeded with:         
a) because complaint fell outside remit 2014 2436 94
b) because insufficient evidence was provided[10] 30 157[11] 61
Total complaints not proceeded with 23 1425 93 155
4. Complaints proceeded with:         
a) complaints subject of preliminary inquiry then dismissed[12] 41 213 29
b) complaints subject of further investigation 151 917 42
Total complaints proceeded with 19 230 20 71
5. 2007-08 complaints subject to further investigation and resolved during the year [13] (shown under the quarter in which they were received)         
a) by rectification procedure 01 51 7
b) by means of report to Committee on Standards and Privileges 150 00 15
Total complaints resolved 15 15 1 22
6. Complaints carried over to 2008-09[14] 00 616 22

Members subject of complaint

3.4  Table 2 shows the number of Members who have been subject of a complaint in each year since 2004-05.. Since each Member may be subject of more than one complaint, and complainants may name more than one Member in each complaint, the number of Members who are subject of complaint does not correspond to the number of complaints listed in the previous table. 137 Members were the subject of a specific complaint in 2007-08, of whom 55 were subject to inquiry by the Commissioner. Some of these complaints were dismissed after preliminary inquiry, for reasons explained in paragraph 3.9. Twelve of those who were the subject of a complaint in 2007-08 were the subject of a memorandum to the Committee on Standards and Privileges during the year.

Table 2: Members the subject of complaint from 2004 to 2008
April 04-March 05 April 05-March 06 April 06-March 07 April 07-March 08[15]
a) Members subject of complaint in 2007-08 9379 116[16] 137
b) Members subject of complaint proceeded with 2321 5355
c) Members subject of complaint which underwent further investigation 88 4233
d) Named Members the subject of complaint who were the subject of a memorandum to the Committee on Standards and Privileges 30 2712

Dealing with complaints

3.5  My office continues to receive, in addition to complaints against a named Member, a number of complaints of a general nature. These are shown in the first line of Table 1. Some of these complaints related to the actions of individuals and organisations well outside my remit including actions of NHS trusts, Members of the House of Lords, housing associations and the police, or the decisions of Government. My staff and I always try to redirect the correspondent towards a more appropriate recipient of their complaint if such exists.

3.6  When I receive a letter of complaint which both names a Member and makes a specific allegation against them, I first consider whether the complaint falls within the scope of the House's Code of Conduct and the associated Rules and within my remit as Commissioner. As Chart 1 shows, in 2007-08 just over 40% of the complaints received about named Members fell outside the Commissioner's remit and therefore were not taken forward. Some of these concerned the way in which Members had handled constituents' cases. A number of these letters showed that the Member concerned had made strenuous efforts to help over an extended period of time, and through no fault of his or her own was unable to solve the constituent's problem. Other letters included complaints about the views or opinions expressed by Members and complaints about the actions of Members in their capacity as Government Ministers. All these are outside the remit of the Commissioner.

3.7  I next consider whether the complainant has submitted sufficient evidence to merit at least a preliminary inquiry that there may have been a breach of the Code of Conduct and the associated Rules. In 2007-08 the Commissioner decided not to proceed to further investigation with 61 (27%) of the complaints received against named Members, on the grounds that the correspondent had not provided the evidence required as the basis for an investigation. Almost all of these complaints arose in the final quarter of the year. The great majority of the complaints in this quarter were prompted by media references to Members' alleged practices, by media coverage of existing inquiries, or by the publication of a Report by the Committee on Standards and Privileges. These prompted a large volume of letters which were not accompanied by sufficient or additional evidence on which an inquiry could be based or advanced.

Frivolous and vexatious complaints

3.8   If I receive a complaint which appears to be frivolous or vexatious I will draw this to the attention of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I am pleased to say that neither my predecessor nor I have felt the need to consult the Committee in this way in 2007-08.

Complaints dismissed after preliminary inquiry

3.9  When a complaint both falls within the scope of the Code and is supported by sufficient evidence to suggest that a breach of the House's Rules may have been committed, I make preliminary inquiry of the Member concerned and inform the Committee on Standards and Privileges that I have accepted the complaint. Sometimes my inquiry produces evidence that no breach has occurred, perhaps because the Member has provided a satisfactory explanation of what has happened, or because there has been a misunderstanding on the part of the complainant. I therefore discontinue my inquiry and dismiss the complaint, informing the Committee when I do so. Twenty-nine (13%) of the complaints against named Members submitted in 2007-08 were dismissed at this stage.

Complaints subject of further investigation

3.10  My predecessor or I conducted further investigation into forty-two complaints (19% of those received in 2007-08), in order to secure sufficient information on which to resolve the complaint. In some cases it may be necessary to conduct a full investigation and to submit a memorandum to the Committee. But in other cases I may find that no breach has occurred. I then dismiss the case and report this informally to the Committee. Or I may find that there has been a breach of the Code but it is a relatively minor one, and the Member concerned acknowledges what has happened and apologises for it. In such cases the House has given me authority to determine the case without a formal report to the Committee, employing what is known as the rectification procedure.

Chart 1: Handling of specific complaints about named Members received in 2007-08

Use of the rectification procedure

3.11  A total of seven complaints received in 2007-08 were resolved by means of the rectification procedure. All of these involved comparatively minor misuse of House of Commons stationery or pre-paid envelopes and the Members concerned apologised and repaid the cost of the stationery or postage involved. An eighth case, which was carried forward from 2006-07, concerned an overpayment to an employee. The Member concerned reimbursed the monies involved.

Reports to the Committee in 2007-08

3.12  During the year my predecessor and I submitted to the Committee a total of eight memoranda relating to twenty complaints about fourteen Members. Fifteen of these complaints were received during the year and related to eleven named Members. In addition, I submitted one memorandum which was an interim report on my inquiry into three complaints about the same Member. And my predecessor reported on two complaints, each about one Member, which had arisen in previous years, one in 2003-04 and one in 2006-07.

3.13  At the end of the year I carried forward into 2008-09 twenty-two complaints. These included two complaints which underwent preliminary inquiry in 2007-08 and were dismissed early in 2008-09, and three complaints about one Member, which were the subject of an inquiry which was suspended. The great majority of the complaints carried forward had been received in the final quarter of 2007-08.

3.14  The first memorandum which my predecessor produced during the year came soon after the Committee on Standards and Privileges had considered the report of his inquiry into complaints relating to the use by twenty-six Members of the House's dining facilities for functions by organisations which raised funds for their political party.[17] The Commissioner and the Committee had advocated changes to the regulations, which is a matter for the Administration Committee to consider. The subsequent complaint arose out of a function which took place after publication of the Committee's report but before the Administration Committee had reached a view on changes to the regulations. My predecessor recommended that the complaint be upheld, but in the circumstances, and given the intervention of the Easter Recess, he concluded that it would not have been reasonable to have expected the Member to have taken account of the Committee's report and to have cancelled the dinner. He recommended that no further action was needed in relation to this dinner. The Committee agreed, and returning to the issue later in the light of this case, they recommended that the new regulations should apply to all bookings made after 18 June 2007.[18]

3.15  My predecessor's next memorandum reported the outcome of inquiries which had begun in 2003, following the publication in the media of articles alleging that a Member had, through an Appeal which he had launched, received money from the former Iraqi regime, partly under the guise of the United Nations Oil for Food programme.[19] In April 2003 my predecessor had opened an inquiry which he then suspended in the light of a libel action by the Member concerned. It was not until February 2006 that the way became clear for this inquiry to proceed to a conclusion.

3.16  This inquiry was one of the most complex ever undertaken by the Commissioner. He concluded that the Member concerned had:

  • failed to register his interest in the Appeal, and the individual donations it received above the registration threshold;
  • failed to declare his interest in the Appeal on all occasions when he should have done so;
  • used his parliamentary office and staff in support of the Appeal to an excessive extent;
  • breached the advocacy rule in the terms in which it was in force at the time

and brought the House into disrepute. The Committee upheld the Commissioner's conclusions. The House agreed that the Member should be suspended for eighteen sitting days.

3.17  The third report concerned a complaint that a Member had failed both to register in a timely fashion and to declare certain interests as required by paragraph 16 of the Code of Conduct.[20] My predecessor found the first part of the complaint wrong on the facts, the Member having registered one of these interests in 2001 and the other in 2002, but recommended that the complaint should be upheld in respect of the period from 2005 to 2007 when the Member had omitted to re-register. My predecessor also recommended upholding the complaint about declaration. The Committee agreed with the Commissioner. The Member apologised to the Chairman of the Committee and the Register was amended as it would have been under the rectification procedure. The Committee noted that had the Member been willing to apologise earlier, the Register could have been amended using the rectification procedure without the need to bring the matter to the Committee. This case illustrates the need for all Members to take responsibility for declaring and registering interests.

3.18   The next three reports about complaints against nine Members, all concerned the use of Members' allowances—principally the Communications Allowance.[21] This allowance was introduced in April 2007 to enable Members to fund newsletters and other communications to constituents in support of their parliamentary duties. All these complaints had in common that they arose out of the publication of material during the weeks preceding the elections to local authorities and to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales in May 2007. There is no rule preventing a Member from distributing a newsletter or other publication in the run up to elections to local authorities or to devolved bodies; but these complaints demonstrate the need for particular care as regards the content and distribution of such material if it is not to be regarded as motivated by party political considerations. Together these cases impressed on my predecessor the need for clearer guidance on the use of the Communications Allowance, particularly in election periods. He considered this further in his report on 'Publications funded from the Communications Allowance', to which I shall return later in this chapter.[22]

3.19  In the first of these reports my predecessor considered complaints about newsletters and other material circulated by two Members in neighbouring constituencies.[23] In each case it was alleged that the purpose of this was to boost the votes for a particular party in the May 2007 local elections. In both cases my predecessor dismissed the part of the complaint which related to the inclusion of photographs of individuals who were standing as candidates, on the grounds that the inclusion of such photographs, particularly where relevant to the text of a publication, did not automatically amount to political campaigning. In the case of the first Member, my predecessor concluded that he should not have used parliamentary pre-paid envelopes in order to send out his newsletter and he noted that the Member had omitted to include in the newsletter an imprint saying that it had been funded from parliamentary allowances. In relation to the second Member (who was also the complainant in the first case) my predecessor found that he had included a party political leaflet with the Report as it was delivered, contrary to the regulations on the Communications Allowance. My predecessor also took issue with the use of a Party banner headline and other material in the newsletter.

3.20   The Committee upheld the Commissioner's findings, and considered that no further action was needed. Both Members had apologised, and the first Member concerned intended to repay the cost of the envelopes. Both the Committee and the Commissioner noted in this case the scope for damage both to the credibility of the complaints process and to the standing of Members and the House in general if the complaints system is misused for pursuing what are in reality political arguments.

3.21   In the second of these reports about Members' publications my predecessor considered advertisements financed from the Communications Allowance and placed by the three Members—all of whom belonged to the same Party— in newspapers circulating both within and outside their constituencies in the week preceding the Election to the National Assembly for Wales.[24] The essence of the complaints was that the Members had misused the Communications Allowance by using it to fund publications which were party political or campaigning in nature. Specifically, it was alleged that all three Members had used a Party logo which went beyond what was proportionate and discreet; that the content of the advertisements included inappropriate reference to devolved matters, and strayed across the boundary from the parliamentary into the party political; that the appearance of the Members' advertisements a week or so prior to the Assembly elections was deliberately designed to influence the outcome of those elections, and that the distribution of the newspapers containing the advertisements went beyond what was strictly required to inform each Member's constituents of what the Member had been doing on their behalf. My predecessor recommended that these complaints, except those relating to the Party logos, should be upheld. The Committee agreed that taken overall these newsletters constituted party campaigning activity, and therefore breached the rules for parliamentary funding. It also upheld one complaint about the use of a Party logo. All three Members were asked to repay the sums they had claimed from their allowances.

3.22  This case also illustrates the complexities which can result from the interface between my remit and that of the Electoral Commission. As well as complaining to the Commissioner, a number of Members complained to the Electoral Commission that the advertisements in question constituted 'campaign expenditure' as defined in section 72 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA).  A letter from a senior official in the Commission was mistakenly reported in some sections of the media as meaning that the party concerned must repay to the House the costs of the advertisement. The Commissioner, in his memorandum, noted the task of the Commission in adjudicating complaints in relation to PPERA and added 'the fact that the Commission has expressed [a] view… on the complaints made to it does not determine the outcome of complaints made to me…'

3.23  The third of these Reports concerned publications issued shortly before the May 2007 elections to local authorities and to the Scottish Parliament.[25] In one case my predecessor found that no rule had been breached and dismissed the complaint. In the second case he found that the inclusion in a Member's newsletter of an advertisement from an MEP of the same party breached the guidelines on the inclusion of party political material in publications funded from the allowances, even though the payment from the MEP concerned was proportionate to the cost of the publication. The third publication contained three photographs featuring members of the same party who were standing for election in May 2007. My predecessor took the view, and the Committee agreed, that the inclusion of these particular photographs, captioned as they were, in a publication distributed at that time amounted to electioneering even though, as I have previously noted, there is no prohibition on Members' distribution of newsletters in the run-up to these elections. This Member was asked to repay a proportion of the costs of this newsletter. The main focus of the complaint about the fourth publication was that the Party logo used was neither proportionate nor discreet. The Committee agreed with the Commissioner's findings and recommended that the Member should be asked to repay a proportion of the sums which he had claimed from his allowance in respect of this publication.

3.24  In the light of these three reports covering the newsletters and other material issued by nine Members, my predecessor considered possible improvements to the regulations governing the Communications Allowance. He drew together his advice in a memorandum entitled 'Publications funded from the Communications Allowance'.[26] His intention was to provide a basis on which the Committee on Standards and Privileges might consider recommending improvements to the regime governing that allowance. He had in mind that the Members Estimate Committee (MEC), which advises the House on these matters, planned to review the regulations for this allowance a year or so after their introduction; that is, in 2008.

3.25  My predecessor considered it important to preserve as clear a boundary as possible between parliamentary communication on the one hand and communication of a party political or campaigning nature on the others. He made a number of detailed recommendations, informed by his experience of the complaints received, for the improvement of the existing guidance. These recommendations covered the content of such publications, particularly the inclusion of photographs and statistics; the use of party 'branding'; the arrangements for the distribution of such material, and the timing of this distribution in relation to elections other than General Elections. He also drew attention to the fact that material funded by the allowances which does not comply with the rules of the House may be regarded as constituting 'campaign expenditure' under section 72 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and therefore subject to the requirements of Part V of the Act, and to the value of Members seeking advice on their publications in a timely way.

3.26  My predecessor's final report before his departure at the end of December 2007 concerned a complaint, informed by a Press article, about a Member's employment of his son when the son was an undergraduate at a university outside London.[27] The implication was that the salary paid was at a level above what might have been justified by the son's experience and by the hours he was able to devote to the job. My predecessor's investigation was hampered by the Member's failure to keep proper records, for which the Member subsequently apologised. My predecessor nevertheless concluded that it was unlikely, on the balance of probabilities, that the work done by the employee in question was so extensive, or his availability in term-time was such, as to enable him consistently to meet the hours required in his employment contract and that the employee was paid substantially more than an appropriate rate for the job he was employed to perform, having regard to his experience, qualifications and level of responsibility. He also concluded that the Member had on occasions authorised bonus payments which exceeded the limit set by the House.

3.27  The Committee on Standards and Privileges supported my predecessor's findings. The Committee recommended, and the House subsequently agreed, that the Member should repay just under £4000, corresponding to the cost of the bonuses which were awarded in excess of the House guidance, as well as some £6000 in respect of the excess salary; and that the Member be suspended from the service of the House for 10 sitting days and apologise to the House in a personal statement.

3.28  The last memorandum submitted to the Committee during the period, which was also my own first report as Commissioner, was an interim report.[28] It concerned complaints that a Member had failed to record in the Register of Members' Interests within the required time limit all the donations he received in respect of his campaign for election to party office. Members are required to register such donations not only with the House authorities but also with the Electoral Commission. Failure to do so can amount to an offence under paragraph 12 of Schedule 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Accordingly when the Electoral Commission informed me that they had decided to refer to the Metropolitan Police the failure to report donations in this case, and the Metropolitan Police told me that they would begin an investigation, I informed the Committee on Standards and Privileges that I was suspending my own inquiry into these complaints. The Committee agreed with this course of action.

3.29  It is important that the Commissioner and the police service enjoy a shared understanding of the processes to be followed if it seems that a Member, as well as breaching the Code of Conduct and the associated Rules, may have committed a criminal offence. The Committee on Standards and Privileges firmly believes that criminal proceedings against Members, where these are considered appropriate, should take precedence over the House's own disciplinary proceedings.

Trends 2002-2008

3.30  Since my predecessor began to keep these statistics, the number of complaints which the Commissioner receives each year has increased considerably. In 2007-08, as Table 3 below shows, the Commissioner received more specific complaints against a named Member (and more complaints in total) than in the previous year—and indeed more than in any previous year. The number of Members who are the subject of a complaint has also increased.

3.31  The reasons for the growth in numbers of complaints are complex. The initial increase in numbers, between 2002-3 and 2003-04, may reflect better record keeping and the increased accessibility of information about the complaints process. Subsequent increases may have been affected by changes to the Commissioner's remit. For example, this was extended in 2005-06, to enable the Commissioner to inquire into possible misuse of the facilities of the House; and in 2007-08 the new Communications Allowance was introduced. Both of these developments might be expected to increase the number of complaints submitted. There is evidence that events on the wider stage may also influence the number of complaints received. For example, both local and general elections can give rise to complaints, sometimes from political opponents of the Member concerned. Media coverage of high profile cases, which has the effect of increasing public awareness of the issues, may also be important, and it is possible that this played a part in 2007-08.

Table 3: Complaints in 2002-08
  April 02-March 03 April 03-March 04 April 04-March 05 April 05-March 06 April 06-March 07 April 07-March 08
1. All complaints received 67152 137133 214248
2. Specific complaints against a named Member 5296 118129 176226
3.Complaints not proceeded with          
a) because complaint fell outside remit 2076 67105 8794
b) for other reasons 86 91 861
Total complaints not proceeded with 28 8276 106 95 155
4. Complaints proceeded with:          
a) Complaints subject of preliminary inquiry then dismissed 106 1515 1129
b). Complaints subject of further investigation 117 278 7042
Total complaints proceeded with 24 1442 23 8171
5. Complaints resolved          
a) by rectification procedure 11 00 107
b) by means of memorandum to Committee on Standards and Privileges 106 210 5315
Total complaints resolved 11 721 0 6322

8   The Commissioner is able to inquire only into complaints which are submitted in hard copy and signed. These statistics therefore exclude the complaints submitted by email during the year.  Back

9   Similar or duplicate complaints received from different individuals are recorded as separate complaints. If a correspondent names more than one Member in his or her complaint, these are also recorded as separate complaints.  Back

10   If the Commissioner receives similar complaints about the same Member, each adducing the same evidence, he will normally proceed with only one. If subsequent complainants provide additional evidence, he may join them to the original complaint. In the absence of sufficient new evidence, the Commissioner will not proceed with subsequent complaints. Back

11   See paragraph 3.7 for explanation of this figure.  Back

12   Includes two complaints which were dismissed early in 2008-09 after preliminary inquiry in 2007-08. Back

13   In addition to the complaints shown in the table, during the year the Commissioner resolved four complaints carried over from 2006-07. Two of these were dismissed after preliminary inquiry, one was resolved by means of the rectification procedure, and one was the subject of a memorandum to the Committee. The Commissioner also prepared a memorandum relating to a complaint which arose in 2003-04.  Back

14   See paragraph 3.13.  Back

15   For commentary on the numbers of complaints received in 2007-08 see paragraph 3.3.  Back

16   Corrected figure Back

17   Third Report of Session 2006-07, HC 431 and Fourth Report of Session 2006-07, HC 682 Back

18   Fifth Report of Session 2006-07, HC 683. See also paragraphs 1.4 to 1.6 of this Report. Back

19   Sixth Report of Session 2006-07, HC 909 Back

20   Seventh Report of Session 2006-07, HC 992 Back

21   Eighth Report of Session 2006-07, HC 1071; First Report of Session 2007-08, HC 94 and Second Report of Session 2007-08, HC 182. See also paragraph 1.2 to 1.3 of this Report.  Back

22   Third Report of Session 2007-08, HC 232 Back

23   Eighth Report of Session 2006-07, HC 1071 Back

24   First Report of Session 2007-08, HC 94 Back

25   Second Report of Session 2007-08, HC 182 Back

26   Third Report of Session 2007-08, HC 232 Back

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

28   Fifth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 324 Back

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Prepared 17 July 2008