Select Committee on Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Report

Appendix 2: Description of the Arrangements for Regulating Standards of Conduct in the House of Commons

1.  Like many other aspects of the United Kingdom political system, the arrangements for regulating standards in the House of Commons have developed over time and often in response to particular events. As long ago as 1695, the House of Commons passed a resolution declaring bribery of Members a high crime and misdemeanour. For centuries thereafter, misconduct by Members was handled ad hoc and often informally as it arose (which was relatively rarely). In 1858, the House passed a Resolution prohibiting advocacy for fee or reward and in 1947 a further resolution banning Members from entering contracts or agreements which restrict their freedom to act and speak, or require them to act as a representative of outside bodies.

2.  A resolution of 1974 confirmed a long-standing convention that relevant pecuniary (i.e. financial) interests should be declared in the House and its Committees, and in communications with Ministers and officials. The first Register of Members' Interests was created in 1975 (following the Poulson case). Rules about registering or declaring interests developed gradually thereafter and were first codified and substantially revised in 1992.

3.  The key features of the present arrangements came into being in 1995 following recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (at the time chaired by Lord Nolan) and the Select Committee of the House on Standards in Public Life. These recommendations were for:

  • a new Code of Conduct for MPs;
  • an improved Register of Members' Interests;
  • an independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards;
  • a strengthened Committee on Standards and Privileges.

The first Commissioner (Sir Gordon Downey) was appointed in 1995 and a Code of Conduct for Members was approved by the House and published the following year.


4.  The nature of the arrangements reflects a concern to ensure effective machinery for upholding high standards of conduct, containing a strong independent element, whilst preserving Parliament's control over its own affairs. For centuries, Parliament fought to establish its right to control its own affairs, free from interference by either the Monarch or the courts. This freedom was confirmed by Article 9 of the Bill of Rights of 1689 which provided:

"That the Freedom of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parliament."

5.  The House's right to discipline its own Members is a central element in this. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life observed in 1995 when recommending the present arrangements:

"The House collectively has a responsibility to safeguard the public interest against the possible misjudgements of individual Members, and it has the ability to do so. It also needs to reassert forcefully to the public that Members of Parliament, collectively and individually, have a sense of both the responsibilities and the dignity of the role with which they are entrusted. We believe that the House can do this itself, and that the package which we set out below will help to do so. It is a powerful and flexible mixture of disclosure and enforcement which will serve the public interest better than the inflexibility of statutory procedures." [48]

6.  The system for upholding standards of conduct in Parliament is often described as one of 'self-regulation'. This is, however, a substantial over-simplification. It is correct in the sense that the House of Commons retains the ultimate responsibility for deciding the shape of the system and for disposing of individual cases arising under it. It is incorrect, however, in so far as the decision whether to investigate a complaint, as well as a recommendation on findings, are the responsibility of an independent Commissioner. The reports of his investigations and the subsequent reports of the Committee on Standards and Privileges to the House are published. When the House needs to debate such reports, it invariably does so in public. The effectiveness of the arrangements as a whole is also open to periodic review by the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life.

7.  In this context, it is worth noting that the immunity of an individual Member of Parliament from legal action in the courts is more limited than the immunity given to parliamentarians in many other legislative assemblies, being restricted to proceedings in Parliament (that is, broadly to participation in debates in the House, in Committees and other forms of proceeding). In other respects, an MP stands in the same position in relation to the law as does any other citizen.

8.  Members, individually and collectively, are ultimately and regularly subject to the judgement of their fellow citizens through the ballot box. As past events have shown, this can be an effective final sanction.

The Key Elements in the System

1 The Code of Conduct

9.  The Code of Conduct applies to Members in all aspects of their public life, not in their purely private and personal lives. It is relatively short, incorporating the substance of various resolutions on conduct passed by the House and the Nolan Committee's 'seven principles of public life'. Its purpose is "to assist Members in the discharge of their obligations to the House, their constituents and the public at large by:

a)  Providing guidance on the standards of conduct expected of Members in discharging their parliamentary and public duties, and in so doing

b)  providing the openness and accountability necessary to reinforce public confidence in the way in which Members perform those duties."

10.  The text of the Code can be found at cfm. In summary, it requires Members to:

  • uphold the law and the Constitution;
  • act always in the public, not their own personal interest, and to resolve at once any conflict between the two in favour of the former;
  • strengthen confidence in Parliament, not bring the House or its Members into disrepute;
  • never accept a bribe, act as a paid advocate or misuse expenses, allowances, facilities or services provided from the public purse;
  • never misuse information they receive in confidence in the course of their parliamentary duties;
  • observe the House's Rules, e.g. as regards the registration and declaration of interests;
  • and in carrying out their parliamentary and public duties, to observe the seven principles of public life, as set out in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The Code also requires Members to cooperate, at all stages, with any investigation into their conduct by or under the authority of the House.

2 The Register of Members' Interests

11.  The main purpose of the Register is:

"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, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament and such other information as the House may from time to time require" [49]

12.  The appearance of an entry in the Register simply constitutes a record of a registrable interest. It implies no element of judgement on the substance of the interest. The purpose of registration is openness, to give other Members and the public the opportunity to know about interests which may be thought to influence a Member's actions in his or her parliamentary capacity, and to make their own assessment of their significance. The Rules on registration lay down, essentially as an administrative convenience, 10 categories of interest to be registered. They also place Members under a more general obligation to keep the overall purpose of the Register in mind when registering or declaring an interest.

13.  The obligation to declare relevant interests in a debate or committee proceeding is not restricted to those interests which are the subject of an entry in the Register. It also includes interests which have been held in the recent past or of which the Member has a reasonable expectation in the future, and Members are advised to declare certain non-registrable interests where relevant.

14.  In addition to registering and declaring their interests, Members are also prohibited from advocating a course of action in proceedings in the House or in approaching Government Ministers or officials which would exclusively benefit a body (or individual) in which they have a financial interest (the 'advocacy rule').

15.  The Register is compiled afresh at the start of every Parliament or following a major revision of the Rules. One bound, printed edition is published every year and the text is also available on the web-site at or at the House for Members or the public to study. In addition, the Register is updated every two weeks while the House is sitting to include fresh information supplied by Members. The text of these updated editions is also published on the web-site, and is available, by appointment, for inspection in hard copy form.

3 The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards 

16.  The Commissioner is the independent element in the system for regulating standards in the House of Commons. Whilst he or she is an officer appointed pursuant to a Resolution of the House, he or she is expected to act independently in discharging his or her responsibilities. The duties of the Commissioner are embodied in Standing Order No.150. The main duties are:

  • overseeing the maintenance of the Register of Members' Interests and the other registers of interests for Members' staff, journalists and All-Party Groups;
  • with the Registrar of Members' Interests, advising on the registration and declaration of interests;
  • advising the Committee on Standards and Privileges on the interpretation of the Code of Conduct;
  • monitoring the operation of the Code and registers and making recommendations to the Committee thereon;
  • receiving, investigating and reporting to the Committee on complaints against Members.

The Commissioner is appointed for a five year, non-renewable term and is not liable to dismissal except on a resolution of the House.

4 The Committee on Standards and Privileges

17.  Standing Order No.149 places on the Committee on Standards and Privileges the responsibility:

  • to oversee the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; to examine the arrangements proposed by the Commissioner for the compilation, maintenance and accessibility of the Register of Members' Interests and any other registers of interest established by the House; to review from time to time the form and content of those registers; and to consider any specific complaints made in relation to the registering or declaring of interests which are referred to it by the Commissioner; and
  • to consider any matter relating to the conduct of Members, including specific complaints in relation to alleged breaches in any code of conduct to which the House has agreed and which have been drawn to the committee's attention by the Commissioner; and to recommend any modifications to such code of conduct as may from time to time appear to be necessary.

The Committee is also responsible for considering specific matters relating to privileges referred to it by the House.

18.  The Committee formally consists of 10 Members, five drawn from the party of government and five from the opposition parties. Its Chairman is a senior opposition Member.

48   Cm 2850, paragraph 59  Back

49   Select Committee on Members' Interests, First Report of Session 1991-2, HC 236 paragraph 27, and HC Deb 27 March 2008, cols 382-394. The addition agreed on 27 March 2008 has been shown underlined Back

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Prepared 17 July 2008