The Standards Systems in the House of Commons - Committee on Standards Contents


1  The Inquiry

1. In January 2013, three lay members were appointed to the House of Commons Standards Committee. On 8 April 2014 the Committee published the lay members' reflections on their first year on the Committee.[1] These reflections, together with recent concerns about self-regulation and developments in professional regulation since the establishment of the House's system, prompted the Committee to set up a Standards Review Sub-Committee, chaired by one of the lay members, to conduct an inquiry which would examine the standards system of the House, and to consider improvements as required. MPs and lay members alike want to look at the current system with a fresh eye. The terms of reference were as follows:

·  to improve confidence, among the public and MPs, in the systems for regulating MPs' behaviour, including the Code of Conduct

·  to ensure that the system supports and assists MPs in abiding by the Rules, maintaining high ethical standards and embedding the Nolan principles in the culture of the House of Commons

·  to ensure the regime is fit for purpose

·  to ensure the system for dealing with alleged wrong-doing is proportionate

·  to ensure a fair process

·  to provide clarity, certainty and coherence in the rules, guidance and processes (which should in turn improve awareness and compliance).

·  We believe that the parliamentary standards system would benefit from a review once in each Parliament.

2. The Sub-Committee put out a paper for consultation on 24 June 2014.[2] The call for evidence received more than twenty replies. The Sub-Committee also took oral evidence from: Lord Bew, Chair, Committee on Standards in Public Life; Richard Thomas CBE, Committee on Standards in Public Life; Rt Hon Peter Riddell CBE, Director, Institute for Government; Rt Hon Andrew Lansley MP, Leader of the House of Commons; Ms Angela Eagle MP, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons; Dr Ruth Fox, Director and Head of Research, Hansard Society; Dr Greg Power, Director, Global Partners and Associates; Dr Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett, Director for the Study of Corruption and Transparency, Kellogg College, University of Oxford; Dr Melanie Sully, Executive Director, Institute for Co­Governance; James Landale, Chairman of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and Deputy Political Editor for the BBC; Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP, Member for North East Hampshire; Mr David Howarth, Reader in Law, University of Cambridge, and Member for Cambridge between 2005 and 2010; Laura Sandys MP, Member for South Thanet; Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, Member for Blackburn; Mr Richard Caborn, Member for Sheffield Central between 1983 and 2010; Sir Bob Russell MP, Member for Colchester; Bill Wiggin MP, Member for North Herefordshire; Professor Sir Peter Rubin, Chair of the General Medical Council (GMC); Charles Plant, Chair of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Board; Paul Philip, Chief Executive of the SRA; and Gordon Hockey, Head of Legal Services and Registrar of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). The inquiry was also publicised through targeted emails from the Parliamentary Outreach service, which reached over 3,040 people. All evidence has been published on the internet as the inquiry has progressed.

3. The Sub-Committee considered material on the standards systems in the devolved institutions in the UK and local government in England,[3] both Houses of Congress in the United States of America, the Australian House of Representatives, the Parliament of New South Wales, the Canadian House of Commons and the Parliament of New Zealand.[4] We are grateful to all those who helped us and especially to Dr Chris Ballinger, the Sub-Committee's Specialist Adviser for his assistance.[5]

4. Throughout our work we have been conscious that any regulatory system needs to be both fair to all parties and proportionate to the size of the regulated group. This has been particularly relevant when we have compared the House of Commons system with various systems of professional regulation: MPs number hundreds compared to thousands in the other groups. We have borne in mind that, despite the argument that a price should not be put on justice, an over-elaborate and costly system might not be justified in this case.

5. MPs have no general immunity from the criminal law, as has been amply demonstrated since 2011. Parliamentary privilege, which protects the House of Commons' right to control its own proceedings and precincts, is limited. As the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege recently said "the work of Parliament is central to our democracy, and its proceedings must be immune from interference by the executive, the courts or anyone else who may wish to impede or influence those proceedings in pursuit of their own ends."[6] Privilege is drawn as narrowly as possible to that end: the most important protection it gives is the right to free speech in official proceedings in Parliament, which applies to all those who take part in such proceedings, whether or not they are MPs.

6. Our focus has been on the structure of the system: who investigates, who adjudicates and what measures are or should be in place, both to ensure the probity of MPs and to ensure that the system is fair. It was not the intention to examine every detail of the rules, which are reviewed every Parliament. The House of Commons standards system is founded on transparency in respect of outside interests. Additionally, paid lobbying is forbidden and this prohibition will become yet clearer if the recommendations contained in the Standards Committee's Third Report of this session are adopted.[7]

7. Some potential breaches of the rules, such as paid lobbying are very serious, but many of the complaints dealt with by the Commissioner deal with matters such as the inappropriate use of stationery, or inadvertent failure to register minor interests. The system must be robust enough to deal with the more serious cases properly, and flexible enough to ensure that complaints about minor or inadvertent breaches of the rules are resolved promptly and efficiently. It is also important that the regulatory system is proportionate to the type of complaints that may come before it.

8. We note that since the inception of the Standards Committee in January 2013 the Committee has considered seven cases relating to the conduct of members. In one of those cases the Commissioner considered no rule had been broken but submitted a memorandum to the Committee because it raised questions about the interest of Select Committee Chairs. [8] One was extremely serious and led to a Member's resignation.[9] Two other cases, one of which received extensive publicity, related to the previous expenses system.[10].The three other cases[11].have all been relatively minor matters relating to declaration and registration of interests. There was no question of financial misconduct. We note the Compliance Officer of IPSA's view that "We have a pretty robust set of rules, and the fact is that MPs are adhering to those rules."[12]

1.


1   http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/Standards-Committee/Lay-Members-Report.pdf Back

2   http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/Standards-Committee/Standards-Committee-Issues-and-questions-paper.pdf Back

3   Appendix 1 Back

4   Appendix 2 Back

5   Dr Ballinger's declaration of interests can be found in the Committee's Formal Minutes, available on the Committee's website. Back

6   Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, Report of Session 2013-14, Parliamentary Privilege HL30, HC100, Para 14 Back

7   Committee on Standards, Third Report of Session 2014-15, The Code of Conduct and the Guide to the Rules, HC 772  Back

8   Committee on Standards, Fifth Report of Session 2013-14, HC 849 Back

9   Committee on Standards, Eleventh Report of Session 2013-14, HC 1225. Back

10   Tenth Report of Session 2013-14,HC1179; Committee on Standards, Second Report of Session 2014-15, HC661 Back

11   Committee on Standards Third Report of Session 2013-14, HC805Committee on Standards Fourth Report of Session 2013-14, HC806, Committee on Standards; Committee of Standards Fifth Report of Session 2014-15, HC951  Back

12   http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmstandards/773/77304.htm  Back


 
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Prepared 10 February 2015