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


2  Introduction

Trust in Politicians, Parliament, and Politics

9. One of the aims of this inquiry has been to improve confidence in the system: we do not underestimate the difficulty of that task. Public trust in MPs is low, and it was at the least not enhanced by the expenses scandal of 2009-10.[13] Several witnesses addressed this question of confidence. Three themes emerged: the difficulty of measuring "trust"; the perceived decline in "trust"; and the challenges in increasing "trust".

10. The academics who gave evidence to the inquiry were deeply sceptical about the value of trying to measure "trust", whether in Parliament or in MPs, let alone of using it as an indicator of the health of a democracy. Ruth Fox warned the inquiry:

    Every year we [the Hansard Society] publish our annual audit of political engagement. We rarely ask about trust, because it is such an amorphous concept and means different things to different people. In a lot of the research, when people talk about trust they are actually talking about other things. Sometimes, we might ask other survey questions that are much more about confidence, honesty, reliability and effectiveness, rather than using the word 'trust'.[14]

Liz Dávid-Barrett and Greg Power[15] answered in similar terms. Other witnesses argued, like Melanie Sully, that whatever the difficulties in measuring trust there was a lack of trust or declining trust not just in Parliament but in politics generally.[16] Richard Thomas noted that the Committee on Standards in Public Life's research "has revealed there is quite significant public malaise and declining confidence and trust. I think we would say that there is really quite an urgent need for swift, demonstrable steps to be taken".[17]

11. Some of the witnesses, however, urged caution in over-emphasising the decline in trust. For example, Jack Straw argued that politicians were rarely trusted:

    It is important that we do not get ourselves into a gloom about this. Politicians have never been trusted. In a sense, in a democracy that is quite healthy. [...] In the middle of the [Second World] war, Gallup surveyed public trust in politicians and it was pretty low.[18]

Ruth Fox and Greg Power noted that people hold MPs and institutions in different levels of esteem, Greg Power saying:

    In terms of ethics, ethical standards and the behaviour of individual MPs, although trust in parliamentary institutions is quite low, trust in individual Members of Parliament and especially 'your local MP' is quite high. You can see demand for constituency service in particular increasing dramatically right around the world. Therefore it is not a simple equation that people don't trust Parliaments or politicians. They are expecting different things from Parliaments.[19]

12. Most witnesses took a pessimistic view of the likelihood that action by the House could improve the public standing of MPs. Some, indeed, suggested the reverse. Jack Straw noted that, compared with the time when he became an MP at the general election of May 1979: "These days MPs are much more effective, are much more likely to be full time and are certainly much more subject to accountability to their constituents, yet apparently they are held in less high esteem. It is complicated."[20] Peter Riddell, in a similar vein, pointed out that, notwithstanding the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life over two decades, "increased transparency has produced no increase in public confidence at all."[21] The implication of this for the current inquiry is, in Peter Riddell's view:

    You can make perfectly sensible, desirable suggestions … but I remain sceptical about whether they will necessarily make a difference to public confidence. There are some inherent problems, some of which have just been raised, on the borderlines of sanctions and also on some conduct that does not come within your remit, but it does in the eyes of the public.[22]

Jack Straw's view was:

    Over time, memories of the expenses scandal, which completely consumed this place five or six years ago, will gradually fade. As one colleague has already said, IPSA [the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority] will bed down; it is already bedding down, and it is here to stay.[23]

13. It is ironic that despite public scepticism, many observers believe the UK Parliament operates to high standards. Tellingly, Greg Power observed that a delegation from the Middle East found the response to the expenses scandal out of proportion:

    It [the scandal] was so piddling by international standards. There was clearly wrongdoing by certain individual MPs, but the coverage was way out of proportion to the level of wrongdoing discovered here. There was no buying of influence in the way that is commonly found in many other countries.[24]

Greg Power and Melanie Sully each suggested that there was an argument that the more work was done on creating Codes of Conduct and carrying on investigations the more the likelihood was that people would assume there was a problem.[25] The importance of perception may be seen in Lord Bew's remark that the Committee on Standards in Public Life's "polling shows [...] that the British are 20% more likely than the Dutch to believe in corruption in their public life, although their actual experience of it is the same as that of the Dutch".[26]

14. Whatever the complexities in public trust, the expenses scandal was clearly hugely damaging. Moreover, we accept Lord Bew's assessment that, though not fully fair or accurate in its representation of how the standards system works, the perception that MPs "mark their own homework" is damaging to public confidence in the system, and therefore to the standing of MPs and of the House. .But a knee jerk reaction "to improve public trust" will not, in itself, be effective. Indeed it could be counterproductive. Ruth Fox thought that the focus should be on building the efficacy of Parliament (and its MPs) rather than focusing on "trust" as an end in itself.[27] Our aim is to improve the efficacy and knowledge of the standards system. We will recommend changes where we believe them to be necessary and right. Our work is intended to improve confidence in the system, which will increase over time.

15. Notwithstanding the difficulties, some witnesses were keen to advocate ways in which they believed that public trust in Parliament and politicians could be improved. "The key thing for public trust", Angela Eagle told the inquiry, "is not only the involvement of lay members, with their right to have a say if they want to draw the attention of the public to something nefarious, something they disapprove of or some insider thing, but that there should be no Government majority."[28] Laura Sandys told us:

    There is a very big problem. First, your confusion issue is a huge one. I want to be able to knock on a door and to have a conversation with a constituent in two sentences, telling them how my conduct is being so-called monitored, what I am complying with and how that works. What we had recently was absolute confusion, from everybody's perspective, about who was in control of what. There was no ability for me to make that message clear on the doorstep. We need clarity.[29]

16. Laura Sandys's comment drew our attention to a problem, also mentioned in the Report of the lay members and by Angela Eagle, who said:

    We have to be careful about the proliferation of bodies and arrangements that have a locus in this area. We have already talked about the Electoral Commission, which has a partially overlapping locus with different expectations and rules—IPSA, the Standards Commissioner, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. We have to be careful about the proliferation of bodies and arrangements that have a locus in this area.[30]

In addition, MPs and Members of the House of Lords who are government ministers are subject to the Ministerial Code. Although these bodies perform different functions, the distinctions between them are not necessarily clear to the general public. While addressing this is beyond the scope of the current Committee, we believe that a key to increasing public confidence is clearer information to the public about who is accountable for what. There must also be a question as to whether there would be merit in combining some of the functions.

The current House of Commons standards system

17. In view of the wide-spread ignorance, spreading to the highest level of Parliament and Government[31] about the existing House of Commons standards system. we give a brief account of it here, returning as necessary to its components in later chapters. It is no part of our role to consider the separate provisions in force in the House of Lords.[32] We note also that behaviour in the Chamber is regulated by the Speaker.

BACKGROUND: FROM PURE SELF-REGULATION TO INDEPENDENT AND EXTERNAL INVOLVEMENT

18. For hundreds of years before the Nolan Committee and the creation of the role of the Commissioner, the House of Commons and its MPs were entirely self-regulating. Indeed, for most of that time there was little to regulate: the House started actively to codify its rules—though still under a system of pure self-regulation—in 1975, when the Register of MPs' Interests was introduced in response to the Poulson affair.[33] This system of registration was, though, substantially undermined by the persistent refusal of some MPs, most notably Enoch Powell MP, to comply with its requirements.[34]

19. Following the 1987 general election and a scandal involving John Browne MP in 1990, the operation of the rules was tightened. That tightening was not enough to prevent further scandals, and cases of "cash for questions" in the mid-1990s precipitated the invention of the Commissioner's office. Since 1995 the core of the system has been that investigations are conducted by an independent officer, who receives all complaints, and who decides which merit investigation, without reference to the Committee.

20. Over the past two decades, external organisations have added to the accountability of MPs. There are two bodies independent of the House of Commons involved in regulating matters relating to MPs: MPs' expenses are regulated by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and donations to MPs and their parties are regulated by the Electoral Commission. Criminal matters are the remit of the police in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service. There are arrangements in place to ensure that the Committee and the Commissioner refer matters to the police if appropriate, and to ensure that matters can be referred to the Commissioner by IPSA or the police. MPs are not exempt from prosecution for criminal conduct; their electoral conduct is regulated by the Electoral Commission and their expenses (and therefore the sensitive matter of taxpayer funds) are regulated by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Any consideration of the Commons system has to take this into account.

21. The current Commons system is one of self-regulation with strong independent elements in the shape of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the lay members of the Committee on Standards. The authority ultimately responsible for setting and maintaining standards in the House of Commons is the House itself. The other elements of the formal system are the Code of Conduct and guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of Members,[35] the Commissioner for Standards, and the Standards Committee.

THE CODE OF CONDUCT

22. The Code of Conduct is based on the Seven Principles of Public Life, formulated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995, to which everyone holding public office is expected to adhere. These principles (also known as the 'Nolan Principles' after the first Chair of that Committee) are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. The Code is part of the rules the House makes to govern its own proceedings. These rules can be broadly divided into two sorts. In the first place there are the rules which govern the orderliness of proceedings, which range from the rules about the permissible content of Parliamentary Questions to the way in which MPs should conduct themselves in the Chamber. The sanctions for breaches of these rules are ultimately in the hands of the Speaker, who may, for example, rule a Question out of order or may, in extreme cases, invite the House to suspend an MP who seriously disrupts proceedings. Rules of the second type relate to ethical matters, and are largely contained in the Code of Conduct and the related Guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of MPs, although some guidance is also found in other rules relating to the use of resources.[36] Allegations that these rules have been breached are investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and, if she considers there may have been a breach, are considered by the Committee on Standards. It is the system for dealing with these rules which we consider in this report.

THE PARLIAMENTARY COMMISSIONER FOR STANDARDS

23. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards ('the Commissioner') is an independent official appointed by the House and from outside the House, with no previous connection with the House, following open competition. Her independence is the core of the system, and is strengthened by appointment on a five year, non-renewable contract.

24. The Commissioner's current functions as set out in Standing Order No 150 are: to maintain the various Registers of Interests, to give confidential advice to those required to register, to advise the Committee on the interpretation of the Code and on questions of propriety, to monitor and make suggestions about the operation of the Code and Registers, and to investigate and report to the Committee on specific matters relating to the conduct of MPs. This last function relates essentially to complaints that individuals have breached the Code or Rules.

25. The bulk of the inquiries conducted by the Commissioner result from complaints received by her Office. Only if a complaint is within remit and supported by appropriate and sufficient evidence will the Commissioner open an inquiry. She can, however, undertake inquiries on her own initiative, and sometimes MPs refer themselves to her. It is for the Commissioner to decide whether or not an inquiry is merited and whether or not to submit a memorandum to the Committee. There is no political interference in the process.

26. The Commissioner's current establishment is 5.5 (full-time equivalent) staff broadly divided between a registration and advice team and a complaints-related team, with some overlap in roles.[37] The annual cost of the office is a little under £450,000.[38]

27. In 2013-14 the Commissioner received some 93 formal complaints, though the majority of them were outside her remit. As with any complaints system, complaints range from the well-founded to the misconceived and even mischievous.

28. If the Commissioner finds that the Code or Rules have been breached, and the matter is not serious, she may agree that the MP concerned may rectify the matter by repayment (if resources have been misapplied), apology or, if interests have not been declared, an apology for the failure to declare by a point of order on the floor of the House. If, in her opinion, the matter is more serious or raises general questions, she will prepare a memorandum for the House of Commons Committee on Standards, which oversees her work. The system is designed to ensure transparency. Correspondence relating to rectifications is published on the Commissioner's website, complainants are always informed of the outcome of a complaint and the Commissioner's memorandum is always published with the Committee's reports, which must always explain the reasons for any difference of views between the Committee and the Commissioner.

THE COMMITTEE

29. The Committee on Standards is set up under Standing Order No 149. Its functions are:

·  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 MPs' Financial 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 referred to it by the Commissioner; and

·  to consider any matter relating to the conduct of MPs, 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.[39]

30. The Committee comprises ten MPs and three lay members. The Committee cannot meet without at least one lay member being present. Lay members cannot vote in divisions or move motions or amendments but they participate fully in all discussions leading up to these points and can and do suggest changes to draft Reports. Those lay members present are entitled to append an opinion to any Committee report and, if they do so, the report cannot be published without that opinion. No such opinion has yet been necessary.

31. The Committee may seek additional evidence itself or ask the Commissioner to do so. It may require the MP to give evidence and the Member may also ask to be heard.

THE HOUSE

32. If the Committee finds, following discussion of a memorandum from the Commissioner, that a breach of Code or Rules has been committed, it reports accordingly to the House. Penalties range from an apology in the House through repayment of any moneys wrongly claimed, or withholding of salary for a period, to suspension for a number of sitting days (which results in withdrawal of salary with knock-on effect of pension rights), to expulsion. The MP has the right to be heard in the House. If the Committee proposes a penalty which goes beyond apology to the House, the House itself considers the Committee's report—i.e., it is for the Committee, not the Commissioner, to recommend any penalty, and for the House to impose it. While the House may, in principle, amend any penalty recommended, it has not done so in any recent cases.

33. This system is likely to be affected by any Act resulting from the Recall Bill, currently passing through Parliament, which proposes to allow an MP's constituents, in certain circumstances, to institute a petition for his or her recall. At present this will apply if an MP is suspended from the House for more than ten days. The Bill has not yet completed its passage and this may change.

34. A number of criticisms are levelled at the House of Commons disciplinary system both by outside observers and parliamentary insiders: MPs sit in judgement on themselves; the Commissioner is not truly independent; there is incomplete separation of powers with the Commissioner acting as investigator, prosecutor and to some extent adjudicator; the system is disproportionate; the rules are not clear; MPs cannot get advice; the sanctions are insufficient. It is these criticisms which this Report considers and, where appropriate, makes recommendation for addressing.


13   Q68 Back

14   ibid Back

15   ibid Back

16   ibid Back

17   Q5 Back

18   Q148 Back

19   Q68 Back

20   Q156 Back

21   Q44 Back

22   Q44 Back

23   Q157 Back

24   Q70 Back

25   Q68 Back

26   Q5 Back

27   Q68 Back

28   Q53 Back

29   Q145 Back

30   Q66 Back

31   The Prime Minister was apparently unaware in April 2014 that the lay members on the Committee on Standards had a vote. Back

32   SSC0023 Back

33   The same affair led to the imposition of a Code of Conduct for elected Members of local authorities; but not for MPs. Back

34   See also Select Committee on Member's Interests, Third Report, Session 1987-88, on the actions of Keith Best MP and Eric Cockeram MP in relation to the BT share issue. Back

35   The Code of Conduct together with The Guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of Members, HC1885 Back

36   Eg Rules for the use of stationery and postage-paid envelopes provided by the House, and for the use of the Crowned Portcullis Back

37   SSC0022 Back

38   Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Annual Report 2013-14, HC354 Back

39   Standing Orders of the House of Commons, No 149 Back


 
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Prepared 10 February 2015