Parliamentary Privilege First Report

Letter from the Chairman to the Home Secretary

  The Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege is about to consider their draft report. As you know, part of that report will deal with the extent to which members of both Houses will be subject to the law of corruption.

  The Committee would be able to make more useful recommendations if you could give them a clearer picture of the legislation you have in mind for corruption generally. In the written answer contained in the Commons Hansard for 31 July (col 850) you said that the Government accepted in principle the Law Commission's proposal that there should be a single offence of corruption to cover both public and private sectors. But you do not indicate whether you are at present sympathetic to the specific proposals contained in the draft bill proposed by the Commission—or whether there is another option being considered in the Home Office review which may provide a better solution. Has any decision been taken to abolish common law bribery? Have you yet decided whether there should be a single offence or group of offences? Have you ruled out specific offences for persons in particular occupations or having particular duties?

  You will appreciate that it is difficult for the Committee to arrive at an informed decision on whether or not members of both Houses should become liable to be charged with a criminal offence, without some indication of how that offence will be defined.

  We are in even greater difficulty over a second matter. In your interesting and helpful evidence to us in January you indicated that you were considering whether or not to bring members and ministers within the scope of a new statutory oiffence of misuse of public office, which you were looking at primarily in the context of the report of the Nolan Committee relating to local Government. Do we need to address this matter or have you decided that they should be excluded?

  As you rightly say in your written answer, this a complex area. "Misuse of public office" might be defined in many ways, and, if applied to ministers and other members, it might require at least a partial statutory definition of their duties to measure the offence against. Without some knowledge of what you intend, the Committee may not be able to reach any conclusions.

8 October 1998

Reply from the Home Secretary

  Thank you for your letter of 8 October requesting an update on where we stand on our review of the law of corruption and our work on a possible new offence of misuse of public office. I am sorry not to have replied sooner.

  As you know, we have set up two inter-departmental groups to examine (i) the Law Commission's Report No 248 on Corruption and (ii) the possibility of a new statutory offence of misuse of public office. Although these groups are making good progress with their examination of these issues, they have not yet completed their work. As a result, I am not in a position to be as helpful as I would like in responding to the points you have raised. What I can say, however, is that there is much to support the Law Commission's proposals for the common law offence of bribery and the existing statutes on corruption to be repealed in any new legislation on corruption. It is also likely that our reform of the law of corruption will be modelled along the lines of the Law Commission's draft Bill on corruption. Although the inter-departmental working group on corruption is still considering the detail of a modern statute on corruption, it is not currently envisaging specific offences for persons in particular occupations or having particular duties. It is likely that we will wish to construct a criminal law provision which will have general application. We have already indicated that we accept, in principle, the Law Commission's proposal that there should be a single offence of corruption to cover both public and private sectors. This reflects the reality that some functions which would, in the past, have been carried out by the public sector are now carried out by public/private partnerships or in the private sector. As I said in the Parliamentary Written Answer to which you referred, this approach also reflects the importance of ensuring high standards of priority in all aspects of life, whether in the public or the private sector.

  Separate work is taking place in respect of a possible new statutory offence of misuse of public office. This is proving particularly tricky and no decision has yet been taken on which categories of public servant might be included. It may, as you say, prove necessary to examine the statutory duties of Members and Ministers in this context. We are conscious that we need to avoid unnecessary overlaps between any new offence and existing offences, civil remedies and disciplinary codes. Clearly, we do not wish to capture conduct which can be best left to disciplinary procedures or other effective mechanisms. Equally, however, there would be presentational difficulty in excluding certain categories of public servant from the scope of any new offence.

  The area of political activity is particularly problematic as you have, no doubt, yourself already found. We are still grappling with the issues and would welcome the views of your Committee, even if they are inevitably provisional and to some extent dependent upon decisions which we have yet to take.

18 November 1998

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