Sir George gives evidence to Committee on Standards
8 May 2002
In his capacity as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Sir George gave evidence to the Wicks Committee, which is investigating self-regulation of the House of Commons.

His written evidence appears below.

COMMITTEE ON STANDARDS AND PRIVILEGES

Standards of Conduct in the House of Commons

Memorandum submitted by the Rt Hon Sir George Young Bt MP, Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, House of Commons, to the Committee on Standards in Public Life


Introduction

1. This is a personal submission, but one which I have discussed with the Standards and Privileges Committee and which has its general support.

2. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has announced its intention to examine whether the arrangements governing standards of conduct in the House of Commons, and their implementation, are sufficient to assure the public that the highest standards of propriety are being upheld. Although there is no room for complacency, I am confident that the answer is "Yes", and I am determined to work with my Committee and with the new Commissioner to demonstrate that the system is worthy of public confidence.  Our objectives are a robustly independent and properly resourced Commissioner; clear rules that all Members can understand; a complaints process that is fair and transparent; and a shift of emphasis towards education and prevention.  All of these are, or are well on the way to being, in place.

3. I will now deal with the specific questions to which the Committee has sought answers.


Regulating conduct

Q1. What current concerns do you have in relation to standards of conduct of MPs, and to what extent are these different from those identified in 1994?

4. There has been a radical change in the climate since 1994. The House of Commons is no longer seen as a "hiring fair", and there have been no recent allegations that Members were engaging in paid advocacy or lobbying for reward on behalf of outside interests. There have been some complaints recently about non-registration, and also about the use of Members' allowances. The House authorities have responded to the latter by clarifying the guidance which is issued to Members about the proper use of public funds.

Q2. How far does the present system of regulation in the House of Commons, which to a large extent is based on self-regulation, meet current concerns?

5. The First Report of your Committee recognised that "Parliamentary Privilege is designed to ensure the proper working of Parliament, and is an essential constitutional safeguard. ...
Because Parliamentary privilege is important for reasons entirely unconnected with the standards of conduct of individual Members of Parliament, we believe that it would be highly desirable for self-regulation to continue." That is our view as well.

6. The House claims as a sovereign legislature to regulate its Members' conduct only within the limited sphere of the House's own rules and its Code of Conduct. It is worth emphasising that in relation to the criminal law the House does not seek any jurisdiction over, or any special privileges for, its own Members, who are in exactly the same position as any other citizen of this country.

7. The independent Standards Commissioner operates within a framework of self-regulation.
He is an officer of the House, appointed by the House, whose duties are set out in the House's Standing Orders, but at the same time he is entirely independent in the exercise of his functions. We will continue vigorously to uphold his full independence in conducting inquiries, reaching conclusions and making reports, which we regard as a necessary condition for public confidence in our system for maintaining standards.

8. The presentation of the Commissioner's reports to the House by the Committee, and the reservation to the House of any disciplinary action against a Member, ensure that the House retains a sense of ownership of the process and that the outcomes are accepted within the House. That would not necessarily be the case if the House were subject to some form of external regulation.

9. Within the House a Member's chief stock in trade is his or her reputation. For a Member to be subjected to adverse comment by a committee of his or her peers is a punishment the severity of which may not be fully appreciated outside the House.


Code of Conduct

Q3. Are the provisions for registration and declaration of the interests of MPs clear and satisfactory?

10. The Standards and Privileges Committee in the last Parliament reviewed the rules on registration and declaration and recommended a number of changes. We are bringing forward further recommendations with clarity as a major theme.

11. There is bound to be some overlap between the House's requirements on registration and the statutory regime operated by the Electoral Commission. We are actively considering how the two might be brought closer together. The Committee's proposals on the registration of financial contributions to constituency associations were designed to be consistent with the requirements of the Political Parties, Referendums and Elections Act 2000. The requirements on the registration of donations are different, not least because the Electoral Commission requires the registration of certain benefits which are available to all Members. Such benefits are exempt from registration in the House's Register. We have recommended that the threshold for the registration of gifts and other benefits should be higher because the proliferation of entries of relatively little substance tends to obscure the main purpose of the Register.


Restrictions on outside influence

Q4. Is the advocacy rule operating satisfactorily?

12. We have reviewed the advocacy rule and have concluded that it may be inhibiting Members from using their experience and expertise effectively in the service of the House. We are recommending that the rules should be relaxed as proposed by your Committee in its Sixth Report.

Q5. Are there any new issues in the relationship between lobbyists and MPs since the Sixth Report which cause concern?

13. We are not aware of any new issues having emerged since January 2000. We remain unconvinced of the need for statutory regulation of lobbyists.

The compliance process

Q6. How can the compliance process best safeguard the reputation of the House while being fair to the individual Member?

14. We recognise that the compliance process needs both to safeguard the reputation of the House and to be fair to the individual Member. These are not alternatives: the Standards and Privileges Committee could not contemplate being unfair to a Member in order to safeguard the reputation of the House, and it would damage the reputation of the House if it were to do so.

15. We are looking again at our own procedures and those followed by the Commissioner in the light of the observations of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege and of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. We would welcome any observations from your Committee.

16. We have consistently deplored speculation in the media about cases which were under investigation, and we will not hesitate to criticise Members of the House whose conduct in this regard is shown to be at fault. We recognise our own responsibility in this regard not to disclose information which might fuel media speculation.

17. We aim to deal with members who are or have been Ministers in the same way as all other Members. All our reports on such cases have been agreed unanimously. We have never sought to deal with anything which would properly have been dealt with under the Ministerial Code, with which we are not concerned-although we consider that it should be a requirement of the Ministerial Code that all Ministers should comply with the House's Code of Conduct and the rules governing the conduct of Members.

18. We have taken what action we properly can to discourage trivial complaints and tit-for-tat complaints by one side against the other. Whilst we cannot do anything about complaints originating from members of the public or the press, we expect senior Members of the House and other Members in positions of influence to discourage other Members from making complaints which might bring the system into disrepute.

19. The Standards and Privileges Committee attaches great importance to acting, and being seen to act, in a non-partisan manner. We aim to treat all cases on their merits without reference to the party affiliation of the Members concerned. My colleagues welcome the fact that the Committee is now chaired by a member of the official Opposition, which should help to dispose of the untrue and damaging allegation that the Committee was "Labour-dominated".
The Committee has proceeded with unanimity in every case it has dealt with since November 1997, with one exception; on that occasion one Member dissented from the general view of the Committee-there was no split on party lines.

20. Concern has occasionally been expressed about the fact that both in this Parliament and the last the Committee has contained several Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Since PPSs, whilst not members of the Government, have particular loyalties to it and are widely regarded as part of the payroll, it has been suggested that they lack the necessary impartiality for service on the Committee. There are a number of arguments that could be put forward on the other side. The Committee is concerned with the conduct of individual Members, not with the Government and its policies, and a PPS is as well qualified to judge his fellows as any other Member. Members are linked to one another by all kinds of personal and political relationships, many of which may have a much greater influence on their judgement in individual cases. Speaking personally, I am glad to have those members who are PPSs on the Committee because of their personal qualities and the added value they bring to our deliberations; but some members of my Committee would prefer it if they ceased to be PPSs.

Q7. To what extent is public confidence safeguarded by the present arrangements for independent scrutiny and monitoring of standards of conduct in the House of Commons?

21. The essential independent element in the present arrangement is the Standards Commissioner. Whilst I respect the reasoning behind the Committee on Standards in Public Life's proposals for a disciplinary tribunal or an appellate tribunal, I believe that, in cases where the work done by the independent Commissioner needs to be supplemented or complemented, the Standards and Privileges Committee is the appropriate body to do it, and has in fact done it in a number of complex and difficult cases in the period since your Committee made its recommendations. The emphasis should not be on structures and safeguards, but on encouraging Members to respond frankly and openly to the investigation process; and on dealing with them quickly and fairly. The Committee is well able to distinguish between Members who treat the process properly and those who do not, and to deal with them accordingly. I believe the way in which we have dealt with different cases in recent months has reflected this distinction and has commanded understanding and support both inside and outside the House.

Q8. How satisfactory are the present arrangements, including the status and accountability, for the post of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards?

22. We are fully committed to upholding the Commissioner's independence to conduct inquiries as he sees fit and to reach whatever conclusions he believes to be justified. The Standards and Privileges Committee will continue the practice of publishing the Commissioner's findings in full, even if it does not agree with them, so that anyone who wishes to do so can draw his own conclusions.

23. The Commissioner is operationally independent but general oversight of his work is conducted by the Standards and Privileges Committee. The Commissioner's accountability to the Committee does not compromise his independence; he is accountable for the manner in which he discharges his responsibilities but not for his findings or conclusions in individual cases.

24. The involvement of the House of Commons Commission in the arrangements for the renewal of the Commissioner's appointment cuts across the Commissioner's accountability to the Standards and Privileges Committee in a way we believe to be unacceptable. The Commissioner is appointed by the House and in extremis may be dismissed by the House. While he is in post the Commissioner's independence ought not to be compromised by the need to consider whether his appointment will be renewed. In order to put the Commissioner's independence beyond question we believe it would be preferable to make an appointment for a fixed term of reasonable length, perhaps seven years, after which a fresh appointment would be made; the question of renewal would then not arise.

Q9. To what extent are the powers of the Commissioner sufficient?

25. The present arrangements make the Commissioner dependent on the Standards and Privileges Committee for formal powers to compel the attendance of witnesses or the production of documents. On occasion the Committee has used its formal powers to require witnesses to make documents available for the Commissioner's inquiries.

26. We are giving thought to regularising the procedure by which the Commissioner might ask the Committee to use its powers on his behalf. If an application is made to the Committee it needs to be recorded and a decision taken upon it, for which the Committee can be held to account.

27. We would have no objection to the Commissioner himself having the same powers as a select committee, to send for persons, papers and records, but we would have some concern if such a step required legislation and made the Commissioner amenable to judicial review.

28. Nor would we have any objection in principle to giving the Commissioner power to publish his own reports, but we do not consider that in practice there is any problem in this regard because of the commitment we have made to publish his reports as an appendix to our own. If the Commissioner's reports were to be published on his own authority, they ought to be published at the same time as the relevant report from the Committee.

Q10. Are the arrangements for establishing the resources available to the Commissioner satisfactory?

29. The resources available to the Commissioner are a matter for the House of Commons Commission. We think it was regrettable that, despite repeated requests, the Commission declined to make available to us the inspection reports on the Commissioner's office. It would be churlish not to welcome the Commission's more recent decisions-to recognise the number of days actually worked by the outgoing Commissioner in excess of the period laid down in her contract; to give a commitment that it will impose no restriction on the length of the Commissioner's working week; and to give the Standards and Privileges Committee an opportunity to express its views on the level of resources required by the incoming Commissioner. We attach particular importance to the last point and believe it should become a permanent feature, just as the Public Accounts Committee is required to be consulted about the resourcing of the National Audit Office before that is decided. We are satisfied that the outcome will be the provision of an appropriate level of resources for the Commissioner's office.

Q11. Does the process for the investigation and adjudication of complaints work satisfactorily?

Q12. In particular, are the roles of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee on Standards and Privileges satisfactorily defined?

30. Some overlap between our role and that of the Commissioner is unavoidable.  The Commissioner carries out the investigation into a complaint and reports to the Committee, but the Committee may need to carry out a further investigation in order to be sure that it has all the necessary information before making its own report to the House.  The Committee takes the decision on whether the rules of the House have been breached in any particular case, but it does so after considering the authoritative advice of the Commissioner.  Nonetheless we are considering how the respective roles of the Committee and the Commissioner can best be clarified.

31. It is  reasonable that the standard of proof required by the Committee should reflect the gravity of the alleged offence. This is the practice of the courts in civil cases, which will require a higher degree of probability in a case of fraud than in one of negligence; and it is in line with the conclusions of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege: "In determining a member's guilt or innocence, the criterion applied at all stages should be at best that the allegation is proved on the balance of probabilities. In the case of more serious charges, a higher standard of proof may be appropriate."

32. We will be looking again at a number of the Commissioner's and the Committee's practices in dealing with complaints, in particular the manner and timing of the provision of information to the Member who is the subject of the complaint, and how fairness can be achieved without undue reliance on the participation of lawyers.

33. As a general proposition I would like to see less emphasis on the investigation and adjudication of complaints, and more on prevention, information and education. I have asked the Commissioner to treat those areas as a priority.  It is also important that a relationship of confidence and trust should be built up between the new Commissioner and Members.

Q13.    Should there be an appellate process?

34. I agree with your Committee that the system needs to make provision of some kind for an appeals procedure.  For the reasons I have given earlier I believe that most if not all such cases can best be dealt with by the Standards and Privileges Committee itself, with the possibility of a final appeal to the House in any case where a penalty has been recommended.

Sir George Young
15 April 2002
 
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