Changes to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ investigation process won’t affect expenses investigations, writes Nick Dickinson. But the reason why reveals the deeper challenges in transforming Parliament into a modern workplace.
Last Thursday, the House of Commons voted to adopt a new investigations process designed to combat abuse and harassment of parliamentary staff. A response to numerous scandals in the past year, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy (ICGP) is a intended to give victims an impartial channel for reporting bullying and sexual harassment. Under the auspices of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the ICGP will aim to provide mediation and, ultimately, redress to staff while providing anonymity to both the complainant and (in advance of a finding) the accused MP. In the most serious cases, it could result in an MP being expelled from the Commons.
Various criticisms have been made of the adequacy of the new measures, including that they do not permit investigations of pre-June 2017 cases, and that the role of the Standards Committee in serious cases means that this ‘independent’ system still amounts to MPs sitting in judgement on themselves. At the same time, a new and wider controversy arose around the vote when it became clear that the motion appeared to be actively rolling back the transparency of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ investigations process.
Rather than providing anonymity at the investigation stage for the ICGP only, the motion passed on Thursday did so for all future inquiries by the Commissioner – this would include, for example, investigations into breaches of the conflict of interest rules. Justifying this change, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, argued that “for consistency and fairness, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should no longer routinely publish information about individual investigations before those investigations are concluded”.
This had indeed been suggested by the Steering Group dealing with the ICGP, though only in the weak terms that the Commons “may wish to take the opportunity to reflect on the wider publication system”. As their report (p.23) noted, anonymity for all investigations was the standard practice between 2003 and 2010. Nonetheless, the reintroduction of this system had been opposed by the Standards Committee in its report on the ICGP, which noted “the reputational damage to the House from what would undoubtedly be presented in the media as an attempt by MPs to roll back a key element of openness in the existing system”.
On Friday, the Committee’s prediction proved accurate when the Daily Mail newspaper ran a front page story on the changes to the investigations process. Under the headline ‘What a Cosy Cover Up!’, the paper alleged that MPs had “vote[d] to grant themselves anonymity if accused of expenses fraud, sexual harassment… or anything else they don’t want you to know”.
Characteristically, however, the aspect of the story the Mail chose to foreground – the alleged effect on investigations into expenses – has one small problem; it is almost completely unfounded. While the changes to the rules in 2010 were indeed introduced in the wake of the 2009 Expenses Scandal, the broader reforms made at the time also removed regulation and enforcement of expenses entirely from internal parliamentary mechanisms.
Under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, as amended by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, investigations into expenses misuse are handled by the Independent Parliamentary Standard’s Authority’s (IPSA) Compliance Officer. The Compliance Officer publishes a statement at the start of all investigations, and appeals against its decisions are heard by an HMRC First-Tier Tax Tribunal, not the Parliamentary Commissioner or Committee for Standards. While the Commissioner has occasionally investigated breaches of the rules which occurred prior to the beginning of IPSA’s new regime in 2010, it has no formal role in the expenses system.
These may seem arcane points, but there is also a deeper lesson in this small controversy for the wider debate – not just about bullying and harassment – but about the inherent challenges faced by attempts to transform Parliament into a modern workplace. The statutory footing of the expenses regime means not only that the House’s decision last week does not apply to expenses investigations. Rather, it means that no such motion could do so – it would require new primary legislation, a considerably higher bar to clear.
By contrast, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy has no such protection. Investigations on this highly sensitive topic will therefore be allowed to operate under a process which was deemed insufficiently robust for solving the problem of parliamentary expenses. This has also been noted by some well-informed critics of the policy, who have called for a solution on par to the creation of IPSA in the wake of the Expenses Scandal.
One further lesson can be drawn from the events of 2009 in this respect, however. While IPSA in its current form acts as a kind of super-regulator for parliamentary finance, combining expenses regulation with decisions on salaries and pensions, its name refers not to finance but more generally to ‘standards’. This anomaly is the result of the original provisions of the Parliamentary Standards Act, which would have given IPSA additional responsibilities for MPs’ outside interests. The Act would also have created a completely separate Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigations, putting investigations into a wider range of wrongdoing by parliamentarians on a statutory footing as well.
Ultimately, neither of these provisions came into effect. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, in its report on the scandal (Recommendations 42 and 44), argued that IPSA’s role in outside interests and an external Commissioner for Investigations were unacceptable encroachments on parliamentary sovereignty. Expenses, they argued, were not so problematic as the were not a privilege issue – though a privilege exemption would be unsuccessfully claimed in R. v Chaytor, the Supreme Court appeal of several MPs convicted in the scandal. The Government accepted these recommendations, and included amendments to that effect in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 – narrowing IPSA’s role to its current finance-only portfolio.
In spite of its different subject matter, the current debate is in some ways a return to these same issues. Most straightforwardly, had the Parliamentary Standards Act been implemented in its original form, the House would simply not have been able to act as it did last week – at least in relation to investigations into outside interests. More broadly, however, Parliament’s chosen solution to the bullying and harassment issue could be viewed as yet again postponing an inevitable head-on collision between parliamentary privilege and the transformation of parliament into a modern working environment.
The effectiveness of the ICGP in practice remains to be seen. On the evidence of recent history, however, there is a real risk that it will become compromised by the same pressures which have held back or rendered ineffective other modernising reforms. Given the need for absolute confidence in such procedures for them to succeed, especially in relation to survivors of sexual violence, it seems likely that Parliament will need to revisit these issues again in the near future.
Nick Dickinson is PhD student in politics at the University of Exeter. His doctoral research focuses on the regulation of parliamentary salaries and expenses. He tweets at @NickSDickinson