Parliamentary Standards – the battle to retain control

Richard Kelly of the House of Commons Library provides an overview of recent developments in the field of parliamentary standards. The blog discusses how institutional arrangements have evolved in response to a series of significant events such as scandals related to ‘cash for questions’ and MP’s expenses.

Mid 1990s

It is 25 years since John Major appointed the Committee on Standards in Public Life to “examine concerns about standards of conduct of holders of public office”.  The creation of the CSPL was prompted, in part, by the ‘Cash for Questions’ scandal, in which two MPs accepted cash for asking questions in the House of Commons.

In its first report, in May 1995, the CSPL made a number of recommendations of general application for those in public life, in Parliament, Government and quangos:

  • It proposed general principles of conduct that should underpin public life;
  • Those principles should be included in Codes of Conduct;
  • There should be independent scrutiny.

These were reflected in specific recommendations addressed to the House of Commons and Members of Parliament.

The House of Commons responded by appointing a select committee on Standards in Public Life to consider how to implement the CSPL’s recommendations.  It recommended the replacement of separate committees on Privileges and on Members’ Interests by the Committee on Standards and Privileges, charged it with drawing up a code of conduct and the appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to maintain registers, advise Members and the Committee, to monitor the Code and to investigate complaints about registration of interests and Members’ conduct.

Its proposals were adopted by the House of Commons in July and November 1995; the first PCS was appointed in November 1995; and the first Code of Conduct was approved by the House on 24 July 1996.

It is important to note that the House did have rules relating to Members’ interests before this.  However, they had not worked effectively – there were problems with transparency and with acceptance of the rules. The developments in the mid-1990s saw the first involvement of someone who was not an MP in the oversight of Members’ financial interests.

That independence was very limited, reflecting the aspect of parliamentary privilege that sees the two Houses of Parliament having exclusive cognisance (sole jurisdiction over all matters subject to parliamentary privilege).

Members’ expenses (2009)

After Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, various attempts to reform Members’ salaries and allowances were considered by Parliament and Government.  In 2008, the Commons agreed a new approach to setting Members’ pay and made revisions to the rules on allowances.  However, in 2009, the expenses scandal broke, with the Daily Telegraph reporting on claims made by Members.  Even though many of these claims were not actually allowed, the scheme was no longer legitimate in the public’s eye and the Speaker resigned after misinterpreting the public mood.  The Government brought forward legislation to establish IPSA – a new body – to administer and regulate Members’ expenses.

In introducing the legislation, Jack Straw, the Leader of the House of Commons, acknowledged that the expenses scandal had “profoundly affected the public’s trust” in Members and the House.  He said that it had damaged Members’ confidence in themselves; undermined those whose conduct was beyond reproach; and “revealed a collective failure by this place effectively to regulate itself”.

The legislation, introduced in June 2009, received Royal Assent before the Summer Recess.  Initially, IPSA was only given responsibility for Members’ expenses but the legislation was amended in 2010 and IPSA also took on responsibility for MPs’ salaries and pensions.

Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

IPSA is a body corporate, independent of Parliament and Government.  IPSA’s Board is responsible for its administrative functions – determining pay and expenses and paying them.

In the original legislation, a Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigations was to be appointed to investigate complaints about expenses that should not have been allowed and about the registration of interests.  The Justice Committee reported concerns of clerks “on the possible implications of the Bill for parliamentary privilege, freedom of speech in parliament and the boundary between the courts and Parliament”.

Whilst Parliament was passing the first legislation, the CSPL was examining Members’ expenses.  It accepted the concerns about parliamentary privilege and recommended the Code of Conduct should remain a matter for Parliament but that the Committee on Standards and Privileges should have at least two lay members.

Changes through the 2010 legislation created a Compliance Officer – a statutory officer holder who acts independently of IPSA’s executive – to investigate complaints about expenses.  The Compliance Officer will also review decisions made by IPSA, if requested by a Member.

The Compliance Officer generally works two days per week and is supported by an Investigations Officer, who works three days per week.  He only considers matters relating to IPSA’s expenses scheme and there is no overlap with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.  His workload has been relatively light.  In 2017/18, of 54 complaints, only two led to full investigations.

The Code of Conduct remained a matter for the Commons and the Committee on Standards and Privileges was separated into its two constituent parts.  Initially three lay members were appointed to sit with MPs on the Committee on Standards.  That number has increased to seven and the number of MPs on the Committee has reduced to seven.

Bullying and harassment

In November 2017, allegations and accounts in the press of inappropriate behaviour and a culture of bullying and sexual harassment at Westminster led to the establishment of a cross-party Working Group on an Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy.

The Working Group recommended the development of a parliament-wide behaviour code and an independent complaints and grievance scheme.  In February 2018, the House agreed and the Group oversaw its development.

The House then endorsed the new Scheme in July 2018.  It also endorsed changes to the Code of Conduct, including the incorporation of the Behaviour Code – thereby giving the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards a role in investigating allegations and the Committee on Standards a role in recommending sanctions.

Whilst the Scheme was being developed, further allegations about MPs’ behaviour were aired on Newsnight.  The House of Commons Authorities commissioned an independent report from former High Court judge, Dame Laura Cox.

In relation to overseeing the ICGS, Dame Laura recommended that:

Steps should be taken, in consultation with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and others, to consider the most effective way to ensure that the process for determining complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament will be an entirely independent process, in which Members of Parliament will play no part.

The House of Commons Commission has been criticised because Laura Cox’s recommendation on independence has not been implemented over a year after she made it.

The Commission has appointed a working group to explore how decisions on the sanctioning of Members can be made without their involvement, in an entirely independent way.

Strengthening the role of lay members

When first appointed, the lay members of the Committee on Standards did not have voting rights.  When the ICGS was adopted, in 2018, the House agreed that lay members of the Committee on Standards should have an informal vote on Committee recommendations.  Following Dame Laura’s report, the Committee brought forward recommendations to give them formal voting rights.  In its report, the Committee described this as an “interim step”, “without prejudice to actions the House might take in future to implement the Cox report”. Despite concerns about parliamentary privilege, the Commons agreed that lay members should be accorded full voting rights.

The Committee on Standards proposed to establish a sub-committee comprising three lay members and two MPs to consider appeals under the ICGS.

In the wake of concerns about bullying and harassment and sexual misconduct in Parliament, the rights of the independent Members of the Committee on Standards have been strengthened.


Over time the system has come under pressure. Members have expressed frustration and annoyance that their behaviour is overseen by non-Members yet at the same time, there have been occasions when their behaviour been subject to criticism from the wider public.  This has led to a push for more external oversight.  However, there has been resistance to this on the grounds that parliamentary autonomy is infringed.

But scandals, concern that investigations pulled punches and questions about the appropriateness of MPs “marking their own homework” led, initially, to a mixed system with a Commissioner reporting to a parliamentary committee.

The expenses scandal forced the very speedy adoption of an independent system albeit ultimately only covering pay and expenses, not all aspects of MPs’ financial interests.

The internal systems were buttressed by the addition of lay members to the Committee on Standards.

The response to bullying and harassment has been much less rapid than the response ten years ago – perhaps because of less media interest or other events – but might it lead to an independent system of oversight of at least some aspects of MPs’ parliamentary behaviour?

Richard Kelly carries out research on behalf of the House of Commons Library. For an overview of some recent publications click the link below.

House of Commons Library

Running parliamentary institutions: dilemmas of leadership, governance and identity

Mark Bennister, Ben Yong and Diana Stirbu discuss the lack of a shared parliamentary identity in Westminster, considering the implications for institutional governance and reform.

 “I’ve been very clear that I don’t think parliament is a building, I think it’s a collection of elected representatives… (former Conservative leader candidate Rory Stewart MP, August 2019).

“There is no ‘voice of Parliament’ that can be collectively orchestrated. Parliament is a place where the parties do permanent battle, and this fundamental reality trumps attempts to build up Parliament itself … those accounts which say that Parliament should do this or that to make itself more effective fail to understand that there is no ‘Parliament’, in a collective sense, at all. (Tony Wright 2004)

MPs and Peers are unclear in explaining what Parliament is, and by extension whether or not it has any collective institutional identity. The Westminster Parliament may indeed have no singular voice or an individual who speaks for the institution. However, beneath the political battles and the expression of Parliament as a site of contest, there is an organisation to be governed and managed. To run what amounts to a small village at Westminster requires administrative structures with lines of communication and accountability.

The challenge of organisational governance, whereby the political and administrative aspects must work together, has been highlighted in Westminster by various crises: the expenses scandal, appointment of a new clerk of the House, the restoration and renewal programme, and the bullying and harassment of staff. Such perceived crises for the Westminster Parliament have brought governance arrangements in the Commons to the fore.

Yet internal reform in Westminster occurs at a glacial pace. Often it requires the consent of the political masters who act as veto players meaning that workplace improvement, commonplace elsewhere, remain slow to adapt. The leadership and governance arrangements of Houses of Parliament are historically a complex set of overlapping and contradictory arrangements with little coherent structure. The devolved legislatures, by contrast, were able to build governance arrangements, largely from scratch, on establishment 20 years ago, slightly less encumbered by historical restrictions of physical space and political convention. And the management lines and role of the Presiding Officer are much clearer in the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales.

It is difficult to separate leadership from governance, but in the case of parliaments, leadership involves individuals or groups speaking on behalf of others in the parliament (backbenchers, parties, committees and so on), while governance relates to the administrative and bureaucratic arrangements that exist to ensure that resources are allocated and the institution functions on a daily basis. Yet leadership and governance often interact within structured arrangements.

Geddes and Meakin’s interpretive approach opens up avenues of study, whereby we seek to understand the meaning and actions of individuals within the institution to explain change. Our research will take a similar approach in seeking to look beneath the formal structural arrangements to understand the challenges of running parliaments. Here we present 3 dilemmas for actors in Westminster.

  1. The dilemma of governance

Parliament contains both political and administrative leadership, with both communities involved in running Parliament but, without a shared institutional purpose. For instance, the Commons and Lords Commissions contain multiple actors with often conflicting agendas; each act as the strategic governance body, but delegate downwards. Partisan, personal, bureaucratic interests are represented on the Commissions. The Commons and Lords Speakers chair the Commissions, but others are accountable for decisions (Tom Brake MP answers Commission questions on the floor of the House). Moreover, the House Commissions have a weak history of governance and strategy, because decisions of the cross-party Commissions require consensus—which is not easy to achieve.

  1. The dilemma of leadership

There are multiple contestable sites and claim-making individuals in Parliament. Many individuals present themselves as leaders in the Commons on the basis of position (Speaker), seniority (Father of the House), election (select committee chairs), political (Chief Whips), Executive (Leader of the House). The Director-General and Clerk of the House share the most senior administrative position. In the Lords, four actors are key in a much flatter, self-regulating forum. The Clerk of Parliaments is the senior administrator, while the procedural and political dimensions are divided between the Lords Speaker, the Leader of the House, and the Senior Deputy Speaker (Chairman of Committees).

The Commons Speaker has a strong claim to speak for the House as he has a threefold role as procedural lead, administrative chair of the Commission and an external face exercised via his office. The impact of Speaker Bercow on the Commons demonstrates perhaps that a less institutional approach to analysing parliaments is necessary. Bercow challenged convention and altered perceptions and shows how critical actors can drive or block change. It remains to be seen whether Sir Lindsay Hoyle will adopt a substantively different approach.

  1. The dilemma of identity

Parliament (Commons and Lords), presents a dilemma of institutional leadership: are legislatures simply products of the elected representatives or collective entities? The collective and corporate nature of the UK Parliament has been neglected by the elected representatives as Judge and Leston-Bandeira say ‘claim-makers do not primarily stand for, or make positive claims on behalf of, the institution itself.’ Parliament, therefore struggles with its identity as a holistic institution. Meanwhile, the administrative governance of the House Service has been strengthened (following the 2014 House of Commons Governance Committee report, set up in response to the 2014 clerk appointment crisis, the Director General Review of Governance was published. which is now being implemented). And yet, it has struggled to make the case for restoring the Palace of Westminster and renewing engagement with the public, largely because the political masters have been reluctant to adhere to any collective need and identity.

Can (or should) dilemmas be solved?

Of course Westminster is hamstrung by haphazard historical development. The Westminster Parliament is a building (more accurately an estate), but also (as per Rory Stewart’s quote above) an ‘aggregation of members’. It is a set of formal and informal proceedings, in which overtly political and necessarily non-political activities are conducted by (temporary) politicians and (permanent) officials in often overlapping communities. In short, the Westminster Parliament is no ordinary public institution.

So, we aim to understand how the leadership and governance arrangements have emerged in Westminster and the devolved legislatures. We seek to map these arrangements to identify hierarchical and management lines between political and administrative arms. However, we are also interested in what the actors think of their roles and positions themselves. Parliaments are naturally messy and contradictory institutions. They are the products of particular structural, historical and contextual factors. Dilemmas or tensions in who speaks for, manages, leads and governs may be apparent at present. We seek not to present an idealised view on how parliaments could or should be better or more effectively run, but rather seek an improved understanding of why leadership and governance is so complex, contradictory and often challenges the development of a shared institutional identity.

Mark Bennister is Reader in politics at the University of Lincoln

Ben Yong is Associate Professor in Public Law and Human Rights at the University of Durham

Diana Stirbu is Professor of governance and public policy at London Metropolitan University




Parliament: You in Danger, Girl

PSA Parliaments Group Convenor Dr Marc Geddes considers the potential impact that the recent Conservative victory may have upon effective parliamentary scrutiny. The blog discusses the current government’s agenda for legislative reform and the changes that may be brought about by a shake-up in the staffing of key parliamentary roles.

On Thursday, 12 December, the public elected MPs to represent them in the UK House of Commons. There are returning and experienced MPs, including one that was originally elected in 1974, as well as 140 new MPs, the youngest of which is 23. While the turnover is not significantly out of line with previous elections, 2019 is significant because of the scale of the Conservatives’ victory. And it is the party’s level of victory, matched with its rhetoric on reforming UK democracy, that could see considerable changes to the future role of Parliament, and most certainly a very different role as compared to what it played 2017-19. Of course, the dust hasn’t settled yet, but I think that Parliament’s centrality in decision-making is in danger.

The first and most obvious difference is the government’s majority of 80, not seen for the Conservatives since the 1980s. How does this affect the House of Commons? Throughout the 2017 legislative period, many votes were on a knife-edge precisely because the government did not have a majority; the government needed every single vote to secure the safe passage of legislation. The larger a government’s majority, the more room for manoeuvre for the prime minister. A majority of more than 80 seats means that even if 35-40 Conservative MPs vote against their own party, the executive would still pass its legislation. As a result, the threat of voting against the government or abstaining has declined. In short: MPs’ leverage in the House of Commons has significantly declined. This will have concrete consequences. One example of this is the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which is set to return to the House of Commons on Friday. As Graeme Cowie (from the House of Commons Library) has pointed out, the Bill was drafted with concessions in mind, and included a role for Parliament in scrutinising and approving the future relationship. Without the same level of concessions required, will the government revisit some of these parts of the Bill (citing its electoral success to say that the public want Brexit done, not scrutinised)?

A second difference to 2017-19 will be the role of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. He has promised to be a different kind of Speaker to John Bercow. Bercow’s relationship with the government was known to be particularly poor. He was unafraid to challenge the prime minister and government in order to champion the rights of backbenchers. At this point, it is difficult to tell precisely how Hoyle will behave as Speaker, though there are some interesting hints from his interview with Nick Robinson from early November 2019 – including his comment, for example, that ‘the country elects the government’ (not exactly true, but maybe I’m being pedantic), which should be expected to get their business through the House. He has suggested that parliamentary rules should be cleared up. With a majority government, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Leader of the House grants this wish and, in keeping with tradition of a power-hoarding executive, the likely result will be that those rules will be clarified in the government’s favour.

So, it seems that we are set for a far more predictable legislative period. Dramas in the chamber, late-night votes, the high viewing figures for BBC Parliament… these are likely to recede into the past as predictability reigns. In many ways, Parliament will return to ‘normal’. However, beyond this, there are at least two other things worth mentioning: the impact of the majority on scrutiny and the possibility of reform.

In the House of Commons, select committees are seen as the main mechanism of scrutiny. Typically, they are made up of 11 MPs to examine and scrutinise the policies of government. In the new parliament, it is likely that committees will be made up of six Conservatives, four Labour members and one MP from a smaller party (for a detailed overview of committees and how they work, see the Hansard Society’s handy explainer). Their task will be to keep a close look at what the government is doing. There are particular things to watch out for in the coming months. First, some high-profile and experienced chairs are not returning to their roles: some lost their seats, e.g. Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health Committee and Liaison Committee; others stood down, e.g. Stephen Twigg, chair of the International Development Committee. So, we are likely to see a new crop of chairs, which is also due to take place because other chairs will have reached term limits as set out in Standing Orders (e.g. Sir Bernard Jenkin). Second, the Liaison Committee published a big report on improving the effectiveness of committees before the election was called. The question that now arises: will this reform agenda be pushed forward? My hunch is that it won’t: the Conservatives have been rather happy to avoid media scrutiny during the election, so probably won’t want to empower MPs to enhance parliamentary scrutiny; Wollaston, the chair of the Liaison Committee between 2017 and 2019, has lost her seat; and, the government’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has been in a long-running dispute with select committees over a failure to appear before them.

Scrutiny will be vital; it is fundamental to achieving good government. And yet… On 15 December, Rishi Sunak, chief secretary to the Treasury, was asked about fundamental civil service reform, to which he responded that, ‘I think people watching are not interested in the process of government’. While the focus of this exchange was about the civil service, not Parliament, this speaks volumes to me. It suggests that commentators, academics, the media, and parliamentarians, must look very carefully to make that this government is held to account. Because there are strong hints that the government is planning to drive through big changes in how Whitehall is organised, and the reach might very well extend to Westminster, too.

On the morning after the general election, Boris Johnson’s victory speech included a line that ‘Parliament must change’. Meanwhile, tucked away on p.48, the Conservative Party’s manifesto says that ‘we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’. To achieve this, the Conservatives have pledged to introduce a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission within the first year of office to examine how to ‘restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’. In terms of specific pledges that will affect Parliament, the Conservatives have promised to ‘get rid’ of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) as well as promises that will affect elections (keeping first-past-the-post, introducing voter ID, updating constituency boundaries, etc.).

Putting all this together: we will have an emboldened government that is likely to want to see through an historic policy agenda with wide-ranging repercussions, and it can do so with a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, possibly without high levels of scrutiny. Meanwhile, there are hints that political, administrative and constitutional reforms are also on the table. To adapt an iconic line from Ghost (1990): Parliament, you in danger, girl.

Dr Marc Geddes is Lecturer in British Politics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. His most recent book, Dramas at Westminster, looks at select committees in the House of Commons and is available now. He is on Twitter: @marcgeddes.


Electing a new Speaker: what happens next?

Electing a new Speaker: what happens next?

After over ten years as Speaker, John Bercow has announced his intention to stand down at the end of October. As for who will replace him, that is unclear and will be decided by an election amongst MPs, several of whom have already declared their candidacy. But how does that election work? Mark Bennister offers a guide to the process. 

Continue reading