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.
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.
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.