Complaints under the Code of Conduct
5.22It is open to any Member1 or to a member of the public to complain to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards that a Member has not properly registered or declared their interests or is in breach of the rule on advocacy, or is otherwise in breach of the Code of Conduct. All such complaints must be addressed to the Commissioner in writing.2 The Commissioner will not entertain anonymous complaints. Complaints about Members' expenses claims paid by IPSA must be made to the Compliance Officer appointed under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, s 3.
The Commissioner may reject the complaint without reference to the Committee on Standards if the allegation does not fall within the Code of Conduct or insufficient evidence is provided. If the Commissioner considers that an inquiry would be disproportionate given the nature and seriousness of the allegation made, the Commissioner may also decide not to inquire into that matter. The receipt of a complaint by the Commissioner, or the initiation of an inquiry, is not to be interpreted as an indication that a prima facie case has been established.
If the Commissioner is satisfied that sufficient evidence has been tendered in support of the complaint to justify taking the matter further, a preliminary inquiry is conducted. The Commissioner may ask the complainant for further information and will ask the Member to respond to the complaint. Parliamentary privilege is not considered to extend to communications between a member of the public and the Commissioner unless and until the Commissioner has accepted the matter for inquiry.
The House agreed on 2 December 2010 to allow the Commissioner, if they think fit, to investigate matters which have come to their attention other than as the subject of a formal complaint.3 This enables the Commissioner to accede to a request by a Member for an investigation into an allegation against them in the absence of a complaint – so called self-referral – and to investigate cases where the Compliance Officer appointed under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 reported a breach of the rules relating to Members' allowances which might also constitute a breach of the Code of Conduct.4
In cases of admitted failures to register or declare interests, where the interest involved was minor or the lapse inadvertent, the Commissioner has discretion to allow the Member to rectify the matter. Rectification of non-registration requires the insertion of a belated entry in the current Register, with an appropriate explanatory note. In the case of non-declaration, an apology to the House, either on a point of order or in an intervention in a relevant debate, is required.5 Members making an apology on a point of order following the rectification procedure, as agreed with the Commissioner, should give prior notice of their intention to apologise to the Speaker and should raise the point of order at the normal time for doing so.6
In other cases the Commissioner may conclude that it is necessary to conduct a full investigation. In these circumstances the Commissioner would usually interview the Member concerned and may interview others and collect additional evidence as required. While the Commissioner has no power to compel the production of documents or witnesses, the Committee on Standards made clear its expectation that Members should co-operate fully and frankly with the Commissioner. The Committee also indicated that it would exercise its powers to send for persons, papers and records in support of the Commissioner if that proved to be necessary.7 Members and other witnesses may be accompanied by a legal adviser (or other ‘friend’), but they will be expected to answer for themselves (and not through their adviser) any questions put to them.
Once the Commissioner has completed the investigation, a report is made to the Committee on Standards setting out the facts as found and the Commissioner's conclusions on whether the Code of Conduct has been breached. Accordingly, the Commissioner's report normally comprises a description of the complaint and of the relevant aspects of the Code or Rules; an account of the evidence; findings of fact; and a conclusion along with any relevant recommendations, for example for the amendment of procedures.
In June 2003 a procedure was introduced for the investigation of the most difficult cases, where proof of the complaint would be likely to lead to the imposition of a serious penalty on the Member concerned, and there appeared to be significant contested issues of fact which could not be properly decided unless the Member was given the opportunity to call witnesses or examine other witnesses. In such cases, the Commissioner may appoint an Investigatory Panel. The Commissioner would sit on this with two assessors, who would advise the Commissioner, but have no responsibility for the findings. One would be a legal assessor, and the other a senior Member of the House, who would advise on parliamentary matters. The Commissioner would determine the procedures and might appoint counsel to assist the panel. The Member against whom the complaint had been made would be entitled to be heard in person, and would have the opportunity to call witnesses and to examine other witnesses. At the conclusion of proceedings, the Commissioner would report as usual, the legal assessor would report as to the extent to which the proceedings had been consistent with the principles of natural justice, and the Member assessor might report on the extent to which the proceedings had regard to the customs and practice of the House and its Members.8 To date, however, this procedure has not been used.9
- 1. The Speaker has stated that, although there was nothing in rules of the House which prohibited it, in her view it was discourteous, unjust and unfair for a Member who complained to the Commissioner about the conduct of another Member to inform the media that they had done so, HC Deb (1999–2000) 346, c 323. The Speaker has also made it clear that allegations about a breach of the code of conduct or misuse of resources should not be made on the Floor of the House but as a complaint to the Commissioner, ibid (14 November 2011) 535, c 579; ibid (7 December 2011) 537, c 305.
- 2. Since January 2019 complaints can be submitted by email, but must include the complainant's name and postal address (Votes and Proceedings, 7 January 2019). The Select Committee on Standards in Public Life (HC 816 (1994–95)) in its Second Report at para 26 stated that: ‘it will not be the function of the Chair to enforce the ban on paid advocacy during speeches. Complaints will be a matter for the Commissioner to investigate in the first instance’. See also HC Deb (1995–96) 276, c 605; ibid 277, c 767–68 and ibid (1997–98) 303, c 332.
- 3. CJ (2010–12) 82.
- 4. Committee on Standards and Privileges, Seventh Report of Session 2010–12, Power of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to initiate investigations, HC 578.
- 5. HC 1076 (2014–15) Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members, p 45.
- 6. See HC Deb (3 December 2013) 571, c 800; HC Deb (20 June 2018) 643, c 350.
- 7. Committee on Standards, Sixth Report of Session 2014–15, The Standards System in the House of Commons, HC 383, para 102.
- 8. SO No 150(4)–(9).
- 9. In November 2010, the Committee on Standards and Privileges appointed a retired judge to carry out a review of a report in the previous Parliament, following the discovery of fresh evidence. See Committee on Standards and Privileges, Thirteenth Report of Session 2010–12, Mr Harry Cohen—Review by Sir Paul Kennedy, HC 883.