The scandal of MP’s expenses blew up in October 1994, during John Major's Premiership . The Committee for Standards in Public Life was a response to that scandal. Lord Nolan, the Chair of the Committee devised the seven principles of public life in 1995. The CSPL was established with the following terms of reference:
“To examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life.”
The Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership are not law. They are not directly enforced. However, they form part of many codes of conduct. For example, the ministerial code says that Ministers are expected to observe the seven principles of public life. The House of Commons code of conduct says that MPs are expected to follow the principles in the carrying out of their parliamentary duties.
There has been a flurry of activity in relatively recent times in this area. In November 2021, the House of Commons Committee on Standards, see below, published bespoke descriptors of the seven principles for MPs, which were designed to more closely reflect how the principles apply to the role of an MP. In April 2022, the Committee took evidence from the then Leader of the House and the then Minister for the Cabinet Office on the Nolan principles.
Whenever a scandal has arisen further flurries of activity have resulted in changes to the structure of control of ethical oversight of Parliament. However Prime Ministers have shown a disinclination to give the structures they have created autonomy, and, while the Nolan Principles underlie, they are not given control.
The result is a complex mix of responsibilities which we try to outline below.
Prime Ministers tend to retain overall responsibility for the ethical behaviour of their Government. Boris Johnson appointed Ethical Advisers, but then ignored their advice and even restricted the information made available to them, putting them into an unacceptable situation resulting in resignation.
Liz Truss declined to appoint an ethical adviser.
Rishi Sunak has now appointed Sir Laurie Magnus a former banker and head of Historic England to be his ethics adviser after a six-month delay in filling the post, but, in line with the terms of previous role-holders, will not allow the new incumbent to launch his own investigations into potential wrongdoing but would wait for No 10 to request this. Sir Christopher Geidt, Johnson’s most recent ethics adviser, had expected that his terms would be expanded, and rejected the post when Sunak refused to allow greater autonomy.
Dave Penman, head of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said: “The prime minister retains a veto over investigations into his ministers’ conduct and is the sole arbiter of the ministerial code, including any sanctions. How will this give civil servants the confidence to come forward?"
Saying he would “endeavour to discharge the important responsibilities of the role with fairness and integrity”, Magnus promised to complete the often delayed annual report into ministers’ interests, produced by his office, by May 2023, and to compile a list of interests “well before” then.
Peter Oborne concludes his seminal book “The Assault on Truth” with ideas for a fight back against what he saw then as a culture of lying in Parliament. Oborne says “ I will urge both (Speakers) to take action against any government statements which mislead their respective Houses, and in particular to demand that these be corrected within one week by a written ministerial statement in their respective Hansards.”
However, this does not fit well with the Speaker’s responsibilities. The Speaker is the servant of the House and can only operate within the powers which the House has granted him. This includes keeping order during debates, including PMQs. The Speaker can remind the House of the purpose and expected form of questions and answers, and to exhort Members and Ministers to bear this in mind. But Ministers, like other Members, take responsibility for their own remarks.
During the Boris Johnson years people frustrated with debates in the House of Commons often criticised the Speaker for failing to hold politicians to account over allegedly dishonest remarks.
But the MPs who have held this office have been clear over the years that it’s not their job to police the accuracy of debates.
The current speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, issued a strongly worded call for MPs to correct the record voluntarily if they make inaccurate statements in the Commons. But he also stressed that it is not his role to judge whether a statement is true or false, saying: “The Speaker cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is inaccurate or not. This is a matter of political debate.”
Supports the Prime Minister, working to ensure the effective running of the government. They are also the corporate headquarters for the government, in partnership with HM Treasury. Within the Cabinet Office is:
Director General, Propriety and Ethics - Darren Tierney became the Director General, Propriety and Ethics, following in footsteps of Sue Gray and Helen MacNamara in March 2021
Tierney would oversee the Honours Secretariat and Privy Council Office and provide support for cabinet secretary Simon Case on the operation of government, including ensuring the highest standards of propriety, integrity and governance within government, advising all government departments on standards and ethics issues.
The Privileges Committee acts separately from the Standards Committee. From 1995, when the Commons Standards system was established, there was a single Standards and Privileges Committee, but the two were split in January 2013 to allow non-MP members, known as lay members, to be appointed to the Standards Committee. The two committees now have the same chairs and membership: At the time of writing the Privileges Committee are preparing to interview Boris Johnson. The usual chair, Sir Chris Bryant had precluded himself and had been replaced by Harriet Harman
Privileges deals with issues of privilege (the special protections afforded to the House of Commons to enable it to do its job) and looks into allegations these privileges have been impeded – offences known as contempts of parliament.
The Standards Committee deals with the MPs’ code of conduct – adjudicating and determining sanctions for any cases of misconduct referred to it by the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards – and oversees the Commons standards system. (Inst for Gov)
The Committee on Standards cannot take on complaints about Members of Parliament. Such complaints should be directed to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
The committee is made up of:
● The chair, currently Chris Bryant MP
● 7 independent members appointed by the Prime Minister following open competition in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ Governance Code. Independent members, including the Chair, are appointed for a five-year non-renewable
term. Currently: Mrs Rita Dexter, Dr Michael Maguire, Victoria Smith, Mr Paul Thorogood, Mrs Tammy Banks, Mehmuda Mian, Sir Francis Habgood,
● 6 political members appointed by the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the leaders of the Labour Party, and the Conservative Party. Political members are appointed for renewable three-year terms.
● The members, currently, are: Andy Carter (Cons), Allan Dorans (SNP), Sir Bernard Jenkins (Cons), Alberto Costa(Cons), Yvonne Favargue (Lab), Sir Charles Walker (Cons)
The Committee on Standards has carried out a comprehensive inquiry into the operation of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament. It did this in liaison with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who was carrying out an independent review of the Code.
The Code of Conduct for MPs sets out the standards of behaviour expected of all Members of the House of Commons, applying in all aspects of their public life. The Code also contains the rules concerning the additional income, gifts and personal interests that must be declared by MPs and published in the Register of Members' Interests.
Alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct for Members can be investigated by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. If the Commissioner considers there has been a breach of the Code, they can, in less serious cases where the Member agrees, use the “rectification” process, or otherwise refer the matter to the Committee on Standards, who can recommend a range of sanctions, or not, depending on the facts of the case and severity of the breach.
This is the first stage in a multi-stage process of preparing a new text of the Code, and the associated Guide to the Rules, for approval by the House, which incorporates the Commissioner’s own review of the Code and Guide.
Katheryn Stone was the sixth Commissioner, appointed for five years from 01/01/2018 to 2023 The appointment is not renewable and Daniel Greenberg CB is now the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, appointed January 2023. He is a lawyer specialising in legislation and the legislative process, he had been employed part-time as Deputy Counsel in the Office of the Speaker’s Counsel until 2016, and then as Counsel for Domestic Legislation in the Commons, in which role he gave evidence on many matters of concern including contempt of parliament and the Brexit process.
Currently (15/03/23) Daniel Greenberg is investigating claims Conservative MP and health committee chair Steve Brine lobbied the NHS on behalf of a recruitment firm that was paying him.
The Commissioners main duties are:
This Officer’s remit does not extend to the House of Lord’s, who also have a Commissioner. Complaints about the misuse of the scheme for parliamentary expenses; (since May 2010) are a matter for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. They have a Compliance Officer, see https://www.parliamentarycompliance.org.uk Details of all cases and of the Register of Financial Interests are all available online, see UKm Parliament.
The Committee of Privileges is appointed to consider specific matters relating to privileges referred to it by the House. Chris Bryant MP is new Chair of the Committee and resumes inquiry on select committees and contempts
Harriet Harman (Lab) is the temporary Chair, Sir Chris Bryant is temporarily recluded; members Andy Carter (Cons), Allan Dorrans (SNP), Sir Charles Walker (Cons), Alberto Costa (Cons), Yvonne Favargue (Lab), Sir Bernard Jenkin (Cons)
The remit and powers of the Committee of Privileges are set out in Standing Order No 148A. The Committee is appointed to “consider specific matters relating to privileges referred to it by the House”.
The Committee has the power to appoint sub-committees. Both the Committee and its sub- committees have the usual select committee powers “to send for persons, papers and records”;
to sit while the House is adjourned and to appoint specialist advisers. Like the Committee on Standards, it has the explicit power to appoint legal advisers.
The Committee also has the power “to order the attendance of any Member before the committee and to require that specific documents or records in the possession of a Member relating to its inquiries be laid before the committee or any sub-committee”.
The independent Committee on Standards in Public Life advises the Prime Minister on arrangements for upholding ethical standards of conduct across public life in England. We are not a regulator and cannot investigate individual complaints.
CSPL is an advisory non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Cabinet Office. The committee is made up of:
● The chair.Lord Jonathan Evans of Weardale
● 4 independent members appointed by the Prime Minister following open competition in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ Governance Code. Independent members, including the Chair, are appointed for a five-year non-renewable term. (Currently one independent member vacancy.)Lady Mary Arden, Ewen Fergusson, Professor Gillian Peele
● 3 political members appointed by the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the leaders of the Labour Party, and the Conservative Party (currently one political member vacancy). Political members are appointed for renewable three-year terms.Dame Margaret Beckett, Baroness Finn,
The depository of the letters which Conservative MPs can write to express their dissatisfaction in their leader.
This body is mainly aimed at assisting all current and former members of the parliamentary community who feel that they have experienced bullying, harassment and/or sexual misconduct and want to make a complaint or want advice and support.
The ICGS is also here to help members of the Parliamentary community who are aware of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct and want guidance and advice.
It is the first of its kind in any Parliament in the world and is intended to tackle inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.
Jo Willows is the ICGS Director. Alison Stanley wrote a review of the ICGS in 2021, and 28 of her 33 recommendations have now been implemented.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (see above) has an oversight role. Both teams have worked together “with the overall aim of ensuring that all investigations under their control remain independent, impartial, thorough and fair.”. MPs have a number of concerns about the process.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.