What is the MPs’ code of conduct?
The MPs’ code of conduct sets out the standards of behaviour expected of MPs when carrying out their work. The code was established on the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) following the financial scandals that beset John Major’s Conservative government in the early 1990s, and as such its ‘rules of conduct’ focus mainly on financial interests and ‘paid advocacy’, or lobbying.
The code also sets out the general ‘duties of members’ (to be faithful to the Queen, to uphold the law, to act in the interests of the nation and especially constituents, and to act in accordance with the public trust placed in them) and the ‘general principles of conduct’, also known as the ‘Nolan principles on standards in public life’ (named after Lord Nolan, the inaugural chair of the CSPL). However, of the above, MPs can only be investigated for breaches of the rules of conduct.
The code contains parliamentary rules concerning the additional income, gifts and personal interests that MPs must declare (when participating in parliamentary proceedings that relate to these interests) and which must be published in the register of members’ interests. The register provides information about any financial interest an MP has, or any benefit which they receive, that others might reasonably consider to influence his or her actions as a member of parliament. MPs have to register any change in their registrable interest within 28 days. The register is updated online every two weeks while the House is sitting.
Following the bullying and harassment scandal of 2018/19 the ‘parliamentary behaviour code’ was incorporated into the code of conduct. Breaches of the behaviour code are investigated under a separate process to breaches of the code of conduct, known as the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS).
The code applies to MPs’ conduct in their public life. Although a member’s actions in their private life are not covered by the code, they can be investigated if their private actions have brought the House of Commons into disrepute, but there is a high bar to such investigations.
How are breaches of the MPs’ code of conduct investigated?
Breaches of the code are investigated by the parliamentary commissioner for standards. The commissioner is an independent office holder appointed for a five-year non-renewable term via a process involving MPs on the Commons Standards Committee, the Commons Speaker and independent panel members. The commissioner oversees the code and the register and advises the Standards Committee (a separate body to the CSPL, comprising seven cross-party MPs and seven independent lay members, who are not sitting MPs) about issues relating to the code.
If an MP may have broken the MPs code of conduct the commissioner, currently Kathryn Stone, can decide to conduct an investigation. She can do so in response to a complaint or on her own initiative. When her investigation is complete, she can:
- decide that no breach has occurred
- for minor or inadvertent breaches, require the MP to rectify the situation, for example by updating their entry in the register
- for more serious breaches, present her findings in a report to the Standards Committee
In the event of a report being issued, the committee reviews the commissioner’s findings and can ask further questions and take evidence itself. It then decides whether it agrees with the commissioner’s conclusions and what sanction is appropriate. In determining sanctions it draws on a ‘tariff’ based on previous precedents, taking into account mitigating and aggravating factors. It then makes a report to the House. The House has the opportunity to debate the report and then vote on whether to endorse the committee’s recommendation. In the vast majority of cases the House endorses the recommendations.
Do MPs have a right of appeal under the current system?
The commissioner gives the MP concerned the opportunity to address any errors of fact in her report before it goes to the Standards Committee. Then, once the committee has received the report, if the MP disagrees with the commissioner’s conclusions, they can challenge them either in writing or in person. The member is allowed legal representation during this process. The committee takes these representations into account when deciding whether it agrees with the commissioner’s conclusions.
The government has raised concerns, following the Owen Paterson case, about whether this mechanism represents sufficient right of appeal under the code.
What sanctions are there for breaches of the MPs’ code of conduct?
Sanctions range from ‘rectification’ – simply updating declarations as appropriate, through making apologies in writing or in public, and withdrawal of services or access to facilities, to suspension or even expulsion.
Any suspension of 10 days or more triggers the Recall of MPs Act which provides that if 10% of an MP’s constituents sign a petition opened in their constituency, a by-election shall be held. The 30-day suspension proposed for Owen Paterson would have triggered a recall petition had he not pre-empted the House’s decision by resigning as an MP. It is open to the MP concerned to stand in any by-election triggered by a recall petition.
How does the MPs’ code of conduct relate to the ministerial code?
The code of conduct and the ministerial code are intended to complement each other. It is up to the parliamentary commissioner for standards to determine what matters fall within the scope of the code of conduct, and therefore whether to launch an investigation into any perceived breaches; any potential breaches of the ministerial code are instead investigated by either the independent adviser on ministerial interests or by the cabinet secretary.