The behaviour of MPs is governed and influenced by a wide array of processes and bodies, including:
- A code of conduct which sets the rules MPs have to follow
- The parliamentary commissioner for standards, who carries out investigations into breaches of the rules
- A Commons select committee which oversees the commissioner and decides sanctions in more serious cases
- An independent complaints scheme for cases of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct
- A separate process for complaints about MPs’ expenses
What are the rules that MPs have to abide by?
MPs’ behaviour is governed by a code of conduct, written to reflect the seven principles of public life, as set out in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The first edition of the code was published in 1996 and the current, fourth version was approved by the House of Commons in December 2022. The code – just over three pages long – is accompanied by a 40-page guide to the rules, intended to supplement the code’s principles with detailed guidance.
The code requires MPs treat their staff and others who work within Parliament ‘with dignity, courtesy and respect’. 21 House of Commons, The Code of Conduct, 10 February 2023, HC 1083, D1 Among other measures, it forbids MPs from accepting bribes, requires members to declare relevant interests and mandates that MPs co-operate with standards investigations.
The code also forbids MPs from undertaking ‘any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole’ – a clause that extends the rules to cover a wide range of otherwise unspecified misbehaviour. 22 House of Commons, The Code of Conduct, 10 February 2023, HC 1083, D11
Who investigates complaints about MPs’ conduct?
The parliamentary commissioner for standards is responsible for conducting investigations into breaches of the code of conduct. They cannot investigate any alleged misconduct in the Commons chamber, complaints about an MP’s views or opinions, the way an MP handles casework or the misuse of parliamentary expenses.
The commissioner is an independent officer of the House of Commons, appointed by MPs following nomination by the House of Commons Commission (a committee, led by the Speaker, which is responsible for the administration of the Commons). The commissioner reports to the Committee on Standards. The current commissioner, Daniel Greenberg, was appointed for a five-year term in January 2023.
The commissioner begins investigations of their own initiative or in response to complaints or self-referral by MPs. Investigations are conducted on a confidential basis. During the 2022–23 parliamentary session more than 5,600 complaints were made and 14 investigations were launched. The vast majority of complaints were dismissed as out of the scope of the commissioner, with 1,200 concerning conduct in the chamber – a matter for the Speaker – and more than 2,000 being the responsibility of another body. 26 Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Annual Report 2022–23, 12 July 2023, HC 1519, p. 15.
The previous commissioner, Kathryn Stone, suggested that she faced intimidation from MPs when conducting her role. 27 Newman C, ‘Kathryn Stone on facing apparent intimidation as former parliamentary commissioner for standards’, Channel 4 News, 29 March 2023, retrieved 5 January 2024, www.channel4.com/news/kathryn-stone-on-facing-apparent-intimidation-as-former-parliamentary-commissioner-for-standards Former business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was forced to apologise in 2021 for suggesting that Stone should consider quitting after she published a report into improper lobbying by then Conservative MP Owen Paterson. 28 Topping A and Allegretti A, ‘Government accused of attempt to undermine standards regulator’, The Guardian, 4 November 2021, retrieved 5 January 2024, www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/04/mps-standards-commissioner-kathryn-stone-kwasi-kwarteng-owen-paterson
How do MPs oversee these investigations?
The commissioner only has the authority to punish minor breaches of the code, such as an accidental delay in reporting a financial interest. 30 House of Commons, Procedural Protocol in respect of the Code of Conduct, 24 February 2023, HC 1084, p. 11 This usually involves an MP making an apology to the Commons or correcting the record.
In cases of more serious wrongdoing, the commissioner sends their report to the Commons select committee on standards. The Standards Committee is made up of seven MPs and seven non-parliamentarians (or ‘lay members’) who are appointed by MPs following nomination by the House of Commons Commission. Non-voting lay members were introduced in 2012 and were intended to make the standards process more robust in the wake of the expenses scandal; they were given the power to take part in committee votes in 2019.
The Standards Committee determines whether there has been a breach of the code and, if so, what sanctions ought to be imposed. The committee can impose some sanctions of its own authority, such as requiring a written apology or requiring an MP attend training. More serious sanctions – like suspending an MP – must be approved by the House of Commons itself. MPs agreed in October 2022 that votes on the committee’s reports would be taken without debate or amendment – a change intended to avoid a repeat of the controversial vote on the report into the conduct of Owen Paterson.
Since 2022, MPs have been able to appeal any decisions of the Standards Committee to the Independent Expert Panel, which is made up of eight members drawn from outside of parliament and appointed by MPs, again, following nomination by the House of Commons Commission. In these cases, the panel makes their report to the House of Commons directly. The panel has heard (and dismissed) three such appeals since gaining this power.
How does the process differ in cases of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct?
Allegations of harassment, bullying or sexual misconduct are made through the Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme (ICGS), which was introduced in 2018, as opposed to the parliamentary commissioner for standards. The ICGS is used to handle complaints against anyone who works on the parliamentary estate, but the process differs for MPs.
All ICGS investigations are conducted by an independent investigator, appointed from outside parliament by the ICGS team. In the case of MPs, the findings of the investigator are sent to the parliamentary commissioner for standards who reviews the evidence and checks the accuracy of the report. The commissioner can raise objections on factual grounds. The commissioner agrees or rejects the recommendations of the independent investigator and determines sanctions in less serious cases.
The commissioner refers more serious cases of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct involving MPs to the Independent Expert Panel, which makes a decision on the report and decides on sanctions. The panel was established in 2020 after a 2018 report into the harassment of House of Commons staff recommended that MPs should play no role in the ICGS. 32 Cox L, The Bullying and Harassment of House of Commons Staff: Independent Inquiry Report, 15 October 2018 Prior to the panel's establishment, the Standards Committee determined these cases.
Much like the Standards Committee, the Independent Expert Panel can impose certain sanctions on its own authority, including requiring a written apology or attendance of training. More serious sanctions must be referred for decision in the Commons chamber. These sanctions are voted on without debate and have been since the body was established.
Who investigates complaints about MPs’ expenses?
Investigations into the misuse of expenses are conducted by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority’s (IPSA) compliance officer and not by the parliamentary commissioner for standards. While funded by the IPSA board, the compliance officer is operationally independent and appointed from outside the organisation. 35 Watson E and Kelly R, ‘The Compliance Officer for IPSA’, House of Commons Library, 29 April 2020, p. 4. The compliance officer has the power to direct an MP to repay expenses that have been improperly claimed.
The compliance officer has, in the past, referred complaints to the Metropolitan Police where they suspect a criminal offence has been committed. 36 Watson E and Kelly R, ‘The Compliance Officer for IPSA’, House of Commons Library, 29 April 2020, p. 21.