The rules governing MPs’ conduct have come under scrutiny in the light of the Paterson and Cox affairs. In this explainer on parliamentary standards, we look at the current rules and processes, and the possibilities for future reform.
What are the standards MPs have to abide by and where are they set out?
In the aftermath of the Cash for Questions scandal in the mid 1990s – in which MPs were found to have asked questions in Parliament for money – a Committee on Standards in Public Life was set up by John Major, the then Prime Minister. This committee still exists, and has the broad remit of examining and upholding ethical standards across all areas of public life in England.
The first report of this committee outlined the Seven Principles of Public Life, and recommended the creation of a code of conduct for MPs, derived from these Nolan Principles (Lord Nolan chaired the Committee).
A Code of Conduct relating to the conduct of Members was subsequently created, setting out the standards of behaviour expected of MPs while fulfilling their role as parliamentarians, as well as the rules around any additional income they receive.
MPs must register their outside interests – this could be a gift, or a income from a job – within 28 days of receiving the gift, or taking a job in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. They must also notify the Commissioner of that interest before they undertake any action, speech or proceeding of the House (except voting) to which the interest would be relevant.
“MPs cannot write a letter on House of Commons headed notepaper for something that falls outside their role as a parliamentarian – or use their House of Commons office when working on outside interests”.
MPs are allowed to have additional jobs, but payment in return for advocating in Parliament, to a Minister or to other public servants, for a particular organisation or on a particular issue is strictly forbidden, and they should ‘not confer any undue personal or financial benefit on themselves or anyone else’ from their role.
MPs are also not allowed to conduct outside roles using the institutional facilities of Parliament. This means, for example, that MPs cannot write a letter on House of Commons headed notepaper for something that falls outside their role as a parliamentarian – or use their House of Commons office when working on outside interests.
Who enforces these rules?
Along with the above standards, the Nolan Committee also recommended the process by which they would be enforced: an independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, as well as a Committee of MPs that would assess the rulings of the Commissioner.
The current Commissioner is Kathryn Stone OBE, and the Commons Select Committee on Standards is the parliamentary committee that looks at cases put before it by the Commissioner.
When an MP is accused of misconduct – and this accusation can come from the public, as well as another MP – the Commissioner considers whether it meets the threshold for a formal investigation. If the matter is deemed to meet the threshold, and investigation is carried out. If she then decides there has been a breach of standards, she can choose to either refer the case to the standards committee (which happens in the more serious cases), or to allow the MP to rectify the breach (which happens in minor cases).
The Commissioner does not recommend any particular sanction for MPs, and these are only decided by the Commons Select Committee on Standards. Where possible, the committee tries to use existing precedent to decide appropriate sanctions.
There have been changes and evolutions in this process. The Commons Select Committee on Standards was created in 2013, following House of Commons standing orders 149 and 149A, as a means of allowing lay members – non-MPs – to sit on the committee.
As a result, the committee overseeing the work of the Commissioner consists of seven MPs (designed to be representative of opinion in the House of Commons, which means four Conservative, two Labour and one SNP member) as well as seven ‘lay’ members.
In 2013 when ‘lay’ members were first introduced there was a balance of three lay members to 11 MPs; in 2016 this was changed to an equal number of seven lay members and seven MPs; and in January 2019 these lay members were given equal voting rights on the Commons Select Committee on Standards.
“When an MP is accused of misconduct – and this accusation can come from the public, as well as another MP – the Commissioner considers whether it meets the threshold for a formal investigation”.
Current lay members include Tammy Banks, the CEO of a sexual harm awareness, prevention and education charity; Dr Michael Maguire, a former Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland; and Arun Midha, who assesses disciplinary cases for both the General Medical Council and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
How is the Commissioner appointed?
Parliamentary Commissioners for Standards are appointed for non-renewable, five year terms. Commissioners are recommended by the House of Commons Commission – whose membership includes the Speaker, the Leader and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, representative from Labour, the Conservatives and the SNP and four lay members – before being approved by the Commons.
Is there anything that the Commissioner does not investigate?
The Commissioner does not investigate complaints of bullying and harassment against MPs. Those are looked at by the new Independent Expert Panel, set up in 2020. It contains no MPs.
Suspensions by the Independent Expert Panel cannot lead to a recall petition. This loophole meant that in the case of Conservative MP for Delyn Rob Roberts, suspended for six weeks, a recall petition could not be triggered – despite breaching the rules on standards for how an MP should behave while performing their duties.
Issues relating to how MPs conduct themselves on the floor of the House of Commons are considered a matter for the Speaker.
What sanctions are there against MPs who are found to breach the code?
Punishments for MPs breaching parliamentary standards can range from written warnings, to forcing MPs to pay back money they have received, to the suspension without pay or expulsion from Parliament. Suspension has been recommended on a number of occasions in recent years for cases of financial impropriety. As discussed below, lengthy suspensions can also trigger the potential for recall.
How many MPs have been sanctioned?
Since 2010, eight MPs have been suspended from the House of Commons following recommendation. In each of these cases, the suspension was upheld without a division.
The longest suspension (six months) was for Keith Vaz. The latest upheld suspensions prior to the Paterson case were for Natalie Elphicke, Roger Gale and Theresa Villiers, who each received a one day suspension in September 2021.
“Punishments for MPs can range from written warnings, to forcing MPs to pay back money they have received, to the suspension without pay or expulsion from Parliament”.
Research by the New Statesman showed that the commissioner has found that 19 MPs have breached parliamentary standards so far this year, with a further eight still under investigation. Seven of those have been referred to the committee.
Why was Owen Paterson recommended for 30 days’ suspension?
The House of Commons Standards Committee justified a suspension in the Owen Paterson case on the grounds that his offences were cumulative and sustained. Some of his offences, at the lower end of the spectrum, would only have merited suspension for a short period, but the committee concluded that the charge of paid advocacy was the most egregious. Previous cases of advocacy had led to suspensions of 18 days, 30 days and six months.
Do voters get a say?
Ministers have argued that voters can decide whether or not to punish MPs for their behaviour at the ballot box – but this is a weak sanction since in an election, voters are also electing a government not judging an MP’s behaviour.
However, since 2015, voters have an additional mechanism: MPs suspended for longer than two weeks (or 10 sitting days) can also be subject to a recall process which can result in them being forced to re-stand as an MP in a by-election. MPs are also subject to a recall petition if they are found to have made false expenses claims, or if they are given a prison sentence.
To be recalled, a petition must reach 10% of eligible registered voters in a constituency within a six week period. Once this threshold is reached, a by-election is triggered.
To date, there have been three recall petitions, two of which have reached the 10% threshold: in Peterborough, and Brecon & Radnorshire – both cases resulting from criminal charges, rather than suspension from the Commons. In the one case to date, of the DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr in North Antrim, where suspension from Parliament prompted a recall petition, it did not gain the required number of signatures.
Is the government right to say there is no appeal mechanism?
At present, there is no appeals process against a judgment by the Commons Select Committee on Standards.
However, when the Commons Select Committee on Standards looks at the report and recommendation by the Standards Commissioner, MPs accused of a parliamentary standards breach can restate their case, as well as appealing against and challenge specific points made in the Standards Commissioner’s report. The accused MP also can appeal to fellow MPs and argue against any punishment before it is voted on in the House of Commons.
Does the same code apply to Ministers?
Ministers who sit in the Commons are subject to the rules that exist for all other MPs.
However, they are also subject to a further set of rules under the Ministerial Code, based on the same Nolan principles as the MPs’ code of conduct. If Ministers fail to abide by the Ministerial Code, the Prime Minister can ask for an investigation.
Since 2006, ministerial code breaches have been investigated through the independent adviser on ministerial interests or by the cabinet secretary, but there is no requirement to follow any particular process.
The final decision on what to do with any findings from the process lies entirely within the discretion of the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson’s previous adviser on ministerial interests resigned after the Prime Minister took no action against the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, despite finding that she had breached the Ministerial Code.
What happens next on reform of standards?
On 16 November, the day before an opposition debate on standards, the Prime Minister wrote to the Speaker saying that the government was proposing reform of MPs’ standards. This argued that the MPs’ Code of Conduct should be updated to include two recommendations from the 2018 report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life:
a) that any outside activity, whether remunerated or not, should be “within reasonable limits and should not prevent them from fully carrying out their parliamentary duties;
b) that MPs should never accept paid work as a parliamentary or political consultant.
The first recommendation would potentially deal with the sort of absences highlighted in the Geoffrey Cox case – preventing MPs from taking prolonged absences from parliament for work; the second is aimed at preventing the sort of conflict of interests that was evident in the Owen Paterson case.
Labour has welcomed the changes in principle, but said it needs to see the detail. The Prime Minister has said he hopes they can form the basis for a cross-party consensus to proceed.
Following a vote in the Commons, MPs have agreed in principle to reform. But the details remain to be settled and the action now passes to the Commons Standards Committee to bring back concrete proposals and then it will be up to the government to find time for MPs to vote on the updated Code of Conduct.
By Dr Alan Wager, politics researcher, and Jill Rutter, senior research fellow, at UK in a Changing Europe.