How can Westminster raise standards?
From more transparent expenses claims to compulsory ethics training, there is much to learn from Washington’s standards system, writes Arun Midha
I joined the Standards Committee as a lay member in May 2016. Lay members are chosen to provide an independent element in the standards system, a role which gives me a unique perspective. In my case my experience in similar roles, including the General Medical Council, has been helpful.
The role of a lay member has changed considerably since I joined the committee, with lay members having full voting rights on all decisions, since the House agreed this in January 2019. It has been a fascinating time to sit on the committee, both due to the increased scrutiny of our work and to the new inquiry we have launched into possible reform of the system of sanctions.
Being interested in the subject, while on a recent holiday in Washington DC, I arranged to meet Tamar Nedzar, Senior Counsel with responsibility for Conduct and Ethics issues in the US House of Representatives and Vincent Brown, Counsel at the Senate Committee on Rules. We talked about the differences and similarities of our two systems in many areas, including remuneration for members, sanctions for breaches of the code of conduct, and addressing sexual harassment.
The US system is clearly different from ours. Representatives and Senators may take other forms of paid employment but they are subject to a limit on outside earned income (about £24,000). In addition, there are significant restrictions as to the type of employment a Representative or Senator can do. Representatives cannot for example be remunerated for provision of professional services – with one exception, those who are medical doctors. They may practice in order to maintain their registration but cannot receive compensation beyond recovering the costs of maintaining their professional status. There is no similar provision for any other profession.
When it comes to salary, again the systems are different. The US system offers a salary considerably higher than that offered to UK counterparts (US: £143,000, UK: £79,400) but there is no further contribution to housing costs or allowances whilst in DC. However, they can claim office expenses and travel costs between DC and their District or State. There are pros and cons to this approach, but it brings a simplicity to the whole issue of allowances and perhaps less opportunity for misunderstanding.
In relation to sexual harassment, Congress has faced similar issues to those faced in Parliament in recent years. The focus of change in the US has been a modification of the ‘Congressional Accountability Act’ (1995). Previous arrangements focused on counselling and mediation when an allegation was made. A ‘claimant’ needed to make an additional request for a hearing and investigation once mediation was completed, and any settlements reached during the mediation process were not made public.
The House introduced key modifications in 2018. Any claim of alleged harassment filed with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights now triggers a mandatory investigation. While mediation remains an option at all times, claimants are provided with a free confidential legal advocate throughout, and they can request to work remotely or take paid leave of absence while the process is ongoing. Protections are also put in place against retaliation and reprisal, and all investigations remain confidential. Elected members found responsible for harassment are responsible for any financial settlement.
In addition, claimants in the House of Representatives may also make a claim with the House Committee on Ethics. Following an investigation by the committee, punitive actions can include private resolution, remedial training, repayment to the Treasury for inappropriate expenditures, censure or expulsion (the whole House must vote to approve the last two).
In Congress, ethics training is compulsory. All Representatives are required to complete ethics training within 60 days of initially taking their seat and annually thereafter. In light of Gemma White’s recommendation (in her report on the independent inquiry into the bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff) that members be required to attend the Valuing Everyone training – one which the House of Commons Commission and the Standards Committee both support – perhaps we could learn from the American example?
Arun Midha is lay member of the Standards Committee