We need a robust, credible and transparent system of accountability for MPs
Members should recognise the importance of public trust in our standards system, and to support our ongoing efforts to improve it, writes Kate Green
As MPs, we hold a unique and privileged position in society. Chosen by our constituents to uphold their views in our democratic system, it is vital that we have a system of accountability that is robust, credible and transparent, and that reassures the public that parliament meets the highest possible standards of conduct. As Chair of the Committee on Standards, I am committed to ensuring that MPs have clearly defined rules which provide firm guidance for behaviour, and a clear process for raising complaints, should those rules be broken.
The conduct of MPs has been under the microscope in recent months. A series of high-profile allegations of bullying and harassment have caused much public anger and concern. In response, the Committee on Standards has been making concerted efforts to increase the independence and transparency of the complaints process, and to improve the credibility of our Standards system.
The Standards Committee is tasked with upholding the Members’ code of conduct. We work closely with Kathryn Stone, the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, to assess breaches of the code of conduct and to impose sanctions should they be necessary. Complaints about a Member’s behaviour are raised with the Commissioner, who investigates independently and, in cases of a minor breach, can rectify issues with the MP in question. However, for more serious cases, the Committee on Standards considers appropriate sanctions.
The sanctions at our disposal are not superficial; they range from requiring Members to apologise to the House, to suspension without pay (particularly significant, given that the Recall of MPs Act allows for a recall petition to be raised should a Member be suspended for 10 or more sitting days).
But apart from the important business of complaints and breaches of the code of conduct, we believe we have a key role in reviewing and strengthening the overall system. That’s why we are pleased to have helped introduce important changes to facilitate the implementation of the House’s new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS). In our Second Report in July 2018, we recommended including the new Behaviour Code in the Members’ Code of Conduct, ensuring that Members can be fully held to account for bullying, harassment or sexual harassment. This was agreed by the House.
In the wake of the Dame Laura Cox report on bullying of House of Commons staff, we have striven to find ways to bolster the system further. The abuse highlighted in that report horrified us. Like the House of Commons Commission, we deeply regret what has gone wrong and commit ourselves to contributing to putting things right.
Our December Report on the implications of Dame Laura’s findings set out initial proposals for increasing the power of the seven independent lay members of the Committee, increasing the independence of the Commissioner and modernising the complaints process. Our recommendations were accepted by the House in January this year, giving full voting rights to our lay members and allowing the Commissioner to carry out investigations into non-recent cases without first consulting the Committee.
We recognise that these are only the first steps towards reform of the system – there is much more to do. We will contribute to the work of the informal working group that will shortly be set up to take the Cox recommendations forward.
One specific issue continues to concern us. Under the new rules agreed by the House last July, all complaints made to the Commissioner (under ICGS or otherwise) are strictly confidential. The Committee is not apprised of details, and information is not made public.
We understand the vital need to protect victims of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment from the public gaze. But we continue to believe that complaints not raised under ICGS rules should be published on the Commissioner’s website, as they were prior to July 2018.
Not doing this shrouds the process in secrecy, rather than opening it up, and we hope that in due course the House will revisit this decision. We urge Members to recognise the importance of public trust in our standards system, and to support our ongoing efforts to improve it.
Kate Green is Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston and chair of the Committee on Standards