Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Fifth Report

Memorandum submitted by the Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP


My understanding is that the purpose and emphasis of the rules on the registration of interests is to prohibit paid advocacy and ensure that there is nothing else which might influence a Member's behaviour when acting as a Member of Parliament, which should be and is not known to the House. The Committee itself noted in its Fifth and Sixth Report of Session 1997-98 "The main purpose of the Register, which underlies all of the specific rules, is to provide information on any pecuniary benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her Parliament or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament." (para 2).

I fully recognise that there is also a caveat in that many of the rules and guidelines cover not just what may affect the Member's behaviour, but what might be thought to do so. This is clearly a matter of judgement and interpretation.

However, I fear it may be increasingly the case that whilst the rules are perfectly sensible in themselves, their practical implementation is leading us towards a situation where they fail to meet their stated intent. In particular:


    (i)    It was never the intention of the register that every interest, however minor, should be listed. However, it appears that in practice it is becoming rarely—if at all—the case that anyone approaching the registrar for advice is told that there is no need to register. Indeed the Report containing the Consultation on Proposed Amendments to the Rules suggests that "if any uncertainty still remains [after consulting the Registrar] the interest ought to be registered." (See the reference to the reports on John Major, Stephen Timms and Bowen Wells in Annex A).

    First, this may foster a presumption of wrongdoing even where none exists. It also seems likely to lead to immensely time consuming a bureaucratic procedures for, at best, marginal gain. Indeed a telephone directory approach seems likely to obscure what is actually of significance—something that might be thought to conflict with the register's underlying purpose.

    (ii)  It is in this context that there is concern that some of the recommendations in this report might seem to be adding to that tendency. For example, in paragraph 16 the Committee recommends that "Benefits, such as tickets to sporting or cultural events, received by another person together with or on behalf of a Member should be registered as if they had been received by the Member". This raises two issues. First, Members with families may be obliged to register a benefit, where an MP without a family may not because the theoretical benefit fell below the ceiling. I understand just such a situation arose when Members' came to register tickets for the Millennium Dome. Second, there may be occasions where such benefits are not exclusive to MPs, but could be enjoyed by others—for example concessions available to frequent fliers. If they were registered as if related solely to a Member's position as an MP this would not only negate the purpose of the Register, which is to establish whether a particular interest relates to a Member's role and behaviour as a Member, it would make the Register cumbersome and obscure what distinction might mark one MP's contribution from another.

    (iii)  In paragraph 17, the Committee indicates that payments and gifts passed directly to charity should be registered. This too appears both onerous and perhaps unnecessary, particularly if the advocacy rule then bites. The Member has no benefit from the gift or money concerned so it represents no continuing or hidden advantage. This would appear to be a further example of declaration for declaration's sake, entirely unrelated to the purpose of the register to which the House has agreed.

    (iv)  A point has recently arisen in relation to employment agreements. There is in my view, a world of difference between a Member employing a company to manage his appearances, and that individual being employed by a company which then promotes him. In either case what is relevant is surely whether the Member is being paid by the employing company. Where, however, a Member is employing the agency to manage his or her engagements and pays them a fee (as in the case of the Rt Hon John Major MP) it seems frankly bizarre to require the Member to register the agreement as an employment agreement for the member (by this logic, it could be argued that all Members are providing a service to their research assistants!).

My comments are based on my belief that it is right that Members should have high standards of integrity and that the Code should enforce those standards, but that as the Committee notes, the rules have "to strike a delicate balance between this rigour and Member's ability to pursue their proper duties".

If the rules are interpreted with an extreme rigour or stringency, there is a danger that Members will be restricted in deploying their knowledge about areas in which they have professional expertise within Parliament.


I am not convinced that the proposed rewording of the rule on sponsorships adequately recognises the changed position that will be brought about by the requirement for constituency political parties to notify donations which will result from the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. All donation of over £1,000, whether from a single donation or multiple donations from the same source of more than £200 amounting to in aggregate to more than £1000, to a constituency party, will become public. Moreover the Electoral Commission are now charged by statute with supervision in this area.

Similarly those MPs who sought a candidacy for Mayor of London were advised to register donations to their campaign, for what is by definition an activity outside Parliament, and to do so while the campaign was under way. Not only did this too impinge on the realm of election supervision, it placed those candidates who were MPs in a different position from candidates who were not, and did so actually during the campaign itself.


Even where interests are registered there remains an issue as to the interpretation of the circumstances in which that interest must be declared. For instance it was recently accepted that Mr Robert Sheldon should have declared his registered involvement with a small textile company when participating in general debates between 1993 and 1999 on the economy or more specifically on manufacturing even though "in none of these debates" did he "seek to promote the specific cause of the textile industry". Every Member has some economic interests whether as an earner, a taxpayer or probably a mortgagee. Should such declarations normally be required only where the interest is more specific to the debate?


Gifts and hospitality

The Committee recommends:

    11.  At present, tangible gifts over £125 in value and other benefits of greater value than 0.5 per cent of the current parliamentary salary (£235 at present) must be registered if they relate in any way to membership of the House. In order to avoid the need to update value in future, we recommend that thresholds under this category should be calculated as a proportion of the parliamentary salary. We believe that the current thresholds are too low and that they encourage trivial complaints about matters which could not reasonably be thought to influence a Member's conduct. We accordingly recommend that the threshold for tangible gifts should be raised from £125 to 0.5 per cent of the current parliamentary salary.

    12.  We have considered the question of hospitality which Members receive in connection with their official duties, as opposed to hospitality which is primarily recreational. We consider that hospitality could properly be regarded as received in the course of a Member's official duties if it is received by (for example) —

      —  a Minister;

      —  an Opposition spokesman in connection with his frontbench responsibilities;

      —  the chairman and members of a select committee in connection with the committee's area of responsibility;

      —   a Member at a function in his constituency which he attends in the course of his constituency responsibilities.

    We would welcome the views of Members on whether the threshold for any hospitality under this category received in the course of a Member's official duties should be raised from 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent of the current parliamentary salary. We would also welcome suggestions of further examples which might serve to illustrate or define the concept of "a Member's official duties".

I agree that it is sensible to set the limits on gifts etc. as a percentage of salary, rather than a fixed sum, and I have particular view about the threshold for registration.

However, I am strongly of the view that general matters connected with official front bench duties in all parties, should not be declarable. I understand that official engagements undertaken by members of the Government front benches are not registrable. However, it is inequitable that this is not applied more widely. It would be unbelievably onerous for Members and their staff, especially Opposition Front-benchers to attempt to maintain this kind of information for the host of duties and engagements carried out. I would certainly press for an exemption on registration of hospitality received on front bench duties.

Approaches to Ministers and Officials

The Committee recommends:

    25.  Where Members have a relevant financial interest, the advocacy rule provides that (subject to certain exceptions) they may not initiate any parliamentary proceeding which relates specifically and directly to their interest. Provided they declare their interest, there is nothing at present to prevent Members from making approaches to Ministers about such matters.

    26.  Members may believe that by declaring an interest to a Minister (or to an official) they have avoided any possible conflict of interest. We are not satisfied that this is so. At the very least, even if the involvement of the Member were to make no difference to the Government's eventual decision on the matter, it would ensure that those who paid the Member had their views considered at Ministerial level, which might otherwise not be the case. We therefore recommend that the Resolution of 15 July 1947, as amended on 6 November 1995, be further amended by adding the words "or any approach, whether oral or in writing, to Ministers or servants of the Crown".

The proposed amendment would widen the scope of the Resolution dealing with the advocacy rule to matters beyond Parliamentary proceedings. These are already covered in the Resolution of 6th November 1995. I question whether it is necessary to widen the rule in this way.

The fact that a Minister has seen a delegation does not mean that that delegation automatically gets its way. Ministers often see delegations from industry or pressure groups with a direct interest in the topic discussed without any impropriety, because they will have in-depth understanding of the issues.

Members with outside interests may have similar expertise to offer, precisely because of their knowledge of the subject matter concerned (indeed their interest may arise as a result of that expertise).

Ministers are also free to refuse to see delegations of Members, if they think it is appropriate to do so. As long as interests are registered properly and clearly signalled by Members concerned, (which of course they should be), I consider Government will be able to assess Member's representations at their proper worth.

Of course, the existing rules already prevent Members from abusing their position as Members by seeking ministerial access—that is, delegations, telephone calls or writing letters—on behalf of a matter relating solely to a body with which they have a registrable connection.

The Committee recommends:

    "44. The House resolved on 6th November 1995 that "a Member with a paid interest should not initiate or participate in, including attendance, a delegation where the problem affects only the body from which he has a paid interest".[52]

    45.  This rule has been virtually unenforceable, as very few problems concern "only" a single body. A more effective form of words would be "... a delegation where the issue to be raised relates specifically and directly to the affairs and interests of the body from which he has a paid interest". We recommend that the Resolution be amended accordingly."

I am not aware of any evidence that Members' attendance at delegations has had an improper influence on Government policy, as opposed to ensuring that all sides of an argument are considered. I fear that the revision proposed may lend itself to overly restrictive interpretation, particularly since the "affairs and interests" of a body may be considered to touch on anything which may affect it. On one interpretation, no Member with any interest in industry would be able to take part in a delegation discussing corporation tax, for example. The report says that the existing rule has proved unenforceable. There are surely two possible courses. One is to extend it as proposed—running the risk of making it unenforceable on a bigger scale! The other is to accept that it is an over-restrictive precaution that should be dealt with by more specific declaration of interests rather than denial of access.


The Committee recommends:

    29.  Members are required to register under Category 8 any land or property (other than their homes) "which has a substantial value or from which a substantial income is derived". Those terms are not defined. We recommend that "substantial value" should be defined as 50 per cent of the current parliamentary salary, and "substantial income" as 10 per cent of the current parliamentary salary. Lesser amounts may still be declarable if they are relevant to a Member's contribution to a debate, even if they are no longer registrable.

I agree the terms "substantial income" and "substantial value" should be defined. However, I presume that the underlying intention is to flag-up if a Member has property interests of a scale or size which may be relevant to their Parliamentary activities, not to inquire into a Member's personal circumstances. So, if Members have a number of properties let out for rent, it should certainly be on record. However, some Members may have homes not only in London and their constituency (as most will) but in the place where they lived before their election; the possession of this property may be thought to be a private matter. It is not clear whether such properties may be categorised as "second homes", and so need not be registered, for the purposes of the rules, but even if this is the case, as the report is phrased, they will become registerable if let out. I question whether the rules should catch Members who find, as a result of election, they can no longer live in their pervious family home, but do not wish to dispose of it. Surely the system should either be flexible enough to exempt such properties, or it should set the definition of "substantial" at a level which does not automatically catch a single property attracting a modest rent for the area concerned? In essence the difference is between a Member with a home which they are renting out, and a Member who rents out property as a means of earning income. Of course, if a Member in such a situation takes part in a debate on the rental market, say, the position should be declared.

Employment Agreements

The Committee recommends:

    We therefore recommend that the description of these agreements in The Guide to the Rules be changed to "agreements for the provision of services".

    We have agreed to the following interim guidance, which we recommend to the House:

      A commitment is "frequent" or "regular" if a Member carries out paid work for an employer or client, or using the services of an agency, on three or more occasions within a calendar year.

    We ... recommend that no deposited agreement should be required in any case where in the course of a calendar year total remuneration received from an employer or client, or through an agency, amounts to less than the threshold for the registration of a tangible gift under category 5

I support these recommendations. It is right that those providing "services in their capacity as a Member"—say as an adviser on Parliamentary affairs—should deposit an employment agreement, although I welcome the sensible stipulation that this should not be needed when payment for such services falls below the threshold at which a gift would become registrable.

However, I am extremely concerned by one aspect of the development of the rules relating to employment agreements, and that is the approach to journalism.

Any remunerated employment is rightly caught by Category 2 of the categories of interest and should be declared. It is also the case that "journalists or broadcasting which relates to parliamentary or public affairs, if undertaken by a Member, is held to arise directly from membership of the House".

However, it is now the case that the rules relating to the provision of services as a Member seem to be being extended in a much more detailed and onerous way both to journalism and to speaking engagements.

The original Select Committee on Standards in Public Life made clear that employment agreements should be put in writing "principally" where a Member is offering "advice about Parliamentary matters". They went on to add though that "it should also include frequent, as opposed to merely occasional, commitments outside Parliament which arise directly from Membership of the House. For example, a regular, paid newspaper column or television programme would have to be the subject of a written agreement, but ad hoc current affairs or news interviews or intermittent panel appearances would not."

Clearly this is a difficult area. Journalistic employment is hardly by its very nature secretive, yet can involve large sums of money. The House should have the change to discuss this matter in greater detail.

The Advocacy Rules (Miscellaneous Amendments)

    We recommend that the following words be added to paragraph 62 of The Guide to the Rules:

      Membership of other elected assemblies: Membership of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament and local authorities in the United Kingdom shall not be taken into account when applying the advocacy rule.

    We recommend that the word "registrable" be inserted before the word "client" in line 4 of paragraph 58.1.

    At paragraph 58 of the guidance, we recommend that the third item in the note on initiating a parliamentary proceeding be amended to read "tabling and asking a Parliamentary Question, including any supplementary question to such a Question", and that the second item in the note on participation in debate be amended to read "making an intervention in a debate, a statement or other proceeding, or asking a supplementary question to a Question asked by another Member".

    42.  It was never intended that the advocacy rule should restrict the ability of Ministers to advance the collective policy of the Government to which they belong by dealing with Government business on the floor of the House or in its committees. For the avoidance of doubt we recommend that the following sub-paragraph should be added to paragraph 62 of The Guide to the Rules:

      "( ) Ministers: The restrictions imposed by the advocacy rule do not apply to Ministers when acting in the House as Ministers."

I have little comment on the miscellaneous amendments to the Advocacy rule proposed. However, it seems to me that the proposal that there should be an addition to the Guide to the Rules to make it clear that "The restrictions imposed by the advocacy rule do not apply to Ministers when acting in the House as Ministers" is an example of the dangers we run when we attempt to draw up rules which ensure not that Members have properly, but that there cannot be the slightest doubt in any individual's mind (however misguided that person), that they have so behaved. It seems ridiculous that such a stipulation is necessary, and once again I invite the Committee to consider the extent to which the rules should be limited to preventing real abuse, rather than any possibility of the remotest appearances of such abuse.

Overseas Visits and the Advocacy Rule

From this viewpoint, I welcome those changes to the Code of Conduct and the Guide which provide clarification or justifiable relaxation of the restrictions on Members, such as the Committee's proposal to reduce the restrictions on overseas visits, as suggested by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The rules on such visits should parallel those for other visits, rather than being more stringent.

8 February 2001

52  CJ 1994-95, p. 554. Back

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