Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Fourth Report


FOURTH REPORT


The Committee on Standards and Privileges has agreed to the following Report:—

RESTRICTIONS ON THE INITIATION OF PARLIAMENTARY PROCEEDINGS:

A CONSULTATION PAPER

1. The "advocacy rule"[4] bans lobbying by Members for reward or consideration. Reduced to its essentials, it is as follows:

(i)  A Member may not take money for speaking, voting or taking any other form of action in the House.

(ii)  A Member may not initiate any parliamentary proceeding which relates specifically and directly to the affairs of a body (or of a wider group) in which he has (or expects to have) a pecuniary interest.

(iii)  But when participating in a parliamentary proceeding initiated by another Member, a Member may speak freely so long as he does not seek to confer benefit exclusively on a body in which he has (or expects to have) a pecuniary interest.

2. By way of illustration, a Member with an interest in (say) the engineering industry (for example, because he is employed by, or receives some other registrable benefit from, an engineering company) —

(i)   may not take money to promote the interests of the company in the House;

(ii)  may not table questions or apply for adjournment debates about the industry;

(iii)  but he may speak in a debate on the industry initiated by another Member (in which case he must declare his interest), and may ask a supplementary to a question on the industry tabled by another Member.

3. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, then chaired by Lord Neill, made recommendations about the advocacy rule in its Sixth Report, Reinforcing Standards.[5] Evidence given to the Neill Committee indicated some concern that the rule might be making it more difficult for knowledgeable Members to contribute to the House's debates as effectively as they might. The Neill Committee said:

"In recommending in the First Report a ban on agreements between MPs and mult-client consultancies, we were concerned to avoid a situation in which MPs could be presented as participating in 'a hiring fair'. We retain that concern. On the other hand, we are anxious that the rules should not unnecessarily inhibit the ability of MPs to become well informed and to use their expertise and experience effectively. Bearing in mind the evidence that we have heard about the present guidelines on 'initiation' and the ban on paid advocacy, we believe that they are operating unnecessarily harshly and that they should be amended. We recommend that the ban on paid advocacy should remain in place, but that the restriction on initiation should be removed and the guidelines relating to participation extended to include both participation and initiation. The effect of this would be that an MP who had a personal interest would be permitted to initiate proceedings in the same way that he or she is able to participate in proceedings under the current guidelines, but that MP (a) would not be able to engage in 'paid advocacy' or seek to confer benefits exclusively on a particular individual or body and (b) would be required to register and declare the benefit in accordance with the guidelines. We recommend a further safeguard (c) that, reinforcing present practice regarding the declaration of interests when tabling a written notice, in addition to registration and oral declaration, the MP would also be required to identify his or her interest on the Order Paper (or Notice Paper) by way of an agreed symbol."[6]

4. Our predecessors in the last Parliament considered the Neill Committee's recommendations and agreed that there was a case for excepting overseas travel from the operation of the advocacy rule. Their recommendation to that effect was included in their report on Proposed Amendments to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members[7] on which the House has yet to take a decision. But the last Committee was reluctant to propose any more general changes to the rule on the ground that the Neill Committee's recommendation

"would amount to a considerable relaxation of the current guidelines, as it would allow the initiation of any parliamentary proceeding which did not seek to confer benefit exclusively upon the body or individual with whom the Member had a registrable connection. The prohibition could therefore be avoided by framing questions, amendments, &c., in general terms; for example, a Member remunerated by an oil company would not apparently be precluded from moving an amendment to the Finance Bill to benefit all oil companies. In our view to relax the rules to such an extent would fatally undermine the ban on paid advocacy which we have agreed we need to retain."[8]

5. We have now received further representations about the restrictions on initiation from the Speaker and from a number of other Members. It was widely felt that the rules were operating too harshly when a Member with registered interests in arable farming decided that he would be unable to perform effectively as an Opposition spokesman on agriculture because of the way the advocacy rule was applied. We have accordingly looked at the rule afresh.

6. It is not the intention of the rule, nor is it our wish, to make it more difficult for the House of Commons to call the Government to account by restricting the Opposition's choice of frontbench spokesmen or by impeding well-informed Members from contributing to the House's debates. The evidence which is now available suggests that the rule may now be having these effects. We are therefore seeking the views of Members and others on two possible options for relaxing the guidelines on the application of the advocacy rule which would enable Members to initiate a range of parliamentary proceedings which they are currently prevented from doing. These options are described below.

7. If the guidelines are relaxed, it would be more important than ever that the fundamental rules of conduct which the House has laid down should be upheld with undiminished vigour. We draw particular attention to three of them:

—  the Resolution of 6 November 1995 which provides that no Member may "advocate or initiate any cause or matter on behalf of any outside body or individual" in return for any form of reward;

—  the provision in the Code of Conduct which requires Members to "avoid conflict between personal interest and the public interest and resolve any conflict between the two, at once, and in favour of the public interest";

—  the Resolution of 22 May 1974 which requires each Member to declare any relevant interest "that he may have had, may have or may be expecting to have".

8. One possible option is to adopt the recommendation put forward by the Neill Committee, the effects of which are illustrated below. (Changes are shown in italics.)

(i)  A Member employed by, or with some other interest in, an engineering company would have to register the interest in the Register of Members' Interests.

(ii)  He would have to declare it orally in any relevant proceeding, and declare it in writing when tabling any question, notice of motion or amendment to which it was relevant (in which case an appropriate symbol would appear on the Order Paper or Notice Paper).

(iii)  He would not be allowed to take money to promote the company's interests in the House.

(iv)  He would be allowed to initiate proceedings relating to the engineering industry—to table questions, to apply for adjournment debates, and to move amendments to bills which affected the industry.

(v)  He would be able to participate in proceedings relating to the industry initiated by another Member.

(vi)  When initiating or participating in any proceeding, he would be able to speak freely provided he did not seek to confer benefit exclusively on his company.

9. Our predecessors were not attracted to this option for the reasons given in paragraph 4 above, namely that it would allow a Member remunerated by a company involved in a particular industry to move amendments to bills from which all companies in that industry would benefit; he would fall foul of the rules only if he sought to confer benefit exclusively on the company which remunerated him. Whilst we do not regard this objection as decisive, we recognise that it has some force. In this Report we therefore put forward for consideration an alternative proposal, which is that Members should not do anything in the House the main purpose of which is (or might reasonably be thought to be) to advance disproportionately either their own interests or the interests of any outside organisation with which they have a registrable or declarable connection.

10. Perception is as important as motive. We would expect the Commissioner, in applying a "disproportionate advancement" rule, to have regard to what a reasonable person would regard as the expected or foreseeable consequences of a Member's action. The Commissioner would have to assess the relative weight of the benefit to be conferred as between the body in which the Member had a registrable or declarable interest and the other bodies which stood to benefit, in order to determine whether the benefit to be conferred on the former was disproportionate to the benefit to be conferred on the wider group.

11. A "disproportionate advancement" rule would of course only apply in situations where some interest was actually being advanced. An application for an adjournment debate would of itself not bring such a rule into play (although the Member's speech in the debate might, depending on what he said). It is in cases such as this where no interest is being promoted by the initiation of a proceeding that the present absolute ban is hard to defend.

12. The effects of the proposed "disproportionate advancement" rule are illustrated below. (Again, changes are shown in italics.)

(i)  A Member employed by, or with some other interest in, an engineering company would have to register the interest in the Register of Members' Interests.

(ii)  He would have to declare it orally in any relevant proceeding, and declare it in writing when tabling any question, notice of motion, or amendment to which it was relevant (in which case an appropriate symbol would appear on the Order Paper or Notice Paper).

(iii)  He would not be allowed to take money to promote the company's interests in the House.

(iv)  He would be allowed to initiate proceedings relating to the engineering industry—to table questions, to apply for adjournment debates, and to move amendments to bills which affected the industry.

(v)  He would be able to participate in proceedings relating to the industry initiated by another Member.

(vi)  When initiating or participating, he would be able to speak freely, unless the main purpose of his action was (or might reasonably be thought to be) to advance disproportionately the interests of his company.

13. Both these proposals would liberalise the current rules and allow Members to put down questions, motions and amendments and apply for adjournment debates which currently—and perhaps unnecessarily—they are prevented from doing. Of the two, our preference is for that put forward with the authority of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which would be clearer and therefore easier to apply. The "disproportionate advancement" rule might on the other hand be less open to abuse. We invite comments from Members and others on each of these and on the status quo.

14. Any comments on the proposals set out in this Report should be sent to the Clerk of the Committee on Standards and Privileges to arrive not later than Monday 4 February. Comments may be submitted by e-mail to [email protected] or by fax to (020) 7219 6864 or (020) 7219 5441.

15. If the House were to agree to relax the rules in this area, we would regard it as a very serious breach of the rules of the House if a Member failed to register or declare an interest which was relevant to a proceeding he had initiated.


4  See paras. 53-61 of The Guide to the RulesBack

5  Cm 4557, January 2000, paras. 3.77-3.96. Back

6  Ibid, para. 3.96. Back

7  Fifth Report, Session 2000-01, HC 267. Back

8  Ibid., page xix. (Letter from Mr Robert Sheldon to Lord Neill.) Back


 
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