Respect Policy - Committee on Standards Contents


Appendix 3: Commissioner's Procedure for Inquiries


This procedural note is to assist those involved in cases investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards under the Respect Policy of the House of Commons.

Specific guidance for staff members, MPs and witnesses may be found at Appendices 1, 2 and 3.

Introduction

1) The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards will consider complaints by a member of House of Commons staff alleging that a Member of Parliament has breached his or her rights under paragraph 3.1 of the Respect Policy of the House of Commons and paragraph 16 of the Code of Conduct for MPs, if the complainant believes that the original complaint has not been satisfactorily resolved through the management procedures of the House.

2) The Commissioner will consider four questions when deciding whether to initiate an inquiry:

i)  Does the matter come within the Commissioner's remit?

ii)  Is there sufficient evidence to justify the initiation of an investigation?

iii)  Have the management processes set out in the Respect Policy been exhausted? (The complainant may either appeal to the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) or complain to the Commissioner but may not do both.)

iv)  Is the breach sufficiently serious to amount to a breach of paragraph 16 of the Code of Conduct? (This is a very high hurdle which the Committee expects to be met only in extreme and extremely limited circumstances. In practice the Commissioner will normally investigate only a complaint of a single very serious incident, or complaints of repeated incidents or a sustained and damaging pattern of behaviour.)

The Commissioner has discretion, when considering the complaint, or at any stage of the process, to make any observations or recommendations for actions by management.

3) On receiving a complaint the Commissioner may request further preliminary information, including information from the SRO, about action taken to date, any available evidence and/or correspondence, and/or confirmation that the earlier stages of the process have been properly completed. The Commissioner may consult with any member of the House staff (e.g. the Diversity and Inclusion team), and may interview the complainant or others.

4) The Commissioner will then decide whether or not to accept the complaint for investigation. The Commissioner will then write to the complainant, the Member and the SRO to communicate that decision. If the complaint is not accepted for investigation, no details of it will be published, other than anonymised statistical information in relation to the work of the office. The Commissioner's decision is final and there is no appeal process.

After accepting a complaint

5) If a complaint is accepted for investigation, Commissioner will write to the Member and complainant concerned. These letters will set out both the nature of the original allegations, any concerns expressed about how these have been dealt with, and the areas which the Commissioner intends to consider. The Commissioner will ask the Member and the complainant for any further information required at that stage. The expectation is that both will give a prompt, full and truthful account of the matters under consideration.

6) It is for the Commissioner to decide how to take forward an investigation, always bearing in mind the need to be fair to all the parties involved. The Commissioner may seek information, for example by way of witness statements, may draw on additional resources if required and may also commission such external advice as he or she thinks fit.

7) It is open to anyone being interviewed to be accompanied by a legal adviser or friend, or (if they are a House of Commons employee) by a colleague or trade union representative; or (in the case of a Member) by another Member. Interviewees will, however, be expected to answer for themselves (and not through their friend or adviser) any questions put to them. The House will not meet the costs of either Members or House employees who decide to retain a legal adviser.

8) The Commissioner will normally make a written record of any interview and will subsequently ask the interviewee to approve that record. In some circumstances the Commissioner will instead make an audio recording of the interview and will ask the interviewee to approve the transcript.

9) The Commissioner's office will arrange for witnesses to be reimbursed for the reasonable costs of their travel to London to give evidence. This will not cover loss of earnings, or the costs of retaining a legal adviser.

10) Any attempt to obstruct the Commissioner in an investigation may be treated as a contempt of the House of Commons.

Confidentiality

11) While a complaint is under investigation by the Commissioner or being considered by the Committee on Standards, it is to be regarded as confidential. Neither the complainant, the Member involved nor any witnesses may disclose evidence or other details of the case to anyone else until it has been formally closed. If such evidence or correspondence were published or disclosed to anyone else without the Committee's agreement, that would be a contempt of the House. Statements to the press while a complaint is under investigation would also be regarded as a contempt.

12) The Commissioner will not provide updates to complainants or anyone else during an investigation.

Parliamentary privilege

13) The fact that complaints can be made to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards does not affect other legal rights, except when parliamentary privilege is involved (see paragraph 14). When making a complaint, the complainant will not be protected from legal action (for example, for defamation of character) unless and until the Commissioner decides that the complaint is appropriate for investigation. The ability to complain to the Commissioner does not in itself prevent a complainant taking a grievance against the House management to an employment tribunal. Communications with the Commissioner are not covered by parliamentary privilege unless and until the Commissioner has accepted the complaint.

14) Once the Commissioner has accepted a complaint for investigation, the evidence supplied for that investigation, and any related correspondence, will be covered by parliamentary privilege, as will be the Commissioner's and (if relevant) the Committee and the House's findings. Proceedings in parliament cannot be questioned in any court, including employment tribunals.

Standard of Proof

15) When reviewing those allegations which concern breaches of an individual's rights under paragraph 1.2 of the Respect Policy and of paragraph 16 of the Code of Conduct, the Commissioner and the Committee will apply a high standard of proof, namely, that the allegations are significantly more likely than not to be true.

Concluding a complaint case

(i) The role of the Commissioner

16) The role of the Commissioner is

·  to report the facts as found, and

·  to offer a conclusion on whether the Respect Policy and the Code have been breached, and

·  to offer a formal view on the management response to the original events.

17) The Commissioner will normally conclude an investigation of a complaint under the Respect Policy either

a)  by concluding that the case requires no further action, or

b)  by submitting a formal memorandum to the Committee on Standards.

18) If the case requires no further action, the Commissioner will inform the Member, the complainant and any witnesses as well as the SRO.

19) If the Commissioner prepares a formal memorandum, this will set out his or her view on the seriousness of any breach of Respect Policy and of the Code of Conduct and on the response by management. The Commissioner will give the complainant and the Member an opportunity to comment on the factual parts of the Memorandum before it is finalised. Before submitting the memorandum, the Commissioner will append all the relevant evidence.

20) The Commissioner will inform the Member and the complainant when a memorandum has been submitted to the Committee on Standards. There is no appeal against the view taken by the Commissioner.

(ii) The role of the Committee on Standards

21) The Committee will meet to deliberate on the Commissioner's memorandum, and will then prepare its own Report. It is for the Committee to reach its own view on the complaint, on the basis of the Commissioner's memorandum.

22) Shortly before the Committee meets to consider the memorandum, the Clerk of the Committee will send the Member and the complainant a copy of that memorandum. The Member and the complainant will then have the opportunity, if they so wish, to let the Committee have any written comments on it. The Committee expects that any such comments will focus on the Commissioner's conclusions, as any dispute about facts should have been addressed earlier. If the Member or the complainant wishes the Committee to hear specified witnesses, or wishes the Committee to put specified questions to witnesses, he or she should make representations to the Committee.

23) The Committee may take further evidence. Given the sensitivity of the proceedings the Committee would expect to take such evidence in private. In the last resort the Committee may require a Member or a complainant or witness to attend and to produce any documents it requires.[27]

24) If the Committee finds the Member is in breach of the Respect Policy and of paragraph 16 of the Code of Conduct, it may recommend an appropriate sanction in its report. This could be that the Member make an apology to the House or to the complainant, either in writing or in person, or repay any costs involved; or that the House should withhold the Member's salary or suspend him or her. In the most exceptional cases the Committee could recommend the expulsion of the Member. Significant sanctions such as suspension would be imposed by the House, on a debatable motion.

(iii) Publication of the Committee's Report about a complaint

25) The Clerk of the Committee will inform the Member and the complainant when the Committee has decided to publish a report, and will make available to each of them an embargoed copy of that an hour before publication. The Committee's report will include recommendations for any sanctions. There is no appeal against the conclusions of the Committee.

26) The Committee will normally append to its own report a summary of the Commissioner's memorandum setting out the relevant facts and conclusions. The Committee will not publish the Commissioner's full memorandum, or the evidence received by the Commissioner.

27) The Committee will normally be sympathetic to requests for the deletion of confidential and personal information which is not relevant to the resolution of the investigation.

(iv) Consideration by the House of Commons

28) The House must debate and approve any sanction. The relevant Whips will normally inform the Member, and the Clerk of the Committee will normally inform the complainant, of the timing of the debate before any formal announcement is made.

Appendix 1: Guidance for complainants

Members of staff considering making a complaint under these procedures are advised to familiarise themselves with the whole policy, and in particular the section on confidentiality. The following additional information may be helpful.

1) A member of staff of the House of Commons who wants to make a complaint against an MP because of bullying or harassment should follow the Respect policy agreed by the House and the procedures which it contains. Early intervention is often the most effective way of resolving issues of bullying and harassment and most cases will be resolved when they are first raised. If this cannot be done informally, procedures set out in the Staff Handbook will enable managers to work with those involved to come to a satisfactory conclusion. The complainant may either appeal to the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) or complain to the Commissioner but may not do both.

2) Any complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards must:

·  be submitted in writing and signed by the individual concerned. If a complainant is not able to submit his or her complaint in writing for any reason the Commissioner will seek to make suitable arrangements to help them make their complaint.

·  give full details of the events which gave rise to the original complaint, what has happened since then and the management response, and set out the reasons for the dissatisfaction of the complainant with that response. Any relevant evidence, such as correspondence or witness statements, should be appended.

3) If, exceptionally, the Commissioner accepts a complaint from someone other than the staff member whose rights under the Respect Policy have allegedly been breached, the Commissioner may take evidence from that person as well as the complainant.

4) As part of the investigative process, the Commissioner may inquire into any of the matters raised by the complainant, including the original allegations and any relevant events after that date.

5) If the Commissioner concludes at the end of an investigation that the case requires no further action, he or she will inform the Member, the complainant and any witnesses as well as the SRO.

6) If the Commissioner submits a formal memorandum to the Committee, he or she will send the Member and the complainant a factual summary for approval before that memorandum is completed. The Commissioner will also inform both the Member and the complainant when the formal memorandum is submitted. Paragraphs 19 to 28 of this procedural note give further detail of the process which will be followed when the Commissioner submits a formal memorandum.

7) The Committee Clerk will send a copy of the Commissioner's memorandum to both the Member and the complainant before the Committee considers it. The Clerk will also inform the Member before any Report by the Committee is published, and will normally inform the complainant in advance when the House is to consider any recommendations by the Committee.

Appendix 2: Guidance for Members who are the subject of a complaint

Members who are the subject of a complaint under these procedures are advised to familiarise themselves with the whole policy, and in particular the section on confidentiality. The following additional information may be helpful.

1) The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards may investigate a complaint by a member of staff of the House of Commons alleging that a Member of Parliament has breached the rights of an individual under paragraph 1.2 of the Respect Policy of the House of Commons and paragraph 16 of the Code of Conduct for MPs, in cases where the complainant believes that the original complaint has not been satisfactorily resolved through the management procedures of the House.

2) When the Commissioner has received such a complaint, and has considered whether to accept it for investigation, the Commissioner will always write both to the Member and to the complainant to communicate the decision. If the Commissioner has accepted the complaint for investigation, the letter will set out the nature of the original allegations, any concerns expressed about how these have been dealt with, and the areas which the Commissioner intends to consider. The Commissioner will ask the Member (and the complainant) for any further information required at that stage. The expectation is that both will give a full and truthful account of the matters under consideration.

3) As part of the process, the Commissioner may inquire into any of the matters raised by the complainant, including the original allegations and any relevant events after that date.

4) If the Commissioner concludes that the case requires no further action, he or she will inform the Member, the complainant and any witnesses as well as the SRO.

5) If the Commissioner submits a formal memorandum to the Committee, he or she will send the Member and the complainant a factual summary for approval before that memorandum is completed. The Commissioner will also inform both the Member and the complainant when the formal memorandum is submitted.

6) The Committee Clerk will send a copy of the Commissioner's memorandum to both the Member and the complainant before the Committee considers it, and will also inform the Member before any Report by the Committee is published. The Whips will normally inform the Member in advance when the House is to consider any recommendations by the Committee. Paragraphs 19 to 28 of this procedure note give further detail of the process which will be followed when the Commissioner submits a formal memorandum.

7) Under paragraph 19 of the Code of Conduct Members are prohibited from lobbying a member of the Standards Committee in a manner calculated or intended to influence its consideration of an alleged breach of the Code.

Appendix 3: Guidance for witnesses

Witnesses are advised to familiarise themselves with the whole policy, and in particular the section on confidentiality. The following additional information may be helpful.

1) When approaching witnesses, the Commissioner's usual practice is to write informing them of the nature of the investigation and setting out the particular questions or matters where assistance is sought. If interviewing a witness, the Commissioner will normally make a record of the interview, subsequently agreeing the record with the witness to ensure accuracy. The Commissioner's office will arrange for witnesses to be repaid the reasonable costs of their travel to London to give evidence to an inquiry. Loss of earnings expenses are not paid.

2) The Committee on Standards has indicated its expectation that those asked to give evidence will co-operate fully and frankly with the Commissioner, in the public interest and in the interests of justice. While the Commissioner has no power to compel witnesses to give evidence, the Committee itself has power to send for persons, papers and records. It has indicated that it would use its power in support of the Commissioner if that proved to be necessary.

3) If witnesses so wish, they may give evidence on oath, but are not required to do so. Witnesses may, if they so wish and at their own expense, take legal advice on any matter and be accompanied by a legal adviser (or other 'friend') at any meeting with the Commissioner. They will, however, be expected to answer for themselves (and not through their adviser) any questions put to them.

4) In certain circumstances, it is possible that the Committee on Standards will itself want to hear evidence from a witness. In these circumstances, the Clerk to the Committee will contact the witness about arrangements for the appearance before the Committee. The Committee will decide whether such sessions shall be held in public or in private. Such sessions are usually held in private.

5) It is open to a witness to ask the Committee to remove personal information about them from its Report before publication. The Committee will normally be sympathetic to requests for the deletion of confidential and personal information which is not relevant to the resolution of the investigation.

6) Wherever possible, the Committee will inform a witness of the impending publication of the Committee's report.


27   Standing Order No. 149 (6) Back


 
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Prepared 18 June 2014