These days it feels like a week can’t pass without another story of an MP behaving in ways that would get us disciplined or fired from our jobs. But Parliament isn’t like any office most of us have worked in. It’s got its own system of rules, including for how it investigates and sanctions MPs that break the rules or damage Parliament’s reputation. These can be difficult to understand, but they’re really important.
Some of these procedures can have real consequences, such as the triggering of a recall process that could lead to MPs being unseated. That is a live possibility for the PM, who is currently being investigated after he was fined for attending a lockdown-breaching party at Number 10, and potentially misled Parliament about this on numerous occasions.
To help you make sense of how Parliament can respond to this, Good Law Project commissioned leading lawyers Jason Coppel QC and Raphael Hogarth to look into: the Standards Committee’s role; the process leading up to sanctions being imposed; whether the Committee can investigate and recommend sanctions without a referral from the Commissioner for Standards; and whether, if the Privileges Committee were to recommend a suspension, this could trigger a recall and by-election.
Many MPs might also be seeking advice on these matters, so we hope they find this helpful in working out how they, and their colleagues, should respond.
The Standards Committee and the Privileges Committee
The Standards Committee and Privileges Committee deal with slightly different things, but both focus on upholding the standards of behaviour among MPs. Their reports, if accepted by the Commons, can lead to an MP being suspended and then forced to fight a by-election to keep their seat. And we don’t know of any occasion when their recommendation has not been followed by the Commons.
Jason and Raphael looked closely at the purpose and powers (known as the ‘standing orders’) of the two committees and confirmed that reports from either could trigger the process for a recall by suspending the PM for 10 days when Parliament’s in session, or 14 days when it’s not.
What next for the PM?
On 21 April 2022, the House of Commons took the momentous decision to refer the question of whether the PM had misled the House to the Privileges Committee. They will begin this work after the investigation by the Met is completed. A report and recommendation from the Privileges Committee to suspend the PM could feasibly trigger the recall process.
A day later, two members of the public sent a complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner, asking her to investigate whether the PM broke the Code of Conduct. If the Commissioner finds that he breached the Code, she would report this to the Standards Committee, who would make a report to the House of Commons. This report could recommend a suspension that also triggers the recall process. In her response to the complaint, the Commissioner said that she will decide whether to open an inquiry once the Met’s Partygate investigation is done. She could also decide not to proceed with any further inquiry, as the Privileges Committee is already investigating.
The advice Jason and Raphael give is that, while the usual process is for the Standards Committee to wait for a referral from the Commissioner, it could open an inquiry on its own initiative under its general power to consider “any matter relating to the conduct of Members”, and then make a report to the Commons. They could also seek the authority to undertake an investigation into the PM’s conduct, which would remove concerns about the scope of the Committee’s authority.
The full legal advice is available here and we would encourage anyone interested in knowing more about how Parliament holds itself to account to read it. The more we understand the rules, the better we all can be at making sure MPs stick to them.
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