Regulating the Conduct of MPs. The British Experience of Combating Corruption

AuthorDawn Oliver
Published date01 August 1997
Date01 August 1997
Subject MatterArticle
Regulating the Conduct of MPs. The British
Experience of Combating Corruption
This chapter is concerned with the de®nition and regulation of proper standards
of conduct in the British Parliament. Our purposes are to explore the limits and
advantages of political self-regulation as a means of combating corruption and
lesser evils such as slackness1and ethical lassitude in public life,2and the
conditions in which self-regulation can be eective. Although our focus is on the
British Parliament it is hoped that some points of more general application can
be drawn from Britain's recent history of parliamentary self-regulation.
Self-regulation can be a more eective device for controlling activity than
externally imposed regulation, but only if the body in question is genuinely
committed to upholding proper standards of conduct. First, a self-regulating
body derives status, respect and self-respect from the fact that it is trusted to
regulate itself, and these considerations may provide the motivation for the
body to make a system of self-regulation work, improving it where necessary to
avoid having control transferred to an outside body. Second, a body in charge
of its own standards and their enforcement is well placed to ®nd appropriate
and workable methods to maintain standards, whereas externally imposed
regulation may turn out to be inappropriate, in¯exible or unworkable.
But self-regulation works best where there is (merited) public con®dence in
the system, a degree of external involvement and separation or independence
from the aected interests. Standards and principles need to be clear, appro-
priate sanctions must be available, the system should be responsive to changing
expectations and circumstances, and there must be eective public account-
ability.3In considering the working of the British Parliament's system of self-
regulation we shall bear these points in mind.
The Background: Concern about Standards of Conduct in Public Life
in the United Kingdom
In the last two decades or so there has been growing public concern about
standards of conduct in public life generally in the United Kingdom. This was
not recognized initially as a problem of endemic corruption, but was viewed as
ethical lassitude or sleaze coupled with the occasional atypical instance of the
oering or taking of bribes. It is only since about 1995 that a problem of real
#Political Studies Association 1997. Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 CowleyRoad, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main
Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
1`Slackness', was used in relationto standards in public life in the Nolan Committee's ®rst report.
2`Ethical lassitude', is used by M. Mancuso in `Ethical attitudes of British MPs', Parliamentary
Aairs 46 (1993), p. 180.
3List adapted from the National Consumer Council report Self-Regulation, 1986; see also
C. Graham `Self-regulation', in G. Richardson and H. Genn (eds), Administrative Law and Govern-
ment Action (1994).
Political Studies (1997), XLV, 539±558
corruption in British public life has been recognized to exist ± though it is not yet
in my view endemic throughout the system, and it has so far not done great
damage to the general public interest. It has, however, contributed to the under-
mining of the legitimacy and authority of certain public bodies, particularly
Parliament, government, the civil service and local government (in which last
institution there has been a problem of bribery in various forms for many years,
which does not appear to be paralleled in other public institutions).
Concerns have centred round the conduct of Members of Parliament,
ministers, civil servants, those working in the National Health Service, local
government and even universities. Often problems have arisen because of con-
¯icts between the public duties and private interests of public bodies and their
members. There has also been controversy surrounding appointments to
various public or semi-public organizations ± non-departmental public bodies
and quasi autonomous non-governmental organizations ± where there has been
suspicion of abuse of patronage by government ministers responsible for
making these appointments.4
The climate of concern about standards of conduct in public life in Britain
was exacerbated by the Matrix Churchill aair of 1992, a major scandal which
intensi®ed public and press pressure for action to be taken to restore proper
ethical standards in many areas of public life. In this aair a number of
defendants were prosecuted for the unlawful export of defence equipment to
Iraq. Government ministers had claimed the right to refuse to disclose public
documents in the trial on grounds of public interest immunity. Ultimately the
trial judge insisted on inspecting the documents and ordering their disclosure to
the defence. A government minister who was a witness at the trial admitted that
the government knew about the purposes for which the equipment was being
exported to Iraq, namely for possible use as defence equipment. The prosecu-
tion was then abandoned. But it was widely felt that the defendants had only
narrowly avoided being wrongfully convicted, and that members of the govern-
ment had acted dishonourably in permitting the prosecution to go ahead and
putting the defendants at risk. A senior judge, Sir Richard Scott, was appointed
to conduct a lengthy inquiry into this matter, and his report, published in
February 1996,5found a range of faults in conduct, including the misleading of
Parliament by ministers and civil servants, excessive secrecy, and a willingness to
cover up sensitive matters by withholding documents from the courts.6
But there had also been a series of scandals in the late 1980s and early 1990s
involving MPs and ministers who had accepted gifts, fees, hospitality and
services from outside interests in circumstances which raised the question
whether they had been given in return for favours. After leaving oce civil
servants and ministers commonly found remunerative positions in the private
sector working in organizations with which they had dealt in oce. This raised
4This latter set of concerns was expressed by the Nolan Committee, and resulted in a Commis-
sioner for Public Appointments being appointed in 1996: see First Report of the Committee
on Standards in Public Life, Cm 2850 (1995), Second Report of the Committee on Standards
in Public Life, Local Public Spending Bodies, Cm 3270 (1996) and Second Report of the Public
Service Committee 1996±97, The Work of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, HC Paper
(1996±97) 141.
5Sir Richard Scott, Report of the Inquiry into the Export of Defence Equipment and Dual-use
Goods to Iraq and Related Prosecutions, HC Paper (1995± 96) 115.
6See I. Leigh [1993] P.L. 630 and [1996] Public Law, 357±527.
540 Regulating the Conduct of MPs
#Political Studies Association, 1997

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