The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

       As it takes up the question of how to structure an independent ethics enforcement office, the House of Representatives would do well to consider the experience of the British Parliament.  In 1995, the House of Commons established the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, an independent official appointed by Parliament to handle ethics matters.  Josh Chafetz has argued in a recent article that the Parliamentary Commissioner represents a promising model for congressional ethics reform.    

            The Parliamentary Commissioner’s principal duties are: (1) to maintain the “register of interests” that identifies certain significant financial interests (eg. paid employment, directorships, shareholdings, gifts, hospitality, land and property) of Members of Parliament and others which could potentially influence their parliamentary activities; (2) to provide confidential advice to MPs and others regarding the registration requirement; (3) to advise the Committee on Standards and Privileges (the British counterpart of the House Ethics Committee) on interpretation of the code of conduct; (4) to monitor the operation of the code of conduct and the register and to make any needed recommendations for improvement; and (5) to receive and, if appropriate, to investigate complaints from MPs or members of the public regarding failure to register interests, violations of the code of conduct or other inappropriate activity by MPs in their public life. 

            The last function is the most important.  The Commissioner receives complaints filed by members of the public, but does not accept anonymous complaints or unsubstantiated allegations.  If the Commissioner decides that the complaint lacks merit, he has the discretion to reject it without taking further action.  (The Commissioner has also established procedures for dealing with frivolous or vexatious complaints).  

If, on the other hand, the Commissioner is satisfied that the allegations have sufficient substance to justify a preliminary inquiry, he will ask the MP in question to respond.  Following receipt of this response, the Commissioner may dismiss the complaint, reach a settlement with the MP (if the Commissioner finds that the infraction was minor or unintentional), or proceed to conduct a full investigation.  If a full investigation is warranted, the Commissioner will ultimately report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges (the equivalent of the House Ethics Committee) with his findings and recommendations.  The Committee may then conduct further inquiry, and will ultimately publish its own report along with the report received from the Commissioner.   

As suggested by Josh Chafetz, the Parliamentary Commissioner model appears to be working successfully in Britain.  I would add that I was favorably impressed with the operations of the Parliamentary Commissioner’s office when, on a recent trip to London, I had the pleasure of meeting with Sir Philip Mawer, who served as Parliamentary Commissioner until the end of 2007, and his staff.  Whether this is the right model for the House of Representatives is a matter for debate, but in future posts I will discuss some significant differences between the House’s proposed Office of Congressional Ethics and the Parliamentary Commissioner.