Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

A Code of Conduct - myth or reality? Prof Dr Melanie Sully

 

 

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A Code of Conduct – myth and reality?

 

Following the so-called expenses scandal in Britain which exposed gross claims and benefits by some Members of Parliament, the general public felt that once again MPs were being treated differently from other tax-payers and that penalties were lighter when they got caught out.

In Britain there is a Code of Conduct first drawn up in 1996:

 

            “The Code of Conduct provides guidance to MPs on the standards of conduct expected during the course of their parliamentary duties. The Code requires MPs to declare all relevant interests that might be thought to influence their actions.  This information is published in the Register of Interests” (source: House of Commons)

 

The Code of Conduct incorporates what is known as “the seven general principles of conduct” also applicable to holders of public office. 

 

Seven Principles of Conduct

 

  1. Selflessness – decisions should be taken in the public interest
  2. Integrity – they should be free of obligations to outside individuals or organisations that could influence them in the performance of their official duties
  3. Objectivity – holders of public office should make choices on merit
  4. Accountability – they should be subject to scrutiny to the public and held accountable for their actions and decisions
  5. Openness – they should give reasons for decisions and where possible not restrict information
  6. Honesty – they should declare any private interests relating to their public duties and resolve any conflicts in the public interest.
  7. Leadership – holders of public office should promote these principles by leadership and example

Source: House of Commons

 

Sanctions for infringement of the Code can include:

 

  1. making an informal apology to the House
  2. withdrawal of salary
  3. suspension from the chamber

 

These are noble principles and perhaps it is not surprising that MPs and holders of public office sometimes fail to observe them. MPs are by definition representatives of the “people” and are themselves people with all those faults that human beings possess. They are expected to stay in touch with the “people”, understand their problems and not become remote from the citizens they represent. At the same time they are expected to be on the plane of constitutional experts and often move in a different world from average citizens. There is a very fine subjective line between what is allowed and what is not. Also many are not clear what exactly MPs do.

 

What does an MP do?

For most professional jobs today there is a clear job description. But how can this be applied to an MP?

These questions are being discussed intensively in Britain. Recent scandals led to a thorough investigation and the production of a report (November 2009) by the Committee on Standards in Public Life entitled “MPs Expenses and Allowances: supporting parliament, safeguarding the taxpayer”.

Apart from a number of recommendations on expenses, the report also dealt with the question of how is an MP different from other mortals?

The report states “there can be little doubt that being an MP is unlike any other role and involves some unusual features”:

 

  1. An MP is responsible for legislation
  2. There is direct accountability to constituents through elections
  3. They are required to work in two different places – in the House of Commons and in their constituencies and to travel regularly between them
  4. There is potentially unlimited demand on an MPs time and their duties are rarely laid down in laws stipulating hours to be worked or duties that have to be fulfilled.
  5. They have a high risk job loss at regular intervals compared to other professions. Furthermore this is not necessarily related to their own performance but can depend on the fortunes of their party at the polls. Also this situation can suddenly occur without much warning in cases of a snap election.

 

The report recognised that one or more of these points could apply to members of the community working in jobs such as health care. Here also long, erratic hours are the norm.  Holders of high public office must also show leadership qualities and will lose the top jobs if they perform unsatisfactorily.

The report says that what sets the MP apart however is the “unique combination of demands and expectations”.

It seems that voters still expect MPs to set some kind of moral example and behave differently ie better than the rest of the country.  This is endorsed in the commentary on parliamentary practice, Erskine May, which states “Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons or its Members generally into dispute”.

The report on MPs expenses also attempted to describe the role of an MP admitting that this was not so clear. The Hansard Society says that “there is no prescribed list of responsibilities only conventions, customs and the desire to be re-elected”.

New MPs are not given any job description and have autonomy in deciding how they carry out their work. Despite this the report on MPs expenses referred to a number of “recongised functions commonly expected of MPs” listed in a document issued by the House of Commons Modernisation Select Committee (2007):

 

MPs “Job Description”

  1. represent and further the interests of their constituency
  2. represent individual constituents and take up their problems
  3. scrutinise and hold the government to account
  4. initiate, review and amend legislation
  5. contribute to the development of policy either in plenary, committee or party structures and promote public understanding of party policies
  6. support their party in votes in Parliament (furnishing and maintaining the Government and Opposition)

 

In exercising such duties MPs are expected to follow the Code of Conduct. In the last analysis the behaviour of an MP should not do anything to undermine the confidence and trust of the public in the institution of parliament.

 

14.12. 2009