How Can Parliamentary Codes and Registers
of Members’ Interests Help?
Sir Philip Mawer
In a democratic system, parliament plays a vital role in a nation’s life. It is therefore important to ensure a parliament whose Members are held in high esteem by the public they serve. Sustaining high standards of conduct among Members is a key part of encouraging that confidence in parliament that is essential to the health of a democracy and the effectiveness of a system of government.
Over the years, the United Kingdom (U.K.) House of Commons has evolved and developed a system for encouraging the maintenance of high standards among its Members. The system is intended to ensure accountability through openness and transparency. It emphasizes prevention and the fair and impartial resolution of complaints.
This paper examines the system for ensuring accountability in the House of Commons. Although the House passed a resolution as long ago as 1695 declaring bribery of Members of Parliament (MPs) a “high crime and misdemeanor,” the arrangements for encouraging high standards have been much strengthened since the mid-1990s. Following a series of allegations against Members, a new Parliamentary Code of Conduct and enhanced rules on registering Members’ interests were approved. These represented a significant step forward in making explicit the standards expected of Members and making Members’ interests transparent.
Recent independent review has found that the system for regulating standards in the House of Commons is generally effective and that the overwhelming majority of Members seek to, and in practice do, uphold high standards of propriety.
As mentioned above, the House of Commons recognized, more than three centuries ago, that bribery of its Members was wrong. Beyond that, though, the predominant assumption in the House until recently was that Members were gentlemen (they were predominantly men) and that they could be relied on to observe the normal standards of the day of decent behavior. To the extent that they were found wanting, the ultimate remedy for the most part lay in the ballot box—with the risk that a Member who erred would not gain reelection.