How to make a complaint
Who you can complain about
The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life can consider complaints about:
- members of Parliament, including ministers and parliamentary secretaries; and
- persons of trust – that is to say persons who are engaged on trust from outside the public administration (i) to serve as consultants or staff in the secretariats of ministers or parliamentary secretaries, or (ii) to fill posts in the public administration that remain vacant following repeated calls for applications.
Members of Parliament (MPs)
Members of Parliament can be divided into two categories: those who hold office as ministers or parliamentary secretaries (junior ministers); and those who do not.
All MPs are subject to the code of ethics for MPs that is set out in the first schedule of the Standards in Public Life Act. In addition, ministers and parliamentary secretaries are subject to the ministerial code of ethics that is set out in the second schedule of the Act. This means that ministers and parliamentary secretaries are subject to both codes of ethics.
Persons of trust
The term “person of trust” is commonly understood to mean political appointees. However, not all political appointees are covered by the Standards in Public Life Act. Further information about persons of trust, both in terms of the generally accepted meaning and as defined in the Act, is available in this guidance note.
This is a complex subject, but the following can be drawn out as main points:
- If an individual is serving in the secretariat of a minister or parliamentary secretary, there is a good probability that he or she is a person of trust as defined in the Act, meaning that he or she can be investigated by the Commissioner for Standards.
- If an individual appears to be a regular employee in the service of the government (civil service) or of an agency, authority, foundation, or other entity in the wider public sector, it is unlikely that he or she is subject to the Act. Persons who are not subject to the Act cannot be investigated by the Commissioner.
It should be emphasised that these are no more than broad guidelines. Unfortunately it is not possible to compile more definite rules. If you are not sure whether the individual you wish to complain about is a person of trust as defined in the Act, submit your complaint to the Commissioner anyway and he will conduct the checks necessary to determine whether that individual is subject to the Act. If the Commissioner finds that he cannot investigate your complaint he will inform you accordingly.
The Standards in Public Life Act does not include a code of ethics for persons of trust. Instead, it makes them subject to the code of ethics for public employees that is set out in the first schedule of the Public Administration Act.
What sort of conduct you can complain about
The conduct you can complain about depends on whether your complaint concerns an MP or a person of trust. Complaints about MPs can cover a wider range of issues.
The Standards Commissioner can consider complaints that members of Parliament, including ministers and parliamentary secretaries, have:
- broken the law;
- failed to abide by any ethical or other duty set out by law, including the ministerial code of ethics and the code of ethics for MPs; or
- exercised discretionary powers in a way that constitutes an abuse of power.
The Commissioner can consider complaints that persons of trust have broken the code of ethics in the Public Administration Act.
Please bear the following points in mind if you are thinking about submitting a complaint.
Breaches of the law or duties set out by law
The Commissioner for Standards can investigate MPs and ministers for breaking the law or failing to carry out duties set out by law. But this does not mean that the Commissioner will take on the role of other public authorities.
It is not the Commissioner’s job to investigate crimes. If you wish to report alleged criminal behaviour on the part of a person subject to the Standards in Public Life Act, you should do so directly to the police.
In some cases, a breach of the legislation enforced by other state authorities (for example, the tax authorities) might also constitute a breach of ethics that merits investigation by the Commissioner. As a general rule, however, such cases should be investigated by the other authorities in the first instance. The Commissioner cannot find that a breach of ethics has occurred in such a case unless the other authority first finds that there has been a breach of the legislation enforced by it. The Commissioner cannot supplant the role of the other authority by determining for himself whether there has been a breach of the legislation in question.
If you wish to present a complaint to the Commissioner about such a case, you should do so without delay on account of the timeframes set out in the Standards in Public Life Act (see below). If the Commissioner decides that the complaint does not merit consideration under the Act, and it should be considered exclusively by another authority, he will inform you accordingly. If he decides that the complaint merits consideration under the Act, he will normally wait until the other authority concludes its investigation before he takes up the case.
The Standards in Public Life Act specifies that complaints must be made –
- within thirty working days from when the complainant gets to know of the actions that gave rise to the complaint; and
- within a year from when the actions giving rise to the complaint occurred.
These timeframes run concurrently, meaning it is possible for one to expire while the other is still running. The Act does not allow the Commissioner to consider complaints that are submitted after any one of these timeframes expires.
The Standards Commissioner cannot consider a complaint if:
- proceedings about the same case are pending before a court or a tribunal established by law;
- the case is subject to an inquest by the Court of Magistrates; or
- the case is already being investigated by the police.
Decision not to investigate
The Commissioner has the right not to investigate a complaint if he thinks that:
- an investigation is not warranted;
- the complaint is trivial, frivolous or vexatious;
- the complaint has not been made in good faith.
In such cases the Commissioner will reply saying why he has decided not to investigate your complaint.
How to submit your complaint
You can submit your complaint by letter or email or by using the contact us form in this website.
Please identify yourself clearly in your complaint, because the law does not allow the Commissioner to consider anonymous complaints. If you do not want the Commissioner to disclose your identity to third parties, please make this clear to him.
Please also clearly identify the person or persons who are the subject of your complaint. Give as much information as you can about what you think they have done wrong.
In exceptional cases a complaint can be made orally, although the law requires an oral complaint to be put in writing within ten days. If you wish to submit an oral complaint, please call the Office of the Commissioner and a member of staff will discuss the matter with you before referring your request to the Commissioner.
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