Select Committee on Standards and Privileges First Report



  49. The preliminary stages of this inquiry were beset with difficulties from the outset, some of which are described below.


  50. Having prepared for a court action, The Guardian were initially reluctant to accept that an investigation by me, on behalf of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, could be seen as an adequate substitute. In a letter to the Prime Minister and others on 4 October 1996, the newspaper claimed that my powers to call for witnesses and evidence were subject to a decision of the Government majority on the Committee; that it would be the Committee which would determine not only the outcome of the inquiry, but also whether my Report would be published or kept secret; and that only an inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921 could ensure that the investigation was "beyond the reach of political interference". They also believed that my resources would be wholly inadequate for a proper inquiry.

  51. These doubts were to some extent allayed when the Committee agreed to the

following arrangements:

      (a)  although my inquiries would be independent, the Committee would, if necessary, exercise its powers to enable me to call for persons and papers, and to facilitate the taking of evidence on oath

      (b)  the Committee reported to the House[20] that it was "in no doubt that any attempt by any person to mislead the Commissioner during his inquiries would constitute a contempt of the House"

      (c)  the Committee approved, in full, my proposals for additional legal and administrative support

      (d)  the Committee reported to the House that there was a presumption that my Report would be published and that, should it subsequently judge it necessary to take evidence, such evidence would be taken in public and on oath. In taking such evidence, the Committee would seek sworn confirmation from witnesses that evidence previously given to me was full and correct.

  52. The Guardian continued to argue that my inquiry should be held in public. In a letter to the editor dated 31 October 1996 I set out my understanding of the position in the following terms:

    "On the question of powers, the intention of Parliament is, I think, clear. In paragraph 26 of their First Report of 1994-95, the Select Committee on Standards in Public Life outlined a process which envisaged that my Reports and findings would normally be published but which also provided that where no prima facie case had been established, no details of the complaint would be disclosed. The purpose of this proviso is to guard against giving a public airing to detailed allegations which I subsequently judge to be unfounded ... This, coupled with an absence of powers [to the contrary] in the Standing Order governing my appointment, carried with it the clear implication that my enquiry would be held in private ... I confirm, therefore, that my enquiry will be in private".

  53. This view was endorsed by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges.

  54. A further procedural problem arose over the question of Parliamentary privilege and, in particular, the restrictions it placed on the use to which evidence submitted to the inquiry could be put. The Guardian were unwilling to provide their investigative material to me without an assurance that they retained the right to publish it. Their position was that they sought no protection from Parliamentary privilege and would make no allegations which they could not justify in a court of law. But, by the same token, they wished to be able to make use of their evidence as and when they chose, without running the risk of being in contempt of the House.

  55. I could, of course, give no such blanket assurance since it is the House which decides what constitutes a contempt. However, having taken extensive advice, I felt able to draw a distinction between two types of evidence.

  56. On the one hand, there were memoranda prepared specifically for the inquiry which, I understood, could not be disclosed without the authority of the Committee. On the other, there was material submitted as evidence to me but which had originally been produced for another purpose and which could therefore be regarded in some sense as "having a life of its own". This kind of evidence was not, according to my advice, subject to the same absolute restriction on its disclosure, although in making use of it witnesses should not indicate that it had been supplied to me for the purposes of the inquiry.

  57. The Guardian took ample advantage of this distinction in the ensuing weeks in ways which were undoubtedly intended to influence the outcome of the inquiry. This illustrates the particular problems of having a newspaper as the principal complainant - problems which, however, are unavoidable where serious allegations deserving examination arise from investigative journalism.


  58. The legal difficulties were no less daunting. With the abandonment of the libel trial, many of the documents disclosed on discovery had to be returned to their owners; and there were implied undertakings to the court that they would be used for no other purpose than the court action. The legal position was unclear. I sought the agreement of the plaintiffs in the action to their documents being supplied to the inquiry, where possible, by The Guardian. This agreement was given but in one case subsequently withdrawn. It was not in any case certain that such consent would free The Guardian from its undertaking to the court. At one point I learned that potential witnesses were being advised that to provide this material to the inquiry might involve a contempt of Court and, to deny it, a contempt of Parliament.

  59. These difficulties were only painstakingly, and then not completely, overcome. It meant that, instead of assembling the essential documents from one source, I had to rely on a variety of sources and, in particular, the former plaintiffs, Mr Hamilton and Mr Greer.


  60. To make matters worse, as a result of the adverse publicity generated by the libel action, Mr Greer's company, IGA, went into liquidation and their staff and records were dispersed. This greatly hampered the process of identifying and gaining possession of documentary evidence relevant to my investigations. In view of its importance to the inquiry, this process is summarised in the following paragraphs.

  61. In addition to the bundles of documents assembled by The Guardian's legal team for the libel trial, I received four volumes of trial documents from Mr Hamilton[21], and many additional papers from Government departments which I selected as relevant to the inquiry from a much larger collection of files made available to me by the Cabinet Office.

  62. However, at a comparatively early stage of the investigation it became clear that it would also be necessary to examine the books of IGA, in order to see whether or not they cast light on the allegations that Members had received commission payments for the introduction of new business, and how those payments had been treated in the accounting records; to see what fees (if any) had been paid to Members; and to see if there was any documentary evidence to support the allegation that there was a secret fund[22] from which payments could have been made to Members.

  63. In late 1996, Mr Greer informed me that he was in the process of winding up his company and that "as of 1st November I have no staff and very limited facilities". There then began the lengthy and time-consuming process of attempting to find and obtain relevant IGA documents going back to 1985, and possibly earlier.

  64. With the assistance of a member of the Government Accountancy Service, and an Order from the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges for the production of papers,[23] I was able to trace documents through Mr Greer, via the liquidator and the company's former accountants, to archives from which some files were eventually retrieved.

  65. I also obtained a large number of accounting documents from Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, Mr Greer's solicitors before the collapse of the libel action. In fact documents were still being received from this source in early March 1997.

  66. There may well be other IGA documents, relevant to this investigation, which I have not seen. This is regrettable, but I am satisfied that, on the basis of the voluminous material I have been able to gather, I have a clear enough picture of the facts from which I can draw reliable conclusions.

  67. Many other documents have been supplied to me during the course of my investigation by complainants, and by or on behalf of the Members against whom complaints have been made.[24]

  68. For all these reasons, the overall task of assembling the documentation relating to the complaints has proved to be by far the most lengthy and frustrating part of the inquiry.

20  First Special Report, Session 1996-97, HC 34. Back

21  These turned out to be the documents assembled by the plaintiffs, but did not include later documents disclosed during the discovery process in 1996. Back

22  See para 193. Back

23  Dated 27 January 1997. Back

24  See para 8. Back

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Prepared 8 July 1997