Select Committee on Standards and Privileges First Report


Letter from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to Mr Michael Brown MP

  As you know I am, at the request of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, conducting an inquiry into allegations, made principally by The Guardian, against a number of Members, including yourself.

  I am now in a position to set out in formal terms the complaint made against you by The Guardian.


  1. In 1988-89, you were paid sums of money by Ian Greer Associates as a fee for introducing US Tobacco as a client of Ian Greer Associates;   2. You deliberately omitted to declare or register the payments and benefits received as set out above, by making appropriate entries in the Register of Members' Interests;   (I attach a copy of your Register entries and relevant correspondence from your Registry file. Please note that these documents are supplied for your information and assistance, and they are not to be taken as intended to corroborate or otherwise the above allegation.) In your reply you may wish to refer to your correspondence with me of last October.

  3. Further, notwithstanding the payments from Ian Greer Associates related to your involvement with US Tobacco, you failed to make an appropriate declaration of interest in all correspondence and meetings with Ministers or Parliamentary colleagues.

  These allegations have recently been set out in the book "Sleaze - The Corruption of Parliament" by David Leigh and Ed Vulliamy - a copy of the relevant pages (124 to 129) is enclosed. [44]   I attach a bundle of documents supplied to me by the Department of Health which are relevant to the above allegations and upon which Counsel to the Inquiry and I may wish to put questions to you in person. I will write again shortly about a possible date for this hearing.

  I would welcome a detailed, written response to these allegations setting out which are accepted, which are disputed, and in so far as actions or omissions are accepted by you as correctly described, providing any explanations which may assist me in my inquiry.

  As part of that written response I would be assisted by details of all benefits received by you from Ian Greer (or Ian Greer Associates Limited, or any similarly named company or firm), identifying the amounts received, the dates of receipt, and producing any relevant documents such as letters to and from Ian Greer.

  I do not seek to place any limit on the length of any written statement which you may wish to submit, but so that the inquiry can proceed I would appreciate your written statement as soon as possible, and in any event, by 10 February 1997. If you propose to submit written statements from others who may assist me in considering your responses to these allegations, I would also hope that they could be provided to me by the same date.

  If there are potential witnesses from whom you have not been able to obtain written statements, please identify them (with details as to how they can be contacted) and explain why their evidence will assist me in investigation of the allegations set out earlier in this letter.


  I would welcome copies of any documents upon which you may wish to rely - including but not limited to the documents identified above.


  I enclose a copy of the procedure note which forms the basis for the conduct of my inquiry.

Sir Gordon Downey

30 January 1997

Letter from Mr Michael Brown MP to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

  Thank you for your letter of 30 January 1997 and enclosures regarding the allegations made against me by "The Guardian" newspaper.

   I shall try to answer your questions as fully as possible.

  Firstly, I freely admit that I received £6,000 in 1988 as a commission payment from Ian Greer Associates (IGA) for introducing United States Tobacco (UST).

  Secondly, I confirm that I omitted to declare this introduction fee in the Register of Members' Interests at the time. I categorically deny, however, that this was a deliberate omission on my part which constituted a deceitful attempt to conceal a relationship with either IGA or UST.

  As I stated in my letter to you dated 2 October 1996, this regrettable omission was due solely to my misunderstanding the obligation to disclose such a payment because of the lack of clarity in the rules governing the Members' Register as they then existed.

  In mitigation of my failure to declare, I would plead that this requirement was not obvious given the old structure of the annual questionnaire sent to Members of Parliament (MPs) which invited us to register our outside interests by category.

  The absence of a category which related specifically to commission payments misled me into thinking that disclosure of this particular information was unnecessary. Whilst I now recognise that this was not in fact so, for which I profusely apologise, I would draw your attention to the Third Report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests (HC561, July 1990), which suggested redefining the annual questionnaire so as to eliminate any confusion on this matter, following a very similar allegation of impropriety being levelled at Sir Michael Grylls MP.

  In my letter of 2 October 1996, I pointed out that the Select Committee acknowledged that it was not "readily apparent" whether such introductory payments should be registered. (See Appendix A). [45]   Thirdly, I accept that I ought to have declared this interest when making representations to Ministers in relation to UST. My reason for this was, as I explained above, my mistaken belief that receipt of an introductory payment was not a declarable interest. I deeply regret this error of omission.

  More generally, I should like to try to account for my former involvement with UST, especially in the light of the wholly false inferences drawn by "The Guardian" about the motivation for my actions. Examination of my record during my time as an MP will, I believe, disprove the implicit allegation that I was somehow in the pay of either UST or IGA.

  Since my election in 1979, I have consistently supported a number of what might be called "libertarian" causes. For instance, in the House of Commons I voted against compulsory seat belts in July 1982, the Water Fluoridation Act 1985 and, most recently, the move to ban all handguns as opposed to just high calibre ones. Equally, I have always espoused homosexual law reform and the civil rights of smokers.

  You may wish to be aware that, according to the Parliamentary On Line Information system (POLIS), I have asked 12 Parliamentary Questions (PQs) about smoking generally between the Elections of 1979 and 1983, 19PQs between the 1983 and 1987 Elections and 21 PQs between 1987 and 1992. (See Appendix B). This adds up to 52 PQs in which I upheld the right to smoke during my first 13 years in the House of Commons.

  I also signed my name to a number of Early Day Motions (EDMs) over the same period which advocated that adults should be allowed to smoke if they wanted to, regardless of the health risk. (See Appendix C).

  I have long felt that individuals should have the freedom to make decisions for themselves without interference from the State, so long as this does not deprive other people of their civil liberties, even if this freedom results in self-harm. On the whole, it is no-one's business but our own how we choose to conduct our lives.

  It was this underlying philosophy which led me, in November 1985, to table an amendment to EDM No. 53 which was in the name of Mr George Foulkes MP.

  Mr Foulkes had called for the Government "to impose effective restrictions on the advertising and promotion of Skoal Bandits". This was an oral tobacco product which was being manufactured in East Kilbridge by UST encouraged by a grant from the Scottish Office.

  I proposed that the EDM should be amended to include the words, "but nevertheless welcomes the availability of this legal tobacco product so that smokers can enjoy a smoke-free commodity in the increasing number of places where smoking is totally prohibited, not least on the London Underground." (See Appendix D).

  At this time I had no knowledge of UST and had never met any of their representatives before then. They subsequently wrote to me to congratulate me on my proposal and I agreed to meet them. They pointed out to me that the Government was offering UST regional selective assistance to encourage the company to establish a factory in Britain to make oral tobacco. During the meeting I identified a number of other libertarian-inclined MPs, including Mr Neil Hamilton, who would be supportive of the right of adults to use this product if they so chose.

  It seemed to me a reasonable stance to question Ministers who, on the one hand, had actively encouraged UST to come to Britain in order to create jobs in an area of high unemployment, while on the other hand, were also trying to restrict demand for the principal product, Skoal Bandits, despite this having been partly paid for by the British taxpayer.

  The Guardian has criticised me for taking an interest in this case given that it had no direct connection to my constituency. Such criticism is misdirected: the only reason I became involved, during the mid to late 1980s, was the Government's empty gesture (as I saw it) to the health lobby in pursuing a policy which would have had the effect of closing the only factory in the UK making oral tobacco, even though this was the same factory which the Government had wanted UST to build in Britain with some public money in the first place.

  I objected to this inconsistency, but particularly to the later use of prohibition as a means of promoting the nation's health. For the reasons I gave above, I believe that informed individuals should enjoy the right to decide to use any tobacco product they choose, and not have that decision made for them by the State, regardless of the health risk.

  You kindly sent me a copy of the Third Reading of the Tobacco Products (Sales Restriction) Bill in 1986, which was renamed the Protection of Children (Tobacco) Bill. My remarks at the time (18 April 1986, Hansard, column 1182) will confirm the approximate date of my first ever meeting with UST. I also hope that my general contribution to the Bill's Third Reading will further demonstrate my libertarian instincts and strengthen your appreciation that I was behaving entirely in character.

  On 23 January 1986 I asked my first PQ with direct respect to Skoal Bandits. (See Appendix E). The Minister's reply stated that, "although the overall risk is small relative to the enormous risk of smoking cigarettes, the risks of the less common, but very serious cancers of the mouth and larynx, are similar to those of cigarette smokers".

  In other words, the then Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) was especially concerned about the danger of this specific tobacco product causing oral cancer because its effects were equivalent to people smoking cigarettes despite the fact that the incidence of oral cancer amongst this group is very low.

  Indeed, the Health Education Authority (see Appendix F) estimated that, in 1988, only 5.4 per cent of all UK smoking-related deaths were attributable to cancer of the buccal cavity, oesophagus or larynx, whereas the major causes of death in smokers then were coronary heart disease, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

  My next three PQs on Skoal Bandits (30 October 1986, 23 February 1987 and 30 November 1987, Appendix E) were all more or less identical in that I was trying to verify the seriousness of the DHSS in concluding a voluntary marketing agreement with UST. This was because I was beginning to suspect that the DHSS might have ulterior motives for procrastinating.

  In February 1988, the Government suddenly announced that it was going to outlaw oral tobacco by using the powers of the Consumer Protection Act 1987. My 5th PQ (25 March 1988), therefore, wanted to know why the DHSS had been negotiating a marketing agreement with UST when the intention all along was to ban the product in question, of which UST was the sole manufacturer in Britain.

  The 6th PQ (29 March 1988) sought to discover the legal rationale for using Section 11 of the Consumer Protection Act when Section 13 specifically excluded tobacco from any prohibition of goods. I did not feel that the Government had the legal right to outlaw one particular tobacco product without logically having to outlaw all forms of tobacco at the same time.

  The next PQ (30 March 1988) tried, once again, to ascertain the medical basis upon which the DHSS was trying to rationalise the prohibition of oral tobacco when there was no plan to outlaw the very much more dangerous form of tobacco in cigarettes.

  My penultimate PQ (26 April 1988) sought to find out how prevalent under-age smoking was given that Parliament had already enacted many laws to prevent this. Under-age use of oral tobacco was an argument being deployed to justify the prohibition as a way of stopping cigarette smoking in later life.

  I must emphasise that I supported the passage of the Protection of Children (Tobacco) Act 1986 through Parliament. This is illustrated by "Hansard", 18 April 1986, column 1182 and 1184. The Act made it an offence to sell any kind of tobacco product to someone under the age of 16.

  In what was effectively my last PQ on Skoal Bandits (14 November 1988), I tried to have placed on the record all the representations by letter which I had made to Ministers because I, myself, wanted to publicise what I saw as the Government's inconsistency in wanting to ban a product while at the same time negotiating a voluntary marketing agreement with its manufacturer.

  At this point, I must make clear that I tabled these PQs wholly on my own initiative. Neither anyone from UST or IGA suggested that I do so on their behalf and I never offered. I had no financial relationship with either of these companies (apart from the introductory payment I have openly admitted) nor did I expect such a relationship to develop. The only material benefit I ever accepted from UST was a visit to their headquarters in the USA in September 1986 which I declared in the Register of Members' Interests at the time.

  By pursuing my customary defence of smokers' civil rights, I believe that I exposed the Government's irrationality with regard to UST. Namely, the DHSS decided to ban oral tobacco in the UK even though it knew that the risk of contracting mouth cancer was considerably smaller than getting lung cancer from smoking cigarettes. Moreover, this was the same Department of State which has, to this date, steadfastly refused to ban cigarettes or all tobacco advertising which promotes a habit the DHSS was claiming to discourage by prohibiting Skoal Bandits.

  To my mind, it seemed perverse that the Government was apparently determined to outlaw the relatively safe oral tobacco ostensibly to prevent a carcinogenic habit from starting, especially amongst children to whom it was illegal to sell such products anyway.

  Consequently, on grounds of consistency, I thought that Skoal Bandits should not be discriminated against because of a possible risk to health, but that it should be subject to the same warnings and taxation as the popular forms of tobacco which were actually much more dangerous to people's health. This was the main purpose of all my meetings with Ministers in 1988 and 1989.

  In answer to my PQs, the DHSS appeared to indicate that this was their outlook, too, which is presumably why it was negotiating a voluntary marketing agreement with the producer. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it transpires that Ministers were being less than candid because, from 1986 onwards, they had effectively decided to ban oral tobacco in spite of having encouraged its production in Britain two years earlier.

  Indeed, in December 1990, as the High Court annulled the eventual ban because the Government had not followed proper procedures, Lord Justice Taylor commented that UST had been "kept in the dark", and, "led up the garden path". (See Appendix G).

  It was not, I submit, wrong of me to pursue an issue until it was concluded. I do not believe that I can be criticised for questioning Ministers on oral tobacco over a period of years when, in retrospect, the Government had been acting illegally.

  Some time after the 1987 General Election (I am afraid that I am unable to be more specific than that), Neil Hamilton and I suggested to UST that they really needed a more professional Public Affairs consultant than the one they had at the time because we felt that UST was not receiving the best advice in its dealings with Government.

  We recommended the names of three leading consultancies: IGA, Westminster Strategy and GJW to the best of my recollection. IGA was successful in gaining UST as a client. As is often the practice with such firms, IGA consequently offered me an introductory payment of £6,000.

  "The Guardian" has implied that, by accepting this commission, my independence was compromised and that I was somehow placed under an obligation to assist UST in resisting a prohibition of oral tobacco.

  This is fatuous given that I have already pursued my interest in this matter for some two years before receiving any payment. I cannot, therefore, be accused of having been paid to lobby against the public interest especially since my defence of the right to smoke was already well established.

  I concede that I continued to make representations on oral tobacco to Ministers after UST became IGA's client, but I did not at the time see that I was behaving essentially any differently as to how I had done before accepting the introductory payment.

  As I have already explained, my involvement stemmed from my desire to expose what I perceived to be the double standard of the Department of Health (as it now is) in prohibiting oral tobacco on health grounds while refusing to ban the much more widespread forms of tobacco which carry a greater risk of cancer. Indeed, if my actions had been selfish, as has been suggested, then it is more likely that I would have immediately ceased all activity in relation to UST because I had just been paid.

  You requested any documentation I possess with regard to this matter. Unfortunately, my files are only kept for two or three years before being destroyed due to lack of space, so I am afraid that I have no relevant correspondence available. In any case, there were no written contracts of any kind between IGA or UST and myself because, as I have stated before, I was not working for either of them.

  I have asked my Bank to obtain for me details of my current account statements for 1988-89 which I will forward to you as soon as they are received so that you may see the exact dates on which the introduction fee was paid. So far as I can recall, the payment was made in two halves of £3,000 each, but this will be verified by my Bank statements.

  I hope that all of the above is of help to you in your inquiry. If you require any further assistance of me, please do not hesitate to ask.

10 February 1997

44   Not printed. Back

45   This document is printed as part of Appendix 57. Back

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