Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Second Report


Response submitted by Mr John Maxton MP


Should the Commissioner have started the inquiry on the evidence she had and does it matter?

On January 27th Miss Filkin received a letter from Dean Nelson, then a journalist at the Observer, but about to join the Scotsman. In that letter which is Annex 1 to the Commissioner`s Memorandum, Mr Nelson makes two references to myself. Firstly he says, "I`m writing to make formal complaint against John Reid MP and John Maxton MP". Secondly he says much later in the letter, "Chris Winslow was paid by John Maxton MP, who also later paid Suzanne Hilliard".

On the basis of this that same day Miss Filkin informed me that she was beginning an inquiry into the allegations and also told BBC Scotland in an interview that she was doing so. (I have copies of this interview if the Committee wish to read and hear it.)

It appears to me that Clause 67 of the Code of Conduct is quite specific. It states: —

"If the Commissioner is satisfied that sufficient evidence has been tendered in support of the complaint to justify his taking the matter further, he will ask the member to respond to the complaint and will then conduct a preliminary investigation."

It does not say that the Commissioner may decide whatever the complaint that she will start an investigation nor does it say as Miss Filkin has suggested that other information received was sufficient. For month after month I asked Miss Filkin to tell me what evidence Mr Nelson had tendered to justify her announcing on the same day that she received the letter that she was beginning an enquiry. She refused to tell me.

Mr Nelson is a journalist. He was not a party to any of the events of which he was complaining. If, as I have come to assume, that Miss Filkin had nothing other than the letter from Mr Nelson then she was in breach of Clause 69. Mr Nelson had tendered no evidence. Miss Filkin had not heard the tapes to which Mr Nelson referred and even if she had done so it would hardly be evidence. She had not seen the notes, which are included in the evidence from Mr Nelson, and again even if she had they could not be evidence.

She had spoken to him on the phone but the Committee will note that she does not include any note of these telephone conversations as she has others.

During the lengthy correspondence I had with Miss Filkin on this matter she never told me what evidence she had received from Mr Nelson. It appears to be her view that she is the sole arbiter on whether she may start an inquiry with no regard to Clause 69.

On only one occasion did she suggest that she had heard the tapes on that day in a letter to me of 11th April. However as I pointed out to her she had written to me on 4th February saying, "Mr Nelson had provided the information in this letter and has informed me that he has taped interviews which corroborate his allegations. I have asked him for that evidence." From that I inferred justifiably that she had not heard the tapes before that date.

I have asked her again and again for an explanation of this discrepancy and she has refused to give me one. I will leave the committee to draw its own conclusions.

I would also argue that Miss Filkin breached the terms of Clause 67 in the way in which she approached this inquiry. Clause 67 states: — "Both the Commissioner and the Committee on Standards and Privileges will be guided by the view of the former Select Committee on Members Interests that `it is not sufficient to make an unsubstantiated allegation and expect the Committee to assemble supporting evidence." (Mr Goudie deals with this from a more legalistic perspective)

It is my view that the allegation made by Mr Nelson was unsubstantiated when Miss Filkin began the inquiry. Yet she went out on the basis of Mr Nelson`s letter and sought the evidence rather than waiting for him to give her "evidence". I am not clear that while every other witness in this enquiry has been expected to give information fully and truthfully, Mr Nelson on the grounds of a journalists right to protect his sources has not. If a journalist makes a formal complaint about Members of Parliament to the Commissioner then he has no more rights than any other member of the public. Does this matter? The Commissioner rightly or wrongly has carried out her inquiry and therefore should the Committee ignore her breaches of the Code of Conduct and only consider the evidence she has compiled?

Although I will show that the evidence she has gathered does not prove me guilty of the allegation that was made by Mr Nelson, I contend that the Committee cannot ignore this matter. There were times during the long months when I considered making a formal complaint to the Committee on these breaches but decided not to in case it appeared I was trying to thwart Miss Filkin`s inquiry.

However if the Commissioner refuses to abide by the Code of Conduct then the Committee cannot expect Members of Parliament to either respect the Commissioner, or the work she does. Indeed if she ignores the Code of Conduct why should they not?

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 22 December 2000