Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Fifth Report

(vi)  Complaint against Mr Vaz alleging that, during a meeting with Mr G H Peene, an employee of the Intervention Board, he failed to declare an interest when dealing with a civil servant; and that he inappropriately inquired about an investigation by the Intervention Board into the Russian Butter Export Refund

594.  I received a letter dated 31 January 2001 from Mr G H Peene with a copy of a letter he had sent to the Prime Minister dated 29 January 2001. Mr Peene complained that Mr Vaz had inappropriately enquired about an Intervention Board investigation (Annex vi1) during a constituency surgery interview. He later complained[149] that Mr Vaz had failed to declare an interest in two companies in which he had a connection when communicating with a servant of the Crown (ie Mr Peene), as required by the rules relating to registration and declaration of interests.

595.  Mr Peene is a civil servant who was, in March 1999, engaged in anti-fraud inquiries for the Intervention Board Executive Agency involving the alleged misappropriation of public funds through dishonest claims for European Community subsidies in relation to Russian butter exports.

596.  He said that he wished an investigation to be undertaken into why Mr Vaz had "sought to involve himself in a confidential and politically sensitive criminal investigation".

597.  Mr Peene alleged that Mr Vaz had written to him on 14 April 1999 asking him to call to see him at his surgery "to discuss matters". Mr Peene says that his name and address would have been available to Mr Vaz as he had previously written to him as his Member of Parliament about some of his own problems and that he had assumed that the interview would concern those personal matters.

598.  Mr Peene attended Mr Vaz's surgery with his wife on 17 April 1999 and says he was amazed when Mr Vaz asked him whether his problems "had anything to do with my [his] Russian Butter Export Refund Investigation", since this investigation was, at that point, only known to a small number of senior Intervention Board Anti-Fraud Unit personnel and was highly confidential.

599.  Mr Peene refused to discuss the matter with Mr Vaz and asked for an explanation from him as to how he had knowledge of the investigation. Mr Peene says he did not receive a satisfactory response from Mr Vaz.

600.  I wrote to Mr Peene to explain the role of my office and to ask for the name of the companies referred to in his complaint. On 12 February 2001 Mr Peene sent me the Companies House documents on M Ltd (the company under investigation by Mr Peene) and Skillshare Africa (a company of which Mr Vaz had been a director) and he enclosed a letter dated 8 February 2001 (Annex vi2A) giving the details of M Ltd and describing his concerns about Mr Vaz's intervention. He said Mr Vaz had failed to declare a relevant interest to a civil servant as required by the Rules for Members of Parliament.

601.  I wrote to Mr Peene on 12 February to obtain further details of the interests he believed Mr Vaz may have had in M Ltd and he drew my attention to reports to his superiors he had made as an official, which had set out his concerns (Annex v12).

602.  Mr Peene alleged that Mr Vaz's relevant interest was his connection to Mr S, a director of M, the company under investigation by the Intervention Board. Both Mr Vaz and Mr S were, or had been, directors of Skillshare Africa at overlapping times in 1992.

603.  Mr Peene told me that he had reported his exchange with Mr Vaz to his superiors and, on their instruction, submitted a written account of the matter.

604.  On 23 April 2001 Mr Peene wrote to me with a copy of a letter he had received from the Political Office at 10 Downing Street and of his reply dated 23 April 2001 (Annex vi3).

605.  Mr Vaz was taken ill before I was able to confirm with Mr Peene that he wished me to take up these matters or put any of them to Mr Vaz.

606.  However, Mr Vaz came to see me on 3 May and I alerted him to this possible complaint. I explained that I would ask Mr Peene whether he wished me to proceed and that, if he did, I would write to Mr Vaz with the complaint so that he could comment on it before I decided whether I should conduct an investigation.

607.  On 3 May 2001 I wrote to Mr Peene to say I was now ready to proceed with my enquiries. I asked him to let me have any further information he had in relation to the matters I had raised in my letter of 12 February and to confirm that he wished me to investigate his allegation. (Annex vi4).

608.  Mr Peene replied on 9 May 2001 giving me a chronology of the events in question (Annex vi5). He said he had received a letter from Mr Vaz dated 14 April 1999, less than two weeks after his initial visit, with a colleague, to the premises of M Ltd where he had seen the export director. Mr Vaz's letter invited Mr Peene to attend the constituency surgery and he did so on 17 April 1999. Mr Peene said that he understood Mr S to be a director of, or otherwise connected with, M Ltd. Mr Peene further surmised that Mr S had contacted Mr Vaz after the initial visit of the Board's Anti-Fraud Unit to the premises of M Ltd, asking Mr Vaz to make enquiries on his or their behalf.

609.  Mr Peene wrote to me on 15 May 2001 to confirm that he wished me to investigate these matters (Annex vi6). On 16 May I wrote to Mr Vaz's agent, Mr Keith Bennett (Annex vi7), as I had agreed on 3 May, saying that I was now sending Mr Vaz the complaint raised by Mr Peene and that I would appreciate Mr Vaz's response when he was well again. I enclosed a letter to Mr Vaz from me and the letters from Mr Peene to me of 31 January, 8 February and 9 and 15 May.

610.  On 10 July 2001 I telephoned the Chief Executive of the Intervention Board to ask him if he was able to provide me with any information which related to the complaint Mr Peene had raised concerning Mr Vaz. He suggested I discuss the matter with Mr Philip Kent, the Board's legal adviser.

611.  Mr Kent informed me by telephone that Mr Peene was employed as an investigator in the Anti-Fraud Section of the Board, which investigates possible misuse of subsidies from the European Commission. Mr Kent said that as far as he was aware Mr Peene had acted correctly in this matter. It was Mr Kent's understanding that Mr Peene had withdrawn immediately from the interview with Mr Vaz when he realised that Mr Vaz was raising questions about highly confidential matters relating to a criminal investigation. Mr Kent said he understood that Mr Peene had attended Mr Vaz's surgery in order to consult him about his own (Mr Peene's) personal issues.

612.  I asked Mr Kent if the Board had made any inquiries about Mr Vaz's intervention in this matter or his connection, if any, with the company under investigation. Mr Kent said they had not. He added that, as far as the Board was concerned, Mr Peene had acted correctly by withdrawing from the meeting with Mr Vaz and reporting the incident to the Board.

Mr Vaz's response

613.  In a letter of 9 July (see Annex i21) Mr Vaz said at paragraph 11:

    "In relation to Mr. Peane's as he has made a complaint about my handling of his case it would be inappropriate for me to write to him I wonder whether you could write to him and seek his permission for me to forward his file to you, you may of course tell him that I have given you my consent."

614.  Since Mr Vaz appeared to believe that the complaint raised by Mr Peene related to his handling of Mr Peene's personal issues I wrote to Mr Vaz on 16 July (Annex i22) as follows:

    "...Mr Peene has asked me to investigate this complaint. I have explained to Mr Peene that I would ask you for information and your response before I would decide whether there were matters requiring investigation. Please send me the file you mention with your response to his complaints."

615.  On 5 August 2001 Mr Vaz sent me a casefile relating to Mr Peene.

616.  On receipt of the casefile I found that it related to the personal issues raised with Mr Vaz by Mr Peene, not to the subject matter of Mr Peene's complaint. I wrote to Mr Vaz on 7 August (Annex vi10) in the following terms:

    "As far as I can see, the matters referred to in these case file papers do not relate to the complaint Mr Peene has raised with me and on which I asked for your comments.

    I can see from your file that you wrote to Mr Peene on 14 April 1999 asking him to attend your surgery. As you will recall from the copies of his complaint letters which I sent to you his allegations concern the meeting which he says then took place between you on 17 April 1999.

    So that I may decide whether any further enquiries are required in relation to Mr Peene's letters of complaint I would be grateful to receive your comments on them. In particular:

      1.   What was the purpose of your letter to Mr Peene of 14 April 1999?

      2.   What is your recollection of the meeting on 17 April 1999?

      3.   Did you make the comment at the meeting which Mr Peene alleges in relation to M Ltd and the Russian Butter Export refund investigation? If so, why?

      4.   Do you, or did you, have any connection with Mr S and has he raised the question of the investigation with you at any time?

      5.   Did Mr Peene raise any of the concerns, which he has put to me, with you at the meeting or afterwards (I note he raised other matters with you after that date.)

      6.   Any other comments you wish to make on Mr Peene's allegations."

617.  Mr Vaz wrote to me on 21 September (see Annex ii64) raising concerns about my enquiries concerning Mr Peene's complaint. He said:

    "26.   From the correspondence it appears that Mr. Peen wrote to you in January about his complaint. Is there a reason why this was not brought to my attention and that of the Committee until after the first inquiry was concluded?

    27.   I have just re-read the Code of Conduct which you sent to all Members for the submission of their forms following the election. To Code states that the Commissioner does not entertain complaints about the way in which members handle casework. As you know I have supplied you with my complete casework file, however for completeness I would like to know why this matter is being investigated as of course it will have implications for other Members and also the wording of the Code."

618.  I replied on 27 September as follows (see Annex ii66):

    "26.   Members of the public often engage in correspondence and discussion with me before deciding whether they wish me to look into a matter. Mr Peene confirmed to me on 15 May 2001 that he wished to pursue this complaint.

    27.   This is a misinterpretation on your part. I am not making any enquiries into how you have dealt with any of your casework related to Mr Peene or Mr Peene's personal matters. The matter I have asked you about is Mr Peene's allegation that you improperly intervened in a matter with which he was dealing as a civil servant. As I understand it, Mr Peene had not raised this matter with you in any way."

619.  On 28 September Mr Vaz wrote to me again as follows (see Annex i9):

    "69.   Regarding the complaint by Graham Peene I sent you my complete file papers relating to Mr Peene and I have no other records. I do not understand the nature of his complaint and what he is accusing me of doing.

    70.   Notwithstanding this, and in the spirit of full co-operation the answers to your questions in your letter of 7 August 2001 are as follows:—

      1.   The letter is a routine letter to any constituent who asks how his matter is progressing. It is for him in response to make an appointment.

      2.   There was no "meeting" on 17 April 1999 it was a normal constituency surgery. People telephone my office, they are given fixed appointments and I dictate on a recording machine in their presence and hearing any letters that I am sending. That acts as a record of what happens at the meeting. Mr. Peene did not challenge any of these records but thanked me for my help.

      3.   No, he seems to be suggesting that I had some independent knowledge of the matter other than what he has told me, but I only knew what Mr Peene told me himself and what is contained in the correspondence. All letters from Ministers concluding with the letter from the Solicitor General, Ross Cranston QC were passed to him without comment.

      4.   No.

      5.   Everything Mr Peene raised with me is in the correspondence. All his questions were passed on at his request to all the relevant authorities. He confirmed all conversations in writing and I responded as quickly as I could.

      6.   No. save to repeat my incomprehension of this complaint.

    71.   The above was prepared before your letter of 27th September 2001. I am still puzzled about this. You asked for my casefile and said that Mr. Peene had given you his consent to receive it. Mr. Peene approached me as his MP and if my dates are correct he had ceased to be a civil servant before he approached me. Therefore your statement that he alleged that I intervene improperly when he was a civil servant cannot be sustained. As you will see from the correspondence all the letters sent were at Mr. Peene's own request. Is there some other letter that I have not seen which will give a complete picture of what he wants?"

Further information provided by Mr Peene

620.  On 15 October I wrote to Mr Peene (Annex vi14) seeking further information, namely the dates on which he:

    (i)    was engaged on the Export Intervention Board investigation into M;
    (ii)  ceased employment as a civil servant;
    (iii)  wrote his report about Mr Vaz's alleged intervention;
    (iv)  first contacted Mr Vaz; and
    (v)    was last in contact with Mr Vaz.

621.  Mr Peene replied in a letter dated 16 October 2001 (Annex vi19). He said:

    —  that he was "appalled that Mr Vaz has sought to mislead [my] office by alleging that I [he] was no longer a civil servant when we met at his request on 17 April 1999...";

      —  that he became involved with the M Ltd investigation during March or early April 1999;

      —  that he is currently a senior Higher Executive Officer in the civil service employed within the Intervention Board Anti-Fraud Unit (he also gave details of his civil service career);

      —  that his report on the alleged intervention by Mr Vaz was made during the week of 21 April 1999;

      —  that he estimated that his first contact with Mr Vaz was shortly after he retired as a Detective Sergeant from the Police Service "sometime after 11 September 1988—possibly 1989 or 1990"; and

      —  that the last time he corresponded with Mr Vaz was in late 2000 and early 2001, as spokesperson for his local neighbourhood, about a telecommunication mast.

622.  Mr Peene put forward evidence which he believed indicated that Mr Vaz had been provided by those inside the company with information about Mr Peene's visit to the premises of M Ltd. He said that his unusual surname must have been mentioned by M and this would have alerted Mr Vaz to the visit. Mr Peene also noted that Mr Vaz had used the correct title of the scheme under scrutiny, which indicated he knew the reason for the visit.

623.  Mr Peene told me that he had been accompanied by his wife to the meeting with Mr Vaz; that she confirmed the remarks made by him about the Russian Butter Export Refund investigation; and that Mr Peene had not himself previously mentioned the investigation to Mr Vaz.

Mr Vaz's further comment

624.  Mr Vaz referred to Mr Peene's complaint in his letter dated 3 November 2001 which I received on 12 November (see Annex ii84). He said:

    " correspondence you have told me that the complaint, made by Mr Peene was not about casework but because I had intervened when Mr Peene was a civil servant. However as you have known from the outset he was not a civil servant when he asked me to intervene..."

625.  In his letter to the Chairman of 12 November 2001 (Annex vi17) Mr Vaz confirmed that his letter of 3 November 2001 concluded his answers on this matter.

149   See paragraph 600. Back

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