Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Fourth Report


Conduct of Mr Iain Duncan Smith



Introduction

1. We have considered a memorandum by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards relating to the complaint against the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith, Member for Chingford, by Mr Michael Crick. The Commissioner's memorandum is appended to this Report. The Commissioner attached to his memorandum a substantial amount of oral evidence and written material. This will be published in separate volumes.[1] It is clear from this that the inquiry generated a very large amount of work for the Commissioner and his staff, and we would like to thank them all for their efforts.

2. Having been shown, in confidence, the full text of the Commissioner's memorandum, Mr Duncan Smith made a written submission to us. This is attached to our report as Appendix 2. The oral evidence we have taken from Mr Andrew Walker, Director of Finance and Administration, is also published in this volume.

3. The introduction to the Commissioner's memorandum sets out the circumstances of the complaint. When the Commissioner wrote to Mr Duncan Smith on 20 October 2003, he identified six related strands of Mr Crick's complaint as arising from the material submitted by him. We set these out at paragraph 12 below.

4. Besides summarising the evidence on which he has judged the complaint against Mr Duncan Smith and forming a view on which, if any, of the strands should be upheld, the Commissioner has drawn a number of general matters to our attention. We deal with these in the section headed 'General Conclusions'.

Procedural issues

5. Before we turn to the substance of the complaint, we will address the procedural issues raised on behalf of Mr Duncan Smith, to which the Commissioner has drawn our attention.[2] It is contended by the barrister acting on behalf of Mr Duncan Smith that, taken separately or together, these alleged deficiencies would justify dismissing the complaints against Mr Duncan Smith on procedural grounds, regardless of their substantive merits.

6. In considering this issue, it might be helpful if we summarised the nature of the process which the House has established for investigating complaints against Members. A key element is that it is based on self-regulation, with Members being judged by their colleagues in the light of the Commissioner's report. It is not an adversarial process, with the complaint taking the nature of a charge, the Member cast in the role of the defendant and the Commissioner as, in effect, a judge who comes to a conclusion on the basis of the assertions of the respective parties and his own inquiries.

7. The House chose instead an investigatory process, with the complaint viewed as an assertion of conduct that may be in breach of the Code, backed by evidence,[3] and the Commissioner cast in the role of investigator of the facts of the complaint. The Code requires the Member to assist the Commissioner with a full and truthful account of matters relevant to the complaint, to help the Commissioner get at the facts. He will also seek to agree with the Member concerned the facts on which he should form his conclusions. The Commissioner, having established the facts, then forms a view on whether these substantiate the complaint, or have otherwise revealed conduct in apparent breach of the Code, having first decided what he considers to be an appropriate standard of proof.

8. The Commissioner then reports to us details of the complaint, the facts established by his inquiry, his opinion on the merits of the complaint, and on any other apparent breaches of the Code his inquiry has revealed, and the standard of proof he has applied in coming to those opinions. On the basis of this report, any further material the Member submits to us and any evidence we may take, we reach a conclusion on whether a breach of the Code of Conduct has been established and either expressly or by implication reach a conclusion on whether the complaint has been substantiated. In a case where we conclude that the Code has been breached, it is open to us to recommend an appropriate penalty to the House. Only the House can impose such a penalty.

9. Within this procedure, no complaint has been dismissed on procedural grounds and it would be difficult to envisage circumstances in which this could arise. One of the important objectives of the standards system is to maintain public confidence in the integrity of Members of Parliament. A system which allowed Members to escape censure on procedural grounds, whatever the merits of the evidence, would not in our view be conducive in principle to this. Neither do we believe that, even if complaints could be dismissed on procedural grounds alone, such a decision would necessarily be in the interests of the Member concerned, in view of the damage that might be suffered to their personal reputation, both inside and outside the House, if there was a widespread feeling that they had 'got off on a technicality'.

10. We see no evidence that the Commissioner's investigation into the complaint against Mr Duncan Smith has been unfair. Indeed, the Commissioner seems to have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that he was fair to all concerned, including Mr Duncan Smith. There is no evidence in the Commissioner's memorandum to suggest that he has been affected in any way by any publicity surrounding the inquiry, one of Mr Duncan Smith's arguments for striking out the complaint. We therefore endorse the Commissioner's rejection of the assertions that the process of his enquiry has operated unfairly to Mr Duncan Smith.[4] More generally, we are concerned that, while Members are of course free to access professional advice, this can unnecessarily delay the process.

11. We are also satisfied that we can judge the matter fairly on the basis of the memorandum and supporting material submitted by the Commissioner, Mr Duncan Smith's further submission, and the evidence we have taken.

The complaint

12. The Commissioner identified the six strands of Mr Crick's complaint in the following terms:[5]

a)  that during the period 14 September 2001 to 31 December 2002, Mrs Duncan Smith had been employed by her husband under a contract with a job title of Diary Secretary but had not obviously performed any duties in this role or in any other staffing capacity;

b)  that to the extent that Mrs Duncan Smith may have undertaken any tasks, they were minimal in character and such as might have been expected (for example, in terms of reconciling the domestic diary with Mr Duncan Smith's official commitments) to be undertaken (unpaid) by the spouse of any other prominent Member of the House;

c)  that any work undertaken did not amount to 25 hours a week and so did not justify the salary she was paid;

d)  that it appeared that at least some of any work which may have been undertaken (as described in Mr Duncan Smith's published response to Mr Crick's initial allegations) was party political in nature (relating to Mr Duncan Smith's position as Leader) and so did not qualify for payment from Mr Duncan Smith's parliamentary allowance;

e)  that it appeared from Mrs Christine Watson's memorandum of 24 October 2002 to Dr Vanessa Gearson that both Miss Annabelle Eyre and Mrs Watson were paid for periods out of Mr Duncan Smith's Parliamentary allowance when they should not have been because they were undertaking party political rather than parliamentary duties;

f)  that the same memorandum also appeared to suggest that there were financial matters relating to Mr Duncan Smith's "Constituency and Members' Allowances and Reimbursements" which may not have been in order.

13. Mr Duncan Smith has accepted the Commissioner's conclusions in respect of the first three and the last strands, in respect of which the Commissioner did not uphold Mr Crick's complaint. He does not, however, accept the Commissioner's conclusions on the fourth and fifth strands, the two strands in respect of which the Commissioner upholds the complaint.

14. The Commissioner did not uphold Mr Crick's complaint that Mrs Duncan Smith was improperly employed by her husband.[6] We agree with the conclusions of the Commissioner and therefore dismiss the first three strands of the complaint as set out in paragraph 12 above. We also agree with the Commissioner's comment that "… it is not a corollary of this statement [that no one had suggested that those who had given positive evidence in favour of Mrs Duncan Smith had lied nor had the Commissioner come across any evidence indicative of such falsehood] that those who said they saw no evidence of Mrs Duncan Smith doing any work were therefore themselves lying".[7]

15. The Commissioner found no evidence that Mr Duncan Smith made improper claims under the Additional Costs Allowance in respect of his home in Chingford and therefore did not uphold the sixth strand of the complaint.[8] We agree with the Commissioner's conclusions and therefore dismiss the sixth strand of the complaint as set out in paragraph 12 above.

16. The two remaining strands have at their heart the question of whether it was appropriate for Mr Duncan Smith to pay Mrs Duncan Smith, Mrs Christine Watson and Miss Annabelle Eyre from his parliamentary staffing allowance for certain periods after he became Leader of the Opposition, given the nature of the duties they performed. On the basis of his inquiries, and the advice he received, the Commissioner has concluded that a significant proportion of Mrs Duncan Smith's work "would more appropriately have been funded out of Short money than out of his parliamentary staffing allowance".[9] Likewise, he concluded that "the appropriate principal source of funding of both Miss Eyre and Mrs Watson in their role as Private Secretary [to the Leader of the Opposition] was Short money",[10] in respect of which the appropriate Resolution provides for a substantial dedicated provision, separate from the two other elements, towards "the costs necessarily incurred in the running of the Leader of the Opposition's Office".[11]

17. As the Commissioner points out, the funding arrangements adopted by Mr Duncan Smith for these posts rested on his assumption that the staffing allowance and Short money were in effect interchangeable. [12] Counsel has argued on behalf of Mr Duncan Smith that the absence of a Resolution defining the key terms means that there was no guidance for Members on the scope of the two allowances.

18. The Commissioner upholds the fourth and fifth strands of Mr Crick's complaint to the extent that "… on the evidence available it seems likely that a significant proportion of the work undertaken by Mrs Duncan Smith for her husband (i.e. that relating to Mr Duncan Smith's role as Leader of the Opposition) would more appropriately have been funded out of Short money than out of his parliamentary staffing allowance"[13] and that "Both Miss Eyre and Mrs Watson (but particularly Miss Eyre) were paid for periods out of the parliamentary staffing allowance when the bulk of their funding at least should have come from Short money".[14] We agree with the Commissioner that the availability of specific provision for funding the office of the Leader of the Opposition means, as a matter of fact, that it would have been more appropriate for Mrs Duncan Smith to have been paid in part, and for Mrs Watson and Miss Eyre more fully in their capacity as Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, out of Short money rather than Mr Duncan Smith's parliamentary staffing allowance.

19. While such arrangements would in our view have been more appropriate, this does not necessarily mean that the arrangements Mr Duncan Smith and his team adopted constituted an improper use of the staffing allowance, the test that would need to be met for us to find that he had breached the provision of the Code relating to use of payments or allowances. In this context, we note that when asked if use of a less appropriate funding source was "actually wrong",[15] Mr Walker said "Wrong is a strong word. I do not think we have tested that …".[16]

20. We share Mr Walker's doubts, not least because there are clearly shortcomings in the extent of the guidance currently available on the respective scope of Short money and the staffing allowance, on which we comment further below. Mr Duncan Smith's financial arrangements may not have been ideal in the light of the current official interpretation of the scope of the various allowances available to him, but we would not be prepared to find a breach of the Code in circumstances where such ambiguity exists.

General conclusions

21. The Commissioner raised four broader matters as emerging from this inquiry.

The employment by Members of close family relatives

22. Central to the complaint made by Mr Crick were allegations in effect as to whether Mrs Duncan Smith was actually earning the salary she was being paid from public funds. Where an employee is a family member, or the employment is otherwise other than at arms length, there is always scope for perception of abuse, whatever the reality of the situation.

23. In a previous case,[17] the Commissioner laid down some guidelines in relation to the use of the staffing allowance, which, if followed, would in his view provide some protection against allegations of abuse when employing any member of staff, including family members and others where the employment may not be, or may not be seen to be, entirely at arm's length. It is, of course, Members' responsibility to ensure that, if requested, they can properly justify any use of voted money, in the same way as any other recipient. It is particularly important that they can do so in areas such as this, where the risk of allegations of abuse are higher. The Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances and the Department of Finance and Administration may care to consider whether any further guidance to Members on this matter would be appropriate.

Use of the Staffing Allowance and Short money

24. We commented earlier on the lack of guidance available on the respective scope of Short money and the staffing allowance. In essence, this is due to a lack of definition. In its response to the report of the Select Committee on Public Administration,[18] the Government said: [19]

    "The Government recognises the Committee's concerns about the need for greater clarity over the terms and conditions governing the allocation of Short money, not least because of the significant sums of public money involved. Following the Committee's observations the Government will seek to work with the other political parties to achieve greater clarity and transparency in the use of Short money".

In the light of this case, we consider that all parties should give greater priority to this, given that little demonstrable progress appears to have been made since on this issue.

25. Our inquiries suggest that the question of the overall support available to Members individually and to Opposition parties in the House has never been looked at in the round. Some of the issues raised by this case demonstrate the need for this to be done, and the scope of the relevant allowances should be clarified as necessary so as to ensure that the arrangements as a whole provide properly focussed support to Members across the whole range of parliamentary activities. This inquiry has demonstrated, and Mr Walker has accepted,[20] the need to bring greater clarity into this area. This is a matter which might appropriately be taken up by the new Members' Estimate Committee, and we invite it to do so.

Additional Costs Allowance

26. The Commissioner has raised the question of whether steps should be taken to re-examine the rules for the Additional Costs Allowance. This is a matter for the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances.

Disclosure of evidence to the media

27. As the Commissioner points out in his memorandum, a substantial amount of material related to this complaint was put into the public domain, and was the subject of extensive media discussion, before any complaint was made. There was also a substantial amount of ongoing discussion of the issues during the inquiry.

28. We do not believe that this has prejudiced either our own or the Commissioner's ability to conduct a fair and thorough inquiry. This is, as the Commissioner says, a sensitive and complex area, and one on which we may reflect in the context of our review of the Code of Conduct. However, we reiterate that any disclosure of evidence given to the Commissioner after the complaint has been accepted, or to us, may constitute a contempt of the House.

Other matters

29. There are two other matters on which we would wish to comment. The first is that, as the Commissioner points out, this inquiry has been a long and stressful one for a significant number of witnesses, not least Mrs Duncan Smith. We hope that the media in particular will reflect on the fact that involvement in public life does not mean that a person's right to reasonable privacy, and that of their family, is abrogated.

30. The second is aspects of the conduct of Mr Crick. We have grave doubts about some of the techniques used to gather the information submitted in support of his complaint, but these are matters for the BBC.



1   Volume II: Written Submissions received by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; and Volume III: Oral Evidence taken by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Back

2   Appendix 1, para 239 and Annex 4. Back

3   Unsubstantiated allegations are not normally accepted (Guide to the Rules, 2002, HC 841, para 84). Back

4   Appendix 1, para 239. Back

5   Appendix 1, para 9. Back

6   Appendix 1, paras 206-216. Back

7   Appendix 1, para 208. Back

8   Appendix 1, para 235. Back

9   Appendix 1, para 223. "Short money" is a term colloquially used to refer collectively to the various categories of financial assistance provided to Opposition parties under the authority of the Resolution of 26 May 1999. Back

10   Appendix 1, para 231. Back

11   Resolution of 26 May 1999, paragraph 3(1). Back

12   Appendix 1, para 225. Back

13   Appendix 1, para 223. Back

14   Appendix 1, para 234. Back

15   Ev Q 9. Back

16   Ev Q 9. See also Q 57. Back

17   Committee on Standards and Privileges, Fifth Report of Session 2002-03, HC 947. Back

18   Select Committee on Public Administration, Fourth Report of Session 2000-01, HC 293. Back

19   Select Committee on Public Administration, Third Report of Session 2001-02, HC 463, Appendix, para (d). Back

20   Ev Qq 43 and 49. Back


 
previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 29 March 2004