Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Written Evidence

11.  Written statement by Miss Annabelle Eyre, 18 November 2003

[See also Volume III, PCS Oral Evidence 8]

I make this statement in response to the transcripts of interviews from Vanessa Gearson, Mark MacGregor and Jenny Ungless.

Vanessa Gearson's testimony

1. Appointment to the office

Vanessa Gearson was originally approached by Iain in July 2002 to join the office after she had discussed with me the possibility of her replacing AWC as the diary secretary. I suggested to Iain that he might speak to her about the diary secretary position, when Iain spoke to her, she made it clear to him that she wanted to run his office. I was concerned to learn from her testimony that she believed it was "clear to them that I was going to be appointed to this role" i.e. Chief of Staff to replace Jenny Ungless (I was not aware that Mark MacGregor had suggested that she should do the job). In August, Iain decided to appoint her as the Administrative Head of the Office. I understood this role to incorporate overseeing the correspondence in and out of the office, dealing with administration of the office including overseeing the diary and liaising with the Shadow Cabinet, and the in the interim having responsibility for the staff in the Leader's Office until such time as a Chief of Staff was appointed.

Vanessa Gearson remained in the Chairman's Office in 32 Smith Square until after the conference in October 2002 when Andrew Whitby-Collins left to join the Candidates Department. From that time, she shared the Leader's outer office with Christine Watson at 32 Smith Square. The Leader's Office continued to follow the practice of staying in Smith Square in the morning and going to the House of Commons in the afternoon. The office in the House was such that whilst Christine's desk was situated directly outside Iain's office, Vanessa Gearson's was behind a dividing door

2. Financial issues

Vanessa Gearson raised a number of issues regarding finances in the Leader's Office in her transcript. She refers to the attitude of those in the Leader's Office and suggests that we believed we were exempt from rules or regulations. I disagree that this was the case. In fact, if anything we were very aware of what we could and could not do, particularly as we had experienced the campaign for the leadership in which we were very careful about declaring expenditure with the Electoral Commission.

She mentions in particular the costs of the three week national tour that the Leader undertook after the Party Conference in 2002. As you will see from the attached note from Robert Ashman, who was responsible for overseeing the organisation of the tour, Vanessa Gearson had little understanding of the organisation involved.

She also raised concerns about mobile phone bills without any understanding of the work involved for those that travel with the Leader. In particular we needed to liaise with the office, the press, journalists, check arrangements for the tour and often make calls to Shadow Cabinet members or MPs on behalf of Iain. We did not have any other office facilities, hence why our bills were often greater than those based in the office.

Vanessa Gearson raises matters with regard to the office set up at Swanbourne. As she acknowledges, she never visited Swanbourne and would therefore have had no understanding of the set up. Iain and Betsy moved their equipment from Fulham to Swanbourne. CCO then helped install equipment so that they had a fully functioning office from the autumn 2001—computer with e-mail facilities, fax, phone lines. However, further changes were made to enlarge it so that he could accommodate other staff (speechwriters and advisers) to work at Swanbourne on speeches, campaigns etc.

3.Office Costs Allowance (Staffing Allowance and TEP) and Additional Costs Allowance

As I have stated in my previous statements, I had responsibility from 1997-2002 for overseeing the Office Costs Allowance and subsequently the Staffing Allowance and IEP. I maintained the files for the allowances and the claims were submitted in accordance to the rules and were approved by the Fees Office. I never had any reason to discuss these allowances with Vanessa Gearson as this remained the responsibility of the Private Secretary.

She raises concerns about my work as private secretary to the Leader of the Opposition (2001-2002), however as I have stated elsewhere my work was almost entirely of a parliamentary nature. My involvement in party political work was minimal.

Vanessa Gearson also mentions claims to the Additional Costs Allowance or the Accommodation Costs Allowance. As I have stated elsewhere, I never had any concerns about these claims, and I never had reason to discuss them with the Fees Office. As far as I was aware there was never a problem with these claims.

Vanessa Gearson refers to Crick's investigation into allowances (page 36).[63] Whilst we were aware of Crick's investigation into Iain with regards to his CV (Newsnight, December 19th)—he had done a similar investigations with other politicians—I was never aware of any suggestion that he was looking into other aspects of Iain's life.

4. Knowledge of constituency work

Vanessa Gearson makes reference to my work as a constituency secretary (1997-2001) and claims that "Annabelle Eyre and clearly been having a number of very significant problems with her workload when she had worked as Mr Duncan Smith's constituency secretary". I never had a problem dealing with the constituency correspondence and casework. As I had no communication with Vanessa Gearson until she came to work at CCO in 2002, I find it hard to understand how she could form any opinion about the work that I did at that time.

She refers to establishing "procedures that brought our two offices together and therefore I had overall responsibility for those" and "by necessity I was absolutely, totally and utterly involved in what was going on". However, in fact she has no involvement in the constituency office and the operations were kept quite separate. Although Christine Watson continued to oversee the constituency office once she was appointed as Private Secretary, Cara Walker dealt with the constituency correspondence solely and was situated on the floor below the main office. BDS remained involved as a support, and I was contacted with regard to constituency issues. Vanessa Gearson would have had no knowledge as to how constituency events were organised or have dealt with constituency material.

5. Annabelle Eyre's role

In her written statement, Vanessa Gearson describes me as "the daughter of Lady Monica Eyre, a long-standing family friend of Mrs Duncan Smith". While this is inaccurate and in any case irrelevant, I take great offence at Vanessa Gearson's inference that I was employed because my mother might have been a friend of Mrs Duncan Smith's. In actual fact I was employed by Iain in May 1997 at which time I had never met Mrs Duncan Smith and my mother did not meet her until the following year. There has also been reference in press reports that my late father, Major General Sir James Eyre, was a friend of Betsy's parents—that too is entirely inaccurate.

In her oral evidence, Vanessa Gearson raises concerns about my "performance" as I have stated in previous statements, I was appointed to my new role as Head of Tours and Planning at the end of August prior to my departure on holiday. I was abroad for two weeks, although I had to return early on 6th September because of my father's illness. I remained at home for a further two weeks whilst my father was seriously ill returning to work on Tuesday 23rd September 2001. My father remained in hospital until his death in January. On 5th October, I left the office to go to the Party Conference in Bournemouth. On Sunday 13 October, Iain started on his three week national tour which continued until Friday 1st November. I was therefore actually in the office for under two weeks. I fail to see how Vanessa Gearson could have assessed my work in my role in such a short time.

It was clear that she did not want me to remain in the office (as Mark MacGregor made clear in his oral evidence) and I believe that is why she suggested that Rebecca Layton and Christine Watson write their memos. I have no recollection of having a meeting with her to discuss any concerns.

6. Arrival at Smith Square (September 2001)

Vanessa Gearson makes reference to the situation on 13 September 2001. As she was not employed in CCO until the summer of 2002, I fail to understand how she would have had any knowledge of what the situation we inherited was. As I have attested, there was no staff in the office, no handover, and no furniture in the Leader's Office. There was not a functioning system.

She also makes reference to the transition from the campaign set up to establishing the Leader's Office. Vanessa Gearson had no involvement in Iain's campaign and would not have been aware of the people involved or of the way in which the campaign was run. A number of people were brought into the Leader's Office from the campaign, including Simon Gordon, but most had been volunteers and only AE, AWC and JH had direct experience of how Iain worked. Simon's work during the campaign had been with the voluntary side of the party, and he was never involved in the workings of Iain's private office.

The Correspondence Unit deal with correspondence from members of the public and members of the party. It was not appropriate for them to deal with other correspondence of a personal nature or from colleagues, either of congratulation, which may have needed a more personal response, or with regard to policy, which would have been dealt with, at that stage, by Owen Paterson, Iain's PPS.

Jenny Ungless began working for the Leader on 15th October. Her appointment was announced to the press on 12 October. Iain had been Leader of the Opposition for a month.

7. Mr Duncan Smith

Vanessa Gearson describes Iain as "quite a demanding gentlemen. He is not particularly personable as an individual ..." Having worked for Iain for over six years, I do not recognise this description of him. I agree that he is demanding as anyone in such a position should be, but as far as I was concerned he was extremely personable. Obviously as his private secretary from 1997-2001, I got to know him well. He was a caring and interested employer. Whilst he expected his employees to be hard-working, productive, and polite, he was always approachable and accessible and insisted that employees to come to him directly with problems or concerns to discuss.

8. Betsy Duncan Smith

Vanessa Gearson raises concerns about Betsy's role and states that it did not go beyond "the absolutely reasonable role as a spouse". As she acknowledges however when she worked for two other members who employed their wives, there were defined issues which they would occupy themselves with through communication with members of staff. That is exactly what the nature of BDS' s employment was: progress—chasing, particularly in relation to the diary, correspondence, and liaising with AE and AWC and more recently CW. As I have stated elsewhere, often her work was as a result of discussions with Iain regarding people he met, people he wanted to meet, arrangements that he wanted made, things he needed followed up etc.

She infers that nobody discussed Betsy's role because she did not actually have a role to play. Vanessa never discussed Betsy's position with me, had she done so I would have been happy to have told her about Betsy's involvement and work in the office.

Mark MacGregor's statement and transcript

1. Leader's Office and BDS

In his statement he refers to meetings with the members of the Leader's office. As far as I recall all his meetings would have been with Jenny Ungless and/or the Leader. He never had reason to meet other members of the Leader's office, he hardly had any dealings with the private office except to make arrangements for meetings with IDS. As a result, I disagree that he was "extremely aware" of the work undertaken in the Leader's office and the sort of work that was undertaken by BDS was not something that would have involved Mark MacGregor. Cara and Christine, when she was constituency secretary, for example, never had any dealings with him. BDS would have had no reason to correspond or communicate with Mark MacGregor, AWC and I would have done that.

Mark MacGregor says that there was no suggestion of involving BDS with the Leader's Tour—perhaps because at that time AB, who was the only representative of the Leader's Office on the tour team, was away. Once I returned to work in late September, I continued to liaise with BDS with regard to the arrangements for the Leader's tour.

He suggests that there are rules about the employment of spouses—I do not believe that is correct. There are no rules set by the Fees Office regarding the employment of spouses in the House of Commons. In fact a number of Members employ spouses, children and even mothers to assist them in the Parliamentary duties.

2. Annabelle Eyre's role

Mark MacGregor is completely wrong about the nature of my employment, which only goes to emphasise how little he knew about the workings of the office. I was Iain's private secretary until August 2002. The work that I did was reclaimable under the Staffing Allowance. My salary was paid from CCO (Short Money) from August-December 2002 when I was promoted to become Head of Tours and Planning to the Leader of the Opposition. In December 2002, Iain was forced to find a donor to pay my salary rather than the Short Money apparently due to the pressures on the Leader's Office budget.

Jenny Ungless's testimony

1. BDS's role in the office and the allowances

Jenny Ungless mentions that there was "no handover" from BDS. As BDS was assisting AE and AWC in the workings of the private office, it would be absurd to expect her to handover anything to Jenny. In any event Iain had been leader for just a month and most of that time had been spent in preparations for the Party Conference and dealing with the situation post- 9/11 and the Afghanistan war.

Jenny Ungless recognises that her office was not close to AWC and AE. She would not have been aware of what our discussions were about, as she said: "it was her impression". JU admits (p 15)[64] that she may not have been in a position to see it.

Jenny Ungless claims that she never raised the issue of Betsy's pay with Mark MacGregor. In addition, she emphasises that she had no knowledge or responsibility for the Parliamentary Allowances as this was something that AB dealt with.

2. The box

It is important to note that Jenny Ungless did not have a key to Iain's box. IDS and AE were the only key-holders at that time. Whilst Jenny Ungless's job was to oversee the box, I would regularly put things in for BDS and remove paperwork that was specifically for me from IDS or BDS or for Andrew, which Jenny Ungless would not necessarily need to be aware of.

18 November 2003

63   See PCS Written Submission 13. Back

64   Not appended by the Commissioner.  Back

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