Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Written Evidence


19.  Written statement by Mr Owen Patterson MP, 21 October 2003

[See also Volume III, PCS Oral Evidence 18]

Background

1.  I am the Member of Parliament for North Shropshire and was first elected in 1997. I had very few dealings with Iain Duncan Smith in my first term in Parliament. However, when William Hague stood down as Leader of the Opposition, I joined Iain's campaign team and I was responsible for keeping the book logging MPs'' voting intentions.

2.  The complaint against Mr Duncan-Smith involves an allegation that his wife, Betsy Duncan Smith, was improperly paid by Mr Duncan Smith from his Parliamentary staffing allowance after he had become Leader of the Opposition in September 2001 until December 2002. I am asked to shed light from my own experience on the truth or otherwise of these allegations. In order to do so I need to include my recollection of the period which pre-dates the specific dates which are the subject of the investigation.

3.  I have made this statement in the short time I have had since receiving a fax from the Parliamentary Commissioner in the afternoon of Friday 17th October 2003. I have tried to recollect events as best as I can, but I have not had sight of documents that may have been produced at the time in order to refresh my memory. If there are specific documents, comments or issues which I am asked to explain, I will need to do so when I have had a proper opportunity to consider them further.

Relevant arrangements prior to September 2001

4.  To the best of my knowledge, prior to being appointed Leader of the Opposition, Mr Duncan Smith's constituency office was located in the Parliamentary offices for MPs at Norman Shaw North, where Mr Duncan Smith had a suite of two rooms. The first time I recall meeting Betsy Duncan Smith was when I visited Mr Duncan Smith's offices there. This was in June 2001. When, at the beginning of the campaign for the Leadership, I visited Mr Duncan Smith's constituency offices, the lady to whom I subsequently introduced myself was on the telephone sitting at a workstation when I arrived. From the tone of the call it sounded as though she was dealing with a constituency matter. When the call ended, we went through brief introductions and I established that she was Betsy Duncan Smith. To the best of my knowledge, she was sitting at her own desk. There were lots of papers on her desk and she carried on working whilst I made some telephone calls from another desk. She continued with her work, which seemed to be related to political issues.

5.  The other desk in the outer room of these offices was occupied by Annabelle Eyre. She was also seated at a workstation with papers and appeared to be fielding calls. So far as I was aware there were therefore two people busy dealing with Mr Duncan Smith's work as an MP at the time. Iain was not only MP for Chingford and Woodford Green but also Shadow Secretary of State for Defence.

6.  I do not recall having more than a passing conversation with either Betsy Duncan Smith or Annabelle Eyre on this occasion. Both seemed to be involved in their work and, as I had urgent matters to attend to, we only exchanged pleasantries. I was there for only about an hour and during that time both Betsy Duncan Smith and Annabelle Eyre continued with their work. This is now a couple of years ago and so my recollections are not particularly detailed. I mention the matter only because this was the first time that I met Betsy Duncan Smith.

7.  I went to the Norman Shaw North offices only a few times. I tended to meet Iain Duncan Smith there mainly to interview other MPs to discover their voting intentions. This was a place in which we would have a degree of privacy. So far as I am aware, only people with authorised access were allowed to be in the offices.

8.  I saw no change in the arrangements which I have described above whenever I went to Norman Shaw North again. My recollection is that the offices looked the same on each occasion with desks occupied by Betsy Duncan Smith and Annabelle Eyre respectively and a spare desk, all in the office adjoining the office in which Iain Duncan Smith had his desk.

9.  When Iain Duncan Smith entered the Party Leadership contest in June 2001, we set up a campaign office at 11, Lord North Street. This was solely for the purpose of conducting the Leadership campaign for Iain. As Iain had asked me to assist him in the Leadership campaign, my focus from that point onwards was upon Lord North Street, although obviously I had to continue to deal with constituency matters of my own.

10.  My constituency is rural and it differs from Iain's in many respects. Nevertheless my experience of dealing with constituency work is that solving individual problems can take a lot of time. They are a central and vital part of any MP's work. They are a priority as, if they are not attended to efficiently and effectively, constituents, quite rightly, complain vigorously. Problems can continue over a considerable period of time and take time to resolve. Continuity in the process of fielding these matters and being on top of them is therefore very important. I assume that Iain had to deal with the same sort of issues through his constituency office, but I do not know, as I was not involved in his constituency. I can only speak from my own experiences of being an MP. I can say that he has a reputation for being a good local MP.

11.  Those involved in conducting the campaign (including myself) used to meet at 11, Lord North Street to work on the Leadership campaign daily. I do not recall Betsy Duncan Smith coming to work at the Lord North Street office but I had no expectation that she would, as the office was dedicated entirely to campaign matters, whereas she was only involved in constituency issues. We had many volunteers helping with the campaign itself.

12.  The Leadership election campaign lasted for about 3 months. The first month involved the Parliamentary stage and then there were two months in which the candidates went to the country to develop support among Party members. I was not the campaign manager but played a central role.

Relevant arrangements from September 2001 onwards

13.  At around the time of Iain Duncan Smith's victory in the Leadership election, he telephoned me and invited me to become his Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS). I accepted the invitation and shortly afterwards visited his home in Swanbourne, Buckinghamshire. This is a country house which had recently been vacated by Iain's parents-in-law and was in need of some modernisation. Iain and his family had moved in only recently. I met Betsy Duncan Smith but my conversations on this occasion were almost exclusively with Iain. We discussed party issues and I would not have expected Betsy to have been involved.

14.  In the very early days when I telephoned Swanbourne, it often proved rather difficult to get through due to the lack of facilities. The telephone was often engaged. Betsy Duncan Smith would invariably answer my calls. I have not visited Swanbourne since that visit, but soon after Iain took over the Leadership, modern office facilities were installed and communications improved markedly.

15.  Once the Leadership campaign had been won, the 11, Lord North Street operations were closed down. From September 2001 to late summer 2002, the Leader's Office was based in the mornings at offices at 32/34 Smith Square, the Conservative Party Central Office. The Office was in a building connected by a corridor to the main Party headquarters in 32 Smith Square.

16.  I was not responsible for setting up the Leader's Office at Smith Square. However, as PPS I was involved in Iain Duncan Smith's daily routine. My understanding of my duties as PPS to Iain Duncan Smith was initially drawn from discussions which I had with William Hague's last PPS, John Whittingdale.

17.  He said that the main role of the PPS was to keep in touch with MPs. He advised that the PPS should accompany the Leader on all Parliamentary occasions but should strike a balance between sticking with the Leader at meetings inside and outside Parliament and keeping in touch with colleagues on behalf of the Leader. His view also was that the PPS should act as a sounding board for the Leader and that he should liaise closely with the Shadow Cabinet. Iain went further and created a half-hourly slot in his diary each day so that MPs could discuss with him any issues which might arise. John Whittingdale also said that it was vital for the PPS to attend all Shadow Cabinet meetings, meetings of the 1922 Committee, other parliamentary meetings, appointments meetings and to liaise closely with the Chief Whip. Another extremely time consuming part of the role was to handle all correspondence to the Leader from MPs, peers, MEPs, Scottish MSPs, Welsh AMs, the Board of the Party, Constituency Chairman and Councillors. It was on this advice that I modelled my role as PPS.

18.  My role as PPS did not involve Iain's constituency and so I have no direct knowledge of how he handled them apart from what I have already said. Looking back, if I had applied my mind to it, I would have assumed that Iain's constituency matters were dealt with in the same way as before he became Leader. I, for example, continued to deal with my own constituency and handled the PPS role separately.

19.  John Whittingdale told me that in his view Iain should employ a Chief of Staff based permanently in the Leader's office. This should not be an MP. He told me that William Hague had had a highly efficient manager called Tina Stowell.

20.  It may be obvious to say this but an MP's day usually continues into the evening and it is often only after the Westminster day that he has time to catch up with constituency and other political matters matters which have arisen during the day. This is why many MPs employ their wives as secretaries, as they can be a point of contact during the day and after work can discuss or chase up issues, whether by telephone or otherwise. The MP's wife builds up a substantial fund of local knowledge and political contacts. It is also important to preserve the personal relationship between an MP and his constituency. If this arrangement is changed for any reason, it has to be done gradually and delicately so as to provide continuity.

21.  This is my experience of what is after all a unique job involving the relationship with the constituency and the work in the House of Commons itself. Because so much of the work happens after Westminster hours I would not have any direct knowledge of personal arrangements involving Iain Duncan Smith.

22.  The arrangements which operated at 34 Smith Square were that Annabelle Eyre, who had previously worked in Iain Duncan Smith's office at Norman Shaw North, moved to become his Private Secretary at the Leader's Office. She sat immediately outside Iain Duncan Smith's own office, sharing an office with Andrew Whitby-Collins whose role was to organise Iain's diary, with the help of input on Iain's constituency commitments. Jonathan Hellewell also worked in the office adjoining Iain's for the first few weeks, before he joined me in my office. I was based in a separate office down the corridor from Iain. I confirm that whenever passing through the outer office on the way to see Iain, I frequently heard Annabelle Eyre or Andrew Whitby-Collins on the telephone to Betsy Duncan Smith.

23.  In the afternoons each day, when Parliament was sitting, the Leader's team would move to his office in the House of Commons, following the pattern that William Hague's office had established. My office at the House was at the furthest end of a series of rooms that comprised the Leader's Office in the House of Commons.

24.  With Annabelle Eyre becoming Private Secretary, Christine Watson was taken on by Iain Duncan Smith to handle constituency matters. She did so until the late Summer of 2002. She worked in a completely separate office in the House of Commons. I did not ever visit her office and had no particular reason to do so, because as I have said, I was not involved in Iain's constituency matters. I have never visited Iain Duncan Smith's constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green. Due to the fact that I represent a rural seat in Shropshire, Iain and I have very few constituency issues in common.

25.  Some of the staff inherited from the Leadership campaign had insufficient experience for the Leader's Office, once the Leadership campaign had concluded and left in the winter of 2001/2002. The volume of work in the Leader's Office increased, as John Whittingdale had predicted. Jenny Ungless had done a very effective job in organising the Parliamentary Research Unit from scratch in the previous Parliament, and was appointed Chief of Staff some time in Autumn 2001 until standing down in the late summer of 2002. Her role as Chief of Staff was to run the Leader's Office. She was based in an office in Conservative Central Office. In the afternoons in Parliament she shared my office. She appointed Rebecca Layton in early 2002 to assist her with administrative matters.

26.  This period of transition for the Leader's Office administratively coincided with changes made at a more senior level in Central Office.

27.  In early 2002, David Davis, then Party Chairman, appointed Mark MacGregor as Chief Executive of the Party. Mark MacGregor was based in an office in Central Office, adjacent to the Chairman's office in 32 Smith Square, some distance from the Leader's Office. He never had an office in the House of Commons. I know of no contact which Mark MacGregor would have had with Iain Duncan Smith's constituency office. Mark never reported any constituency concerns or concerns about Betsy's role to me for discussion with Iain until a much later date and I deal with this below.

28.  When Jenny Ungless left in the Summer of 2002, it was clear that the Leader's Office was still not running as well as it might. The lease on 34 Smith Square was running out and a small new office was established in 32 Smith Square so that Iain had a base in Central Office. Later in 2002, the Leader's Office was moved entirely to the House of Commons.

29.  In the late Summer of 2002, Christine Watson became Iain's Private Secretary. She helped to supervise his move from 34 to 32 Smith Square and sat outside Iain's new office in Central office with Andrew Whitby-Collins. In the House of Commons, she sat outside Iain's door. Annabelle Eyre took over organisation of Iain's tours.

30.  In about September 2002, Vanessa Gearson, who had been working for Theresa May, was appointed Administrative Head of the Leader's Office. My recollection is that she was recommended to Iain by Mark MacGregor. As her title would suggest, Vanessa was in charge of administration in the Leader's Office. Although I have seen documents in which she has referred to herself as being Chief of Staff this was never her position. In fact Barry Legg was appointed to this role of Chief of Staff for a short period in early 2003.

31.  Vanessa Gearson was already a school governor and a busy Councillor in Barnet. Soon after joining the Leader's Office, she was selected as prospective parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham. Living in North London, she normally arrived for the 9am meetings and, because of her other commitments, she tended to leave the office at about 6pm each day. Much of the office work was in fact done in the evenings.

32.  When she first joined, Iain was in the small office at 32 Smith Square, which I have mentioned above. She remained at her desk in the Chairman's office until after the Conference, which would have been in October 2002. After the Conference, Andrew Whitby-Collins, who had had an office next door to Iain's office (sharing with Christine Watson) went to work for the Candidate's Department and Vanessa moved to his desk in the office next to Iain. This was for a very short time—a matter of weeks. The Leader's Office then moved to the House of Commons.

33.  Cara Walker, a young inexperienced graduate, was brought in to help with Iain Duncan Smith's constituency work. She worked out of a separate office away from the Leader's Offices. My recollection is that from time to time Cara would come down to the floor I worked on to ask questions of Christine.

34.  From the moment of the election of Iain Duncan Smith to the position of Leader, there followed a period of ongoing change and adaptation to the developing circumstances related to Leadership matters. I had no reason to enquire into arrangements relating to his constituency affairs. Just as Iain Duncan Smith would deal with those matters separately, so would I through my own office. As a result, I had virtually no contact with Betsy Duncan Smith. I now assume that she continued to work on political matters from home. I am not aware that any additional staff were recruited to deal with Iain's constituency, other than through the replacement of Annabelle Eyre and then subsequently Christine Watson.

35.  In the Autumn of 2002, Vanessa Gearson raised with me the issue of Betsy's employment. She did so informally. Vanessa expressed concern that Betsy Duncan Smith was employed by Iain and questioned whether she really did any work. So far as I am aware, Vanessa had no involvement in constituency issues but, regardless of this, I raised the matter with Iain along with a list of routine matters. I believe this to have been in the course of one of our evening meetings at which I ran through issues which had arisen in the course of the day. This was an informal although regular process. Vanessa Gearson raised this matter with me on one or two further occasions in late 2002. This was done in the same informal way. I raised the matter with Iain again and he confirmed, as he had before, that the arrangements were completely regular. My concern was that Betsy's working for him could be misinterpreted and hence could be politically damaging. Even though Iain had reassured me, I continued to worry that this was potentially politically damaging.

36.  There was a Communication Meeting at Central Office once a week. It took place in Theresa May's office and was attended by Theresa May, Stanley Kalms, Mark MacGregor, Stephen Gilbert, Vanessa Gearson and myself. The purpose of the meeting was to ensure that the actions of the various branches of the Party were co-ordinated. The meetings were relatively informal. I do not recall any minutes being prepared. I am fairly sure that the issue of Betsy's employment was raised at one of these meetings. I cannot recall it being discussed at more than one meeting but it is possible that it was. It was one of many matters raised. I cannot remember the detail of what happened or what was said. I have not seen any paperwork that may have been produced and retained. It is a year ago and it was one of a number of matters that came up at the time.

37.  I had agreed at the Communication Meeting to raise the issue of Betsy's employment with Iain, as far as I can remember the matter. It was either as a result of that or my discussions with Vanessa that in a later discussion with Iain, he said that it was his intention to end Betsy's role. I note that the development of administrative arrangements was more or less in place by then. Cara had gained knowledge and experience and now had Tom Hooper working with her. Annabelle Eyre had taken on responsibility for organising tours which meant that Paula Malone, the new diary secretary, had more time than Andrew Whitby-Collins in this role.

38.  As far as I know, neither Mark MacGregor nor Vanessa Gearson raised the matter directly with Iain. Also, as I did not know what the arrangements involved first hand, I would not have expected them to have known either.

39.  I was therefore very suspicious of an e-mail sent in early 2003 by Vanessa Gearson reportedly sent to Mark MacGregor and copied to other people in Conservative Central Office but not to me or to anyone else in the Leader's office (including Iain). I see from the leaked copy referred to in newspapers that it was in fact sent on Thursday 30th January 2003. As I remember, Paul Baverstock (the newly-employed Director of Communications who had just started work at Conservative Central Office) showed me a copy of this e-mail.

40.  I thought it strange that Vanessa had not raised this issue with me as a continuing concern as she had in the past, or, if she felt so strongly why she had not raised the issue directly with Iain Duncan Smith, to whom she had constant access. Also, e-mails sent at Central Office are usually written in an informal fashion. However, Vanessa's email was formal, and appeared to have been drafted very carefully. I spoke to Iain about the contents of the e-mail and he told me that Betsy had already ceased to be employed at the end of December 2002, as he had indicated would happen. Iain then met Vanessa, almost certainly on Friday 31st January. I have checked my diary which shows that I had a dinner engagement in Shrewsbury on the night of Thursday 30th January and a whole series of constituency engagements on Friday 31st January. From memory, Iain rang me at some stage after his meeting with Vanessa to say that he had had a perfectly sensible conversation with her. She had agreed to send a second e-mail confirming that Iain had reassured her that her concerns were unfounded. I do not have copies of either of these e-mails.

41.  Around the time that the e-mails were sent, major further changes to Central Office staffing were being discussed and Mark MacGregor was removed as Chief Executive in February 2003.It was well known that he has a very different view from Iain Duncan Smith as to how the Conservative Party should proceed.

42.  In the Summer of 2003, Vanessa Gearson then moved to a new role as liaison between the Chairman and Leader's Office. It may be that she saw this as a demotion.

43.  The issue of Betsy Duncan Smith's employment was not raised again between January 2003 and the attempt by the BBC's Newsnight programme in the Autumn of 2003 to broadcast what were clearly intended to be extremely damaging allegations in the week prior to the Conservative Party Conference. If those who are accusing Iain Duncan Smith believed that there was any substance in this matter, I feel that they should have produced their evidence months before the Conference. It seemed that this issue was being raised simply as part of a political campaign against Iain.

21 October 2003


 
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