Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Written Evidence


52.  Letter to the Commissioner from Mr Iain Duncan Smith, 6 January 2004

Complaint by Michael Crick

I refer to your letter of 16 December and our subsequent meeting on Thursday, 18 December, to discuss its contents and the letter dated 10 December from Mr Walker of the Fees Office.

It was agreed during our meeting that I would confirm my position on the various matters you raised in writing, which I now set out briefly.

Concerns expressed by Vanessa Gearson about my ACA claims

I referred you to page 12 of Vanessa Gearson's transcript of interview in which she alleged there was in respect of my house in Chingford a "concern that centred on the lack of paperwork that had been given to indicate which of the houses Mr Duncan Smith was claiming the allowance for, and the paperwork that had been given had not been changed to reflect this new address." She went on to allege, "I cannot confirm whether these concerns were ultimately proven either to be true or not at the end of the day by the Fees Office. I again make the point that if Vanessa Gearson was, as an official in my office, raising these matters in good faith she would have previously raised them in a transparent way with me.

There is no truth in any of these allegations. Vanessa Gearson had no reason to suggest that this was looked into at any stage by the Fees Office.

I claimed ACA for my Chingford house throughout the period you are investigating. The Fees Office have never questioned these claims let alone investigated them. I regard Vanessa's suggestion that she cannot confirm whether these concerns were ultimately proven by the Fees Office as pure mischief-making on her part as she had and has no facts on which to base such a statement. Quite the contrary, Mr Walker's letter of 10 December confirms that "I have no reason to doubt the validity of the claim."

I believe that all of the claims I have made on the ACA in relation my Chingford House were allowable and correctly made. I stay in my Chingford house as the need arises, usually in connection with my regular visits to my constituency and did so throughout the period you are investigating although in this context, I do refer back to my general observations as to how the investigation has expanded beyond the original complaint concerning my wife as to the proper procedural safeguards for those subjected to such enquiries. The frequency of visits, and therefore my stays at the house, reduced after I became Leader of the Opposition but remained regular nonetheless. I expect now that I no longer hold the position of Leader my visits to the constituency will increase again, although this will have no bearing on my current ACA claims because I ceased to claim for the Chingford house in early 2003. when I paid off the mortgage.

As I informed you, I had and still have a nephew living in my Chingford house who is there to help me and, of course himself as the occupant. My nephew does not pay me rent for staying in the property, nor has he ever paid me rent for staying there. I confirm that I have never received rental income relating to my Chingford house. At no time have I received rent for my house in Chingford as has been suggested to a large number of people by Mr Crick. He was told this clearly months ago but has continued to suggest this to other journalists whenever he can.

Short Money and guidance from the Fees Office

Perhaps I could now refer to the section of your letter covering the Short Money.

When I asked Christine Watson to become my private secretary 1 was clear her new salary would be transferred to Central Office. This was made clear to Vanessa Gearson as well as to Mark MacGregor. However after further discussions with Christine Watson I became fully aware that she would spend a large proportion of her time involved in the organisation of my constituency correspondence as it was her intention to train up and bring in someone who had never done this before. In the early autumn I spoke to Vanessa Gearson when I discovered that Mark MacGregor was still dragging his heels about Christine Watson's salary and told her that a proportion would be paid out of my staffing allowance. If as the Fees Office maintain now this may also have been their advice at the time then we would anyway have been complying with such advice. However, I was not aware of any such advice nor did I discuss the matter with them. I will return later in this letter to the nature of this advice.

At no time from the moment that Vanessa Gearson started work in the Leader's Office did she raise any issues over the use of Short Money even though we had a number of discussions about settling Christine Watson's contract. At no stage did Mark MacGregor over the period that he was Chief Executive raise these issues with me.

That is why when I read your letter enclosing Mr Walker's response from the Fees Office I was concerned about the reference to the Fees Office Guidance on Short Money to my staff in the autumn of 2002. A re-reading of Mr Walker's letter will show conclusively that the conversations referred to are with Christine Watson.

Furthermore, for the reasons I outlined to you I have concerns about the interpretation that Mr Walker has sought to place on the contacts in 2002 (which undoubtedly did occur) between Christine and the Fees Office. First, Christine has informed me after having read Mr Walker's letter that although she had a number of conversations with various people in the Fees Office she does not recall any conversations in the context that Mr Walker suggests i.e. to advise on her the use of Short Money. Instead, she confirms that her statements to you regarding her dealings with the Fees Office remain her best recollection of what happened and what was discussed. The file note seems to confirm Christine Watson's recollections.

You will recall I explained to you that neither in connection with Ms Stockton or with Mr Gorman do the words 'Short Money' appear, not even in the verbatim quote from Ms Stockton's note. That note of Ms Stockton is said to relate to a conversation with Ms Stockton on 20 October 2002 and subsequent to the advice from Mr Gorman but no mention of any such advice on Short Money appears in Christine's memorandum four days later dated 24 October to Vanessa Gearson. Christine is a very precise and thorough secretary—I cannot believe that if she had received such a clear statement, or indeed any guidance on Short Money from the Fees Office, she would have failed to mention it to me, or at least in her memo when it was so critical to her budgetary concerns at that time.

The Fees Office records show that Christine was informing the Fees Office that (following discussions with me and on my instructions) she would be reducing her income from the staffing allowance because she was (or was to about to be) being paid through CCO. As you know from Christine's statement and my own, Christine wanted a raise when she became Private Secretary which would not be fully met by CCO I arranged to make up the difference from my staffing allowance. No-one so far as I am aware ever thought that paying Christine from the staffing allowance was wrong or ever raised it with me. I decided that she should be paid from both funds and from what I can see, Ms Stockton's note merely records that Christine was relaying that instruction, as discussed.

Also, I regard it as unlikely that the Fees Office would be giving advice to Christine in relation to Short Money, but not to me or the Conservative Party. After all the Fees Office would know that Christine did not administer any Short Money. No-one in the Leader's Office administers Short Money, it is done by CCO. Any official guidance on Short Money would have to be given to the political parties which receive it and have to administer and ultimately to account for it.

Then there is the fact that the Fees Office was no more in a position to give categorical guidance on the use of Short Money in autumn 2002 than they are now. I have referred you to The Fourth Report of the Select Committee on Public Administration (HC293; 28 February 2001) entitled "Special advisers: Boon or Bane" at paragraphs 40-53. The Committee found that there is no attempt in any Resolution of the Parliament to define what constitutes "parliamentary business" for the purposes of Short Money (paragraph 45) and it urged the Leader of the House to arrange for a resolution (paragraph 43 and 51). However, there is no such resolution and therefore, presently, no such guidance for Members. The Fees Office were criticised in the same report for having come up with a definition which did not have the approval of Parliament (paragraph 50). No-where is there even a suggestion that there is official guidance of what constitutes the activities associated with being the Leader of the Opposition. This expression of opinion by Mr Walker is a reflection of his personal views to be assessed in the light of the fact that there is no definition or guidance which the Select Committee have called for to avoid precisely these sort of proceedings. What the Committee acknowledges as grey areas remain grey areas until Parliament chooses to deal with the matter.

The Trend Allegation

I remind you that I showed you Christine Watson's notebook from 2002, and her 'to do' list for Monday 18 November 2002 there appeared this entry: "3. Salary letter—Betsy". That is independent corroboration of my decision to take Betsy off the staffing allowance in November 2002. This is supported by the testimonies of Alastair Burt, Owen Paterson, Theresa May, Mark MacGregor and Vanessa Gearson as well as those of myself and my wife.

6 January 2004


 
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