Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Twelfth Report


Appendix 1: Memorandum from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards


Complaints against Nadine Dorries

The Complaints

1. On 24 March 2006 I received a letter of complaint (of which he had earlier notified me by e-mail) from Mr Simon Lewis, a constituent of Nadine Dorries, the Member for Mid Bedfordshire. In his letter, the text of which is at WE1, Mr Lewis complained about a letter he and other constituents had recently received from Nadine Dorries, which had been written on House of Commons headed stationery.

2. The letter in question referred to the future of two Post Offices in, respectively, Houghton Conquest and Haynes, and to street surgeries which Nadine Dorries was shortly to hold in these two communities in her constituency. However, the bulk of the letter was devoted to promoting the claims of the Conservative candidate in the by-election which was due to take place in the Houghton Conquest, Haynes, Southill and Old Warden Ward of Mid-Bedfordshire District Council on 16 March 2006. A facsimile of this letter is at WE2.

3. Mr Lewis said:

"My main objection to the letter would be that it is a blatant piece of electioneering which urges me to vote Conservative. I am sure that Commons paper cannot be used this way. Did the publishers have permission to use the House of Commons heading?"

The Serjeant at Arms had also received a letter dated 14 March from Councillor Neil Cliff, the Liberal Democrat Group Leader on Mid-Bedfordshire District Council, asking whether Nadine Dorries' use of what appeared to be House of Commons notepaper in this way was permissible and, if not, what the Serjeant intended to do about it. The Serjeant, aware of Mr Lewis' intention to complain to me, subsequently passed Councillor Cliff's letter to me. The text of that letter—which I have regarded as a second complaint—is at WE3.

Relevant Provisions of the Code of Conduct and Rules of the House

4. Paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct approved by the House on 13 July 2005 provides:

"Members shall at all times ensure that their use of expenses, allowances, facilities and services provided from the public purse is strictly in accordance with the rules laid down on these matters, and that they observe any limits placed by the House on the use of such expenses, allowances, facilities and services."

5. The facility at issue in this case is the stationery provided to Members for use on official business and, associated with that, the facility of being able to use the principal emblem of the House, the Crowned Portcullis, in carrying out Members' parliamentary duties. The Rules on such matters are approved by Mr Speaker on the advice of the Administration Committee. They were reproduced in full with the Committee's Tenth Report of the current Session.[1]

6. Paragraph 1 of the Rules makes clear that the Crowned Portcullis, the principal emblem of the House, is a royal badge and its use by the House has been formally licensed by HM The Queen. It continues:

". . .the designs and symbols of the House should not be used for purposes to which such authentication is inappropriate, or where there is a risk that their use might wrongly be regarded, or represented, as having the authority of the House."

Paragraph 3 of the Rules provides that original House stationery provided at public expense should not be used inter alia for "supporting the return of any person to public office." Paragraph 4 says that it should not be used for circulars of any description. However, Members are allowed to purchase or reproduce at their own expense House stationery in order to send out circular letters, and such stationery may include the Crowned Portcullis (paragraph 5). Nonetheless, such circulars must, again, not be used in connection with "supporting the return of any person to public office" (paragraph 6). For ease of reference I have attached the full text of paragraph 3-6 of the rules as WE4.

7. Paragraph 7 of the Rules defines a circular as including:

"A letter sent in identical or near identical form to a number of addressees (whether or not it is individually signed and addressed) if it is unsolicited, i.e. if it is not sent in reply to queries or correspondence from the addressees."

8. The essence of these Rules was most recently conveyed to Members in a leaflet published by the Serjeant at Arms in the summer of 2005 (the text of which is reproduced at WE5). It is also available to Members in guidance notes posted on the Serjeant's section of the Parliamentary intranet.

My Inquiries

9. Following receipt of the complaints by Mr Lewis and Councillor Cliff, I wrote to Nadine Dorries (as at WE6) seeking her response. I have also sought the views of the Serjeant at Arms on the issues raised by the complaints.

Nadine Dorries' Response

10. Nadine Dorries replied to my letter on 24 April. The text of her reply is at WE7. Nadine Dorries said that the stimulus for her letter was concerns raised by local businesses and residents about a leaflet distributed in part of her constituency by local Liberal Democrats. The leaflet had implied that two local post offices, in Haynes and Houghton Conquest, were to be closed down, whereas one of them had only just opened after a great deal of personal investment by the owner. In order to alleviate the concern expressed by the two businesses, Nadine Dorries had offered to write to residents explaining that the claims made in the leaflet were inaccurate. She had "also used this opportunity to endorse my own support for [the Conservative candidate in the district council by-election]."

11. Nadine Dorries said that, before distributing her letter, she consulted a number of her parliamentary colleagues, who had advised that as long as she paid for the paper used personally, she would have no difficulty. She therefore bought 1250 sheets of the relevant paper, containing the Portcullis emblem and her House of Commons address.

12. At around the time she had bought the paper, she received the Serjeant at Arm's guidelines regarding use of the paper (i.e. presumably, the leaflet reproduced at WE4). She understood the guidance to say that original House stationery could not be used for unsolicited mail (i.e. for circulars). Since the letterhead she had used was bespoke (i.e. specifically printed) stationery, she believed she was entitled to use it in the way she did.

13. Nadine Dorries concluded that, although she had paid for the stationery herself, she now realised she was wrong:

". . .in using parliamentary stationery in this way—this was certainly not my intention and I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for so doing."

She continued:

"Since this incident I have ordered alternative printed letter headed paper, which does not contain the portcullis logo— to avoid a similar complaint arising again."

14. On receipt of her letter, I wrote to Nadine Dorries again posing some supplementary questions: the text of my letter is at WE8. Nadine Dorries replied on 18 May (WE9), confirming that no staff or other facilities of the House had been used in the production or distribution of her letter. She explained that a comment a local newspaper, "The Comet", had reported her to have made to the effect that she had "satisfied the Serjeant at Arms that nothing irregular [had] happened" had been based on her reading of the Serjeant's guidance leaflet (see paragraph 13 above).

The Views of the Serjeant at Arms

15. I shared both Nadine Dorries' letters (WE7 and WE9) with the Serjeant at Arms. The Serjeant commented:

"I believe that the rules on unsolicited mailings and the use of the portcullis emblem are clear cut and moreover are understood by the great majority of Members. I remain of the view that she [Nadine Dorries] was incorrect to use the stationery . . ."

On Nadine Dorries' reading of the stationery leaflet, the Serjeant observed:

"I regret that I do not consider that the overprinting of original House stationery turns it into bespoke stationery. The original sheet sent with the complaint letter has the embossed crowned portcullis on it. I suggest that our leaflets make it clear that this paper should not be used, even at a Member's own expense, in supporting the return of somebody to public office."

Findings of Fact

16. In March 2006 Nadine Dorries circulated to 1250 constituents in the communities of Haynes and Houghton Conquest a letter, responding in part to comments on a leaflet circulated by local Liberal Democrats concerning the future of local post offices. The letter, which was produced and distributed by party volunteers, was printed on stationery which, although purchased by Nadine Dorries from her own pocket, carried her House of Commons letterhead and included the Crowned Portcullis device.

17. The letter referred to "spurious claims" about the post offices; assured residents of their future; and referred to street surgeries Nadine Dorries planned to hold shortly in the two communities. The bulk of the letter, however, urged the merits of the Conservative candidate in a by-election then pending in the relevant ward of Mid-Bedfordshire District Council. It contained an imprint indicating that it had been published on behalf of the Conservative candidate in that by-election.

18. Nadine Dorries says that she believed at the time she distributed the letter that, since she had paid for the stationery involved herself, she was not contravening any rules of the House in sending it. She has since realised that she was wrong to use House stationery in the manner she did and has apologised for doing so.

Conclusions

19. There is no dispute about the facts relating to the complaints by Mr Lewis and Councillor Cliff. The key question is this. Was Nadine Dorries right, as she believed she was at the time she sent out her letter, that the fact that she had paid herself for the stationery she had used meant that she was not in breach of any rule of the House?

20. Had Nadine Dorries confined her letter to the future of the two local post offices, what she did would have been acceptable. It was a circular but she had paid for the stationery herself and it would have fallen within the scope of paragraph 5 of the Rules. It may be that this is what was reflected in the advice Nadine Dorries says she received from some parliamentary colleagues at the time.

21. However, Nadine Dorries's inclusion in her letter of material openly advocating support for the Conservative Party candidate in an impending District Council by-election fell foul of the prohibition in paragraph 6 of the Rules. Moreover, in my submission, it also fell foul of the rule on the use of the Crowned Portcullis, in that it involved the use of that emblem in her letterhead in circumstances in which "such authentication is inappropriate or where there is a risk that [its] use might wrongly be regarded, or represented, as having the authority of the House." The fact that Nadine Dorries' letter carried an imprint under her name saying that the letter had been published on behalf of the Conservative candidate in the by-election only serves to highlight its non-parliamentary nature and hence the inappropriateness of her use of House stationery and of the Portcullis emblem.

22. Having looked at the guidance leaflet on stationery and postage issued by the Serjeant in the summer of 2005 (WE5) alongside the original Rules, it is possible that the leaflet is less clear on this point than are the Rules themselves, which until recently have not been readily available to Members. In its Tenth Report of Session 2005-06, the Committee reproduced the Rules and recommended that both the Serjeant at Arms' leaflet and his intranet guidance be revised as soon as possible to set out, in full, the authoritative text, together with appropriate explanatory material including any relevant case law.[2] No doubt if there is any scope for doubt on the matter, the position can be made even clearer in the context of this revision. However, I do not think it can be claimed that, on a plain reading of the text, the present position is, in fact, unclear or that Nadine Dorries' conduct can be excused on this basis.

23. In her letters to me of 24 April and 18 May, Nadine Dorries makes a distinction between official House stationery (i.e. stationery provided by the House at public expense) and bespoke stationery (i.e. stationery for which she had paid). But since the bespoke stationery she used for her letter to constituents simply reproduced the heading and footer she also used on her official House notepaper and to all intents and purposes was thus indistinguishable from her official House stationery, I do not find this argument convincing. Moreover, the distinction is irrelevant in the context of the general prohibition on the use of House stationery in any circumstances for supporting the return of anyone to public office.

24. In evaluating this case, the Committee will no doubt feel it right to take into account the fact that Nadine Dorries was first elected to the House in 2005. She has apologised for her error, as she now accepts it was wrong to use House stationery in the way she did. She has also put in place new arrangements designed to ensure that a similar mistake is not made in future. As she paid for the stationery herself, there is no question in this case of any misuse of public funds.

25. Nonetheless, Nadine Dorries' action was, in my view, a clear breach of the House's stationery rules. I therefore recommend that the complaints by Mr Lewis and Councillor Cliff be upheld.

21 June 2006   Sir Philip Mawer



1   HC 1223, Appendix 3.  Back

2   HC 1223, paragraph 13  Back


 
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Prepared 28 June 2006