Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Third Report


Appendix 2: Note by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, January 2007


Complaint by Mr John Mann and Mr Kevan Jones in relation to Rt Hon Sir George Young

Introduction

1. At its meeting on 9 January, the Chairman informed the Committee that he was one of the Members named in the complaint by Mr John Mann (the Member for Bassetlaw), and Mr Kevan Jones (the Member for North Durham), concerning alleged misuse of House of Commons catering facilities by a number of Members for party fundraising purposes. The Clerk's letter of 10 January to Committee members[96] indicated the Chairman's wish that, although the events referred to in his case had taken place more than seven years previously (and therefore fell into the category in respect of which the Committee expects me to consult it before accepting a complaint for investigation) the complaint against him should be examined on its merits. No Member has, I understand, objected to this course of action and I have proceeded accordingly.

The Complaint

2. As the Committee knows, on 23 November 2006 Mr Mann and Mr Jones sent me an extensive file of material relating to the alleged misuse of Parliamentary facilities for party political fundraising. The heart of their complaint (set out in their letter of the same date, of which a copy is attached at Annex A)[97] was that certain dining clubs—notably the Patrons' Clubs run by a number of Conservative constituency associations—were in effect vehicles to raise money for the Conservative Party, in the case of the Patrons' Clubs, by offering their members the opportunity to dine in the House in return for an inflated membership subscription, the surplus from which went to party funds.

3. Mr Mann and Mr Jones alleged that this was contrary to paragraph 5.1 of the current Banqueting regulations (approved by Mr Speaker on the advice of the then Catering Committee, now succeeded by the Administration Committee). This provides that the private dining rooms (and by implication other dining facilities of the House) "are not to be used for direct financial or material gain by a Sponsor, political party, or any other person or outside organisation." Paragraph 5.1, in its present form, dates from December 2000. All the functions involved in the complaint, other than that involving Sir George, were held after this date.

4. The particular complaint against Sir George concerned a lunch meeting of the Basingstoke Patrons' Club, which Sir George's constituency engagement diary indicated he had hosted at the House of Commons on 29 June 1999. Mr Mann and Mr Jones did not supply any direct evidence that this breached the Rules of the House, but appeared in essence to allege that the Club was a fund-raising device for the Basingstoke Conservative Association and that the lunch Sir George had hosted was not charged for at cost but was part of a more general fund-raising effort for the party in the Basingstoke constituency.

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

5. Both the Code of Conduct and the Banqueting Regulations currently in force differ in certain respects from those which were in effect in June 1999. The differences in the Code are not decisive in this case.

6. There is, however, a very material difference in the Banqueting Regulations. I have annexed at B[98] the text of the relevant rules in force in June 1999, and their successors, the current rules (which came into force following a meeting of the then Catering Committee on 13 December 2000, which approved a number of changes to the previous rules). A common feature of both sets of rules is that they make clear that party political functions are permitted. Members will see, though, that there is one substantial difference between them which has a bearing on this case; the rules in force prior to December 2000, unlike the current rules, made no mention at all of fundraising for a political party (whether direct or indirect) being prohibited.

My Inquiries

7. Shortly after I received the complaint from Messrs Mann and Jones, it became apparent to me that local as well as national news media had been informed of the names of those Members against whom allegations had been made, including Sir George. (This information had been divulged to the press before the Members concerned had been informed by the complainants of their complaint, contrary to paragraph 85 of the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members.[99] ) I therefore wrote to Sir George at the same time as I wrote to all the other Members named in the complaint, to alert him to the fact that allegations had been made and, without prejudice to any decision by the Committee in relation to the seven year rule, to give him the opportunity to respond to the complaint should he wish to do so. A copy of my letter of 7 December 2006 is at Annex C.

8. Sir George replied on 11 December (Annex D), saying that there was no evidence that the event in June 1999 had breached the rules in force at the time. Rule 5.3 made clear that the dining rooms could be used for party political functions and paragraph 5.1 was more loosely drawn than it is now. As to how he had become involved in hosting an event for the Basingstoke Patrons' Club (not, of course his own constituency) Sir George indicated that it appeared that he had been asked by the then sitting Conservative Member for Basingstoke, Mr Andrew Hunter, to step in at short notice to host the actual event when Mr Hunter found he could not do so.

Evaluation

9. Responsibility for ensuring that an event at the House conforms with the relevant rules rests with its Sponsor. Although Sir George stepped in at a late stage to host the Basingstoke event, he thereby assumed at least some of the responsibilities of Sponsor when he did so. As paragraph 2.1 of the Rules in force in 1999 (and of the current rules) says: "The Sponsor is responsible for the cost and good conduct of the function, and for ensuring that the terms and conditions of booking are complied with."

10. It would be prudent for a Member who steps in to help a colleague in such circumstances to be sure that the event is one they are happy conforms with the Rules. That said, such a Member might reasonably be expected to assume that the colleague who has initially sponsored the event has taken reasonable steps to ensure, when he or she signed the relevant sponsorship form, that the event complied with the regulations in force. Sir George's involvement was limited to taking over from Mr Hunter as sponsor for the duration of the event (which Mr Hunter would have been obliged to cancel had he been unable to find a temporary replacement who could attend). I do not think a Member who steps in for a colleague as Sir George did can be held to carry responsibility as the Sponsor of an event except for during the period when he is acting as such.

11. However, the key point in relation to the complaint against Sir George - and one which distinguishes it from all the other complaints against Members named by Messrs Mann and Jones - is that, whether or not the Basingstoke Patrons' Club as it was run at that time conformed with the model described by Mr Mann and Mr Jones in their complaint and summarised in paragraph 2 above, the rules in force in June 1999 did not prohibit the use of the private dining rooms for fundraising - whether direct or indirect - by a political party. Indeed, they were entirely silent on that specific point. The Director of Catering Services, with whom I have discussed this matter, concurs with this view. The terms and conditions of membership at the time of the Basingstoke Patrons' Club are therefore not relevant to the question as to whether this function was properly sponsored.

12. There is one other aspect of the rules in force in June 1999 which is relevant to an evaluation of the case. Then (as now) the Banqueting Regulations prohibited the use of the private dining rooms "as an inducement to recruit new members of outside organisations or non-parliamentary associations". I have discussed this aspect with Mr Hunter, who tells me that he cannot recall the prospect of lunches at the House being held out as an inducement to prospective members of his Patrons' Club. The complainants have not presented any evidence to the contrary. The function does not, therefore, appear to have breached this provision, so there is no basis for me to conclude that it was improperly sponsored on this ground. Nor in any event, for the reasons I have set out in paragraph 10, can Sir George be held responsible, in my view, for the manner in which the Basingstoke Patrons' Club conducted itself, apart from conduct specifically arising during the (it appears, very limited) time when he was acting as sponsor in place of Mr Hunter at its lunch on 29 June 1999.

Conclusion

13. I have seen no evidence which suggests that this function was organised for any purpose which was prohibited by the rules of the House then in force or that its sponsors—Mr Hunter and, in respect of attendance at the function itself, Sir George Young—failed to comply in any respect with their obligations under the rules in force at the time for hiring refreshment rooms in the House of Commons for private functions. I have therefore dismissed the complaint against Sir George.

14. I shall be reporting separately to the Committee on the remaining complaints which, as I stated earlier, fall to be considered on the basis of a different set of Banqueting Regulations. Subject to any comments by the Committee, I propose to write today to Messrs Mann and Jones informing them of my conclusion on this specific complaint. For the sake of completeness in relation to their complaint, the Committee may wish to consider attaching this note when it publishes its report on the remaining complaints.



96   Not reported. Back

97   See EV 1, p. 64. Back

98   See EV 3, p. 66, and EV 4, p. 70. Back

99   This provides "It is a basic courtesy that a Member making a complaint to the Commissioner should at the same time send a copy of the letter of complaint to the Member concerned". Back


 
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