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This report on the hon. Gentlemans conduct has evoked considerable interest and comment both inside and outside the House. Some of the comment has related to the fact that the hon. Gentleman had previously employed his elder son as a research assistant. The complaint from Mr. Barnbrook related to the employment of the hon. Gentlemans younger
son, and the commissioners investigation focused solely on that. Complaints have now been made to the commissioner about the employment of his elder son; under our rules, those complaints fall to the commissioner to consider.
In the past few days, my Committee has been accused of being both a kangaroo court and a gentlemans club. In my view, both accusations are wide of the mark. At the heart of our system for dealing with complaints such as this one is the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standardsan independent officer, appointed by the House, who investigates specific complaints about Members conduct. Before submitting a report to the Committee, the commissioner shares the factual sections of that report with the Member who is the subject of the complaint and makes any mutually agreed factual corrections. Having received the commissioners report, the Committee shares it in its entirety, including the commissioners conclusions, with the Member concerned, and invites his or her observationswritten, oral or both. It does so before it enters into any consideration of the commissioners report. Before the Committee reaches its conclusions, any evidence that the Member gives is carefully weighed alongside the commissioners report and any other evidence.
Having chaired the Committee since 2001, I can testify to the fact that the Committee approaches the task of judging colleagues conscientiously and in an entirely non-partisan way. We strive to be fair to the House, which has asked us to enforce its rules, and we strive to be fair to the Member before us and to the public interest. In this case, as in all the others that I have brought to the House, our recommendations were unanimous. All 10 members of the Committee took part in the proceedings, and I am grateful to them for the way in which they handled this case.
As the record shows, the Committee has made tough recommendations to the House when, as in this case, they are justified. To those who say that the punishments that the House imposes on those who break its rules are disproportionately light, I would only add that, as this case and others before it have demonstrated, the reputational consequences of our reports can be fatal. I therefore reject any suggestion that the Committee is either a kangaroo court or a gentlemans club. Our procedures are fair and transparent, and our judgments can have serious and far-reaching consequences for those who have breached the rules. Both the commissioner and the Committee approached this case just as they would any other. The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged the courtesy with which the commissioner treated him and has acknowledged that the Committee offered him every opportunity to explain his position.
As the Leader of the House said, this was the last case reported on by the previous commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, and I thank him once again for his characteristically thorough examination of this matter and clear recommendations to the Committee. His report speaks for itself.
At the heart of this case was whether Freddie Conway was appropriately remunerated for the tasks that he was required to perform, and whether the work was actually carried out. The commissioner concluded that Freddies rate of pay was unjustifiably high given his qualifications and experience, and that, on the
balance of probabilities, he did not need consistently to work his full contracted hours to complete his work. The commissioner also found that bonus payments had been made in excess of the permitted levels. My Committee endorsed those conclusions. Given some of the press comment, however, I should stress that neither the commissioner nor the Committee asserts that Freddie Conway did no work for his father.
A difficulty for the commissioner and my Committee in this case has been the virtually complete absence of evidence of the work that Freddie Conway actually performed, not least when he was at university in Newcastle. The Committee made it clear that it was not for the hon. Gentleman to establish his innocence, but frankly we were astonished that after three years and a substantial amount of expenditure, there was no independent evidence of Freddies outputnor, apparently, could anyone outside the family be found who had seen him working. As the Committee commented on a case in 2004:
It is...Members responsibility to ensure that, if requested, they can properly justify any use of voted money, in the same way as any other recipient.
The hon. Gentleman has admitted that he failed to keep adequate records, and has apologised for his failure to do so. It is also common ground that bonus payments were made that exceeded the authorised ceiling.
What was the hon. Gentlemans defence to the commissioners conclusions about the level of his sons salary? In essence, he consistently maintained that, as his sons salary was within the Department of Resources approved scale, he was entitled to set it at his discretion. The Committee rejected that argument. The salary scale, at the time of the original appointment, ranged from £12,184 to £29,353. Given the extent of that range, the Committee did not believe, as a matter of principle, that Members discretion could be regarded as completely unfettered. A judgment is clearly called for.
The question that we had to address was whether the hon. Gentleman had exercised his judgment sufficiently unreasonably for the payments to constitute improper use of the staffing allowance. The Committee concluded that it did. Freddie Conway was just 19, had just left school following his A-levels and had no experience. Department of Finance and Administration guidance would have suggested a salary at, or close to, the recommended London entry point of £16,614 full-time. Yet Freddies father, by his own admission, took no account of that, and paid him the full-time equivalent of £25,970. The Committee took the view that that was an improper use of the allowance.
Taking all this together, the Committee has made three recommendations that it is asking the House to approve today. The first is that the hon. Gentleman reimburse the House for the sums overpaid to his son by way of bonus. That is the recommendation in paragraph 33 of the report. The second, set out in paragraph 34, is that the hon. Gentleman reimburse the House £6,000 in recognition of the over-generous salary paid to his son. The Committee considered that, whatever other action the House took, some recompense for the sum improperly paid out would be appropriate. For the reasons set out in paragraph 34 of the report, it proposes a payment of £6,000 by the hon. Gentleman in recognition
of that. Finally, in recognition of the overall seriousness of this case, the Committee recommends that the hon. Gentleman be suspended from the service of the House for 10 sitting days.
There are two other matters on which I wish to touch briefly before I conclude. The first is the speculation that the Committee or the House should refer this matter to the police for investigation. As the House will know, Members of Parliament enjoy no general immunity from the criminal law; anyone can refer a matter to the police for investigation at any time, if they have evidence to suggest that a criminal offence has been committed. Both the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and my Committee consider, if necessary after taking legal advice, whether there is sufficient evidence to justify our doing so in any particular case in the light of all the relevant facts. On the other hand, there is no reason, as I am sure the House will agree, for either the Committee or the commissioner to adopt automatically a presumption that a Member who is the subject of a complaint may have committed a criminal offence. The Committee was satisfied on all the evidence before it that reporting to the House, rather than referral to the police, was the right way forward in this case.
The second matter is whether Members should continue to be permitted to employ relatives, or others with whom they have other than an arms length relationship. At this point, I say to the Houseand, indeed, to all the newspapers who have been ringing up since Mondaythat I employ a member of my family, who is remunerated out of my parliamentary allowance. That is a debate for another day, along with a debate about what steps the House needs to take to address the reputational damage that this case has done.
In the meantime, I just say to the House that Members use of allowances is a perennially sensitive issue and that allegations of real or perceived misuse are damaging. This is money that our constituents have paid for through their taxes. It is important that Members can demonstrate robustly, if challenged, that their use of allowances is above reproach, particularly where they have a relationship with the employee that might suggest an element of personal benefit. We should set ourselves similar requirements to those that we would expect of others responsible for the expenditure of public money, as a predecessor Committee suggested in 2003. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup has paid the price for overlooking that principle. I commend the motion to the House.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I should like to support the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges in respect of the motion and to draw some general points from his report, as he did. I do so knowing that while we may individually be held in very high esteem by our constituents, collectively that is not so; it is difficult to think how much lower our collective reputation might sink among voters generally.
There are at least four lessons to draw from this report. The first concerns the punishment. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George
Young) said that other events had come into play and that it was difficult to think of a more severe punishment, but the Committee has been more severe on other Members in other reports, and those Members go around this place as happy as Larry. One of the lessons that I hope that the Committee will think about, not as regards specific cases but generally as regards its policy, is whether our series of punishments is adequate. If this example of what I would see as embezzlement had occurred on this scale in, say, the Refreshment Department, we would expect the person involved to leave the employment of this establishment on the day it was discovered. I believe that we should treat ourselves in a similar manner to how other people employed by this House would be treated.
Secondly, I want to make a plea about the employment of family members. I do so as somebody with no immediate family and so with no vested interest. The circumstances of Members of Parliament and those whom they employ are unique. We work on at least two sites over peculiar hours. I hope that there will be no rush by Members of this House to change the arrangements whereby family members can be employed if they are employed properly. It is proper for us to be clear about expenditure, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said, and it is not improper for us to agree that if family members are employed we can at least present to the Fees Office evidence that they have the qualifications for those jobs. However, given the arguments that I have heard, I would be against changing the rules about Members employing members of their families.
The third lesson concerns audit. I am amazed that the only case that has been put up against audit is based on the sovereignty of Parliament. Our constituents must give a hollow laugh at that when they witness how we have conceded our powers to checknot defeat, but checkthe Executive and how we have allowed powers to go willy-nilly from this place to Brussels. There is no comparison between that movement of sovereignty out of this Chamber and the wish that our expenses should be properly audited. It is proper that as events change we should be prepared to consider the case put to us that our expenses should be properly audited.
My last point is about the balance between our salaries and expenses. I have been in the House for long enough to know Members who were here under the Wilson Government. At that time there was wage restraint for the population as a whole, which was applied to us. Members reported to me that the then Chief Whip went round the Tea Room saying to people, You can vote for the wage restriction on your pay because were adjusting allowancesyou get the message, dont you? The balance between our allowances and our salary is out of kilter. I do not think that our allowances are improper given the job that we are expected to do, but when we ask an outside body to look at our pay, we should be mindful of the fact that although we are overpaid in the eyes of many of our constituents, given their wages, we are certainly not overpaid compared with the responsibilities that we hold and the pay of people with comparable responsibilities elsewhere.
To sum up, first, I question whether the punishment in such cases is adequate. Secondly, I make a plea for the employment of family members. If we did not abide by that, how would we treat partners differently? Would we have some sort of co-habitation rulesand if so, who would we ask to enforce them? The situation would become absurd. I hope that we will consider carefully how we shall audit our expenses. Behind all thisthe tension that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire alluded tois the extraordinary position that we now find ourselves in whereby our allowances are considerably greater than our basic pay.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): As the Leader of the House made clear, this matter comes before us following the investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards and Privileges Committee. I join her in thanking the former parliamentary commissioner for his work. I also thank the members of the Committee for their work, which they carry out diligently on behalf of this House and in the best interests of this House.
I endorse the recommendations made by the Standards and Privileges Committee and support the motion tabled by the Leader of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) described in some detail the Committees recommendations and said a little about its investigations. It did indeed find that the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) had misused the Staffing Allowance and
also seemed to be oblivious to the broader reputational risks to the House of any perception of personal benefit to his family.
All Members of this House should remember that in using public funds we have a duty to ensure that we use those funds properly and within the rules set. The Committees report also makes it clear how important it is for Members to recognise the impact of the behaviour of an individual Member on the reputation not only of MPs or politicians generally but on the reputation of this House. As the Committee said:
Members use of allowances is a perennially sensitive issue, and allegations of real or perceived misuse risk damage to the reputation of the House as an institution, as well as to the personal reputation of individual Members.
Our behaviour, how we conduct ourselves, and how we use public money do not matter only for us as individuals or for political parties; they matter because they affect the views that people have of this institution. It behoves all of us to remember that in all that we do, we carry not just our own reputations but the reputation of this House. I support the motion.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): It is a difficult matter for a Committee to pass judgment on a fellow Member, even more so in cases where the Member belongs to the same political party as oneself. The Committee has carried out its work with the usual integrity that we expect, and we are grateful for its report. I have no criticism whatsoever of the manner in which it set about its work.
This case understandably gives rise to concerns about how our expenses are claimed. Perhaps some hon. Members will feel that the criticism being voiced in the press is without any reason or justification, and that the media misunderstand all about our expenses. We are not crooks; we are honest, and when someone makes claims unfairly and breaks the rules, we see what happens. Indeed, we would not want to go through what the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) rightly went through on Monday. Whether there should be a more severe punishment, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, is a matter of opinion.
The process is lacking at the moment, in that there is insufficient transparency. Yes, money is claimed for perfectly legitimate reasons; I have no doubts about that. But that is not the view of the public. It may be that there is a lack of understanding on the part of the public about what expenses are for. I have said previously that I do not pay expenses to my secretary; I pay her a salary, and I do the same for my assistant in the constituency office. Nevertheless, the question arises whether there is a better way of ensuring that the public can to some extent be satisfied that the money that can be claimed, which is a very large summore than £144,000 excluding travel expensesis spent in the manner that we would expect of other organisations. We expect those bodies to have the transparency and control that we, perhaps, do not.
We are constantly preaching to other organisations about how important it is for proper controls to be in place where public money is concernedbut that practice seems to be lacking on our own part. The situation is even more annoying, because we are honest. We claim money that we believe to be absolutely essential for the carrying out of our parliamentary duties. I do not know whether everyone does, but I welcome the fact that each year the amount claimed is publisheda state of affairs that arises from the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It would be appalling if we did otherwise.
However, questions have been raised. For example, the Senior Salaries Review Body has suggested that the National Audit Office should take a random sample of a number of claims. I know that that idea is being looked into, but why should that not happen? What possible criticism could we have of that idea if we are claiming money properly and legitimately according to the rules, as we say we are? Why should the NAO not be involved? I do not understand why there should be any reluctance on our part about that.
I do not employ any of my relatives, but I see no reason why there should be a ban on a partner or a relative being employed, as long as everything is above boardas, in the unfortunate case we are discussing at the moment, it was not. I am against such a ban, but would it not be right, without going to extremes, to say that any partner or relative employed should be listed in the Register of Members Interests? If the arrangement is above board, it is nothing to be ashamed about. If X employs his or her partner, it would be revealed in the register. I do not see why that should be a problem.
I shall conclude on this note. I do not altogether agree with the assertion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that our reputation is at rock
bottom. That could have been said for centuries. Much of the criticism of our work is wrong and misplaced. However, it is in our own interest and for the good of our reputation that the manner in which we claim public money be shown to be transparent and justified, and the necessary controls be in place. I am not satisfied that they currently are, and I hope that this case means that changes and reforms that help the reputation of the House of Commons will take place.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): As the Leader of the House said, these are always difficult moments for us as a House. That is right, and we should be careful in our response to such matters.
I support the motion tabled in the name of the Leader of the House, and I will invite my colleagues to do the same. I join her and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in thanking and paying tribute to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee, who do a very difficult job exceptionally well, with discretion, courtesy and the proper propriety. That is important.
You will remember, Mr. Speaker, that last week we debated the Senior Salaries Review Body report. Apart from colleagues who served on the Standards and Privileges Committee, none of us had knowledge at that point of what was to be published this week. That demonstrates the proper way in which such matters should be handled. The work was done by the Committee, it was published when the Committee was ready, and only then did it receive publicity. I too give thanks to the previous commissioner for his work, and I welcome his successor. Such jobs are very important, and the procedure works well. There is no criticism of the procedure involved, and if it errs on the side of caution, that is right. It should always presume people to be innocent unless the evidence proves otherwise.
In your earlier statement, Mr. Speaker, you reminded us that you had already considered the decisions we took last Thursday. At that time, we put forward three specific matters for a group of colleagues chaired by you to reflect upon, one of which was alluded to by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).
We asked for further consideration to be given to a lower limit on Members unreceipted expenditure; there was all-party agreement on that. The SSRB proposed that the limit should be £50, and my colleagues and I support that. We urge the Members Estimate Committee and the advisory panel on Members allowances to agree to that change as soon as possible; I hope that it will be agreed by 1 April so that it can come into force at the beginning of the next financial year.
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