Jacqui Smith - Standards and Privileges Committee Contents




Mr John Lyon CB (JL)

Rt Hon Jacqui Smith MP (JS)

JLThank you for coming in. This is [the notetaker] who will take a note of our discussion and show it to you so you can be satisfied as to its accuracy. The note will not be verbatim but it will be reasonably full.
You have my letter of 6 August which sets out the procedure and gives you the main areas I wanted us to cover. Other matters may arise during the course of the interview. Are you content for me to go ahead?
JLCan we start first with the complaint about your media package and claims for event items? As I understand it, you signed off your media package claims, including for entertainment items for eight months, using the same bills for three months. You have readily accepted that you should not have claimed for the event items, and you have apologised. Is that a fair summary?
JLYou said you shouldn't have claimed for these items. Why was that?
JSI accept that I have breached the rules. It was acceptable to claim for telephone, broadband and television inasmuch as access to news channels is necessary for parliamentary duties. The entertainment items were not used by me, but even if they had been they don't come within the category of things necessary for parliamentary duties.
JLCould you explain how you came to make this mistake eight times?
JSLet me show you an example of a Virgin Media bill. You have a summary on the front sheet. Behind it on the second sheet are the details—things that would have been justifiable—although I have repaid some of these— and the event items.
JLDid you look at the detailed sheet when it was included with your claim?
JSNo, I didn't look at the claim carefully enough.
JLThe amounts you claimed changed each month. Did you notice that?
JSNo. I may have thought that some costs might vary, such as phone costs - but I don't think I noticed it or thought about it at the time.
JLWhat thoughts have you had on how to avoid such mistakes in future?
JSI am not claiming anything at the moment. But I am ensuring that I am more careful with future claims, for example with the office costs from the Incidental Expenses Provision.
JLCould I ask about your decision to pay back some of your media package claims? As I understand it, you decided to pay back £400 of the £553 you claimed for your media package—everything except the basic broadband package.
JSAs you say, this repayment went beyond the entertainment items. Basic broadband is about £25 per month. I paid back more than simply cutting back to the broadband. I wanted to pay back anything relating to the television. I didn't want arguments about the package including CBBC that my children watch.

It was a mistake, I rectified it as soon as I became aware of it. If I was trying to pull a fast one I doubt I would have chosen anything as personally embarrassing.

JLThank you. Can we now therefore move on to your arrangements for your home in London?
JLCould we start with your living arrangements in London, which you have helpfully covered in your letter of 24 February to me? Could you give me a fuller description of the accommodation and how you and your sister share it?
JSMy letter explains how we got there. When I was elected in 1997 I had an arrangement with my sister that I would share with her and her partner in London. From 1997 to 1999, the first two years, Redditch was my main home and I claimed for London as my additional home. Throughout my period as an MP except for a period of about two years when my sister worked outside London and I had maternity leave, we have shared. We have lived in three different places.

We decided early on that we didn't want to move the children from Redditch to London. We actually had a conversation when I said that I am going to spend more of my time in London. We decided to separate the family home from my main home.

Then in 1999 when I became a Minister I had to claim London as my main home, until February 2004.

The living arrangements are that we have always just shared the house. One of the things that makes me angry is the interpretation of how we live. It is my home in London. There was a short period when I had a flat, but I didn't like it and it didn't feel like home.

It is a very nice three bedroom Victorian town house. One bedroom is mine, one is for my sister and her partner and there is one for the children. Downstairs there is a lounge, another reception room and a big kitchen and dining area—all of which we share. And there is a garden at the back.
JLDo you have a separate study?
JSNo, I work on the kitchen table. I like people around me.
JLOur work on the diary did not identify many weekends or nights when your husband and your children joined you in your London home. Is that right?
JSOften at the weekends when I am in London the kids are with me. I would agree that this is not frequently—it has happened less as they have grown up. My husband comes more often; he comes once a fortnight during the week to see me.
JLIs it right to conclude from this that your family life is not based in your London home?
JSMy children are based in Redditch—my family is based in Redditch. What we explicitly did was to separate my family life from my work life. This is difficult for people to understand and because of this I checked up with the Fees Office.
JLSo is your principal use of the London home for your parliamentary business?
JSI would say that the key element has been for Ministerial business. When I became a Minister in 1999, London had to be your main home. In 2004 when I had to think about it I realised that if you are a Minister most of your life is your work and most of your time you spend where your work is. I thought, should I change? but decided that something needed to qualitatively change to justify a change of designation. I didn't think it likely that I would spend less time in London. Nothing big enough had changed.

London is my home for parliamentary/ministerial duties.

JLYou said that there is a third bedroom partly so that your children can have a room to sleep in when they come up for school holidays and for weekends. How does that work?
JSWhen they come up that is where they sleep. It is one of the reasons why we moved—so that we could have somewhere proper for them to stay. But they don't leave things there. Twice a month [another child] stays in it.
JLDo you use the house for entertaining?
JSNot very much. If I entertain I am more likely to do it at a restaurant. But famously—if you read the media—I have entertained some of my colleagues there. I also have friends who come and stay. We spent Christmas there and New Year. The kids bring their friends…my son brought a friend.

It is more than visiting a sister or the children visiting an aunt. They wouldn't have to ask permission or to be invited.

JLBut you don't entertain very frequently?
JSIn terms of frequency this happens every couple of months.
JLWhat happens to your sister and partner when you entertain?
JSSometimes they go out; sometimes they join in; sometimes they are in the front room watching television while we eat.
JLYou pay a rent, contribute to bills such as utilities and cleaning, you buy the TV licence, you have bought fixtures, fittings and furniture throughout the house, and you paid £1,000 as a share of having a new boiler. Is that right?
JLWhose name are the utility bills in? How are they split between you and your sister?
JSThey are probably in my sister's name. Arrangements are slightly informal. Her partner pays for a cleaner. I give money on top of my £700 for example occasionally to get repairs done. I say "I'll get this lot done. I'll do one lot, you do another."
JLWhat fixtures, fittings and furniture have you bought for the home?
JSI have bought two beds, a TV, washing machine, crockery, cutlery, two duvets and pillows, chairs; I have paid for decoration, towels, a chest of drawers, a boiler and repairs.
JLWho decides how the main rooms are decorated and painted?
JSMe and my sister. She is more artistic, so she would decide—except for my bedroom . But I am consulted.
JLWhat are the council tax arrangements?
JSI believe my sister pays. I haven't contributed.
JLI see that you only reported the change in your main home to your current London address in March this year (11 months after you moved). Paragraph 3.11.1 of the Green Book says that it is the Member's responsibility to tell the Fees Office if your main home changes. Paragraph 3.12.1 asks you to inform the Department promptly. How did you come to overlook that requirement?
JSI failed in my responsibility. When we moved I didn't change my designation. I accept that I breached that rule.
JLHow would your husband and children describe your London home in terms of whose home it is?
JSI think they would just call it London. They don't identify whose home it is. They just think of it as London.
JLCan we now turn to your arrangements in Redditch? Can you describe the accommodation to me?
JSWe have a lounge and dining room and a large kitchen. We have four bedrooms, and one bathroom (just as we do in London) but the garden is bigger in Redditch than in London. There is a drive and a garage. It is a nice large detached four bedroom house.
JLYour claims come under the headings of mortgage interest, utility bills, Council Tax, phone and telecommunications, service and maintenance, repairs and cleaning. Are there ACA items which you could claim but don't in fact claim for?  
JSOver the period that is what I have claimed for, but I haven't claimed for every month in every category. I haven't claimed for food or subsistence.
JLHow do you decide what to claim for?
JSWe always claim for mortgage interest and council tax and utilities although not always the whole utility bills. We claim for telephone, maintenance and cleaning. But the costs are greater than the maximum of the allowance. It is a matter of choosing what to claim for when we reach the ceiling.
JLWho chooses the furniture and decoration?
JSMy husband—but I am consulted, similar to in London.
JLYou claim for the full Council Tax from your ACA. Why do that if you don't live there yourself?
JSIt never crossed my mind to apply for a discount. It would be weird to take money from my constituents to make a saving for the mass of taxpayers. It never crossed my mind to do this. I always thought that the single person discount was for if there was one person in a home. I think of myself as living there.
JLWould your constituents, if asked, and knowing what you have told me, see you as having your main home in Redditch or in London?
JSThat is quite interesting. Some think that the Home Secretary is in London the whole time. If I meet them on a Saturday they would say "Have you come down from London today?" They think I live in London.
JLBut if they had the information we have been discussing today?
JSProbably quite a few would say your main home is where your children are. That is precisely why I checked with the Fees Office.

But if you are Home Secretary you do and should spend most of your time in London. I was making claims on the basis of my individual circumstances, not my family circumstances.

I honestly don't know—it depends on how they were thinking about me.

JLI would like now to turn to the rules in the Green Book. The first statement is that the location of your main home is normally a matter of fact. What do you say to the suggestion that it's a simple matter of fact that your main home is in Redditch?
JSI don't necessarily think that is the case. The most important thing from 1999 until June this year has been my Ministerial role and my Ministerial work. The default position is that I am doing my Ministerial work; that I am in London and working.
JLHow much were you influenced in your decision about your main home by your judgement about where you were going to be spending your nights?
JSI knew the definition was about nights. I didn't count up, except to think "Where do I have to be?" I thought timewise the demands on me were to be in London. But I didn't count up the nights.
JLDid you take account of the fact that on becoming Home Secretary and had a driver you could now get back to Redditch more easily?
JSYes, once I became Home Secretary and had protection and had a car it became easier to get back to Redditch. If I needed to be in London for 9am I could not manage before. But I could when I had the driver.
JLWould you agree that as soon as you could manage the travelling, there was a pull to spend more time with the family?
JSYes, anybody would do that. When I could I travelled to Redditch to spend the night there.
JLYou know that the Ministerial requirement about assuming your main home was London was abolished in 2004. So could you explain more fully than you did in your letter of 26 March why you said it influenced you in counting London as your main home? Why did you make the assumption that it was necessary to have a significant change rather than reverting back to your original designation?
JSI believed the change related more to Ministers with no real base in London, for whom the old rule was clearly wrong. I thought about what determined my home. And I thought about my likely overnight stays in the year, as a Minister based in London.

If I had changed designation when the rule was lifted I would have been asked why. Was it to save me money?

It was not just inertia. It seemed to me that you needed a justification to change. If asked the question, would I really have said that as Home Secretary I spent more time in Redditch than in London?

JLBut the test is based on nights. You spent more nights in Redditch over the last two years.
JSIt changed in the last year [2008-09]. I could not have known in advance.
JLDo you accept that it was starting to change earlier?
JSI agree it changed.
JLAs a matter of principle do you accept that you were not bound to identify London as your main home?
JSWell, having gone through the process I considered it would be more difficult to justify having my homes the other way round.
JLDo you accept that the rule says "normally" , and the position on overnight stays does allow for exceptions?
JSI remember your report on Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. The number of nights is a reasonable test.
JLAt the same time the exception enabled Members to take account of their personal circumstances.

To recap, just to make sure I have got this right: your decision was not based on the number of nights but on your personal circumstances and your living arrangements. Even after you were spending more nights in Redditch, you still thought of your London home as your main home.

JSI was living with my sister. That is why my arrangements have attracted criticism.

I had the opportunity to share with my sister. I wasn't just renting a room. We have a close relationship.

JLAfter you became Home Secretary in 2007 did you consider that you were likely to spend more time in Redditch than in London?
JSBased on looking forward, I made my best judgement on the basis of where I expected to stay. But I didn't count up the nights, and I couldn't plan for unexpected events.
JLYou will have considered the likely balance of stays between London and Redditch, and all your personal circumstances, with your family in Redditch and, as you said in a statement earlier this year, you are a close knit family. Is that not just the sort of circumstances which suggest you should have seen yourself as an exception to the general rule on overnight stays and located your main home in Redditch?
JSMy sister is part of my close knit family.
JLHaven't you also said that your "nuclear" family is close knit?
JSI like to think so, although looking back I realise in practice I have spent a lot of time away from them as a result of my ministerial duties.

I didn't question the designation when I became Home Secretary. If I was aware of it I might have thought about changing my designation. But I would have to have thought about it carefully.

I would have to have thought carefully about where I would spend my nights as Home Secretary and the difference in where I spent the nights. I wasn't in Redditch as much as I had been.

JLWere you aware that since becoming Home Secretary your pattern of overnight stays was changing in favour of your constituency home?
JSLondon was where I was most of the time.
JLOnce you had to base your identification of your main home on the facts rather than the ministerial presumption, were you still right to identify your main home as London? The number of nights spent there grew smaller once you became Home Secretary.
JSAt the time when I became Home Secretary something qualitative would have had to happen to make me change the designation. Nothing did happen.
JLHad you been aware, would you have considered changing the designation of your main home from London to the constituency?
JSI felt that I was spending much more time in London. I wanted somewhere that felt like a home.
JLBut the police figures showed something different, with more nights spent in the constituency. Between the police figures and the diary estimates there is a big difference. Why do you think there is such a big difference?
JSThe police figures were collected for a different purpose. I believe the combination of my Ministerial and personal diaries are likely to be more accurate.
JLThe police figures are collected because they need to pay staff accurately, to show who is on duty when. With your figures we had to make certain assumptions.
JSThere were likely to have been similar issues with the police figures. There could be some double counting. The figures were kept for the purposes of accountancy not to identify police officers' locations. They were accurate enough to show how many staff they had on protection teams at any point but not necessarily where they were allocated.
JLThe definition of a main home changed significantly in April 2009. The number of nights is no longer the test. It is for the Member to decide with no qualifying criteria. Have you reconsidered the designation of your main home in the light of this change in the rules?
JSNo, for the same reason that applied in 2004. There would need to have been a qualitative change in my circumstances.[2]
JLMay I turn to the telephone conversation your husband had with the Fees Office on 18 June 2007, recorded briefly in the file note I sent you on 21 May. Is this a reasonable summary?
JLDo you accept that this suggests you had doubts in your mind??

JSWe were thinking of moving in London, as we did in April 2008. I thought about what I was claiming for. Some people think the family's home is the same as my main home, and my family is in Redditch so that must be my home too.

I realised I would be criticised for my arrangements. I was trying to ensure that I stuck by the rules.

JLWhat would you say to the suggestion that this demonstrates you were considering your options—London or Redditch?
JSI was trying to ensure I stuck by the rules. The most financial benefit to me would have been to share the mortgage in London with my sister. That would have cost the taxpayer more in the long run. I decided not to do that.

I wanted to carry on living with my sister. I liked it, it felt right. I am reasonably unusual among my colleagues in that I have never bought a second home: I only own one home not two.

JLHow heavily were you influenced by the suggestion that you could not claim for rent if you nominated the London house as your second home, since your sister paid the mortgage?
JSI could have claimed for food, subsistence, furniture, the boiler. I don't think there was a lot in it. I was about to move home—I would have been justified in claiming the cost of moving and my share of the council tax as I expect it would have been more in London than it was in Redditch.

In Redditch there are parts of the costs of the house that we don't claim for, such as the office. I don't believe I would have claimed less the other way round. The Green Book asks Members to bear in mind value for money, as we do. That is why I use part of our home as an office.

JLFinally, what would you say to the suggestion that you had discretion under the rules to nominate Redditch as your main home, on a balanced analysis of the facts it is your main home; and that you should therefore have identified Redditch as your main home for the purpose of any ACA claim you made?
JSThat is based on a lack of understanding of the rules and a complete misunderstanding of my living arrangements. It has been said that I have been my sister's lodger—those have never been my arrangements. I would have been criticised as being a part time Home Secretary and it would have been said that I wasn't spending more time in Redditch. And I would have been asked what had changed to justify my "flipping".
JLBut on the basis of your overnight stays ; the nature of the accommodation ; your working and family life ?
JSLooking back I stuck by the spirit of the rules, by the rules as they were pre-2004; I tested them by checking with the Department; I fulfilled the objective requirement of the rules; I made a reasonable judgement that prospectively I was likely to spend more nights in London than in Redditch.
JLAnything else you would like to say?
JSThis isn't a personal criticism, but I don't think it is right that people can make a complaint first to a political party and then to the Mail and then back off. The untrue version gets into the papers and is repeated and then Members are held to account for it—with no consequences for the complainant.

The complainant had experienced just one summer when I was living at that property; and one Christmas when she was away. That is pretty significant.

JLWouldn't she argue that overall from April 2008 she was right, you were not there more nights than you were in any other place?
JSI don't think she was. She oversold her case. Our other neighbour who has a better view of the property believes I was there 60% of the time.
JLThank you. We will now prepare a note of our discussion and show it to you so you can comment on its accuracy. Once I have the note of the meeting I shall send it to you in the next couple of days together with the factual sections of my memorandum, for you to check for accuracy.

I will then add my conclusions and submit the full memorandum to the Committee. The Clerk will show you it and invite any comments you want to make about it and any comments will be submitted to the Committee with my memorandum. Thank you for coming in.

1 September 2009

2   After the interview Ms Smith said "Whilst the change in the Green Book didn't change my view, I think I made clear during the interview that I have not claimed any ACA since I finished as Home Secretary at the beginning of June.  This is because I now believe that the change in my circumstances would make Redditch my main home.  This is the sort of 'qualitative change' that I refer to earlier.  However, as the House has now decided that no member can change their designation, I have not claimed any ACA."


previous page contentsnext page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 12 October 2009