Mr Jeremy Hunt - Standards and Privileges Committee Contents


Mr Jeremy Hunt



Introduction

1. The Committee has received a memorandum from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, reporting on the outcome of his investigation of a complaint against Mr Jeremy Hunt, the Member for South West Surrey. The memorandum is appended to this Report.[1]

2. The complaint against Mr Hunt was made by Mr Mike Simpson, who is the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for South West Surrey.[2] Mr Simpson complained that Mr Hunt's constituency agent had used his second home, for which Mr Hunt claimed Additional Costs Allowance (ACA), giving rise to accusations that the agent and her political party were receiving a benefit from public funds. As the Commissioner states in his memorandum,

In essence the complaint against Mr Hunt is that he claimed expenses for a residence in his constituency which were not wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred when staying away from his main home for the purpose of performing his parliamentary duties; and that these may have provided a benefit from public funds to a political organisation, contrary to the rules of the House.[3]

The relevant rules of the House are set out at paragraphs 7 to 11 of the Commissioner's memorandum.

The Commissioner's findings

3. Mr Hunt purchased a small property in Farnham, a town in his constituency, when he was the Conservative Party's prospective parliamentary candidate for the South West Surrey constituency. Following his election in May 2005, Mr Hunt nominated this property as his main home for the purpose of his claims against the ACA. He re-designated it as his second home with effect from 1 November 2005, from which point he has claimed against the ACA for the costs of this home.[4]

4. From November 2003 until her retirement in June 2007, Mr Hunt's local party agent also used his Farnham property, staying there for about three nights a week free of charge. Mr Hunt spent on average between one and two nights a week in the property. Mr Hunt claimed a total of £19,117 against the ACA in respect of the property during the period between November 2005 (from when it was designated as his second home) and the retirement of his agent. He did not reduce the claims he made to reflect his agent's use of the property.[5]

5. While assisting the Commissioner with the investigation of this complaint, the Department of Resources discovered that Mr Hunt had wrongly claimed against the ACA for utilities, council tax, telephone and food in respect of his Farnham property for the period May to October 2005—a period when it was nominated as his main home.[6] Mr Hunt claimed for mortgage interest in respect of his London home for the same period but made no other ACA claims in respect of his London home for this period.[7] When this was drawn to his attention, Mr Hunt repaid the entire sum thus wrongly claimed.[8]

6. Until the later stages of the Commissioner's investigation, Mr Hunt maintained that the claims made in respect of his second home were for expenditure incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in support of his Parliamentary duties.[9] However, following publication of our Tenth Report of 2008-09,[10] Mr Hunt agreed that there were some similarities between his case and that of Mr Tony McNulty and accepted that he had breached the rules.[11]

7. The Commissioner concludes:

Mr Hunt has … accepted that he made a wrong judgement in not abating his agent's full living costs, including a proportion of the mortgage interest, in the claims he made against his additional costs allowance. He has unreservedly apologised. He has offered to repay half of his ACA claims for the period when his agent had use of the property (£9,558.50). Mr Hunt has also accepted that he made an error in claims for utilities and other items for his Farnham home in 2005 when it was still designated as his main home. He has repaid the sum involved, £1,996, in full. He has repaid the differential between his full and his discounted council tax (£466).[12]

8. The Commissioner's memorandum also deals with the central allegation made by the complainant, which was that Mr Hunt's arrangement diverted public money for the benefit of a political organisation—his local party. This is, as he notes, a serious allegation. The Commissioner considers the various ways in which the use made of Mr Hunt's property might have diverted public money for the benefit of his party, and rejects each of them.[13] He accepts Mr Hunt's evidence that the agent could have stayed elsewhere in the constituency free of charge.[14] The Commissioner concludes that there is no evidence that public funds were diverted for the benefit of Mr Hunt's party..[15]

9. The Commissioner further concludes that there is no evidence that Mr Hunt derived any real financial benefit from his party agent's use of his property, or that the party agent acted improperly.[16]

10. Mr Hunt was offered an opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee but informed us that he was content not to do so.

Conclusion and recommendation

11. In reaching his overall conclusion, the Commissioner refers to the Committee's Tenth Report of Session 2008-09, in which we concluded that the use of a Member's second home by his parents as their sole home had meant that their living costs were effectively subsidised from public funds.[17] We agreed with the Commissioner that 'living costs' in this context includes mortgage interest payments. In Mr Hunt's case, the use made of his property by his party agent was substantial, but at three nights a week was clearly short of full-time occupancy. The Commissioner has had to make a judgment as to whether this represented reasonable occasional use, or was something more. He concludes:

there comes a point where the overnight guest turns into, in effect, a lodger. There comes a point where the property is being shared by that other person or persons. Mr Hunt's arrangements were well past those points.[18]

We agree with this judgment.

12. In accordance with a recommendation in the Twelfth Report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Commissioner gives his opinion of the seriousness of breaches he has found to have occurred.[19] In this case, he has concluded:

I consider it a serious matter that Mr Hunt allowed his constituency agent to stay with him in his second home rent-free while claiming the full costs from parliamentary allowances. But I accept that Mr Hunt received no real financial benefit from the arrangement and that the error was caused by his misinterpretation of the rules. The Committee will wish to note his unreserved apology and his offer to pay back half of all the costs he claimed for this property over the period for which it was used also by his constituency agent.[20]

As noted above, Mr Hunt has already repaid £1,996 in respect of claims he should not have made and £466 in respect of the discount he could have claimed at the time from Council Tax but did not.[21] In total, Mr Hunt has either repaid or offered to repay £12,020.50.

13. We agree with the Commissioner that Mr Hunt committed two breaches of the rules, both of them arising from claims for Additional Costs Allowance in respect of his constituency home. Mr Hunt committed the first breach by mistakenly claiming ACA for the property when it was designated as his main home. Mr Hunt has apologised for this breach and has repaid the wrongly claimed sums in full. The second breach arose when Mr Hunt continued to provide a benefit in the form of free accommodation to his party agent in his constituency home, following its designation as his second home and thus during a period when he claimed against ACA for his own use of the property. Although we agree with the Commissioner that this did not have the effect of diverting public money to the benefit of Mr Hunt's party, we also share the Commissioner's view that it provided a personal benefit to the agent from public funds. We therefore welcome Mr Hunt's unreserved apology and his offer to repay half the sums claimed during the relevant period. We accordingly recommend that Mr Hunt repay £9,558.50. Provided that this sum is repaid promptly and in full, we make no further recommendation.



1   Appendix Back

2   Appendix, paragraph 4; WE4 Back

3   Appendix, paragraph 12 Back

4   Appendix, paragraph 66 Back

5   Appendix, paragraph 67 Back

6   Appendix, paragraph 37 Back

7   Appendix, paragraph 69 Back

8   Appendix, paragraphs 41 and 48 Back

9   Appendix, paragraph 25 Back

10   Tenth Report, Session 2008-09, Mr Tony McNulty, HC 1070 Back

11   Appendix, paragraphs 51 and 52; WE24 Back

12   Appendix, paragraph 71 Back

13   Appendix, paragraph 80 Back

14   Appendix, paragraph 71 Back

15   Appendix, paragraph 80 Back

16   Appendix, paragraph 81 Back

17   Tenth Report, Session 2008-09, Mr Tony McNulty, HC 1070 Back

18   Appendix. paragraph 77 Back

19   CSPL 12th Report, MPs' expenses and allowances - Supporting Parliament, safeguarding the taxpayer, Cm 7724 Back

20   Appendix, paragraph 88 Back

21   Appendix, paragraphs 44 and 54 Back


 
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Prepared 10 December 2009