Privilege: John Hemming and Withers LLP - Standards and Privileges Committee Contents

Evidence from Withers LLP

Ev 2A: Letter from Withers LLP to the Speaker, 14 January 2010

John Hemming MP—Emergency Debate 14 January 2010[28]

We understand that there is to be what is being reported as an 'emergency debate' today in the House concerning an allegation by Mr Hemming MP that an e-mail sent to him by our firm on 4 August 2009 was intimidatory and constitutes a contempt of the House. We strongly deny that this is the case.

We assume that you are aware that this matter was canvassed in correspondence between this firm and the Clerk to the House as long ago as November 2009 and we enclose copies of that correspondence to assist you before the proposed debate.[29] We would ask you to note that an apology and an undertaking not to repeat defamatory allegations are entirely appropriate and are usual requests in any libel complaint. Our e-mail of 4 August 2009 was sent during negotiations for a public apology in relation to the defamatory leaflet about which our client complained, but in response to Mr Hemming's then assertion in the context of those negotiations that he would 'make reference to [the allegations] at my earliest opportunity in a speech in the House of Commons'. As our e-mail of 11 August 2009 makes entirely clear, we were not 'in any way seeking to limit what you [Mr Hemming] choose to say in Parliament'.

Given this correspondence, we can confirm without hesitation that Mr Hemming's allegation that we were seeking to stifle a debate in parliament, is entirely without foundation.

As Mr Hemming's allegation is not new, we are concerned that it has been tabled for emergency debate without any notice to us and consequently without our having any opportunity to explain fully the issues to you from our perspective.

Our provision to you of our correspondence with Mr Hemming is of course, in no way a waiver of our client's privilege and/or confidentiality.

Please acknowledge safe receipt of this letter.

Ev 2: Letter from Withers LLP to the Clerk of the Committee, 25 January 2010, by hand

On Friday evening, I attended a consultation with Leading Counsel at which he reviewed with me both the law, the e-mail of which complaint is made and the surrounding context.

In the light of that advice, I am now satisfied that my stance hitherto in relation to the third paragraph of my e-mail of 4 August 2009 to Mr Hemming was mistaken. I accept that it was wrong to seek in that paragraph to make the settlement of a possible libel action in relation to a leaflet published outside Parliament conditional on an undertaking from Mr Hemming restricting what he might say in Parliament. Accordingly, I would like unreservedly to apologise to the House and to Mr Hemming.

I hope that the House will accept that I did not intend any improper interference in their procedures and was acting in the best interests of my client, as I then perceived them. I emphasise that the fault is mine and not that of Mr Knight Adams.

As a courtesy, I have sent a copy of this letter to the Clerk to the House in view of his helpful letter to me dated 3 November 2009 and I should be grateful if you would forward a copy of this letter to Mr Hemming.

Please let me know whether, in the light of this letter, the Committee still requires my evidence before it next meets on 2 February 2010. I look forward to hearing from you.

Ev 6: Letter from Withers LLP to the Clerk of the Committee, 1 February 2010

I understand that the Committee no longer needs evidence from me in the light of my unreserved apology contained in my letter dated 25 January 2010, but that it is open to me to supplement the documents with any explanations to assist the Committee. In the circumstances, I would like briefly to explain why I took the position I did. For ease of reference, I divide my evidence into numbered paragraphs and have added the timings of relevant emails in brackets. I emphasise that my evidence is directed at explaining my position at the time and does not detract from my apology in any way.

1.  My client, a property developer, had threatened libel proceedings arising from a leaflet which Liberal Democrat Councillors had circulated in Yardley concerning The Swan development, the defence of which Mr John Hemming MP took up on 30 July 2009. In accordance with usual practice in defamation cases, I sought in addition to an apology, costs and damages (payable to a charity) an undertaking that neither Mr Hemming nor anyone else in the Liberal Democrat Party would repeat the defamatory remarks.

2.  The initial negotiations on 30 July 2009 were constructive. However, this changed in the course of a number of emails sent from Mr Hemming to me on 3 August 2009. He opened with a proposal for a replacement leaflet to be circulated by the Liberal Democrats (email JH to JM timed 12:32), the wording of which was entirely anodyne and contained no suggestion that my client was guilty of any 'spoiling tactics' in relation to any planning development. I was initially unclear as to whether this was a rewording of the clarification Mr Hemming had earlier offered (hence my email timed 14:07), but Mr Hemming promptly explained that it was not and that the clarification was a separate issue (email JH to JM timed 14:23).

3.  So far, Mr Hemming had disputed my client's interpretation of the leaflet, but had made no suggestion of any impropriety against my client. Twenty minutes later, however, (email JH to JM timed 14:43), without any further email from me, Mr Hemming stated that he had information concerning two developments (Maypole and Worcester) from which 'it could be argued that tactics leading to delay … viz spoiling tactics had been used' (my emphasis). At the end of the same email a possible argument was transformed into an outright allegation that my client 'has a track record of spoiling tactics', which is denied by my client. No detail whatever was given to support the allegation and the only threat to deploy it was 'in the unlikely event' that proceedings were brought.

4.  Twenty minutes later, Mr Hemming changed his position again (email JH to JM timed 15:02) and made an outright threat to raise my client's alleged misconduct not in proceedings (if they arose), but in the House:—

Mr Hemming wrote:

'I consider that his behaviour in respect of the development at The Swan has indeed been a spoiling tactic. I do intend, therefore, making reference to this at my earliest possible opportunity in a speech in the House of Commons and referring to the other situations which we are aware of when he has acted in a manner to delay developments.'

Mr Hemming also said that our threatened libel proceedings would be described in his Commons speech as 'bullying tactics and the way in which [our client] attempts to gag opponents'.

5.  I hope the Committee will understand why, from my perspective, this threat seemed unreasonable. No indication whatever had been given of what the alleged spoiling tactics comprised. My client, therefore, had been given no opportunity to give his side of the story, although later Mr Hemming appeared to accept that this was only right and proper. It seemed very strange to propose an anodyne wording for a new leaflet, then to make allegations which were said only arguably to amount to misconduct, and then to threaten to make outright allegations of misconduct but only under the protection of parliamentary privilege—all within a matter of hours on the same day.

6.  Some thirty five minutes later, Mr Hemming sent a further email (email JH to JM timed 15:38), which made no reference to his threat to raise the matter in the House and suggested that the matter could be settled to the 'reasonable satisfaction' of both sides. I found this odd as it did not sit easily with his position in the immediately preceding email.

7.  My response of 4 August 2009 (email JM to JH timed 17:51) was prompted by my perception that an undertaking not to repeat the libel outside Parliament would be worthless to my client if the allegations were repeated, and indeed expanded on, by Mr Hemming inside Parliament. However, as my letter of apology makes clear, I fully accept that I was wrong in that email to make settlement of my client's libel complaint in any way conditional on any undertaking from Mr Hemming as to what he might, or might not, say in the House.

8.  It remained my, mistaken, view that my position was justified until my consultation with Leading Counsel on the evening of Friday 22 January 2010. Until then I accept that I strongly defended my position. I was also robustly seeking to defend my client's rights and protect his reputation during hard fought negotiations. As soon, however, as I appreciated my error, I immediately notified the Committee and the Clerk to the House in my formal letter of apology delivered by hand on the following Monday morning, 25 January 2010.

9.  There is one other matter I mention in view of its seriousness. In an email dated 11 August 2009 (email JH to JM timed 11:35) Mr Hemming alleged that I was guilty of an attempt to pervert the course of justice. That allegation of serious criminal conduct is for the record entirely without foundation.

I have sought to confine my evidence to what I understand to be the complaint against me. I hope that my apology will be accepted by the Committee and the House. However, if I can be of any further assistance to the Committee on these or any other points, please let me know.

Ev 7: E-mail from John Hemming MP to Withers LLP on 30 July, submitted by Withers LLP

From: John Hemming

To: Jennifer McDermott

Sent: 30 July, 2009 3:11 PM

Subject: Re: Jeremy Knight Adams

Without prejudice

In accordance with the pre-action protocol with defamation as found here:

It is difficult to produce a response within the deadline you have indicated.

The words in the leaflet are as follows:

"During July, a public enquiry is taking / has taken place into compulsory purchase of land needed by Tesco for their supermarket at the Swan.

A few small plots have been purchased by people with the intention of delaying the Tesco development. We are appalled at the 'spoiling' tactics and have supported Tescos at the enquiry."

I personally would be willing to make the following apology / correction

Apology to Jeremy Knight Adams

We recently circulated a leaflet in the Yardley District in which alleged that a few small plots had been purchased by people with the intention of delaying the Tesco supermarket development at the Swan. We would like to clarify that those plots (now all owned by Tesco) are not the plots which are currently owned by Jeremy Knight Adams which are the subject to the current enquiry. We now understand that the owner of the plots, Mr Jeremy Knight Adams, purchased them over 20 years ago and he introduced Tesco to the site in 1993. He did not purchase the plots to delay the Tesco development. His aim is to secure for Yardley the new development which complies with local, regional and national planning policies. He has no objection whatsoever if Tesco carries out a development along the lines he has proposed and he is prepared to do all he can to bring this about.

We unreservedly apologise to Mr Knight Adams for any confusion that may have arise from our article.

Most importantly I am willing to make that statement for the purposes of the inquiry tomorrow which is the basis upon which you are arguing undue haste.

28   This letter was forwarded to the Committee by the Speaker's Secretary Back

29   See Ev pp 48 to 50, below Back

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