Bill Wiggin - Standards and Privileges Committee Contents


Bill Wiggin



Introduction

1. We have received from the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards a memorandum, reporting on his investigation into a complaint that for much of the period 2004 to 2006 Bill Wiggin, the Member for North Herefordshire,[1] made fixed monthly claims against his Parliamentary second homes allowance (the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA)) which were not justified by the costs he had incurred. The complaint was made by Mr Jim Miller of Leominster in November 2009.

2. The Commissioner completed his investigation on 1 July 2010. His memorandum is published at Appendix 1 to this Report. In accordance with our usual procedure, we supplied Mr Wiggin with a copy of the Commissioner's memorandum and invited him to give evidence. Mr Wiggin submitted written evidence, which is published at Appendices 2, 3 and 4.

The Commissioner's findings

3. Mr Wiggin has a home in his constituency and a home in London. From January 2004, Mr Wiggin made monthly Additional Costs Allowance claims in respect of his London home for council tax and telephone, utilities, service and maintenance costs. In financial years 2004-05 and 2005-06, most of these claims were for the sum of £240. Mr Wiggin also claimed for other items, including mortgage interest.[2]

4. The Commissioner identifies as the principal issue for him to resolve the question of "whether, over the financial years 2004-05 and 2005-06, Mr Wiggin acted within the rules in claiming routinely £240 a month from his Additional Costs Allowance for a range of services." As the Commissioner points out, "That amount was just £10 below the limit established by the Department for claims not backed by invoices or receipts."[3] The rules in force at the time (2004 to 2006) stated that invoices or receipts must be provided for all items of expenditure of £250 or more.[4] This meant that Members were able to claim sums under £250 without producing invoices or receipts, an arrangement which the Commissioner describes as "clearly unsatisfactory" and which was discontinued in 2008.[5]

5. As the Commissioner has found, Members were in effect able to choose between claiming the full amount with invoices where the sum exceeded £250, or claiming less than £250 even when the actual costs were higher, without having to justify their claims. This meant that substantial sums of money were claimed and paid to Mr Wiggin and to other Members without any test of the validity of the claims. The Commissioner points out that the lax nature of the allowances system before 2008 has meant that neither the House authorities nor Mr Wiggin have evidence of the costs Mr Wiggin actually incurred. He continues:

If Mr Wiggin made these claims when his actual costs were in fact less than £240 a month, or they were not incurred as a result of his parliamentary duties, then Mr Wiggin was in breach of the rules.[6]

6. The Commissioner acknowledges that, although Mr Wiggin's decision to claim routinely £240 a month for a range of items was probably influenced by the fact that he was not required to produce invoices for claims at that level, it would not be right for him to find that Mr Wiggin was thereby in breach of the rules of the House.[7] The rules clearly allowed Mr Wiggin and other Members to do this—but only if they had actually incurred the costs for which they were claiming in each month.

7. The Commissioner finds that, with the exception of council tax, it is not possible for him to give a definitive answer to the question of whether Mr Wiggin actually incurred the costs he routinely claimed (£240 a month each for utilities costs, for telephone costs, and for service and maintenance costs). This is because Mr Wiggin provided very little evidence to substantiate his claims. Although the Commissioner suggested that Mr Wiggin check with his service providers and his bank to see whether any relevant records existed, Mr Wiggin chose not to do so.[8]

8. The Commissioner finds that Mr Wiggin over-claimed on his second home council tax bill for 2005-06 by £716, of which he was paid £285 because his overall claims for that year had reached the maximum allowed. Although the Department of Resources took the view that other claims by Mr Wiggin could have been met had there been sufficient headroom, the Commissioner concludes that:

… the result of Mr Wiggin routinely claiming £240 a month for council tax whenever he considered the ACA budget would allow it, meant that he received £285 more for this item than he should have done. He was, therefore, in my judgement, in breach of the rules in receiving this amount for his council tax in 2005-06. I therefore uphold this part of the complaint.[9]

9. On the basis of what he describes as "the limited and largely circumstantial evidence" available to him on Mr Wiggin's other costs, the Commissioner has nonetheless been able to reach a judgment on the balance of probabilities as to whether it is more likely than not that Mr Wiggin actually incurred the costs for which he claimed.

10. Mr Wiggin claimed a total of £1,856 for his second home's utility costs in 2004-05, and £2,880 in 2005-06 (of which he was paid £2,449 after a reduction to take account of the Dissolution period, in respect of which allowances are not payable). On the balance of probabilities, the Commissioner finds that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Mr Wiggin over-claimed in 2004-05 but that it is more likely than not that he did so in 2005-06. He therefore upholds the complaint in respect of the £2,449 Mr Wiggin received for his utilities bills in 2005-06.

11. Mr Wiggin's claims for his second home's telephone costs amounted to £240 a month for seven months in 2004-05 (a total of £1,680 over the year) and £240 a month for each month in 2005-06 (a total of £2,880, of which he was paid £2,449 after a reduction to take account of the Dissolution period). The Commissioner notes that Mr Wiggin had three telephone lines to his second home and that he shared them with a business run by his wife, Wiggin Public Relations. He comments that "It would have made much more sense for there to have been separate lines separately billed and charged."[10] He points out that Mr Wiggin made "considerably lower" telephone claims in 2007-08, when he claimed for five months at £190, two months at £75, one month at £60 and one month at £50. On the balance of probabilities, the Commissioner concludes that Mr Wiggin's share of his second home's telephone bills was more likely than not to have amounted to less than the £240 he claimed in each of the 19 months. He therefore upholds this part of the complaint.

12. In 2004-05, Mr Wiggin claimed and received £240 a month for six months (a total of £1,440) for service and maintenance of his second home, in addition to some major items for which he claimed a total of £4,458. In 2005-06, he claimed £240 a month (a total of £2,880, of which he was paid £2,449 after a reduction to take account of the Dissolution period). Mr Wiggin did not submit any evidence in support of the monthly claims, instead telling the Commissioner that they related to work carried out by plumbers, electricians and service engineers or to the purchase of DiY materials and that he was entitled to make them. The Commissioner finds it hard to accept that, on the balance of probabilities, the costs of such incidental and routine maintenance could or should have come every month to at least £240. He therefore concludes that Mr Wiggin's service and maintenance bills were more likely than not to have cost less than the sums he claimed and received in 2004-05 and in 2005-06. As the Commissioner points out, Mr Miller did not refer to the service and maintenance claims in his complaint. However, the issues are the same and the Commissioner has, in accordance with precedent, included these claims in his investigation.

13. The Commissioner has also considered whether Mr Wiggin wrongly designated his London home as his main home for a period of three years. Again, this matter did not form part of the original complaint but emerged in the course of the investigation and was followed up. The Commissioner notes that the evidence is that Mr Wiggin's designation of his main home during this period "was handled by him in a chaotic way."[11] In January 2004, Mr Wiggin designated his constituency property as his second home. This designation remained in place until January 2007, after the Department had drawn to Mr Wiggin's attention that he had been claiming for costs incurred in relation to his designated main home. The Commissioner has found that Mr Wiggin's monthly claim forms were "a muddle." Mr Wiggin did not deliberately breach the rules. However, the Commissioner finds that Mr Wiggin made "a careless—but repeated—mistake".[12] He concludes that Mr Wiggin was in breach of the rules of the House in wrongly designating his London home as his main home from January 2004 to January 2007.

14. In his assessment of the seriousness of the various breaches that, on the balance of probabilities, he has concluded occurred, the Commissioner describes Mr Wiggin's designation of his London home as his main home as "an unfortunate and unintended muddle." He identifies as a strong mitigating factor the Department's failure to pick up the error much earlier than they did. However, the Commissioner considers Mr Wiggin's other breaches to have been serious.

This is because his claims for some items were, on the balance of probabilities, above the costs he was reasonably likely actually to have incurred. I consider that, even by the standards of the time, the way Mr Wiggin handled his claims was not acceptable since a too casual approach led to him making some excessive claims for his second home costs in 2004-05 and 2005-06. In my judgement, these claims could not be justified by what was likely to have been the actual expenditure he necessarily incurred in support of his parliamentary duties. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr Wiggin believed that he was entitled to receive the full ACA allowance each year, and submitted his claims accordingly, without always checking that each monthly claim was justified by the expenditure he had actually incurred in each category.[13]

15. The Commissioner records in his memorandum that in January 2007, a Departmental official had made a file note, in which he described Mr Wiggin as giving the impression that he applied the ACA rules "in a fairly cavalier manner."[14] He considers that "there have been remnants of that attitude in the information [Mr Wiggin] has given in my inquiry."[15] The Commissioner adds that "It is disappointing that Mr Wiggin did not make a greater effort to identify what he actually paid for the various services for which he claimed."

Mr Wiggin's evidence

16. In his initial written evidence to the Committee, Mr Wiggin welcomed the Commissioner's conclusion that he did not breach the rules by claiming £240 each month for utility and other bills without receipts (so long as the expenditure was actually incurred). He apologised for over-claiming for Council Tax in 2005-06 and for his "casual" administration of Parliamentary allowance claims in 2004.[16] However, Mr Wiggin took issue with several of the Commissioner's findings:

  • Mr Wiggin does not accept that he failed to "check for records" which might have substantiated his claims
  • Mr Wiggin suggests that the Commissioner's finding in respect of his claims for utility bills in 2004-05 and 2005-06 are inconsistent
  • Mr Wiggin defends his apportionment of his telephone bills between Parliamentary use and his wife's business use
  • Mr Wiggin maintains that he spent more than he claimed
  • Mr Wiggin describes the Commissioner's decision to base his conclusions on a balance of probability as "deeply worrying given that he has admitted to having insufficient evidence"

17. We considered Mr Wiggin's evidence at our meeting on 7 September. We noted, in particular, that Mr Wiggin had not taken up the Commissioner's suggestion that he approach his service providers and others for evidence of the bills he actually paid. It appeared to us that, if he had acted in accordance with the Commissioner's suggestion, Mr Wiggin would have been able to demonstrate that his ACA claims were, as he had consistently maintained, for sums below the expenditure he had actually incurred—or not, as the case may be. We therefore offered Mr Wiggin a further opportunity to obtain this evidence.

18. Mr Wiggin wrote to us on 16 September.[17] He expressed his willingness to comply with our suggestion and he supplied us with copies of letters he had written to his service providers.[18] In early October, he wrote again, enclosing copies of bank statements for most of 2006-07, plus copies of the telephone bills he had previously supplied to the Commissioner, covering much of 2004-05.[19]

Conclusions and recommendation

19. The Commissioner concludes, and Mr Wiggin accepts, that Mr Wiggin wrongly designated his main home between 2004 and 2007. We agree with the Commissioner that this was due to carelessness on the part of Mr Wiggin, that there is no evidence of intent and that the failure of the House authorities to notice the error for three years is "a strong mitigating factor."[20]

20. We welcome Mr Wiggin's apology for over-claiming £285 in respect of Council Tax in 2005-06. However, we note that Mr Wiggin has not yet offered to repay the sum.

21. In his evidence, Mr Wiggin has criticised various aspects of the Commissioner's conclusions. Mr Wiggin states that "The Commissioner is incorrect to say that I did not check for records." We have found nothing in the Commissioner's memorandum which amounts to such a broad allegation. The Commissioner accepts that there is "some strength" in the argument that Mr Wiggin did not expect to be asked to produce invoices or receipts and that it is now some years after the event.[21] As summarised above, he suggested to Mr Wiggin that Mr Wiggin check with his service providers and bank to see whether any relevant records existed. The Commissioner does not allege that Mr Wiggin failed to check his own attic, but he has concluded that Mr Wiggin chose not to check with his service providers or his bank, despite having been invited to do so. Mr Wiggin has told us that he is:

willing to apologise ... fully for my poor administration. I regret that my records have not been kept to the standard of scrutiny that in retrospect they should have been ...[22]

22. As noted above, it is our view that, had Mr Wiggin asked for and obtained copies of his utility bills and bank statements, it is likely that he would have been able to provide the Commissioner with conclusive evidence, which would have either supported or demolished the allegation that he claimed less than he spent. We are very surprised that Mr Wiggin apparently chose not to write to his service providers until he was invited to do so by us.

23. The evidence eventually supplied by Mr Wiggin is far from complete. However, we are satisfied that it is sufficient for us to reach a conclusion based on the balance of probabilities. This is, as Mr Wiggin noted in his evidence, the same test that the Commissioner applied in reaching his conclusions. We do not agree with Mr Wiggin that the Commissioner was wrong to base his conclusions on a balance of probabilities. The present Commissioner and his predecessors have always used this test when reaching conclusions on cases investigated by them. They have done so with the consistent support of previous Committees on Standards and Privileges.[23] In particularly serious cases, both the Commissioner and the Committee have required the evidence to demonstrate that an allegation is significantly more likely to be true than not to be true before it is upheld. However, in our view the complaint against Mr Wiggin is not such a case. We therefore support the Commissioner's decision to base his conclusions on a straightforward balance of probabilities and we note that, in his final piece of written evidence, Mr Wiggin himself used it. We wish to make two additional points:

  • First, a balance of probabilities is a stringent test; it means that an allegation must be found to be more likely to be true than not to be true before it may be upheld
  • Secondly, had Mr Wiggin sought and obtained when originally invited to do so evidence that was available to him but which was not available directly to the Commissioner, he could at that early stage have put the matter beyond doubt.

24. We turn now to Mr Wiggin's detailed comments on the Commissioner's conclusions and to the evidence he has supplied.

GAS AND ELECTRICITY COSTS

25. Mr Wiggin has described the Commissioner's finding that the seven monthly claims of £240 he made for his utility costs in 2004-05 did not breach the rules but that the twelve monthly claims of £240 he made in 2005-06 did as an odd and "at best inconsistent conclusion." Mr Wiggin appears to have based this view on an assumption that the Commissioner's conclusion related to Mr Wiggin's claims in respect of each month of those years, whereas it is clear from the Commissioner's memorandum that he was considering the totality of the claims in each year. It is on this consistent basis that the Commissioner has reached different conclusions in respect of the two financial years, 2004-05 and 2005-06. The Commissioner states that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the sum claimed in respect of 2004-05 was excessive. It appears to us that, in reaching this conclusion, the Commissioner was in effect giving Mr Wiggin the benefit of the doubt.

26. As we have already noted, this is a matter which we believe Mr Wiggin could have placed beyond doubt, by obtaining the relevant documents. It is disappointing that Mr Wiggin has apparently been unable to obtain copies of his past bills from his gas and electricity supplier. He has, however, supplied us with bank statements for most of the period April 2006 to January 2007. These show that in each month from June 2006 to January 2007, Mr Wiggin was paying £473 by direct debit for the gas and electricity used at his London home. In April 2006, the monthly sum was £486.

27. This new evidence does not relate to the period when, the Commissioner has concluded, Mr Wiggin was probably claiming more than the cost of his gas and electricity. It is also evidence not of the actual cost of the gas and electricity consumed, but of a payment plan intended to even out energy costs over the course of a full year. And as Mr Wiggin acknowledges, the monthly direct debits have varied over time. However, it would be unreasonable for us not to take this new evidence into account in reaching our own judgment on the balance of probabilities. In our view, the new evidence tips the balance sufficiently in Mr Wiggin's favour to make it unsafe to for us conclude that he claimed more for his utility costs than he incurred. It is worth restating that, had Mr Wiggin obtained copies of his energy bills for the relevant period, he could have put the matter beyond doubt. It is, of course, still open to him to do this.

TELEPHONE AND COMMUNICATION COSTS

28. Mr Wiggin supplied the Commissioner with a number of telephone bills which he found in his attic. The bills related to the three telephone lines that Mr Wiggin shared with his wife's business. As the Commissioner notes, "These showed that in August 2004 the bills were £597, the bills for November 2004 came to £503, and in February 2005 to £552."[24] There was also a bill for £96, dated October 2004. Mr Wiggin's evidence was that, when claiming £240 a month for his London home telephone costs, he was estimating his share of the overall bills. He told us that in the absence of guidance about how to apportion the costs between his own use and that of his wife's business, he does not know how he is supposed to work out his share of the bill "except by making a judgement."[25]

29. We accept that to go through these bills disentangling his own use of the telephone lines from that of his wife's business would have been time-consuming for Mr Wiggin, although we note that he appears to have done this in 2007-08. We also assume that his wife faced carrying out a similar exercise when drawing up her business accounts, so we are a little surprised that the breakdown was not readily available. Moreover, we strongly agree with the Commissioner that "It would have made much more sense for there to have been separate lines separately billed and charged."[26] We cannot understand why it would not have occurred to Mr Wiggin to do this.

  1. Mr Wiggin has not supplied us with any further evidence of his telephone costs. We therefore looked again at the bills he had already supplied to the Commissioner. Mr Wiggin supplied three bills in relation to one of the three telephone lines to his London home; and he supplied two bills in relation to each of the other two lines. It appears to us that the bills for two of the three lines were prepared on a quarterly basis; the evidence suggests that the bills from another company for the third line were issued monthly. This being so, the cost of the telephone and communication services supplied to Mr Wiggin's London home—both his own use of the three telephone lines and whatever use of those lines was made by his wife's business—was as follows:

Line 1£1,327 over the period June 2004 to February 2005 Equivalent monthly rate: £147
Line 2£197 over the period September 2004 to February 2005 Equivalent monthly rate: £33
Line 3£224 in October and November 2004 Equivalent monthly rate: £112
Total equivalent monthly rate: £292

31. Mr Wiggin told us in written evidence that he was paying "well over £400 even in August 2004" for his telephone bills.[27] From the sparse evidence of the few bills which Mr Wiggin has provided, the average monthly figure was less than £300. In the absence of any evidence as to the proportion of the telephone costs which should properly have been borne by Mrs Wiggin's business, we are unable to calculate how much Mr Wiggin was entitled to claim from Parliamentary allowances during the period covered by these bills, a situation which we find deeply unsatisfactory. But as the Commissioner concluded:

£240 is a lot to spend on a home telephone in a month. And Mr Wiggin would not have been there for substantial periods—he would have spent a considerable amount of time in his main home in his constituency, particularly in the recesses. And, when Parliament was sitting, he would have been in the House. I therefore find it hard to accept that Mr Wiggin's telephone costs when staying in his London home on parliamentary duties reached £240 each month. I am reinforced in this conclusion by the considerably lower telephone claims Mr Wiggin made in 2007-08, when he claimed for five months at £190, two months at £75, one month at £60 and one month at £50. He made no claims at all in 2008-09.[28]

32. On a balance of probabilities, we conclude that Mr Wiggin's average monthly use in connection with his Parliamentary duties of the three telephone lines to his London home that he shared with his wife's business was unlikely to have cost as much as £240 in 2004-05 and in 2005-06.

SERVICE AND MAINTENANCE COSTS

33. Mr Wiggin has been unable to supply us with any evidence of the costs he incurred in servicing and maintaining his second home, for which over an 18-month period he also claimed £240 monthly, in addition to claiming separately for major items. This is because Mr Wiggin paid cash for work such as redecorating, which he told us cost him about £300 to £500 per room.[29] Mr Wiggin's evidence to the Commissioner was that the monthly costs related to work carried out by plumbers and electricians (he made no mention of decorators), plus some DiY costs (these costs included paint). The Commissioner concluded, on a balance of probabilities, that the actual costs were more likely than not to have been less than the sums claimed. We agree with the Commissioner.

OVERALL CONCLUSION

34. We agree with the Commissioner that the arrangement under which Members were able to claim for items under £250 "was clearly unsatisfactory."[30] It was never the case that Members were permitted to claim for sums greater than the costs they actually incurred. The evidence shows that it is more likely than not that Mr Wiggin did claim for expenditure he did not incur, in respect both of telephone services and of service and maintenance. However, the new evidence supplied by Mr Wiggin does not support a conclusion that he over-claimed for gas and electricity costs. Although these costs appear to have been remarkably high, we conclude that Mr Wiggin was within the rules in claiming, as he did, £240 each month towards them from his Additional Costs Allowance.

35. The Commissioner has concluded that Mr Wiggin's muddled failure to designate his main home correctly was unfortunate and unintended. Mr Wiggin gained nothing and the public purse lost nothing from this mistake. However, the Commissioner considers that the rest of Mr Wiggin's breaches were serious.[31] We agree with these assessments.

36. We also note with disappointment the Commissioner's remarks about Mr Wiggin's attitude towards cooperating with his inquiry and we take this opportunity to remind all Members of their obligations under paragraph 18 of the Code of Conduct:

Members shall cooperate, at all stages, with any investigation into their conduct by or under the authority of the House.[32]

RECOMMENDATION

We recommend that Bill Wiggin apologise to the House through this Committee in writing for wrongly designating his main home from 2004 to 2007. We further recommend that Mr Wiggin repay the £285 he over-claimed in respect of council tax in 2005-06. Finally, we recommend that Mr Wiggin apologise to the House through this Committee in writing for claiming from Parliamentary allowances costs that we have concluded he did not actually incur and that he repay £4,009, representing half of the sum he was paid from Parliamentary allowances in respect of telephone and communication costs and service and maintenance costs for his second home in financial years 2004-05 and 2005-06.


1   Prior to the 2010 General Election, the constituency was known as Leominster Back

2   Appendix 1, paragraph 112 Back

3   Appendix 1, paragraph 123 Back

4   Appendix 1, paragraph 128 Back

5   Appendix 1, paragraph 130 Back

6   Appendix 1, paragraph 124 Back

7   Appendix 1, paragraphs 132 and 133 Back

8   Appendix 1, paragraph 135 Back

9   Appendix 1, paragraph 136 Back

10   Appendix 1, paragraph 136 Back

11   Appendix 1, paragraph 137 Back

12   Appendix 1, paragraph 138 Back

13   Appendix 1, paragraph 140 Back

14   Appendix 1, paragraph 64 and WE23 Back

15   Appendix 1, paragraph 131 Back

16   Appendix 2 Back

17   Appendix 3 Back

18   Evidence not printed Back

19   Appendix 4, enclosures not printed Back

20   Appendix 1, paragraph 140 Back

21   Appendix 1, paragraph 135 Back

22   Appendix 4 Back

23   See, eg, Second Report of Session 2000-01, HC 89, paragraphs 16 to 20 Back

24   Appendix 1, paragraph 19 Back

25   Appendix 2 Back

26   Appendix 1, paragraph 136 Back

27   Appendix 4 Back

28   Appendix 1, paragraph 136 Back

29   Appendix 4 Back

30   Appendix 1, paragraph 130 Back

31   Appendix 1, paragraph 140 Back

32   HC, 2008-09, 735 Back


 
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