Mr Andrew Mackay and Ms Julie Kirkbride - Standards and Privileges Committee Contents

50.  Letter to the Commissioner from the Director of Strategic Projects, Department of Resources, 24 August 2010

Thank you for your letter of 12th August and for showing me an extract from the evidence which you have received from [name], the then Head of the Fees Office, whom Mr Mackay has said that he met in September 1997 to discuss matters relating to the identification of his main and second homes.

Perhaps I can first correct some of the references [the former Head of the Fees Office] makes. It is understandable that his recollection of events is blurred by the passage of time since he left the House's service in 1998, and, of course, he has no direct knowledge of events after that time.

To deal with the points in order:

  • The position of Director of Strategic Projects was created as a personal appointment in 2007. I believe that [the former Head of the Fees Office] may be confusing this post with that of Director of Operations, as held by [name] from his appointment in 2004 until he left the House earlier this year
  • The Department of Resources was created in January 2008 after Sir Kevin Tebbit's Report on the House service. It replaced the Department of Finance and Administration
  • The then Department of Finance and Administration moved from Dean's Yard to 7 Millbank in September 2001
  • The passage of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was the stimulus to many public bodies to adopt a more considered and rigorous policy on the retention of records. This was implemented in the House. Old records were sorted into those which had a current utility, those which should be archived and those which could be destroyed. There was no wholesale disposal of Members' personal files, though it is possible that documents were not retained which ought to have been. This may explain the absence of any record of a conversation between Mr Mackay and [the former Head of the Fees Office]
  • No policy of "absence of prior audit" was introduced by the current Director General of Resources, though as part of wider development work consideration was given at one stage to the option of replicating in respect of allowances the Inland Revenue approach of post-event checking of taxation liabilities. Such a policy was never implemented.

I turn to your specific questions. In your letter to me, you say that [the former Head of the Fees Office] said that "he does not know whether anybody in the office would necessarily know that Mr Mackay and Ms Kirkbride were married." In fact, he said that he did not know "whether anybody in the office responsible for "payments" would necessarily know that Mr Mackay and Ms Kirkbride" were married. This is an important difference. The junior officials responsible for paying allowances may indeed not have known about such matters, but the framework within which allowances were authorised was set by more senior officials who would have known when Members were married to one another.

From the extract which you have sent me, I am not clear whether [the former Head of the Fees Office] contests Mr Mackay's recollection of their September 1997 discussion. But even if no such discussion had taken place, it should have been incumbent upon senior managers in the then Fees Office to look at unusual circumstances such as those of two Members married to one another so as to ensure that they were properly advised and that the purpose of ACA was being properly followed.

I note that Sir Paul Kennedy accepted (in relation to Ms Kirkbride) "of course that the Fees Office did know what was going on because it authorised payments in respect of your claims". I respectfully agree with Sir Paul's view.

You refer to Mr Mackay's evidence in his letter of 21st January 2010, that he did not inform the Fees Office that he was sharing a property with another Member who was his wife. I have not seen the question to which Mr Mackay was here responding. However, I inferred that it was a question asking him whether he had made a formal notification when the request to do so first appeared in the Green Book of 2003. Despite him not having done so, the clear implication to me of the early part of his letter of 21st January is that he openly discussed his and Ms Kirkbride's living arrangements with [the then Head of the Fees Office].

In sum, [the former Head of the Fees Office's] evidence does not cause me to change my original conclusions that it was reasonable for Mr Mackay to have inferred that the Department had no difficulty with the arrangements.

Finally you ask for a response to [the then Head of the Fees Office's] suggestion about a Compliance Section check. I assume that [he] is referring to a section in the Department established in 2005 and known as the Quality Assurance Team. During 2007 and 2008 this team was tasked to examine the claims of about a fifth of Members randomly chosen each year. Neither Mr Mackay nor Ms Kirkbride was among the Members checked during those years. The systematic examinations ceased in 2009.

I now turn to the letter [from your office] of 20th August.

It became a requirement for Members to indicate their second homes on each relevant claim form after the publication of the 2003 Green Book. In 1997, Members were simply required to provide details of their main home on a nomination form that was completed when they were first elected. Documentation was not required to support ACA claims and so, as a general rule, the Fees Office had no knowledge of the location/address of Members' second homes.

However, if Members were concerned about their arrangements, they could and did discuss the issues which concerned them with senior managers in the Fees Office. Notes of conversations, together with other background notes, were normally kept in a general file (there was one for each Member). These files were not referred to at a day-to-day operational level, though operational staff would have been instructed not to make any payments which were regarded as in principle irregular.

Please let me know if I can help further.

24 August 2010

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