Patrick Mercer - Committee on Standards Contents


Report



Introduction

1. This case arises from a media investigation firstpublished through articles in the Daily Telegraph and onthe BBC News website.[1] Patrick Mercer, the MP for Newark, was approached by a journalist purporting to be a public affairs consultant representing a group called "Friends of Fiji", who wished to campaign for the readmission of Fiji into the Commonwealth, and sought to do so by hiring people to use influence on its behalf. The journalist, whose real name was Daniel Foggo, used the alias Daniel Mann in his dealing with Mr Mercer, and we use this name in our report.

2. Between the initial approach from the "consultant" on 6 March and the last meeting between them on 25 April, Mr Mercer tabled five Parliamentary questions[2] and an Early Day Motion (EDM),[3] and actively sought to set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Fiji.[4] On 31 May 2013 articles appeared in the Daily Telegraph about the case, and a Panorama programme was broadcast on 6 June 2013. As a result, Mr Mercer referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. He did not identify the potential breaches of the Code involved, so in her memorandum the Commissioner determined that the issues she should investigate were that contrary to the rules of the House, Mr Mercer had:

·  failed to register monies received for the provision of consultancy services;

·  failed to deposit an agreement for the provision of services;

·  failed to declare a relevant interest when tabling five parliamentary questions, when tabling an early-day motion, when making approaches to other Members, and at a meeting of a prospective All-Party Parliamentary Group;and

·  tabled parliamentary questions and an early-day motion, and taken steps to establish an All-Party Parliamentary Group, at the request of paying clients.[5]

The Commissioner also considered whether Mr Mercer's conduct was such as to cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally.

3. To ensure absolute accuracy, the Commissioner has based her findings on the transcripts of the interviews which took place, not on the programmes and articles derived from them. We agree that this is the appropriate way to proceed.

4. The television company which conducted the sting raised questions about the probity of Mr Mercer's involvement with the APPG for Specialist Security. We understand that a complaint to the Commissioner's predecessor was not accepted for investigation. The current Commissioner did not reopen this matter, which was not raised in the documentary.

5. We first considered the Commissioner's memorandum on this case at our meeting on Tuesday 8 April 2014. After that meeting, but before a report had been made to the House, we became aware that Mr Mercer's submission to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards had not been circulated. As it would have been improper to take a final decision without considering this evidence we held our decision over until 29 April.[6]

Key findings

6. The Commissioner's memorandum summarises Mr Mercer's evidence, and comes to clear conclusions. Mr Mercer readily signed an agreement for consultancy services with the "consultant". He failed to register this agreement. Mr Mercer also failed to declare his interest when tabling parliamentary questions and an EDM about Fiji. We also agree with the Commissioner that it is more likely than not that he failed to declare his interest at the inaugural meeting of the APPG.

7. These failures to register and declare are in themselves serious matters. The rules about declaration are stringent, and should be properly observed. The Committee on Standards and Privilegesmade it clear that it would regard it as a very serious breach of the rules if a Member failed to register or to declare an interest which was relevant to proceeding which he orshe had initiated, and that similar considerations would apply in the case of approaches to Ministers and others.[7]Mr Mercer deliberately evaded the rules about registration and declaration, which are intended to provide transparency and accountability.

8. The most serious matter considered by the Commissioner was whether Mr Mercer was willing to use his position as an MP to further the interests of paying clients, through taking part in parliamentary proceedings or setting up an APPG. Mr Mercer's actions, and on many occasions, his words, showed that he was indeed willing to use his parliamentary position for his own gain.

9. Mr Mercer struck out references to Fiji in the contract he signed, and occasionally claimed that he was not being paid for work to do with his parliamentary duties. Similarly, the documents prepared relating to the APPG mentioned the need to comply with the rules. A briefing noted:

    UK All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) must conform to the 26 page rule book and ensure that it registers financial and benefits in kind. Given the media interest, an APPG must tread very carefully to not only conform to the letter and spirit of the rules but be seen to be above reproach.[8]

Mr Mercer prepared a note for "Mr Mann" which stated "It is absolutely vital to have a political operator who organises a determined, ethical but effective campaign [emphasis added]".[9] Paying lip service to the rules is not sufficient; as the Committee would expect, the Commissioner has examined Mr Mercer's actions, and we too will do so.

10. Mr Mercer's claim that he had a genuine interest in Fiji because of his army experience working with Fijian soldiers and because the country's sugar industry was a potential competitor to business in his constituency is thin. As the Commissioner sets out:

    Mr Mercer tabled a single question in 2002, and gave two press statements, five years apart, in 2004 and 2009, all of which related to the position of Fijian soldiers in the British Army. In April/May 2013 he tabled five (or six, given that one was 'carded') questions plus an early-day motion all related to the position of Fiji itself and its membership of the Commonwealth. This was very different and happened very shortly after Mr Mercer had established a commercial relationship with Mr Mann and signed a contract with Alistair Andrews Communications.It was also done in response to prompting from Mr Mann.[10]

On 8 May Mr Mercer was emailed 20 Parliamentary Questions on Fiji and Australasia by an associate, which were submitted to the Table Officer but were "carded", ie Mr Mercer was invited to discuss their drafting.[11]

11. When Mr Mercer was pressed about questions he had been asked to table by "Alistair Andrews Communications" he was happy to respond. He regularly reported back on progress in setting up an APPG. He offered to procure a pass for a member of staff of that APPG. While he warned that he could not guarantee a "satisfactory" report from the APPG, he was quick to reassure his client that it was likely that such a report would achieve their aims.[12]In addition to his actions in tabling questions and in setting up an APPG, identified by the Commissioner, the transcripts make clear Mr Mercer also volunteered to make approaches to a Minister and host the "Friends of Fiji" in the House of Commons.[13]

12. While the Commissioner's report is comprehensive, it is Mr Mercer's own evidence, taken together with the transcripts, which has troubled us most. His initial response to the Commissioner contains assertions which are at odds with the transcripts of his dealings with the undercover journalist. Mr Mercer claims to have repeatedly pressed for details of his clients: the transcript reveals him speaking about their interests without trying to establish who they are, and only raising the matter when a colleague raised concerns about the identity of "Alistair Andrews Communications." As the Commissioner says:

    Mr Mercer had a responsibility to know who was employing him and to declare that information to the Registrar and to the House on appropriate occasions.[14]

Mr Mercer broke the rule against paid advocacy. We agree with the Commissioner that "It cannot be any defence to an allegation of paid advocacy that Mr Mercer did not know who was paying him". Despite his assertions, we see no evidence that Mr Mercer made any serious attempt to identify his ultimate clients.

Providing employment for an associate

13. We are particularly concerned that Mr Mercer appears to have been motivated at least in part by the prospect of being able to provide employment for Mr Paul Marsden, a business associate.

14. Mr Mercer's evidence indicates that he and Mr Marsden had spoken on the telephone in December 2012 and February 2013, before the undercover reporter contacted him, about an all-party group on Fiji. Mr Marsden told the Commissioner that part of the motivation was financial:

    KH—It looks to me like you spent a tremendous amount of time doing work on some of this. Was that in the hope that some consultancy would develop out of it?

    P—To be honest, yes.[15]

15. Mr Mercer pressed the idea of a "foundation" to support the APPG, which would be funded by the "Friends of Fiji". Mr Mercer's evidence to the Commissioner makes it clear that part of his motivation was to find employment for his Mr Marsden:

    KH—[…]. So look, we got to a point—certainly this is the way it comes from Mr Marsden—where there was a possibility that you could use the work that Daniel Mann wanted done to forward the work that you also wanted done on Fiji, and, not to put too fine a point on it, to find some work for Paul Marsden to do.

    PM—Yes, I don't think there's—well, I would certainly—

    KH—That is certainly the way that Paul Marsden tells the story.

    PM—Yeah, yeah, I wouldn't disagree with the latter half of that..[16]

16. Mr Mercer claimed that the motivation for a foundation to support the APPG was that it would protect the APPG from direct influence. We consider that the real motivation in fact is given inMr Marsden's evidence, namely that a foundation "had more freedom to operate".[17] There is certainly nothing in the transcripts of conversations with "Mr Mann" to suggest that the foundation would act as a buffer between the   APPG and the "clients". Instead it is suggested that as APPGs have to abide by rules, a foundation might be a more effective way to press their interests rather than an APPG alone:

    PM: Unless you have an engine…, behind the APPG... the APPG will flounder. There's different ways of putting an engine behind the APPG... if you separate the AP... the engine of the APPG from the APPG... then the APPG... sorry... then the Foundation has more freedom.[18]

17. The transcript of the meeting between Mr Mercer and "Mr Mann" on 15 March shows Mr Mercer pressing to have a foundation to support the APPG; in the meeting on 18 April he presses for Mr Marsden to be in charge of the Foundation, and in a telephone call on 16 April he makes clear that he will be working on the report, and that work on a report can begin even before the APPG is set up. It is clear from the transcript of 25 April that Mr Marsden had sent "Mr Mann" an estimate of the costs of any report.

18. While Mr Marsden's evidence shows that there was some interest in an APPG on Fiji before the approach, we note the following from his evidence:

    we agreed that if a) AAC were not going to end this dithering and unethical behaviour or b) there was an alternative project we could engage with then Patrick would cease any involvement with AAC. I agreed to start to look again at other options in Australasia. To that end I did used my old research on other countries. I identified possibly interesting lines of enquiry in The Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand as well as Fiji.[19]

If Mr Mercer had had a sustained interest in Fiji, there would be no need to look at other Australasian options. The claim that Fiji would be included in a wider Australasian project does not tally with this account.

19. While the rules permit MPs to have external interests, and to use the expertise they gain from them in the service of the House, paid lobbying is prohibited. The rule that no Member "shall act as a paid advocate in any proceeding of the House" is very long-standing, and has been extended to prohibit lobbying approaches to colleagues, Ministers or servants of the Crown. Mr Mercer's willingness to establish an APPG to further the interests of the "Friends of Fiji" flouted that rule. The Commissioner concludes that Mr Mercer's particular choice of Fiji for an APPG and the attempts to influence positively UK government's attitude towards his readmissions, "is closely linked to the financial reward that was being offered to himself and that which he was seeking on behalf of" his associate. We agree.

The APPG

20. In November 2013, this Committee issued a report on APPGs and made a number of recommendations to increase transparency about their funding and support, and to make it clearer which Members were directly involved with their work. We expect that our recommendations will be debated in the very near future. In that report we said:

    […] the Committee recognises, as Ann Coffey MP stated in her evidence to the Committee, that:

    Lobbying is part of the parliamentary process, and it is right that people from outside feel that they can contribute to the democratic decisions that are made. It is the strength of democracy

    Parliament should not exist in a bubble. Indeed, the House of Commons Outreach service identifies APPGs as one way in which members of the public and campaigning groups can find Members likely to support them. The challenge is to make sure that such lobbying as is permitted is appropriate. Whatever the rules, it is always possible for there to be improper lobbying.[20]

21. It is clear from the papers submitted by Mr Mercer that he had been casting around for some form of APPGwhich would provide employment for Mr Marsden. He was willing to seek sponsorship for the APPG. The suggested sponsorship levels[21]were as follows:
Platinum £10,000 Gold benefits + invitation to special events
Gold£5000 Silver benefits + logo on front cover of inquiry report, from that front-page recognition on website and recognition in mailshot to selected key decision-makersinc. Ministers
Silver £2500 Bronze benefits + logo on inside cover of report and front-page website and in final press release
Bronze £1000 recognition on inside cover of report and webpages APPG website

Our report on APPGs recognised that:

    The fact that APPGs can draw on a variety of funding, including external support, brings significant benefits as well as risks. It enables them to carry out proper research, to network and to conduct public information events.[22]

The arrangements proposed went far beyond that. They were designed to ensure that any APPG had the funds necessary to run a Secretariat, regardless of the level of parliamentary interest. The proposal was that the APPG would be supported by a foundation. By Mr Mercer's own account he wanted Mr Marsden to run the foundation. Mr Mercer's submission to "Alistair Andrews Communications" stressed the importance of having "a political operator with many years' experience of both Westminster and Whitehall from a campaigning perspective"[23] to run the group.

22. This committee has recommended, and continues to recommend, transparency about APPG funding. Such transparency should not be confused with encouraging outside interests to "buy the logo of Parliament" and to use their connection with the APPG in mailshots to "selected key decision makers". We are surprised that Mr Mercer apparently saw nothing wrong with this.

23. Mr Mercer's evidence to the Commissioner that when he said that "we will get the conclusion that we want to get" he meant that the APPG would get the conclusion it desired is directly at odds with the transcript of the meeting:

    DF:[...]Can I take it as read that this report will be able to conclude something favourable to the client though in terms of the fact that there should be re-entry into the Commonwealth?

    PM:I think we could probably get to that one.[24]

Similarly, at the meeting on 25 April 2013, he reassured "Mr Mann" that work could begin even before the APPG had the full complement of names and that "the work starts as and when you give us directions, or you're I beg your pardon, when I give directions to, to the APPG according to my, my conversationswith you, I mean, I, frankly, whatever you say, we're going to do that inquiry". While it is true that Mr Mercer does emphasise the independence of the APPG later in that interview he concludes each of his warnings reassuringly:

    honestly Daniel I cannot say to you, look, leave it with me and I will fix this, because clearly that's wrong, you know that's nonsense, I can't do that. What I can say to you is having spoken to Fabian Hamilton in some depth and having spoken to one or two of the other officers about this, er, I am convinced that the, from everything I have heard so far that Fiji...

    [end]

    Rec1_0008

    A:  [...] wouldbebetteroffinsidethe Commonwealth and Commonwealth would be better off having Fiji.

And:

    A:  I cannot deliver you, er, a report that, that is canted, otherwise it's valueless.

    Q:  OK,yes,Iunderstand,yeah,it'sfine.

    OK, er...

    00:01:50

    A:  If you ask me, and and you've said to me am I a betting man,I would be very surprised if we don't find a,a pretty benign picture of what's going on.[25]

Mr Mercer may have paid lip service to propriety, but it is clear he expected to be able to give his clients the report they wanted.

Conclusion

24. We agree with the Commissioner's conclusion that:

    in allowing payment to influence his actions in parliamentary proceedings, in failing to declare his interests on appropriate occasions, in failing to recognise that his actions were not in accordance with his expressed views on acceptable behaviour, in repeatedly denigrating fellow Members both individually and collectively, and in using racially offensive language, Mr Mercer inflicted significant reputational damage on the House and its Members.[26]

25. This is a very different case from that of Mr Yeo, in which Member accepted a single lunch and the very next day said that he considered the "company" concerned was seeking someone to advance its interests by lobbying which was not compatible with his position as an MP.[27] After careful consideration of all the evidence, we have come to the conclusion that the Mr Mercer's actions in pursuing an interest in Fiji through his actions as an MP were motivated by the desire for commercial gain.Mr Mercer may have said that he could not be paid for lobbying, but in fact his actions over five meetings over more than four weeks showed that he was not only willing to act in return for payment himself, and the prospect of a job for Mr Marsden, but would use his colleagues to further his clients' interests.

26. Mr Mercer has apologised both to the Commissioner and to ourselves. He has said that he will stand down at the next general election.[28] We have no powers in this matter, but we consider in the light of this he should repay the "consultancy fees" or give them to a good cause, if he has not already done so. We recognise Mr Mercer's contrition. Nonetheless, we consider that this breach of the rules is so serious that this apology and undertaking to stand down is inadequate.

27. There have been cases before our predecessor Committee, the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and its predecessor, the Committee on Members' Interests, which have had some resemblance to this, but in several such cases, those concerned were no longer members by the time the Committee reported. We are not aware of a case relating to a sitting MP which has involved such a sustained and pervasive breach of the House's rules on registration, declaration and paid advocacy. In the case of John Browne, before the current system was introduced, the Member failed to declare interests in proceedings and in approaches to Ministers.In the cases of Mr Riddick and Mr Treddinick both Members agreed to accept payment to table a Parliamentary Question, but Mr Riddick returned the payment at the earliest opportunity and Mr Tredinnick attempted to register a one-off consultancy fee.[29] More recently, the House of Lords' Committee for Privileges and Conduct investigated the conduct of two Peers in relation to this journalistic "sting", and another very like it, and recommended suspensions of four and six months. Four months is insufficient in this case. Mr Mercer, unlike Lord MacKenzie and Lord Laird, undertook parliamentary proceedings for a fee (neither Lord carried through such actions nor did they receive the agreed fee), and took active steps to set up an APPG.[30]Mr Mercer not only engaged in paid advocacy himself, but he also brought the House into disrepute. As the Commissioner said, he involved his colleagues in setting up an APPG to further his commercial interests.

28. Committees have long been reluctant to recommend expulsion as a penalty. There is a danger that the power of expulsion could be used to remove people because their opinions were unpopular, rather than because of misconduct. Members are elected, and the decision of the electorate should be respected. On 8 April 2014 the Chair of the Committee announced in the House that the Committee had already decided to examine the current system for consideration of complaints about Members of Parliament and to consider improvements as required. That inquiry will be launched shortly. As part of it, we will be consulting on what penalties would be appropriate in future, including the weight which should be given to the fact that Members are elected. At present, although each case is judged on its own merits, as an adjudicatory body we also need to consider any precedents. It would be wrong for us to set those precedents aside without warning.

29. In similar cases, the Lords Committee on Privileges and Conduct recommended suspensions of four and six months. While we recognise that suspension will have an effect on Mr Mercer's constituents, we are mindful of the precedent in the Lords. We recommend that Mr Mercer be suspended from the House (which, unlike the penalty for Members of the House of Lords, includes loss of salary and pension contributions for the entire period of suspension) for a period of six calendar months.The suspension we propose is the longest put forward since 1947, with the exception of that proposed for Mr Denis MacShane, who was subsequently convicted of criminal offences.


1   WE 1 and WE 2 Back

2   About 45,000 parliamentary question for written answer are tabled each year. Back

3   Well over 1,000 EDMs are tabled each year. It is extremely rare for any of these Motions to be actually debated: they serve rather as expressions of opinion (in up to 250 words) which may attract the names of other backbench MPs in support.  Back

4   A list of the 599 currently registered All Party Groups (of which 133 are "country" Groups) may be seen on the Parliamentary webpages at House of Commons - Register of All-Party Groups Back

5   WE 7 Back

6   The Committee's report of 8 April was rescinded at a meeting on 9 April. The text is in the formal minutes relating to this report, which are included at the back of this Report. Back

7   House of Commons, The Code of Conduct together with The Guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of Members: 2012, Session 2010-12, HC 1885, para 97 Back

8   WES, p 10 Back

9   WES, Appendix 9, p 72 Back

10   Appendix 1, para 115 Back

11   WES, Appendix 3, pp 54-56 Back

12   WET 9, 10 and 11, pp 73, 89 and 121-126 Back

13   WET 3, 8 and 9, pp 16, 56-57 and 74-75 Back

14   Appendix 1, para 130 Back

15   WE 33 Back

16   WE 39 Back

17   WES, Appendix 3, p 40 Back

18   WET 6, p 30 Back

19   WES, Appendix 3, p 53 Back

20   Committee on Standards, Sixth Report of Session 2013-14, All-Party Parliamentary Groups, HC 357, para 19 Back

21   WES, Appendix 3, p 58 Back

22   Committee on Standards, Sixth Report of Session 2013-14, All-Party Parliamentary Groups, HC 357, para 31 Back

23   WE 5, p 72 Back

24   WET 10, p 89 Back

25   WET 11, pp 123, 125-126 Back

26   Appendix 1, para 146 Back

27   Committee on Standards, Fifth Report of Session 2013-14, Mr Tim Yeo, HC 849 Back

28   "Patrick Mercer 'taking legal advice over allegations'", ITV News, 9 June 2013, www.itv.com/news Back

29   Committee of Privileges, First Report of Session 1994-1995, Complaint concerning an article in the 'Sunday Times' of 10 July 1994 relating to the Conduct of Members, HC 351 Back

30   House of Lords, The conduct of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, Ninth Report of the Committee on Privileges and Conduct, HL Paper 95; House of Lords, The Conduct of Lord Laird, Tenth Report of the Committee on Privileges and Conduct, Session 2013-14, HL Paper 96 Back


 
previous page contents next page


© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 1 May 2014