Patrick Mercer - Committee on Standards Contents


Formal Minutes


Tuesday 8 April 2014

Members present:

Kevin Barron, in the Chair
Sir Paul Beresford

Mr Robert Buckland

Mr Tom Clarke

Mr Geoffrey Cox

Sharon Darcy

Mr Peter Jinman

Fiona O'Donnell

Mr Walter Rader

Dr Alan Whitehead

Draft Report (Patrick Mercer), proposed by the Chair, brought up and read as follows:

1. This case arises from a media investigation first published through articles in the Daily Telegraph and on the BBC News website.[188] Mr 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. 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[189] and an Early Day Motion (EDM),[190] and actively sought to set up an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Fiji.[191] On 31 May 2013 articles appeared in the Daily Telegraph about the case, and a Panorama programme was broadcast on 6 June 2013.

2. As a result, Mr Mercer referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. She decided to start an inquiry on her own initiative. 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.[192]

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 Commissioner has based her findings on the transcripts of the interviews which took place, not on the programmes and articles derived from them. We consider this the appropriate way to proceed.

4. The Commissioner's memorandum speaks for itself. 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.

5. 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. Although 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, his actions, and his words on other occasions, told a very different story. When he was pressed about the questions he was happy to report on progress. He regularly reported back on progress in setting up an APPG. He pushed for a "foundation" to support the APPG, to ensure that it was effective, and, it appears, to provide employment for an associate. 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. In addition to his actions in tabling questions 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.

6. 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.[193]

7. 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.[194] Mr Mercer paid lip service to the idea 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, but would use his colleagues to further his clients' interests. As the Commissioner's report makes clear, there is no indication that other potential members of the APPG were aware of Mr Mercer's commercial interests.

8. 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.[195]

9. This is a very serious matter indeed. It is not for this Committee to determine whether or not MPs should be allowed to have external interests. Even where MPs are acting in accordance with the rules, they are expected to declare their interests. The Committee on Standards and Privileges made 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 or she had initiated, and that similar considerations would apply in the case of approaches to Ministers and others.[196]Mr Mercer deliberately evaded the rules intended to provide transparency and accountability.

10. Mr Mercer's actions were worse than simple non-declaration. While the rules currently 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 rules about the conduct of Members provide that no Member shall act as a paid advocate in any proceeding of the House. Those rules are very long-standing, and have been extended to prohibit lobbying approaches to colleagues, Ministers or servants of the Crown.

11. In November 2013, the Committee issued a report 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.[197]

The rules recognise that lobbying by third parties can be a legitimate part of the process, but it is wholly improper for a Member to be a paid lobbyist. Mr Mercer not only engaged in paid advocacy himself, but he also brought the House into disrepute. As the Commissioner said, he denigrated his colleagues individually and collectively, and involved them in setting up an APPG, without making clear that in doing so they were furthering his commercial interests.

12. Mr Mercer has apologised both to the Commissioner and to ourselves. He has said that he will stand down at the next general election.[198] We consider in the light of this he should repay the "consultancy fees", if he has not already done so. We recognise Mr Mercer's contrition. We consider that this breach of the rules is so serious that this apology and undertaking to stand down is inadequate.

In similar cases, the Lords Committee on Privileges and Conduct recommended suspensions of four and six months.[199] While we recognise that suspension will have an effect on Mr Mercer's constituents, we consider a similar penalty is appropriate in this case. We recommend that Mr Mercer be suspended from the House (which includes loss of salary and pension contributions) for a period of six calendar months.

Ordered, That the draft Report be read a second time, paragraph by paragraph.

Paragraphs 1 to 12 read and agreed to.

In the absence of the Chair, Dr Whitehead was called to the Chair.[200]

Paragraph 13 read and agreed to.

Two papers were appended to the Report as Appendices 1 and 2.

Resolved, That the Report be the Eleventh Report of the Committee to the House.

Written evidence received by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (WE 1-46 and WET 1-13) was ordered to be reported to the House for publishing with the Report.

None of the lay members present wished to submit an opinion on the Report (Standing Order No. 149 (9)).

Ordered, That the Chair make the Report to the House.

[Adjourned till Wednesday 9 April at 9.30 am

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Members present:

Kevin Barron, in the Chair
Sir Paul Beresford

Mr Robert Buckland

Mr Tom Clarke

Mr Geoffrey Cox

Sharon Darcy

Sir Nick Harvey

Fiona O'Donnell

Heather Wheeler

Dr Alan Whitehead

Patrick Mercer

Resolved, That allproceedings on 8 April relating to the Report on Patrick Mercer be rescinded.

[Adjourned till Tuesday 29 April at 9.30 am

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Members present:

Kevin Barron, in the Chair

Sir Paul Beresford

Mr Robert Buckland

Mr Christopher Chope

Mr Tom Clarke

Mr Geoffrey Cox

Sharon Darcy

Sir Nick Harvey

Mr Peter Jinman

Mr Walter Rader

Heather Wheeler

Dr Alan Whitehead

Mr Robert Buckland declared the following pecuniary interest: Crown Court Recorder (part-time circuit judge).

Mr Geoffrey Cox declared the following pecuniary interest: Practice at the Bar of England and Wales, Messrs. Janes, solicitors.

Draft Report (Patrick Mercer), proposed by the Chair, brought up and read.

Ordered, That the draft Report be read a second time, paragraph by paragraph.

Paragraphs 1 to 28 read and postponed.

Paragraph 29 read.

Motion made, to leave out paragraph 29 and insert the following new paragraph:

We consider Mr Mercer has abused his office, and if we were to suggest an appropriate suspension, his constituents would effectively be unrepresented until the general election. Moreover, we recognise there is an appetite for voters to have a say in cases such as this. We recommend that Mr Mercer be expelled. A Member who is expelled is not disqualified. Mr Mercer is free to stand again if he wishes, and his constituency can elect him again if it considers it appropriate.—(Mr Tom Clarke)

Question put, That the new paragraph be read a second time.

The Committee divided.

Ayes, 1

Mr Tom Clarke

Noes, 7

Sir Paul Beresford

Mr Robert Buckland

Mr Christopher Chope

Mr Geoffrey Cox

Sir Nick Harvey

Heather Wheeler

Dr Alan Whitehead

Question accordingly negatived.

Paragraph 29 read.

Amendment proposed in line 6 to leave out "six" and insert "eight".—(Dr Alan Whitehead)

Question put, that the amendment be made.

The Committee divided.
Ayes, 1 Noes, 6
Dr Alan Whitehead Sir Paul Beresford

Mr Robert Buckland

Mr Christopher Chope

Mr Geoffrey Cox

Sir Nick Harvey

Heather Wheeler

Question accordingly negatived.

Paragraph agreed to.

Postponed paragraphs 1 to 28 read again and agreed to.

Two papers were appended to the Report as Appendices 1 and 2.

Resolved, That the Report be the Eleventh Report of the Committee to the House.

Written evidence received by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (WE 1-46, WET 1-13 and WES) was ordered to be reported to the House for publishing with the Report.

None of the lay members present wished to submit an opinion on the Report (Standing Order No. 149 (9)).

Ordered, That the Chair make the Report to the House.

[Adjourned till Tuesday 13 May at 9.30 am


188   WE 1 and WE 2 Back

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

190   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

191   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

192   WE 7 Back

193   Appendix 1, para 115 Back

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

195   Appendix 1, para 146 Back

196   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

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

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

199   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

200   The Chair was absent from the meeting for the consideration of paragraph 13due to an Urgent Question in the Chamber on Parliamentary Standards. Back


 
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Prepared 1 May 2014