Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Mr Jack Straw - Committee on Standards Contents


Report



1. The memorandum from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards setting out the conclusion of her inquiry into the conduct of Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind is appended to this report. It is extremely unusual for the Commissioner to prepare a memorandum in a case where, like this, she finds that there has been no breach of the rules. She has done so because:

    I took into account the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that unless I accepted the matter for investigation, there would be no detailed, authoritative and independent examination of all the evidence. There would also have been no finding on whether the rules of the House had been breached. This would not have been fair to the Members concerned.[1]

2. Whether MPs should be allowed to have employment outside Parliament is a matter of legitimate debate. The rules currently permit it. As long as that is the case it is not improper to discuss possible roles. This is particularly pertinent if, as in Mr Straw's case, the discussions relate to what an MP might do after he or she has left Parliament. MPs invited to such discussions are unlikely to give authoritative commentary on the detailed rules of either House of Parliament. What matters is whether there is evidence they have breached or evaded the rules in the past, or are prepared to do so in future.

3. We regret that despite his public comments, Sir Malcolm Rifkind failed to refer himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in a timely way. Otherwise, we note that both Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw co-operated fully with the Commissioner's inquiry, and that the Commissioner's findings about their conduct rest on documentary evidence. As far as actual breaches of the rules relating to the conduct of Members are concerned, the Commissioner has established that neither was in breach of the rules relating to paid advocacy, both had been scrupulous in observing the requirements relating to registration of interests, that there was no indication Sir Malcolm would fail in practice to declare interests, and that Mr Straw had made declarations even when such declarations were not technically required.[2] Mr Straw had been particularly at pains to keep his business work separate from Parliamentary resources.

4. The Commissioner's inquiries have been exhaustive, and we are grateful to her for her thoroughness. We agree with her finding that:

    As is clear from my inquiries concerning Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw, although several allegations were made about each of them, arising from interviews recorded by undercover reporters, neither was in breach of the Code of Conduct or the Rules of the House other than—in Mr Straw's case—by a minor misuse of parliamentary resources. The use of carefully selected excerpts from the recordings does not necessarily give the viewer a detailed understanding of the circumstances and the full evidence behind the interviews. This may result in the viewer being led to conclusions which do not stand up to detailed scrutiny.[3]

5. While in these circumstances we recommend no further action, we wish to make some general comments on this case. The first is that Members of Parliament should be aware that even if their behaviour is within the rules, they may not escape criticism. For their own protection, all those in public life should bear in mind the likelihood that what they say in private may be made public and should be weighed accordingly. They should always be aware that their conduct will be measured against the seven principles of public life. Although no rules were broken, both men acknowledged to the Commissioner that they had made errors of judgment.

6. Secondly, the press coverage causes us concern. Some of the adverse comment was related to Mr Straw's intervention on behalf of Senator International, a major employer in his constituency. We disagree with the assumption in one of the articles that MPs will only take up the concerns of local companies for self-interested reasons. In fact it is normal and proper for MPs to intervene on behalf of local businesses, as all MPs are aware of the importance of successful business and industry to their constituency and, indeed, to the economy as a whole. We would expect serious political commentators to be aware of this. It is a matter for Governments to decide whether or not to act on industry's concerns, but it is in the public interest that such concerns can be raised effectively.

7. This is the third occasion within two years that the Commissioner has had to deal with a case arising from a "sting" conducted by journalists. In one case, the allegations were fully justified, and the Committee on Standards had no hesitation in recommending a heavy penalty.[4] In the other two cases, the Commissioner found no rules had been broken.[5] The Commissioner's role is to investigate the conduct of members, not that of the press, and she has not commented on this.

8. In all the cases examined the Commissioner has obtained the full transcripts of interviews. Comparing the full transcript with the reporting has allowed her to identify whether the allegations or insinuations in the stories were supported by the contemporaneous transcripts of the meetings. In this case, we note the Commissioner's view that:

    If in their coverage of this story, the reporters for Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph had accurately reported what was said by the two Members in their interviews, and measured their words against the rules of the House, it would have been possible to avoid the damage that has been done to the lives of two individuals and those around them, and to the reputation of the House. However, it is not for me to investigate or make any judgement on the actions of the reporters or programme makers. This is for others to consider.[6]

9. We are very concerned that the matter should have been reported in this fashion. By selection and omission the coverage distorted the truth and misled the public as to what had actually taken place. The Commissioner rightly draws attention to the continuing debate around MPs' external interests, and notes some of the complexities involved. This is a legitimate subject for media scrutiny but it places a responsibility on the media to ensure fair and accurate reporting. The debate about what MPs should or should not do is not assisted by the conduct of the reporters in this case.

10. If the media fail to report fairly and accurately, the consequences can be profound, as in this case. As the Commissioner says, both Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind suffered adverse publicity and were presumed guilty before any authoritative examination of the facts had taken place. This damage would have been limited if the Commissioner had had the opportunity to investigate before people rushed to judgment.

11. We will take up the Commissioner's invitation to consider how best to increase public understanding of an MP's role, and of the rules relating to that role. We will also consider further the role of the press in furthering such understanding and in detecting wrong doing. We are concerned about the delays in Channel 4 handing over their evidence to the Commissioner and this may raise further questions. At this stage however, we confine ourselves to reporting the Commissioner's memoranda. Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Mr Straw are cleared of any breach of the Code of Conduct.


1   Appendix, Conclusion, para 2 Back

2   See Appendix, Rt Hon Jack Straw, para 70, WE (JS) 18,  Back

3   Appendix, Conclusion, para 6 Back

4   Committee on Standards, Eleventh Report of Session 2013-14, HC1225 Back

5   Committee on Standards, Fifth Report of Session 2013-14, HC849 Back

6   Appendix, Conclusion, para 14 Back


 
previous page contents next page


© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 17 September 2015