Mr Geoffrey Cox Contents

Appendix 1: Memorandum from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards—Complaint against Mr Geoffrey Cox QC MP

Background

1.On 21 September 2015 Mr Cox wrote to the Registrar setting out details of six payments he had received in respect of legal services he had provided in his capacity as a practising barrister which, according to the rules of the House of Commons, required registration in the Register on Members’ Financial Interests.11

2.On 29 September 2015, in response to a request from the Assistant Registrar for the dates of receipt of those payments, Mr Cox wrote to the Registrar again, providing further details about the six payments and adding the details of five other payments which also required registration.12 He said that he had hoped to have an urgent meeting with the Registrar to disclose the matter in person and to offer his apologies. In this letter, Mr Cox acknowledged that he was late in registering these payments and that this was in clear breach of the rules of the House (which require registration within 28 days of receipt). Mr Cox apologised, set out the circumstances which had led to the late registrations and explained the steps he was taking to avoid a recurrence. He also indicated his intention to stand down from the Committee on Standards and the Committee of Privileges.

The referral

3.On 8 October 2015 Mr Cox wrote to me, to draw attention to his recent correspondence with the Registrar.13 He repeated his apologies and asked me to consider the matter, taking whatever action I considered appropriate. Meanwhile, on 5 October, on my return from annual leave, the Registrar had also drawn this correspondence to my attention. On 9 October 2015 I decided to begin an investigation into this matter.14 While Mr Cox had provided a considerable amount of information, I considered that the number and value of the late registrations and the period of time involved were so significant that I needed to make further enquiries.

Relevant Rules of the House

The Codes of Conduct and Guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members

4.The 2009 Code of Conduct (amended in 2012) and the 2009 Guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of Members applied during the 2010 Parliament. 15 On 17 March 2015 the House approved a slightly amended Code of Conduct and a new Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members.16 These took effect in May 2015.

The requirement to register financial interests

5.The 2009 Code of Conduct provides the following rule:

“13. Members shall fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the House in respect of the registration of interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. They shall always be open and frank in drawing attention to any relevant interest in any proceeding of the House or its Committees, and in any communications with Ministers, Members, public officials or public office holders.”

This was included, unchanged in the Code published in 2015.

6.The 2009 Guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of Members said at paragraph 13:

“ … .After the initial publication of the Register (or, in the case of Members returned at by-elections, after their initial registration) it is the responsibility of Members to notify changes in their registrable interests within four weeks of each change occurring.”

This paragraph was not amended in 2012. A change would occur when the Member received a payment for outside employment.

7.The 2015 Guide contains a similar provision in paragraph 2 of Chapter 1:

“ … The House requires new Members, within one month of their election, to register all their current financial interests, and any registrable benefits (other than earnings) received in the 12 months before their election. After that, Members are required to register within 28 days any change in [their] registrable interests … .”

Remunerated employment, office, profession, etc.

8.During the 2010 Parliament, Members were required to register in Category 2 of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests any “Employment, office, trade, profession or vocation (apart from membership of the House or ministerial office) which is remunerated or in which the Member has any financial interest … .”

9.Paragraph 24 of the 2012 Guide said:

a)“All employment outside of the House and any sources of remuneration which do not fall clearly within any other Category should be registered here. Members must register under this category the precise amount of each individual payment made, the nature of the work carried on in return for that payment, the number of hours worked during the period to which that payment relates and (except where disclosure of the information would be contrary to any legal or established professional duty of privacy or confidentiality) the name and address of the person, organisation or company making that payment.”17

10.The financial threshold for registering such payments was over 0.1% of the parliamentary salary (£66 during the period January to May 2015) for individual payments, or for the total of payments from the same source in a calendar year over 1% of that salary (over £660 during the period January 2015 to May 2015).

11.The 2015 Guide to the Rules amended the Categories of registrable interests. Category 1 is defined as “Employment and earnings” and requires Members to register “individual payments of more than £100 which they receive for any employment outside the House. They must also register individual payments of £100 or less once they have received a total of over £300 in payments of whatever size from the same source in a calendar year.

12.Paragraph 9 of Chapter 1 of the 2015 Guide to the Rules sets out the information to be registered from May 2015. Since then Members are required to provide “the date when the payment was received (or if not yet received, the date the work was completed.) This information was not previously required.

The rules on declaration of interests

13.The House’s requirements of Members in respect of the declaration of their relevant financial interests were set out in Chapter 2 of the 2009 Guide and the current requirements are set out in Chapter 2 of the 2015 Guide.

14.Members are required to declare any financial interests which satisfy the test of relevance, including past financial interests; indirect financial interests; expected future interests; financial interests of a sort that do not require registration; financial interests which require registration but have not yet appeared in any public register; and certain non-financial interests.

15.The 2009 Guide explained the test of relevance as follows in paragraph 74:

“ … a financial interest should be declared if it might reasonably be thought by others to influence the speech, representation or communication in question.”

16.The 2015 Guide contains a similar provision. It requires a Member to declare interests if: “those interests might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions or words as a Member.

Summary of Events

17.Mr Cox entered Parliament in May 2005. Both before and since his election, Mr Cox has practised as a barrister, co-founding Thomas More Chambers in 1992. Throughout Mr Cox’s terms of office he has periodically registered in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests remuneration paid to him in respect of his continuing outside employment.

18.On 17 March 2015, the House approved a new version of the Guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of Members. This took effect from May 2015 and, for the first time, Members who registered payments for outside employment were required to give the date of payment.

19.Between January and early August 2015 Mr Cox received the eleven payments listed in his letter of 29 September 2015. These payments represented remuneration for outside employment undertaken during various periods between January 2014 and June 2015. The Registrar received details of the first six of these payments on 22 September 2015, and of the other five on 30 September 2015.

Evidence

Evidence from Mr Cox

20.On 21 September 2015 Mr Cox wrote to the Registrar to register six payments arising from his employment as a barrister. The Registry team asked Mr Cox to provide the dates on which the payments had been received. On 29 September, Mr Cox wrote to the Registrar providing the dates of receipt of the six payments listed in his letter of 21 September and giving details of five additional payments received as remuneration for outside employment. He said the payments were variously received on 2 January; 2 February; 2 March; 5 May (three payments); 15 and 16 June; 15 July (two payments) and 3 August 2015 (two payments). Mr Cox said, “I fully acknowledge this represents a clear and unequivocal breach of the 28-day declaration period as set out in the Members’ Code of Conduct and I take full responsibility for this oversight.” Mr Cox offered his apologies for this ‘neglect’.

21.In his letter to the Registrar, Mr Cox said, “ … . I offer no excuse for my failure to give this matter the due attention it deserves and requires”. In explanation he said, “I have been subject to a particularly intense schedule in the run up to and following the General Election, combined with the sheer pressure of my legal practice, parliamentary and constituency responsibilities. This pressure has been intensified by the loss of my professional head clerk of over 25 years, owing to severe ill health. His sudden departure almost certainly contributed to a breakdown in the strategies and procedures I have previously had in place to oversee and manage my personal, professional and financial affairs, alongside my parliamentary duties. Given the unplanned nature of his retirement and continued poor health it is inevitable that such processes would be put under strain and I should have identified this as an issue much sooner, for which, again, I take full responsibility. In addition, I have also undergone a number of changes in my parliamentary staffing, which although not related to this matter, has resulted in a number of changes to standard practice within my office.”

22.Mr Cox said that he wish to highlight “ … for the avoidance of doubt, that I have never sought to disguise my continued professional practice as a Queen’s Counsel and have been in the habit of declaring significant outside earnings since 2009, including over £800,000 in 2014 alone, which have been the subject of local and national media attention. I therefore do not believe I have received any discernible benefit from the delay in registering these current payments.”

23.Mr Cox described in his letter to the Registrar the changes he had made in his office procedures to assist him in making his registrations within the 28-day limit set by the House in future. He concluded by saying “I also wish to advise you of my intention to stand down from the Committee on Standards and Committee of Privileges, as I no longer believe it is appropriate for me to adjudicate on such matters, having fallen short of the standards the House expects and demands. I will be approaching the relevant authorities to set this process in motion before the return of the House.”

24.Mr Cox had sought a meeting with the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests on 28 September. She was then out of the office. That meeting took place on 7 October 2015. Mr Cox explained the way in which he received payments for his legal work. He told the Registrar that payments from clients arrived at irregular intervals and were paid to his Chambers centrally. (Mr Cox is Head of Chambers.) He also said that from time to time, also at irregular intervals, the remuneration due to him would be transferred from the Chambers’ account into his own bank account, and that in the past his Head Clerk had tracked those payments and informed Mr Cox of them so that he could register them.

25.On 21 October 2015, in response to enquiries from me, Mr Cox developed the explanations given in his letter of 29 September. He also reiterated his apologies. Mr Cox said:

“ … .I failed to give this matter the due thought and priority it required and, for that reason, it is difficult to isolate the exact point at which I became aware that my entry was incomplete. When the House rose for the summer, I was conscious, generally, of the matter as one I needed to get down to checking but my intense schedule at the time, which included the final planning and launch during recess of an entirely new international law chambers based in Mauritius and Dubai, meant that it was not until reviewing my records between 20 September and 28 September that, to my dismay, I became fully aware of the scale of my oversight. I fully acknowledge that this was not acceptable and I have taken all necessary steps to ensure that it does not happen again.

As above, I failed to give the matter sufficient thought or priority. After identifying my error, my clerks and I carried out an urgent review of payments received in the period in question and I disclosed this matter to the Registrar at the earliest practicable opportunity. In doing so, I wished to provide a full and accurate record of all declarable payments.

This process then took a number of days to complete, partly because of the need to calculate the number of hours worked on each case and to double check the dates between which the work occurred. I often start work before payment terms are finalized and given the nature of my practice, there is frequently no set hourly rate. As my legal work long pre-dates my election to the House, it is fair to say that a number of my accounting practices have not been designed with the rules of the House in mind.

All relevant records have now been fully reviewed, and as such I am confident that my entry in the register as published on 12 October is accurate and fully up to date. I have received no further payment since 3 August 2015. I have, as you know, also discussed this matter with the Registrar at length and revisited the information which appears under the other categories. I have made further checks with my local Association as to declarable donations. I have no declarable interests under any other categories than those already shown in the Register.

As you may know, I am Head of my Chambers and have formal responsibilities in that position. The Head Clerk, who until the beginning of this year had been with me for nearly 29 years, closely assisted me with the discharge of all my professional obligations. He had full access to, and oversight of, the details of my professional practice including my personal bank accounts. He acted in many respects as my personal confidential secretary, including managing many of my financial affairs, even meeting the bank manager on my behalf, and he would draw the receipt of payments to my attention on an ad hoc basis, acting as my prompt for registration. He was also in direct and frequent contact with my parliamentary office as manager of my diary. Due to his enormous experience (including over the years clerking other senior MPs practising as barristers) and the very high level of trust and confidence in which I held him, since his departure, no one else has been able to fulfil a similar role in helping me to manage the functions and responsibilities of my parliamentary and professional careers.”

“ … .The effect of his sudden and unplanned departure was immediately manifested in increased difficulties in balancing my priorities and managing my time effectively. But it is only recently that I have come to a full realization of the broader and more detailed effects this has had on my affairs more generally. My Chambers has recently revisited its clerking arrangements and has brought on board further support and expertise. In addition his deputy has now taken over as Head Clerk and is beginning to assume some of the role in clerking me that his predecessor fulfilled.

I have also, as I set out in my letter to the Registrar, instigated a new system in order to ensure that I am notified of all payments immediately on receipt and that they are promptly declared. This will include a number of safeguards, including independent and direct communication between my parliamentary office and my Chambers on receipt of payment and a regular monthly review.”

“ … .These are all payments arising from my continued professional practice and I have always been careful to avoid any actual or perceived conflicts of interest with my parliamentary duties. Furthermore, the work I undertake as a Queen’s Counsel has remained broadly similar to that which pre-dated my election to the House and is not connected to or brought about by my roles as a Member of Parliament. On the rare occasion where these interests might be seen to overlap, such as debates on legal aid funding or matters relating to the Bar, I have previously drawn my declarable interest plainly to the attention of the House. I have also previously sought advice from the Registrar on the question of what parliamentary steps I can and should properly take on a matter affecting the public interest that came to my attention while conducting a case overseas. I am well aware of my continued responsibilities in this regard.

Additionally, as a precaution and for the sake of completeness, I have reviewed all ministerial and official correspondence, Hansard and my diary to make absolutely certain that nothing could have given rise to any suggestion of a conflict … .”

26. On 16 November 2015, in answer to my request for clarifications, Mr Cox told me that his former Head Clerk had been taken ill in April 2014. He had recommenced his duties gradually in August, returning to full-time work at the beginning of September. He had retired from Chambers’ employment on 31 December 2014. Mr Cox told me that the register entries he had made in 2014 did reflect his income in that year.

27.On 8 December 2015, having seen the Registrar’s evidence, Mr Cox described in more detail the internal accounting practices of his Chambers. He told me that it was not uncommon for barristers to go for several months without receiving payments and often payments were received in clusters as a result of clerks’ periodic initiatives to collect outstanding fees. He told me that in his own Chambers’ clients’ payments were made to a central account from which deductions for relevant expenses were taken. The balance was paid to the fee-earners. He said that he would receive several such payments in a single transaction.

Evidence from the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests

28.On 19 November 2015, in response to my request for advice, the Registrar told me that Mr Cox’s usual practice was to write to her team in hard copy two or three times a year, providing lists of payments received for his work as a barrister. She said that the registry team would then send him a draft Register entry for checking. She said that when she had met Mr Cox on 7 October 2015, he had explained that his Chambers received payments from clients at irregular intervals, which were paid into the Chambers centrally; the remuneration due to Mr Cox was then paid–again at irregular intervals–into Mr Cox’s own bank account. Mr Cox’s head clerk tracked and informed Mr Cox about these payments.

29.She noted that on two occasions since 2010 the team had had a more protracted exchange with Mr Cox about his registrations. On both occasions the exchange followed a change in the registration rules. One of these occasions was in September 2015, when they had asked Mr Cox to provide the date of receipt for the six payments he wished to register. This was a new requirement.

30.In answer to my questions, the Registrar said that following the 2010 and 2015 General Elections, all Members would have received the relevant Code of Conduct and Guide to the rules, plus a registration form and covering letter. These gave prominence to the House’s 28-day deadline for registration. She said that between elections Members would have received circulars containing reminders about this. She added that since 2011, when her team emailed Members about Register entries, their emails, routinely contained a standard wording which includes a reminder about the House’s deadline for registration.

31.As Mr Cox had been a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (and from 2013 the Committee on Standards), he would also have received various confidential reports to the Committee on the timeliness of Members’ register entries as well as my formal memoranda reporting the outcome of my inquiries into allegations about individual Members’ registration practice. The Registrar told me that she saw no reason why Mr Cox’s new arrangements (described in his letter of 29 September and 21 October 2015) should not enable him to make timely registrations in future.

Statement of facts

32.Between 16 October 2014 and 22 September 2015 Mr Cox did not register any remuneration from outside employment in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

33.In June 2015, following the General Election, Mr Cox registered receipt of a Category 2(a) donation and ownership of assets in Category 6 (Land and property) and Category 7 (Shareholdings) in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

34.On 21 September 2015 Mr Cox notified the Registrar of his receipt of six payments he had received as remuneration for legal services provided.

35.The payments were made to Mr Cox on dates between January and May 2015.

36.On 29 September 2015 Mr Cox provided the dates when he had received the six payments he had registered on 21 September, and registered a further five payments he had received between 15 June and 3 August 2015 as remuneration for legal services provided.

37.All eleven payments required registration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

38.The rules applicable to the five payments received between June and August 2015 required the registration of the dates of receipt. The rules of the House applicable to the six payments Mr Cox sought to register on 21 September 2015 did not require Members to provide dates of receipt. (That is because they were received before the date of the General Election, when the rules changed.)

39.All eleven payments were registered outside the 28day period required by the House.

Analysis

40.The rules of the House allow Members to have outside employment. Those rules also require Members to register the remuneration they receive for any such employment. The overall aim of registration (and declaration) is openness. It is to provide information about any financial interest which might reasonably be thought by others to influence a Members’ actions, speeches or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament. It is, therefore, important that registrations are timely and made fully in accordance with the rules of the House.

41.It is absolutely clear, and Mr Cox does not dispute, that the House required, within 28 days of receipt, the registration of the eleven payments that are the subject of this inquiry. The rules have long required Members to register remuneration arising from outside employment within that specific timescale and all of the amounts involved far exceed the thresholds for registration The details the House requires to be entered in the Register did however change slightly in May 2015.

42.When Mr Cox first drew this matter to the attention of the Registrar on 21 September 2015, he listed six payments for registration. He did not provide the dates of receipt for each payment. The rules applicable to them did not require him to do so because they had been received before the May General Election. Mr Cox made no mention in his letter that the 28day period for timely registration of these payments had already elapsed.

43.In accordance with the new rules, which had taken effect in May 2015, the registry team asked Mr. Cox to provide the dates of receipt. Mr Cox provided the information promptly. He also listed a further five payments he had received between June and 3 August 2015. Mr Cox acknowledged at this time that all eleven payments were being registered late. He recognised there was no excuse for this and provided an explanation for how it had happened. He accepted full personal responsibility for the breach of the House’s rules; and he made an unequivocal apology.

44.Mr Cox acknowledged that he had failed in his personal responsibilities to the House in this respect, referring to his “neglect” and “failure to give this matter due attention it deserves and requires”. Mr Cox explained that he had had a particularly intense schedule in the run up to the General Election, referring to “the sheer pressure of my legal practice, parliamentary and constituency responsibilities”. He subsequently explained that this had included “ … .the final planning and launch during recess of an entirely new international law chambers based in Mauritius and Dubai … .” He told me, and I can only agree, that he “failed to give this matter the due thought and priority it required”.

45.Mr Cox attributes his late registration to the breakdown in his Chambers’ operating procedures when his head clerk became seriously ill. He has described in his letter to me the extent to which he had relied on his head clerk to assist him in meeting his obligations to the House. One weakness in the arrangement Mr Cox has described is that it was customary for the head clerk to “draw the receipt of payments to [Mr Cox’s] attention on an ad hoc basis, acting as a prompt for registration.”

46.The wording of successive Codes of Conduct makes clear that the responsibility of a Member to follow the House’s rules on registration is an ongoing one. Members may, and often do, delegate to their staff the task of informing the Registrar of the detail about payments received, but it remains each Member’s responsibility to keep their Register entry up to date. While I recognise that the irregular receipt of remuneration which Mr Cox has described may have presented a particular challenge, Members are nonetheless required to fulfil the registration requirements “conscientiously”. Setting up an effective administrative system will help a Member to meet their responsibilities but it does not fully discharge them. Mr Cox’s faith in the system he had set up and his confidence in his long-standing clerk led him to neglect his personal duty to check the effectiveness of his arrangements, and that was a failure to “fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the House”. When the arrangements failed he did not realise the implications for some considerable time.

47.My inquiry concerned Mr Cox’s failure during 2015 to register his financial interests within the deadlines set by the House. I have considered whether I should inquire further into the timeliness of Mr Cox’s registrations during the 2010 Parliament. The rules then did not require Members to register the date of receipt of payments. Mr Cox has given me an assurance that the Register of Members’ Financial Interests is ‘reflective of his income in [2014].’18 I have no evidence to justify further enquiries of Mr Cox in this respect.

48.The Registrar and I both welcome Mr Cox’s assurance that in future month end checks on receipts will be undertaken. I also consider the introduction of independent and direct communication between his parliamentary and Chambers staff should assist Mr Cox in ensuring he fulfils his registration responsibilities. The system will no longer be so dependent on one individual.

49.Mr Cox has given me an assurance that he has reviewed all ministerial and official correspondence, Hansard and his diary to ensure that these late registrations have not also given rise to any failures to declare a relevant interest on an occasion when the House would have considered this to be necessary. I have no reason to doubt that assurance.

Conclusion

50.Mr Cox had acknowledged and apologised for his breach of the Code of Conduct before I began my inquiry. He had also put in place arrangements to help him avoid a recurrence.

51.I inquired into the circumstances of Mr Cox’s breach of the rules to understand better how this occurred, to consider whether the steps he has now taken are sufficiently robust to ensure the timely registration of payments, and to give the House the opportunity to consider his conduct. I have since considered whether this matter is one to which the provisions of paragraph 4(a) of Standing Order No. 150 might apply and thus enable a rectification. (This would have entailed, in addition to Mr Cox’s acknowledgement of, and apologies for, the breach, a request from me to the Registrar to italicise the relevant entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for a period of 12 months.)

52.I do not consider that the breach was minor since it involved eleven late registrations with a total value of over £400,000. The length of time during which Mr Cox failed to give this matter due attention was at least nine months, during which time as a member of the Standards Committee, he had the opportunity to consider a formal memorandum from me about late registration by another Member, and to receive periodic confidential updates about registration matters more generally.

53.Mr Cox has made an unequivocal apology to the Registrar and to me, has stood down from his membership of the Committee on Standards and the Committee of Privileges and has taken steps to correct his register entry putting in place new systems to ensure timely registration in the future. Nevertheless, this was a serious breach of the House’s rules and the Committee may wish to consider whether any other action is necessary.

12 January 2016 Kathryn Hudson





© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 3 February 2016