1.This Report arises from a complaint that the Rt Hon Dame Margaret Hodge DBE MP, the Member for Barking, used parliamentary facilities (accommodation, telephony and stationery) to support work commissioned by an outside body which was not in support of her parliamentary duties, in breach of the rules of the House and the Code of Conduct for Members. The complainant also alleged that Dame Margaret received undue financial benefit as a result of her use of publicly funded resources.
3.In October 2016 Dame Margaret accepted an invitation from the Mayor of London, on behalf of the Greater London Authority (GLA), to carry out a value-for-money review of the proposed Garden Bridge Project. She initially expected the review to be completed within three months, involving a time commitment equivalent to a day per week. On that assumption she agreed to carry out the review free of charge, offering her services pro bono publico. In the event the review took about seven months to complete, finishing in April 2017. During this time Dame Margaret held approximately 20 meetings in her office on the parliamentary estate, with some 40 people attending those meetings to give evidence. She also wrote an estimated 70 letters about the project, in some cases using House of Commons stationery, and used the House-provided telephone service. The GLA provided her with administrative support but not office accommodation. After completion of the first draft of the review, the GLA decided to pay Dame Margaret £9,500 in recognition of the significant amount of work that carrying out the review had entailed.
4.The facts set out in the previous paragraph are not in dispute between the Commissioner and Dame Margaret. However, questions arise over the correct interpretation of the House’s rules in relation to those facts.
5.The allegation is that Dame Margaret was in breach of paragraph 15 of the Code of Conduct for Members:
Members are personally responsible and accountable for ensuring that their use of any expenses, allowances, facilities and services provided from the public purse is in accordance with the rules laid down on these matters. Members shall ensure that their use of public resources is always in support of their parliamentary duties. It should not confer any undue personal or financial benefit on themselves or anyone else, or confer undue advantage on a political organisation.
6.The Commissioner concluded that Dame Margaret’s work on the review, though not in itself in breach of the House’s rules, was not carried out as part of her parliamentary activities, and that her use of parliamentary facilities in connection with the review therefore represented a “serious breach” of the Code of Conduct. The Commissioner also concluded that Dame Margaret was not motivated by financial gain as she had begun her work on the review with the intention of doing it free of charge, although in the event she did accrue a financial benefit as the result of the subsequent offer of payment from the GLA.
7.Dame Margaret was informed by the Commissioner of her inquiry, and subsequent written exchanges between the two, as well as notes of a meeting, are appended to the Commissioner’s memorandum. Dame Margaret was shown a draft of the memorandum, and in response challenged several of its findings. That response, along with comments by the Commissioner, is set out in the final version of the memorandum printed with this Report. Dame Margaret subsequently wrote to us on 20 November, to state that “the Commissioner has summarised very fairly and accurately the points which I have sought to make in response to the complaint, and has accepted the basic facts to which I have drawn attention”, and that therefore she did not wish to submit further evidence to us.
8.Because the Commissioner considers that “the extent of the breach of the rules [was] significant enough to amount to a serious breach of the rules”, and because Dame Margaret disagrees with this finding, the Commissioner has referred this matter to us and sought our views.
9.We have considered carefully both the Commissioner’s findings and Dame Margaret’s comments on them.
10.We addressed the question of whether Dame Margaret’s work on the Garden Bridge Project review could reasonably be regarded as constituting part of her parliamentary duties. Dame Margaret has stated that “it did not occur to me that the use of my room for meetings in connection with the review could be in breach of the rules”. She argues that there is a “very fine” distinction between “activity which is in support of one’s parliamentary duties on the one hand, and activity arising from one’s parliamentary duties on the other”. She states that:
I was asked to undertake the review by reason of my being both a Member of Parliament for a London constituency and a former long-serving Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. I regarded, and still regard, that work as having been a seamless adjunct to my parliamentary duties.
11.The Commissioner argues that Dame Margaret’s work on the review did not constitute part of her parliamentary duties, because the review was commissioned by the GLA, not by Parliament or any of its committees, nor were the latter expected to consider it; support for the review was provided by the GLA; and Dame Margaret was not carrying out a representative function on the review, which could equally have been carried out by a suitably qualified firm of consultants. The Commissioner also concluded that:
In using parliamentary resources, and in particular, her parliamentary office to conduct meetings connected with the Review, Dame Margaret may have given, and I think probably did give, those invited to such meetings the impression that her work was in some way on behalf of, or otherwise connected, with the House itself; that her work on the Review carried the authority of the House. I think that would have been, albeit unintentionally, misleading.
12.As the Commissioner has noted, “there is no exhaustive definition of parliamentary duties and activities”. She cites the comment of the Committee on Standards and Privileges in its Twenty-third Report of Session 2010–12 that “Members have complex, multifaceted roles” and that “Each case has to be judged on its own merits.” Having considered this case on its merits, we are not persuaded by Dame Margaret’s argument that her work on the review was part of her parliamentary activities. In her own submissions Dame Margaret appears to step back from this claim, when she argues that there is a grey area between activity clearly in support of and activity clearly not in support of parliamentary duties, viz. activity “arising from” or being “a seamless adjunct to” those duties, and that the use of parliamentary resources in support of activity so defined is not in breach of the Code or the rules. We are in no doubt that the GLA commissioned Dame Margaret to carry out its review because of her status as a distinguished former chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Many outside bodies and interests seek to involve Members of Parliament in their work, with or without remuneration, on the basis of those MPs’ public standing and parliamentary track-record; but it does not follow that such involvement can automatically be considered a parliamentary activity. Nor does the fact that the review carried out by Dame Margaret could be argued to be of public benefit, to involve a major issue of public policy, and to be of interest to her constituents in east London, in itself render it definable as a parliamentary activity. This was work, however worthwhile, commissioned by an outside body for its own purposes, and work which could reasonably have been commissioned from a non-parliamentarian. For these reasons we accept the Commissioner’s conclusion that Dame Margaret’s work on the review fell outside the category of parliamentary duties.
13.In addition, we consider that the way in which Dame Margaret used parliamentary facilities, including accommodation and stationery, will have given the impression, whether intended by Dame Margaret or not, that she was acting in the course of her parliamentary duties.
14.Accordingly, for both the reasons set out above, we find that the use of parliamentary facilities in support of Dame Margaret’s work on the Garden Bridge Project review was a breach of the Code of Conduct.
15.We accept, as does the Commissioner, Dame Margaret’s assurance that she was not motivated by financial gain at the outset of the arrangement. Nonetheless, subsequently the arrangement was altered and she was offered financial reward, which she accepted. Therefore she did accrue financial reward as a result of activity using House-supplied facilities, in breach of the Code. The fact that the GLA offered, and Dame Margaret accepted, remuneration further supports the interpretation of her work on the review as being in addition to, not comprising part of, her parliamentary duties.
16.Dame Margaret has stated that she was not aware when she agreed to conduct the review that the use of House facilities would place her in breach of the Code. However, we do not accept her argument that the House authorities should have offered her unsolicited advice about the matter. It would clearly be impracticable for the House authorities to maintain continuous monitoring of media reports on activity by Members with a view to alerting them if any potential breaches of the Code seemed likely to arise. The onus is on Members to be aware of the Code and the rules of the House, and if in doubt to seek advice from the appropriate authorities. Dame Margaret was an experienced Member and should have been aware of this. We consider that Dame Margaret should have sought advice from the House authorities both at the outset of her work on the review, and again later when she was offered financial reward.
17.Dame Margaret and the Commissioner engaged in written exchanges about whether any breach of the Code in this case should be regarded as a serious one. The Commissioner notes that the Code requires that “Members should ensure that their use of public resources is always [my emphasis] in support of their parliamentary duties”, but also accepts (citing decisions by previous Commissioners) that the rules need to be interpreted with a sense of proportion. She concluded that “what is at issue here is the number of occasions when Dame Margaret’s room on the parliamentary estate was used for non-parliamentary activities”. She also cites “the overall impression that the use of House-resources may have given contributors to the Review” (i.e. that the review was in some way carried out on behalf of or connected with the House). On this basis the Commissioner argues that the breach should be considered to be a serious one.
18.Dame Margaret argues that it is unfair to regard the breach as serious on the grounds that a large number of meetings had been held in her office, when at the outset of the review she had not realised so many meetings would be necessary: “to judge in these circumstances my actions with the benefit of hindsight strikes me as being somewhat harsh and rather unfair”.
19.As we have stated above, we conclude that Dame Margaret was in breach of the Code of Conduct by using House facilities for work which fell outside her parliamentary duties, and for allowing the impression to be given that this work was being conducted in her official capacity. In considering the appropriate sanction relating to the breach, we have taken into account both mitigating and aggravating factors.
20.We consider the following to be mitigating factors:
21.We consider the following to be aggravating factors:
22.Taking into account the various factors set out in the previous two paragraphs, we conclude that the appropriate sanction for Dame Margaret’s breach of the Code of Conduct is that she should make an apology for this breach on a point of order on the floor of the House.
1 Printed as Appendix 1 to this Report.
2 The Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members, 2015 (Session 2014–15, HC 1076), para 15
3 Commissioner’s memorandum, para 43
4 Commissioner’s memorandum, para 35
5 Letter printed as Appendix 2 to this Report
6 Commissioner’s memorandum, para 11
7 WE8 (letter dated 28 September 2017)
8 Commissioner’s memorandum, summary, para 3
9 Commissioner’s memorandum, para 35
10 Commissioner’s memorandum, para 28
11 Commissioner’s memorandum, para 28; Committee on Standards and Privileges, Twenty-third Report of Session 2010–12, Dr Liam Fox (HC 1887) para 21
12 Commissioner’s memorandum, para 37
13 Commissioner’s memorandum, paras 42–43
14 Commissioner’s memorandum, para 40
15 The Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament, paras 9 and 15
6 December 2107