I have investigated an allegation that Mr Conor Burns acted in breach of paragraphs 11, 16 and 17 of the House of Commons’ Code of Conduct for Members. Having obtained evidence from Mr Burns and taken the advice from the House authorities, I have concluded that he has acted in breach of each of those three rules.
Mr Burns breached the first two rules by writing to a member of the public, with whom Mr Burns’ father was in a financial dispute, using House-provided stationery bearing the crowned portcullis. The content of that letter put Mr Burns in breach of paragraph 11 of the Code of Conduct. He put personal interest before the public interest, suggesting that he would take advantage of his public office to pursue his father’s financial dispute.
The letter, about a purely personal family matter, did not carry the authority of the House and wrongly gave that impression. This was a misuse of the crowned portcullis, the principal emblem of the House. That is a breach of paragraph 9 of the House’s rules on the use of House-provided stationery. It is also a breach of paragraph 16 of the Code of Conduct.
I found that an implied threat in Mr Burns’ letter and his conduct during the inquiry - which included suggesting that I might contact the complainant to ‘explain’ that a finding against the Member might result in a ‘perverse’ outcome for the complainant - gives fuel to the belief that Members are able and willing to use the privileges accorded them by the House to benefit their own personal interest. That Mr Burns has not acted on the threat to use parliamentary privilege to air his father’s dispute will do little to dispel that belief. Mr Burns’ actions damage the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole and of its Members generally. That is a breach of paragraph 17 of the Code.
In light of my conclusions, I have referred this Memorandum to the Committee on Standards.
21 October 2019
1)Mr Conor Burns has been a Member of the House since May 2010. My inquiry arose out of an allegation of misuse of House-provided stationery.
2)In the course of my inquiry I have considered Mr Burns’ conduct in respect of paragraphs 11, 16 and 17 of the current Code of Conduct. I am bringing this matter to the attention of the Committee because I have found that Mr Burns has acted in breach of each of those three rules of conduct.
3)A member of the public (the complainant) alleged that Mr Burns had written to him using Houseprovided paper to deal with a purely personal family interest; and that Mr Burns was attempting to use parliamentary privilege to secure payment for his father. The complainant asked if Mr Burns’ suggestion that he (Mr Burns) would use parliamentary privilege to name him (the complainant) in the House was consistent with Mr Burns’ obligations not to take action which might cause damage to the reputation of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally. The complainant provided an annex with his letter, providing background information to assist my understanding of the context. He acknowledged that the substance of the annex raised issues outside my remit. I do not reproduce that annex in this Memorandum because the contents are not relevant to my inquiry.
4)Part V of the Code of Conduct for Members contains eight rules of conduct, in paragraph 11 to 18. The first of these rules (paragraph 11) says;
i)“Members shall base their conduct on a consideration of the public interest, avoid conflict between personal interest and the public interest and resolve any conflict between the two, at once, and in favour of the public interest.”
5)Paragraph 16 of the Code states
i)“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)Paragraph 17 prohibits “any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as whole, or of its Members generally.”
7)In the introductory paragraphs the stationery rules state
“The rules cannot be expected to cover every eventuality; Members should therefore always behave with probity and integrity when using House-provided stationery and postage. Members should regard themselves as personally responsible and accountable for the use of House-provided stationery and postage. They must not exploit the system for personal financial advantage, nor (by breaching the rules in paragraph 3 below) to confer an undue advantage on a political organisation.”
8)Paragraph 9 of the rules relates specifically to the use of the crowned portcullis. It begins with the following explanation;
“The principal emblem of the House is the crowned portcullis. It is a royal badge and its use by the House has been formally authorised by licence granted by Her Majesty the Queen. It should not be used where its authentication of a connection with the House is inappropriate, or where there is a risk that its use might wrongly be regarded or represented as having the authority of the House”
9)In the course of my inquiry I have considered evidence from Mr Burns, the complainant and the Clerk of the Journals. I met Mr Burns on 25 June 2019. The meeting, held at his request, was not a formal evidence gathering interview. However, I do rely on some of the evidence arising from that meeting in reaching my conclusions. My letter of 26 June 2019 summarises the discussion that took place.
10)Mr Burns has seen a draft of this Memorandum and had the opportunity to comment on its factual accuracy.
11)The complainant sent me a letter from Mr Burns dated 6 February 2019. The letter was written on House of Commons headed paper and bore the principal emblem of the House, the crowned portcullis. Mr Burns said in his letter to the complainant that:
12)The complainant told me that “It was clear from [Mr Burns’] letter that [the complainant could] avoid this potentially unpleasant experience by helping [Mr Burns] to secure payment to his father.”
13)In his initial response to the allegations, on 28 March 2019, Mr Burns agreed with the complainant that the substance of the dispute between his father and the company was not a matter for me. He invited me to consider the complainant’s motivation for making a complaint and said that the complainant had been untruthful about his role in the company. He went on to respond to some of the points in the annex to the complainant’s letter to me.
14)Mr Burns provided, by way of proof of postage, that he had not used House-provided postage to send his letter of 6 February 2019.
Mr Burns told me that he had not sought “formal advice” on using House-provided stationery. He said he had taken into account that “modest use” for personal correspondence was permitted. Mr Burns said that he could see that “it may have been better to use other paper to write this letter.” He told me he had taken “informal advice from a clerk” about raising the matter with the protection of parliamentary privilege. Mr Burns observed that “It would be somewhat ironic that should [the] complaint lead to a finding against [him, he] would have to explain all of the above to the House and therefore place on the record the very things[ the complainant’s] solicitors’ letter sought to keep concealed.”
15)I sought advice from the Clerk of the Journals about what he would have said if Mr Burns had approached him before writing to the complainant. The Clerk of the Journals’ advice is reproduced below. Having seen that advice, Mr Burns said “on reflection it would have been much better had [he] used personal paper for the letter” to the complainant. He said he had not intended his letter to “wrongly be regarded or represented as having the authority of the House.” He suggested that the complainant’s past experience (he had been a very senior civil servant) meant he “would certainly know that it had no such authority”. Mr Burns also suggested that “knowing the rules well enough to make his complaint in the first place would suggest this to be true.”
16)After I had written to Mr Burns to tell him that I had decided he had broken paragraphs 11 and 16 of the Code of Conduct, he asked to meet me. I did not make an audio-recording of the meeting, which took place on 25 June 2019, and it was not a formal evidence gathering interview. However, I wrote to Mr Burns the next day to record the issues he had raised.
17)I thanked Mr Burns for his frank acknowledgement that writing to the complainant in the terms that he did using stationery bearing the principal emblem of the House - the crowned portcullis - was a serious error of judgment. During the meeting he had volunteered his word that he would not use his position as a Member to pursue with the protection of parliamentary privilege the issues about which he had written to the complainant. Mr Burns had disclosed to me information about his own health, and sensitive information about a close family member, which he said had placed him under immense personal pressure in recent months.
18)During the meeting Mr Burns repeated what he had told me in his first response to the allegation. He said that, if an apology on the floor of the House were to be recommended by the Committee on Standards, it would have a perverse consequence because he would have to provide information about his father’s dispute with the complainant. Mr Burns asked me to explain this to the complainant and seek his views on the way forward. Mr Burns also asked me what would happen if for some reason the complainant were to withdraw his complaint.
19)I explained that it would not be appropriate for me to approach the complainant in the way that Mr Burns proposed. I also explained that if the complainant were, for some reason, to withdraw his complaint, I would not be bound to discontinue my inquiry. I would have to decide whether or not to continue with my inquiry.
20)In accordance with the Commissioner’s usual practice, I asked the House authorities about the advice they might have given had they been consulted formally by the Member.
21)The Clerk of the Journals told me on 4 April 2019 that, without sight of the text of Mr Burns’ letter, he would have advised against using stationery bearing the crowned portcullis.
22)Having read the correspondence, the Clerk of the Journals told me that the reference to the possible use of parliamentary privilege suggested that Mr Burns’ use of paper bearing the crowned portcullis “may have been more deliberate than accidental.” He said that its use might be seen “less as an automatic consequence of a careless choice of stationery and more as support for an ill-concealed threat.” The Clerk of the Journals told me that in his view that would be a use of the crowned portcullis “where its authentication of a connection with the House is inappropriate or where there is a risk that its use might wrongly be regarded or represented as having the authority of the House”. He described this as a “separate and more serious breach of the rules on its use.”
23)Mr Burns’ letter to the complainant was concerned solely with the financial affairs of a close family member. His letter was not sent in support of his parliamentary activities. It did, however, refer to action he might take in his capacity as a Member - in pursuit of that family interest.
24)Mr Burns should have known, and he has not at any stage suggested that he did not, that if he raised this matter during parliamentary proceedings, his words would have been protected from challenge through legal proceedings. Mr Burns should also have expected the complaiant to understand that point.
25)The complainant’s letter confirms he did understand the implications of the use of parliamentary privilege and that he understood the reference to it to be a threat of the consequences if he did not do as Mr Burns wished.
26)As both the complainant and Mr Burns have acknowledged, the rights and wrongs of Mr Burns’ father’s dispute with the company are not a matter for me, and I make no judgment on them.
27)I consider Mr Burns letter to be a breach of paragraph 11 of the Code of Conduct. On the balance of probabilities, I believe that he put personal interest before the public interest by suggesting that he would take advantage of his public office to pursue his father’s financial dispute.
28)Mr Burns initially sought to persuade me that his use of House-provided stationery for this correspondence was permissible under the rules because this was within the meaning of modest use for personal correspondence. I did not agree, and Mr Burns has since accepted that. On that basis alone, Mr Burns’ use of House-provided paper was a breach of the stationery rules, and a breach of paragraph 16 of the Code. Such breaches can occur inadvertently. I do not believe that to be the case on this occasion.
29)The Clerk of the Journals has told me he would have advised Mr Burns not to use House-provided stationery for his letter to the complainant. Whether or not Mr Burns intended the use of the crowned portcullis to give credence to the contents of his letter, it created the risk of the sort of misunderstanding that paragraph 9 of the stationery rules says should be avoided.
30)I agree with the Clerk of the Journals that the content of the letter suggests the use of the principal emblem of the House was more deliberate than accidental. And, as I explained in my letter to Mr Burns of 11 June 2019, his reference to having sought advice about privilege from the House authorities was misleading. I am not persuaded that that was accidental.
31)I have therefore concluded that Mr Burns acted in breach of paragraph 16 of the Code.
32)The manner of Mr Burns’ breach of paragraph 11 of the Code raises the possibility of a consequential breach of paragraph 17. However, there are other factors which I think are appropriate to consider as well.
33)As I explained in my letter to Mr Burns of 11 June 2019, the reference in his letter of 6 February 2019 to having sought advice about privilege from the House authorities was misleading. I am not satisfied that that was accidental.
34)The Clerk of the Journals has described Mr Burns’ letter as containing an “ill-concealed threat”. I do not know whether Mr Burns intended his letter to be received as a threat but the complainant clearly understood it as such. I think Mr Burns should have realised that his words would have that effect. On the balance of probabilities, I also think that was Mr Burns’ intention. I am persuaded, also on the balance of probabilities, that Mr Burns’ use of the crowned portcullis was intended to add weight to the threat that he would speak about the complainant in a forum where he would not have a right of reply.
Mr Burns said, when he first wrote to me that it “would be somewhat ironic that should [the complainant’s] complaint lead to a finding against” him he would “have to […] place on the record the very things that [the complainant’s] letter had sought to keep concealed”. He repeated that argument on 25 June 2019, after I had told him that I was upholding breaches of paragraphs 11 and 16. He did so, despite also giving me ‘his word’ in the same meeting that he would not use his position as a Member to pursue in the Chamber or otherwise the issues about which he had written to the complainant on 6 February 2019.
35)I am not convinced that Mr Burns’ suggestion that I explain to the complainant of the risk of a ‘perverse’ outcome was motivated by concern for the complainant’s best interest. And I do not know what Mr Burns intended me to understand when, after I declined to act on his suggestion, he asked me what would happen if the complainant were to withdraw his allegation. Whatever his intention, I do not think his comments were respectful of the standards system of the House.
36)It is for the Committee to decide whether it agrees with my findings and, if it does, to decide what action is appropriate. I make no comment about that. However, I do not agree with Mr Burns about the inevitability of a perverse outcome if he were to be asked to apologise. With appropriate care, it should be possible for Mr Burns to make an apology in the House, or elsewhere, without any further disclosure of the substance of his father’s dispute with the company and the complainant.
37)Mr Burns’ conduct in this matter does not reflect well on him personally. However, I think his conduct has a wider impact. It gives fuel to the belief that Members are able and willing to use the privileges accorded them by their membership of the House to benefit their own personal interests. That Mr Burns has not acted on his threat to use parliamentary privilege will do little to dispel that belief.
38)For a long-standing Member of the House to behave in this manner is, in my view, a breach of paragraph 17 of the Code of Conduct.
39)A draft of this Memorandum was shared with Mr Burns on 8 August 2019. My office sent him another copy on 9 September after he told them he had not received it. Following a reminder on 1 October, Mr Burns replied to the invitation to comment on the factual accuracy of the draft. He said that he had read the draft report. He did not identify any factual errors in the material I had provided, nor did he submit any additional evidence or information. Mr Burns said “in order to bring this to a resolution I will make any further comment or context to the Committee.”
40)For the reasons explained in paragraphs 24 to 40 of this Memorandum, I believe Mr Burns has acted in breach of paragraphs 11, 16 and 17 of the Code of Conduct for Members. Those breaches, individually and collectively, are at the more serious end of the spectrum. I cannot resolve this matter through the powers given to me under Standing Order No 150. I am therefore submitting this Memorandum to the Committee on Standards for its consideration.
Kathryn Stone OBE
Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards
21 October 2019
19 WE 11
20 WE 1
22 WE 7
23 WE 10
24 WE 11
Published: 4 May 2020