1.This Report arises from a complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards that David Morris MP had breached the paid advocacy rule (paragraph 12 of the Code of Conduct) when he asked a Topical Question on 22 October 2019. The Commissioner also considered whether Mr Morris breached the rule on declaration of interests (paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct).
2.The Commissioner further considered whether Mr Morris breached the same rules in his email to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy on the following day, 23 October 2019, which Mr Morris disclosed during the course of the investigation.
3.The Commissioner has supplied us with a memorandum relating to these matters, which we publish as an appendix to this report. Mr Morris submitted further written evidence, and requested some redactions to this evidence where it relates to sensitive personal information, which we have agreed. Full details of the Commissioner’s inquiry and her findings are set out in the memorandum. We shall summarise them briefly before setting out our own conclusions.
4.On 22 October 2019, Mr Morris asked a Topical Question in the House during Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy questions. His question was as follows:
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In my constituency, we have two EDF nuclear power stations. Part of the EDF group is RTE, which is currently working with the British company Aquind to deliver cross-EU-border energy infrastructure. The EU Commission has just removed UK companies from its list of projects of common interests, which affects their regulation. Will my right hon. Friend urge Ofgem to step up and protect British companies by granting regulation as soon as possible in accordance with British law?
5.On 6 September 2019 Mr Morris had accepted a £10,000 donation from Aquind Ltd, which was registered on his register entry under Category 2 (Donations and other support for activities as a Member of Parliament). Mr Morris has said that this was a contribution to his campaign funds. This donation constituted “outside reward or consideration” under the paid advocacy rule (paragraph 12 of the Code of Conduct). The paid advocacy rule is explained in the Guide to the Rules as follows:
The rules place the following restrictions on Members […] When initiating proceedings or approaches to Ministers, other Members or public officials. Subject to paragraph 10 below, Members must not engage in lobbying by initiating a proceeding or approach which seeks to confer, or would have the effect of conferring, any financial or material benefit on an identifiable person from whom or an identifiable organisation from which they, or a family member, have received, are receiving, or expect to receive outside reward or consideration, or on a registrable client of such a person or organisation.
Paragraph 10, referred to above, provides a time limit for the application of the lobbying rules as follows:
The restrictions under the lobbying rules apply for six months after the reward or consideration was received. A Member can free him or herself immediately of any restrictions due to a past benefit by repaying the full value of any benefit received from the outside person or organisation in the preceding six month period.
6.Under the paid advocacy rule, Mr Morris was therefore prohibited, for the six months following receipt of the donation, from lobbying for a financial or material benefit for Aquind Ltd by initiating proceedings or approaches to Ministers, other Members or public officials. This includes tabling and asking a Parliamentary Question, including a Topical Question. The Commissioner concluded that the most straightforward interpretation of Mr Morris’s Topical Question was that he was seeking for Ofgem to make regulations in future in order to “protect” companies such as Aquind Ltd through a regulatory regime, which constituted seeking to confer a financial or material benefit on them.
7.The Commissioner therefore concluded that Mr Morris’ Topical Question on 22 October 2019 breached paragraph 12 of the Code of Conduct.
8.The Guide to the Rules states that a declaration of interests is not required when asking a Topical Question. The Commissioner therefore found that Mr Morris did not breach the rule on declaration of interests in relation to his Topical Question on 22 October 2019.
9.On 23 October 2019 Mr Morris emailed the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, copying the Official Report text of his Topical Question and the Minister’s reply on the previous day. Mr Morris’s email was a follow-up to his Question, but also asked the Minister what he would do to “ensure that our cross border energy infrastructure projects go ahead”, if he would “[press] Ofgem to take over regulation in this instance”, and if he would “write to the President of the Council to ask for PCI to be re-instated”.
10.As outlined in paragraph 5 above, the paid advocacy rule also encompasses initiating “approaches to Ministers”. The Commissioner concluded that Mr Morris’s email to the Secretary of State constituted initiating an approach to a Minister for the purposes of the paid advocacy rule; and that even if the email was interpreted as a request to restore UK projects in general to the list of Projects of Common Interest, he was nevertheless initiating an approach that sought to confer, or would have the effect of conferring, a financial or material benefit on Aquind Ltd.
11.The Guide to the Rules does permit Members to initiate an approach to a Minister which would otherwise be prohibited by the lobbying rules if it is in pursuit of a constituency interest, subject to the rules on registration and declaration. The Commissioner concluded, however, that there was not adequate evidence that Mr Morris was pursuing a constituency interest when he emailed the Secretary of State.
12.The Commissioner concluded that Mr Morris’s email to the Secretary of State on 23 October 2019 therefore breached paragraph 12 of the Code of Conduct.
13.The Commissioner also considered whether Mr Morris’s email to the Secretary of State breached the rule on declaration of interests. The rule on declaration of interests, at paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct, states that relevant interests should be declared in “any communications with Ministers”:
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.
14.The Guide to the Rules states that declarations of interest must:
provide sufficient information to convey the nature of the interest without the listener or the reader having to have recourse to the Register or other publication.
15.Although Mr Morris made a brief declaration of a relevant interest, by copying the Official Report text of his question which referred to his Register entry, the Commissioner concluded that it did not meet the requirements set out in the Guide to the Rules, because others could not have understood the nature and relevance of the interest without reverting to the Register. The Commissioner therefore concluded that Mr Morris’s email to the Secretary of State also breached paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct.
16.In representations to the Commissioner, Mr Morris emphasised that he had not intended to breach any of the rules of conduct. The Commissioner accepted that Mr Morris’s breach of the rules was inadvertent.
17.The Commissioner also concluded that she found Mr Morris’s conduct during her investigation to be “regrettable and disrespectful of the House’s system of standards”. We discuss this further in paragraphs 25 to 28 below.
18.During the course of the Commissioner’s investigation, Mr Morris sought to rely on advice he had received from House officials in relation to asking a Topical Question. Although Mr Morris shared with the Commissioner only extracts from his email conversations with two senior officials, it is clear from the responses that Mr Morris had asked them only (a) if there was a requirement in the Code of Conduct to consult the Registrar before asking a Parliamentary Question, and (b) if he was required to declare an interest when asking a Topical Question.
19.The central consideration in the case of Mr Morris’s Topical Question, however, was not whether he was required to consult the Registrar beforehand, nor whether he ought to have declared his interest when asking it, but rather whether he should have asked his Topical Question at all, since it constituted initiating a proceeding for the purposes of the paid advocacy rule. Mr Morris later acknowledged that his engagement with the Commissioner’s investigation was based in part on a “misunderstanding on certain aspects of Parliamentary procedure”.
20.Had Mr Morris, before asking his Topical Question, sought (and acted upon) advice from House officials by setting out the circumstances of his proposed question and the nature of his interest, this would have been a considerable defence. Indeed, it is likely that had he done so, no breach would have occurred, since the Registrar has stated that, had Mr Morris consulted her, she would have advised him that his Topical Question would likely constitute a breach of the paid advocacy rule. But Mr Morris appears only to have sought advice after the fact on questions which are not relevant to the Commissioner’s conclusions. His appeal to the advice he received is not, therefore, a convincing defence.
21.In supplementary written evidence to this Committee, Mr Morris provided a note to him from the House of Commons Library, which analyses the prevalence of references by Members to “my entry” and “Register” in the Official Report. Mr Morris rightly makes clear in his written evidence to this Committee that the prevalence of this practice “is not an excuse for any actions taken”.
22.We note that Mr Morris’s claims in his letter to this Committee did not include important qualifications made in the note from the House of Commons Library. Mr Morris stated that “979 Members of all parties have made similar declarations as myself and possible mistakes”. However, the House of Commons Library note refers to 979 total references between the 2010–12 and 2019 sessions, not Members; of which 721 are references to entries in the Register made in the Chamber by 267 different Members. As the Library note makes clear, whilst this number is still likely to be an underestimate of purported declarations of this sort, this analysis did not capture whether Members went on to explain the nature of their interest. The Library note also drew attention to the fact that often what initially appear to be declarations of interest are not in fact required under the rules, or even refer simply to a qualification to speak rather than a genuine financial interest.
23.As noted in paragraph 8 above, under paragraph 6(a) of Chapter 2 of the Guide to the Rules, declarations of interest are not required when asking Topical and Supplementary Questions. The form of a declaration of interest during a Topical or Supplementary Question is therefore irrelevant. More pertinently, Mr Morris did not break the rules because his declaration of interests during his Topical Question was inadequate: rather, he should not have asked his Topical Question at all because it was in breach of the ban on paid advocacy.
24.Mr Morris’s case does highlight, however, that declarations (whether in proceedings in Parliament or in communications with Ministers, Members, public officials or public office holders) that refer only to the existence of a register entry are unlikely to count as adequate declarations under the rules. We draw all Members’ attention to the requirement in the Guide to the Rules that declarations of interest must “provide sufficient information to convey the nature of the interest without the listener or the reader having to have recourse to the Register or other publication”.
25.During the investigation, Mr Morris repeatedly questioned the Commissioner’s remit and her right to consult other officials (in particular the Registrar). He also suggested that the Commissioner had deliberately changed the focus of her investigation in order to justify its continuation or conclusions. As noted in paragraph 16 above, the Commissioner concluded that Mr Morris’s conduct during her investigation was disrespectful of the House’s standards system.
26.Mr Morris subsequently acknowledged that his communication with the Commissioner during her investigation was “legalistic, argumentative and […] combative”, and has apologised to the Commissioner and the Registrar.
27.In his email to the Commissioner on 11 July 2020, Mr Morris set out factors which he considered had influenced how he had engaged with the Commissioner’s investigation:
I should point out that it has been a challenging time for me recently. [sensitive personal data redacted]. I am obviously extremely stressed by these factors and on top of that, this investigation has completely perplexed me.
I have not been able to fully share with anyone these details because of the above distractions, [sensitive personal data redacted]. I believe these factors have had a detrimental impact on my focus and approach to working with you in a more conciliatory and constructive manner.
28.The Commissioner acknowledged that Mr Morris had “recently been through a difficult and testing period, and that stress can affect an individual’s usual behaviour”, that she understood him to be “deeply apologetic and remorseful for the tone adopted in your earlier correspondence”, and that she was “happy to accept [his] mitigation and apology for the tone of [his] previous correspondence, and […] that no disrespect had been intended to me or my office”.
29.We agree with the Commissioner’s findings that Mr Morris breached paragraph 12 of the Code of Conduct for Members when asking his Topical Question on 22 October 2019; and breached paragraph 12 and paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct for Members when sending his email of 23 October 2019 to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy.
30.Whilst we agree with the Commissioner that these breaches of the rules were inadvertent, any breach of the paid advocacy rule in particular must always be regarded as a serious matter. Observance and enforcement of the paid advocacy rule is vital to maintaining public confidence that Members of Parliament are not using their position and access to Ministers to seek to confer benefits on individuals or organisations in return for any reward or consideration.
32.We regard the following to be an aggravating factor:
33.We regard the following to be mitigating factors:
34.We recommend that Mr Morris should apologise to the House for his breaches of the Code of Conduct by means of a personal statement, the terms of which should be agreed in advance with Mr Speaker and with the Chair of the Committee.
1 Written evidence accompanying the Commissioner’s memorandum is published on the Committee’s website.
2 The letter from Mr Morris to the Committee is published as Appendix 2 to this report. Mr Morris’s supplementary written evidence is published on the Committee’s website.
3 Topical questions are a type of oral question in the chamber, where Members do not have to provide the text of their question in advance, and so the text of the question does not appear on the Order Paper. This is to enable Members to ask questions on recent or ‘topical’ issues that may have arisen since the deadline for tabling an oral question.
4 Appendix 1 para 9
5 Appendix 1, para 36
6 The Code of Conduct together with The Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members (HC 1882), Guide to the Rules, Chapter 3, para 8
7 Guide to the Rules, Chapter 3, para 10
8 Guide to the Rules, Chapter 3, para 11(c)
9 Appendix 1, para 53
10 Appendix 1, para 106
11 Guide to the Rules, Chapter 2, para 6(a)
12 Appendix 1, para 60
13 Appendix 1, para 34
14 Appendix 1, para 5
15 Guide to the Rules, Chapter 3, para 19. This exception does not, however, permit the initiation of proceedings.
16 Appendix 1, paras 68–73
17 Appendix 1, para 106
18 Code of Conduct for Members, paragraph 14
19 Guide to the Rules, Chapter 2, para 3
20 Appendix 1, paras 61–63
21 Appendix 1, para 107
22 Appendix 1, para 103
23 Appendix 1, para 108
24 Appendix 1, paras 82–84, 99–100
25 Appendix 1, paras 19–20, 82–84, 99–100
26 Written evidence: Email from Mr David Morris MP to the Commissioner, 12 August 2020
27 Appendix 1, para 15
28 Appendix 2
29 Appendix 2
30 Written evidence: Response from the House of Commons Library to David Morris MP, 7 July 2020
31 See paragraphs 4–7 above.
32 Guide to the Rules, Chapter 2, para 3
33 Appendix 1, paras 91–98
34 Written evidence: Letter from the Commissioner to Mr Morris MP, 31 July 2020, Enclosure - Email of 11 July 2020 from Mr David Morris MP to the Commissioner
35 Written evidence: Letter from the Commissioner to Mr Morris MP, 31 July 2020, Enclosure - Email of 11 July 2020 from Mr David Morris MP to the Commissioner
36 Written evidence: Letter from the Commissioner to Mr Morris MP, 31 July 2020, Enclosure - Notes from the meeting of 27 July between the Commissioner and David Morris MP
Published: 17 September 2020