I write further to your letter dated 20 May 2021, on behalf of the Committee on Standards (“the Committee”), in which you agreed that I could submit, by 28 May 2021, any further written observations on the final memorandum prepared by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards dated 17 May 2021 (“the Memorandum”). I am grateful for that opportunity.
1)I would like to summarise my own views on the Commissioner’s approach and the findings made in the Memorandum. These comments are in addition to the formal representations my solicitors made on my behalf in letters to the Commissioner dated 12 March 2021 (Written Evidence 33) and 14 May 2021 (Written Evidence 42) respectively. I continue to rely on those formal representations and would ask that the Committee consider them carefully. I attach copies of the relevant letters for your convenience.
2)In summary, I do not believe that I have breached the Code of Conduct either when making an entry in the Register concerning my holiday in Mustique or as a result of my conduct during the course of the Commissioner’s subsequent inquiry. However, and without prejudice to this position, I have also indicated to the Commissioner my willingness to resolve this matter by taking further steps or making further enquiries. Unfortunately, I have not to date been informed of the specific steps or enquiries that I should undertake in order to do so. This is a matter of considerable frustration to me, as I would have wished to reach a suitable resolution without having to trouble the Committee.
3)I emphasise that when taking steps to enter information on the Register, I acted in good faith and after obtaining advice. I understand that this has never been disputed. My office sought and received advice from both the Registrar and the Cabinet Office’s Propriety & Ethics team. Furthermore, it has never been suggested that the information I initially provided to the Registrar was itself inaccurate in any respect.
4)As to the entry in the Register itself, I note that the Commissioner has made no finding in the Memorandum that the entry was either inaccurate or incomplete in any respect. The Commissioner accepts (contrary to the position I understand her to have adopted at earlier stages in the inquiry) that I was correct to name Mr Ross in the Register, since he was the person who obtained a villa for my use. The Commissioner also confirms that she has no reason to doubt that the benefit I obtained in the form of use of accommodation should be valued at £15,000. However, she states it is necessary also to identify who funded the accommodation and that she is unable to reach a conclusion on this issue. Even here, however, the Commissioner acknowledges that the person who funded the accommodation may indeed have been Mr Ross.
5)The inability to reach a conclusion on the identity of the funder seems to be based on the fact that information has been provided to the Commissioner by Mr Ross and the Mustique Company in stages and that there is limited documentary evidence as to their arrangements. The Commissioner also places some reliance on assertions in unsubstantiated media reports from February 2020 that the Mustique Company did not make any payment to the owners of the villa, although she accepts those assertions are uncorroborated. Whilst I acknowledge that there appears to be some informality in the arrangements between Mr Ross and the Mustique Company, and I agree that it is regrettable that information has been provided to the Commissioner in stages, as I have previously explained, the available evidence supports the conclusion that Mr Ross was indeed the person who funded the benefit in kind which I received. Furthermore, I do not believe it is correct to rely on uncorroborated assertions in media reports from February 2020 as a reason for omitting to reach that conclusion. It also remains quite unclear to me who else I could have named in the Register on the basis of the information and evidence obtained to date.
6)I understand that, in circumstances where the Commissioner has not concluded that the entry in the Register is inaccurate or incomplete in any respect, she has found that I acted in breach of paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct, and in contravention of the principle of accountability, on a narrow basis. The Commissioner takes the view that I am in breach because I did not make sufficient enquiries to establish the full facts about the funding of the accommodation either before or after making an entry on the Register. I am extremely troubled by this conclusion:
(1) I have some difficulty in understanding how the Commissioner has found such a breach in circumstances where it is not said that the entry in the Register is in fact inaccurate or incomplete. If the entry is not inaccurate or incomplete, there would be no relevant facts remaining to be ascertained and recorded in the Register.
(2) I have throughout this inquiry, which has lasted more than a year, sought to assist the Commissioner. I have provided all such assistance that I was in a position to provide, taking account of the fact that the Commissioner was herself in the process of contacting witnesses. I have, throughout, sought to cooperate with the inquiry and agreed to my conduct being subjected to appropriate scrutiny.
(3) I have also sought, through my solicitors, and on at least two separate occasions, to obtain clarification of the Commissioner’s view on what further enquiries I should undertake in order to demonstrate that sufficient enquiries have been made. The Commissioner has not identified the specific further enquiries that should have be made. For example, she has not indicated who she considers I should have approached for further information about the funding of accommodation. However, the Commissioner continues to rely on the absence of sufficient enquiries as the reason, and only reason, for finding a breach of paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct and a contravention of the principle of accountability.
(4) I also consider that the Commissioner’s conclusion regarding the insufficiency of enquiries fails to take account of all of the relevant circumstances. In particular, if it is being suggested that I should have made further enquiries with the Mustique Company, I am not sure I can agree. I understand that there are legal restrictions on the ability of the Mustique Company to disclose information to third parties. The Commissioner has herself accepted such restrictions exist. I do not think it would have been appropriate for me to apply undue pressure on the Mustique Company to provide information in circumstances where it had already confirmed to the Commissioner that it was prohibited from doing so. That would have risked being perceived as an attempt to press the Mustique Company to act in breach of its legal obligations. Alternatively, if it is being suggested that I should have made further enquiries with media organisations in respect of assertions made in their reports, I am doubtful that it would be reasonable to expect me to do so.
7)As a result, I remain extremely concerned about the conclusions reached by the Commissioner in the Memorandum and consider it necessary to express my concerns to the Committee. In making these observations I intend no discourtesy to the Commissioner herself.
8)Furthermore, now that this matter has been referred to the Committee, it remains my strong desire to seek a suitable resolution. I wish therefore to confirm that, although I do not accept that I have acted in breach of the Code of Conduct or in contravention of the principle of accountability, I am willing to take further reasonable steps to resolve this matter.
I hope that these observations will be of assistance to the Committee in its deliberations.