This is the text of the speech Sir George made in the House on the report on Michael Trend.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I commend to the House the motion to approve the Committee's third report, which was agreed unanimously on 12 February, and the related recommendation to suspend my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) from the service of the House for two weeks.
On 13 February, when the report was published, my hon. Friend made a personal statement in which he accepted unreservedly the report's conclusions that he had been muddled and naive in his negligent understanding of the additional costs allowance. He apologised unreservedly to Mr. Speaker and to his constituents. Hon. Members will acknowledge the speed with which my hon. Friend came to the House to accept the report's conclusions and to apologise for his conduct, and the terms in which he did that.
The background to this case was a report in The Mail on Sunday on 15 December that my hon. Friend had returned to his house in Windsor while claiming an allowance intended to cover the cost of overnight stays in London. His reaction to the allegations was that they were wrong, and he immediately contacted the Department of Finance and Administration to confirm that his understanding was correct. While his discussions with the department did indeed confirm that he had never claimed additional costs allowance in respect of his London address, they revealed that he had seriously misunderstood the significance of identifying his main residence for this purpose.
Although my hon. Friend believed that his conduct had always been perfectly proper, he accepted that he had misunderstood the rules, and agreed to repay, without delay, the sum that he was told was due. That was done, in full, on 23 December.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards subsequently received several complaints, and one of these, from a constituent, formed the basis of the commissioner's investigation.
This is the first case investigated by the present commissioner to come before the House, though not before my Committee. I pay tribute to the care and thoroughness, exemplified by this case, with which he carries out his investigations, and to the clarity of his report, published as an appendix to ours.
The commissioner concluded that my hon. Friend had claimed additional costs allowance in breach of the rules. He did not, however, find that the evidence available was sufficient to substantiate the conclusion that my hon. Friend had deliberately set out to abuse the allowance. He concluded that the evidence was certainly sufficient to justify the view that my hon. Friend was, at the least, careless or negligent in relation to the claims that he made. He also considered that it was clear that, in failing to observe the relevant rules, he had misused the allowance and consequently breached the code of conduct.
The Committee agreed that my hon. Friend was not dishonest in his belief that he had the option to choose which of his places of residence to register as his main residence for the purpose of the additional costs allowance. We recognised, as did the commissioner, that since the matter came to light my hon. Friend had co-operated fully with all the inquiries and promptly repaid the sum he was told he owed the Department. However, my hon. Friend should have recognised that his claiming additional costs allowance in relation to his Windsor home meant that the taxpayer was meeting some of the core running costs of what was in reality his main residence. He should have realised that it was wrong to sign a certificate giving the home of his friend in London as his main residence, when he was staying there infrequently. Accordingly, the Committee agreed with the commissioner that my hon. Friend was negligent, and had breached the code of conduct by making improper use of the additional costs allowance and failing strictly to observe the rules relating to the allowance.
The Committee considered very carefully what would be an appropriate penalty to recommend to the House. The consequences for my hon. Friend of what he conceded in his evidence to us was
"a mistake, a serious mistake",
have already been severe, in bringing to an end his parliamentary career. However, we must recognise the impact of cases of improper use of allowances on public confidence in Members of Parliament and in Parliament as an institution. Of course, the sum involved in this case was very substantial.
The code of conduct requires Members to observe the highest standards in relation to payments or allowances made to them for public purposes, and Members are personally responsible for both the accuracy and the validity of their claims. Having weighed all these considerations, we recommended that my hon. Friend be suspended from the service of the House for two weeks.
David Winnick (Walsall, North): I do not want to speak about the hon. Member in question, but the subject of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks prompted me to table questions regarding the manner in which the Fees Office does or does not check submissions for the additional costs allowance. Is it not important that Members of Parliament submit documentary evidence, as in any other job? The present arrangements are loose and unsatisfactory, and do no credit to the House.
Sir George Young: I should like to respond to the hon. Gentleman by saying a final word about the system to which he refers.
We are guardians of the public purse, as well as of parliamentary standards. We were concerned that over £90,000 had been incorrectly claimed, and that this matter did not come to light through the normal system of scrutiny. We therefore welcomed the steps that are being taken to strengthen confidence in the system for claiming additional costs allowance. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman joins us in that view. We recommend that these steps be completed as quickly as possible and that they then be brought to the attention of all hon. Members. That would usefully complement the increased emphasis that we wish to place on education and prevention.
We believe that, whatever the precise solutions adopted, public confidence in Members requires that the standards that the House imposes on itself be no less effective than those that it would expect of others responsible for the expenditure of public money. Our recommendations to the House reflect that view.