Speaking as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Sir George explains to the House why Jonathan Sayeed MP should be suspended for two weeks.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) acknowledged at the beginning of his remarks to some extent that the conduct that gave rise to the complaint fell below the standards of the House, and I welcome that. He has sensibly drawn back from last Thursday's complete public rejection of our report and, again, I am grateful for that. The Committee on Standards and Privileges will need to reflect on whether he has responded fully to our recommendations that he apologise fully to the House in the light of some of his qualifications.
I commend to the House the motion to approve my Committee's third report, which it agreed unanimously on 1 February, and its recommendation that the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire be suspended from the House for a period of two weeks. In supporting the motion, let me briefly remind the House of the background to our current regulatory regime. A decade or so ago, a series of incidents in which Members sought to exploit their position in the House for commercial advantage ended the careers of a number of colleagues and injured the reputation of others. More importantly, those incidents seriously damaged the standing of Members generally and of the House as an institution in the eyes of the public. Public confidence had to be rebuilt, and following recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life—then known as the Nolan committee—the House adopted much more rigorous procedures involving, first, a code of conduct and, secondly, an independent commissioner to investigate complaints. At the heart of the new arrangements was a recognition of the overriding need to maintain a proper and visible distinction between our public duties as Members and our private interests. That need is underpinned by the Register of Members' Interests, the main purpose of which is defined in the guide to the rules as giving
"public notification on a continuous basis of those pecuniary interests held by Members which might be thought to influence their parliamentary conduct or actions."
I stress the words "might be thought", as the House accepts that there are occasions on which perceptions are a relevant factor.
As the code makes clear, Members must base their conduct on a consideration of the public interest, and avoid conflict between personal and public interests. They must also conduct themselves at all times in a manner that will tend to maintain and strengthen public trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament as an institution, and never undertake any activity that would bring the House or Members generally into disrepute. Those two basic principles each have a bearing on the matter now before the House.
Before turning to the specifics of that matter, it might be helpful if I outlined the key elements of how the system works in practice. All complaints are made to the independent commissioner and it is for him alone to decide which merit further investigation and how they are investigated. The ultimate purpose of any investigation—he is an investigator, not a prosecutor—is to seek to establish whether or not the Member has breached the code of conduct. He seeks to agree with the Member concerned, wherever possible—and almost always does—the facts that have emerged from the investigation. He forms an opinion as to whether they
reveal any breach of the code and he reports to the Committee, which always publishes his report in full, along with its own report to the House.
It is my Committee that reaches a decision on whether there has been a breach of the code and, in appropriate cases, recommends further action to the House. It reaches its decision on the basis of a thorough and critical examination of the facts reported by the commissioner and any further evidence that it has sought or that the Member has offered following confidential sight of the commissioner's full report. The Committee never simply rubber-stamps the commissioner's conclusions and recommendations.
I turn now to the specific case before us today. I have to say to the House that I was surprised that the hon. Member issued an embargoed press statement within an hour of seeing the Committee's report, denouncing the Committee's recommendations that he be suspended for two weeks as
"wrong, unjust and contrary to the evidence accepted by the Commissioner and recognised by the Committee".
The hon. Member is entitled to his opinion and he has at least been consistent in that matter, both in his written evidence and at the conclusion of his oral evidence when he made it clear that, in his view, it would be a gross travesty if the Committee upheld the complaint.
The Committee, of course, gave full weight to the hon. Member's points, as it did to all the other evidence before it. It none the less unanimously agreed with the commissioner that the evidence bore out the substance of his conclusions. I hope that the House will understand that, in seeking to rebut some of the points that the hon. Member advanced, I may need to speak at greater length on this occasion than on previous ones where our verdict was not challenged.
The hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) sought in his complaint an investigation of whether the hon. Member had abused parliamentary privilege in respect of his association with The English Manner Ltd.—a company in which he has a 30 per cent. shareholding. The hon. Member for Harwich also asked for an examination of whether it was ethical for the hon. Member to employ Mrs. Alexandra Messervy as his constituency assistant when she was also the majority shareholder of The English Manner Ltd.—a dual role that, in the view of the hon. Member for Harwich, may have resulted in an unacceptable conflict of interest.
In support of his complaint, the hon. Member for Harwich sent the commissioner material gathered by The Sunday Times on the basis of which the newspaper had published articles in August 2004, asserting that The English Manner Ltd. charged substantial sums for tours of Parliament guided by the hon. Member in question.
The complaint was thoroughly investigated by the commissioner, whose report is published together with the Committee's. On behalf of the House, I should like to thank the commissioner for the care with which he investigated the complaint and formulated his conclusions. Besides the commissioner's report, the Committee received further written submissions from the hon. Member and from Mrs. Messervy, who is also one of two directors of The English Manner Ltd. It also took oral evidence from the hon. Member, at his own request.
Having given careful consideration to all the evidence before it, the Committee unanimously accepted the conclusions of the commissioner regarding the conduct of the hon. Member. For his part, and despite the protestations in his press release, the hon. Member himself accepted in giving evidence to the Committee that he did not exercise sufficient personal control over a company in which he had a financial interest.
The basic facts are not in dispute. The hon. Member is a substantial shareholder in The English Manner Ltd.—an interest that he properly registered from the outset. He is also a remunerated consultant to the company on marketing strategy. It is clear that he recognised the potential for conflicts of interest between those roles and his duties as a Member, both because of his oral instruction that neither his name, nor the name of Parliament was to be used in promotional material and because of his ticking of the relevant box when booking dining rooms in the House when his guests had English Manner Limited connections.
It is also common ground between the Committee and the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire that there was no evidence that he benefited directly from entertaining clients of The English Manner Ltd. in the House, nor any evidence that the company made a profit from that entertaining. The Committee states that explicitly at paragraph 40 of the report, and also that there appears to be no basis for newspaper association that The English Manner charged substantial sums for arranging access to the House.
Where, then, lies the root of the difference of view between the commissioner and the Committee, on the one hand, and the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire on the other? In essence, the hon. Member takes the view that, as there is no evidence supporting the key assertions by The Sunday Times regarding charging for access to Parliament, that complaint must fall. Likewise, he maintains that, as there was never, in his opinion, a conflict of interest between the role of Mrs. Messervy as his constituency assistant on the one hand, and her directorship and majority shareholding in The English Manner on the other, that complaint must also fall.
On those grounds, the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire considers that the Committee should have explicitly rejected the entire complaint, and that therefore the imposition of a penalty is unjust and wrong, and that the opinions of both the commissioner and the Committee fly in the face of the evidence.
I remind the House that the complaint, whose terms I outlined earlier, are set out in full on pages 40 and 41 of the Committee's report, and that they went far wider than the very narrow and specific points on which the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire seeks to argue. The commissioner and the Committee considered that a broader view—of how The English Manner promoted itself, and of the relationships between those running the company—needed to be taken than the one apparently taken by the hon. Member. Given that the company sought, in large measure, to market itself by word of mouth and personal recommendation, that broader view should also apply to the likely reaction of those clients who were entertained at the House.
The commissioner consistently presented the complaint to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire in those broader terms, as did the Committee when it took evidence from him. In a nutshell, it is that different view of the scope of the complaint that lies at the heart of the different conclusions reached by the hon. Member on the one hand, and by the Committee and the commissioner on the other.
The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire believes that the key question is, "Was either I or The English Manner paid for taking people round the House?" Both the Committee and the commissioner see the matter differently. They ask, "Did the hon. Member break the code by allowing his privileged access to the House and its facilities to be exploited for the commercial benefit of a company in which he had a clear financial interest?"
Much of the evidence, and many of the press allegations, centred on material placed on the company's website. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire does not dispute that some material on the website gave the impression that The English Manner could arrange privileged access to Parliament. However, he then contends that much of the material behind the complaint was posted on the website without proper authorisation, and that its removal by the company was recognition that it should not have been used in that way. That, of course, avoids the question about the purpose for which the company had prepared the material—something on which the hon. Member was silent.
Such evidence as there is suggests that the documents concerned did form part of the company's marketing strategy. More seriously, however, the review of a visit that included the Palace of Westminster, to which the Committee referred in paragraph 19 of its report, and which explicitly connected the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, Parliament and the expression "fabulous English Manner adventure", was clearly written for promotional purposes by no less a person than the director of the company and a fellow shareholder. The hon. Member is also silent about how that happened. The evidence clearly suggested that the company—or, at least, its marketing end—considered privileged access to Parliament to be a marketing point, whatever the protestations to the contrary.
The first defence by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire is that he had made it clear that neither his name, nor that of Parliament, should be used in the company's marketing. He argues that, having instructed that his name should not be used, why should he have had to check?
Is that view sustainable? The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire is an experienced business man. As a Member of the House, he knew of the sensitivities and risks involved in being seen to market Parliament for commercial advantage, and he was remunerated as a marketing consultant to the company.
Both the commissioner and the Committee agreed that the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire should have done more to avoid such conflict, and that he should have taken a far closer interest in the company's marketing strategy in that respect, including its use of the website as a promotional tool.
The hon. Member's second defence was that, on all occasions except one, the guests he entertained in the House who were in the country as clients of The English Manner were entertained as personal friends and not company clients. We explored that in evidence with him, and he agreed that in fact on each occasion only "at least one" of the guests was a "good friend". In essence, the hon. Member was entertaining groups on the basis of "know one, know all". While he may have known personally the organiser of the Garden Club visit, there is no evidence that he had any personal connection whatever with the club as an institution. He also accepted that there was no discussion with guests that might help them to appreciate what he saw as the distinctive status of their visits to the House. Several of them also got a bill for the meal from the company—an act unlikely to reinforce any perception that they had been personally entertained by the hon. Member—although we recognise that there is no evidence that the company added a mark-up.
The most blatant example of commercial exploitation was the familiarisation visit, which, as a whole, was self-evidently designed to promote the company. Neither the commissioner nor the Committee found sustainable the hon. Member's arguments that that entertainment in the House was purely a personal matter. Both concluded that, taken as a whole, the effect of those visits was to give credibility to the company's overall marketing claim that it could gain access for its clients to institutions, people and places that would otherwise be difficult. The hon. Member, as a major shareholder, would therefore stand to benefit indirectly from that promotion of the company.
Nor does the hon. Member's assertion, repeated in his press statement, that a visit to the House did not form any part of a programme offered to the guests hold water. The Committee saw the programme for the Garden Club visit. It clearly included a visit to the House, and must have been made available beforehand to some, at least, of the party, as it included an option that had to be booked six weeks before the date of the visit. The hon. Member, in his evidence, could give no satisfactory explanation of that. In short, both the commissioner and the Committee rejected both defences, and concluded that he had failed adequately to prevent The English Manner from exploiting commercially his privileged access to the House.
Two other matters came to light during the commissioner's investigation. The first, which emerged very late in the investigation, was that the hon. Member had made six, not four, registrable visits to the USA paid for by The English Manner. The hon. Member had previously twice assured the commissioner that there had been only four such visits. It is regrettable that he misled the commissioner in that way.
The hon. Member accepted responsibility for the late registrations, and explained that they had arisen as a result of a staff member's oversight. The Committee noted, though, that the two previous visits, recorded in the current published edition of the register, had also not been registered within the one-month period, again by substantial margins.
The hon. Member had also on four occasions given incorrect information to the Department of Finance and Administration about Mrs. Messervy's employment status. The information was apparently given in good faith at the time, but should have been corrected when anticipated developments did not materialise. Those failures could have led to an overpayment of the staffing allowance, but in the event appear not to have done so.
Although, in that sense, no harm was done, those lapses suggest a less than thorough approach to those important matters.
In both respects, the Committee considered that the hon. Member could, and should have done more. He has apologised for his oversights in respect of the staffing allowance and accepts that ultimately he is to blame for the failure to register, in a timely fashion, the two past recent visits.
The Committee has given very careful consideration to the Commissioner's report, and to the further evidence provided by the hon. Member and by Mrs. Messervy. It has discussed the case on three occasions, and deliberated on it for several hours. I stress that the Committee was unanimous in its conclusions. I believe that the hon. Member takes too narrow and selective a view of the nature of the complaint and appears unable to recognise the breadth of the issues raised by his conduct. I take the view that the Committee's recommendation, in the formulation of which it took into account recommendations made in previous cases, is a proportionate response to the facts revealed in the evidence. I see nothing in the hon. Member's press release that leads me to think that either the commissioner or the Committee came to the wrong decision.
Looking at decisions in past cases involving failure to observe strictly the registration requirements, it is likely that the non-registration of the visits and the incorrect information given to the Department of Finance and Administration, both of which the hon. Member accepts, would themselves have led the Committee to call for an apology. When we add in the other matters, which risked damaging the reputation of the House by giving the impression that its facilities were for hire, I think that a recommendation for suspension was inevitable given the extent to which the hon. Member's conduct, as revealed by the commissioner's investigation, had fallen below the standard the House expects.
I commend the report to the House and the recommendation it makes that the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire be suspended from the House for a period of two weeks.