This is the text of the speech Sir George made as Chairman of Standards and Privileges. The House subsequently agreed to the suspension without a division.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Let me begin by dispersing some of the smokescreen that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) constructed as he sought to divert attention from the issue that is at the heart of the debate and that appears on the front of the report: the conduct of the hon. Gentleman.
Let me make one thing absolutely clear. As fellow parliamentarians, we defend absolutely the right of free speech. We said as much in our report; as far as we are concerned, the hon. Gentleman has the right to hold and express his views and use any legitimate means to pursue them. That applies as much to his views on sanctions as it does on anything else. He has stated that my Committee is pro-sanctions and pro-war. As a matter of fact, of the nine members who signed the report, five voted in favour of the war and four did not.
The hon. Gentleman further asserted that he is being suspended because he robustly defended himself. Not so. The problem with his defence was not that it was robust; it was that it was not credible. He has accused us of being a kangaroo court composed of his political opponents, incapable of reaching an objective conclusion. As an aside, one member of the Committee is a Welsh nationalist, a party that has no ambitions on Bethnal Green and Bow.
What the Committee does mind about is our duty to maintain the reputation of the House. Nothing could more damage that reputation than if a Committee of this House were to dispense summary justice in a partisan manner to settle political scores. None of us will be complicit in that, least of all—if I may say so, and without wishing to embarrass him—the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who has a justified reputation for championing the causes of those who have been wrongly accused. It would, however, damage the House’s reputation if we were to fail to uphold our own rules and code of conduct. We have addressed this case objectively and impartially—as we have addressed all cases since I became a Committee member.
The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has asserted that since he has
“been cleared of taking a single penny or in any way personally benefiting from the former Iraqi regime”
the complaint should fail. What the commissioner actually said—and what the Committee endorsed—was that no evidence had emerged from the inquiry that shows whether the hon. Gentleman has
“directly and personally, unlawfully received monies from the former Iraqi regime”.
The commissioner did, however, find clear evidence that his former wife, with whom he shared a joint account, had received two substantial sums from the oil for food programme.
Where the money for the Mariam appeal came from and where it ended up is of interest to the House.
This is not a debate about party political funding, as the hon. Gentleman maintains. It is about openness, accountability and integrity, and it is also about our rules on advocacy. We know that the hon. Gentleman was, by his own admission, in charge of the Mariam campaign and that that was, in his words,
“a campaigning organisation campaigning for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq.”
We know that it had total resources of £1.4 million, only a fraction of which was used for the treatment of Mariam herself. The central issue before us is: when the hon. Gentleman argued in this Chamber against sanctions on Iraq, did he know—and therefore was the House entitled to know—that the vehicle for that campaign was funded in part by Saddam Hussein? The evidence led us to the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman solicited the funds, was instrumental in securing them, directed their expenditure and was complicit in trying to conceal their true origin. Let me briefly explain how the commissioner and the Committee reached that conclusion.
I should first put on record our thanks to the commissioner for his painstaking work, and state that I bitterly resent the hon. Gentleman’s gratuitous and offensive attack on him. This inquiry was the longest running, and probably one of the most complex, ever undertaken by any commissioner. A number of unusual features contributed to the complexity: the overlap with the interests of other bodies, such as the Volcker committee and the Charity Commission; the foreign dimension; the difficulty in authenticating documents; language issues; and unobtainable witnesses. I am also grateful to the Committee. It has discussed the case on five separate occasions for a total of between nine and 10 hours and has reached a unanimous conclusion.
At the heart of the debate are the so-called Telegraph documents. Their discovery led to the articles that gave rise to the complaint, and their authenticity and credibility was the key question we had to answer. What did the documents say? They are printed in full on pages 8 to 11 of volume II of the report, and I shall quote extracts referring to reports of meetings that concern the hon. Gentleman. First, the intelligence chief’s memorandum says that the hon. Gentleman’s
“projects and future plans for the benefit of the country need financial support to become a motive for him to do more work and because of the sensitivity of getting money directly from Iraq it is necessary to grant him oil contracts...his only representative on all matters relating to the Mariam Campaign is Mr. Fawaz Abdullah Zureikat and the two partners have agreed that financial and commercial matters should be done by”
“with emphasis that the name of Mr. Galloway or his wife should not be mentioned later...Therefore he needs continuous financial support from Iraq...he suggested to us the following...first increase his share of oil.”
A later document, known as the Tariq Aziz memorandum, states:
“We send you attached a translation of the work programme for the year 2000 which was submitted by Member of Parliament George Galloway and cleared by the President’s office”.
A translation of the presidential response gives an order that the hon. Gentleman’s request be studied:
“But the belief is that the person who is promoting the right path, even using western methods, needs exceptional support which we cannot afford.”
The final document is the Izzat Ibrahim document. It recommends:
“continuing the co-operation with George Galloway about the oil contracts and other commercial contracts...It is better not to engage the Mukhabarat”—
the Iraqi intelligence service—
“in the relationship with George Galloway, as he has been a well known politician since 1990 and discovery with the Mukhabarat would damage him very much.”
If true, those documents have serious implications both for the hon. Gentleman and the House. My Committee and the commissioner have seen the documents in their entirety—all 2,500-plus pages of them. The hon. Gentleman has chosen not to do so, despite a range of opportunities during both the libel proceedings and our own inquiry.
The hon. Gentleman denounces the documents as fakes or forgeries. Let us examine that proposition. He asserts that some, or possibly all, of the Telegraph documents were not found in the burnt-out Foreign Ministry building in Baghdad, as the journalist David Blair described in sworn testimony during the libel proceedings and confirmed in evidence to the commissioner, and as has been independently confirmed by other witnesses. Instead, the hon. Gentleman asserts that they were handed to David Blair by agents of our intelligence service. On that scenario, those behind his alleged plot would have needed not only to have operated a shadow office over a period of some four years to create 2,500 documents of the wide-ranging appearance found by Mr. Blair, but also somehow to have stolen the various original documents in the files without arousing any suspicion from the Iraqi authorities who held them. This incredibly sophisticated, dangerous and expensive exercise would have been undertaken by the very agency whose energies at the time were primarily focused on a search to discover whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The House might agree that that seems to be a wholly disproportionate effort for our security forces to have expended to silence a Back Bencher, however troublesome.
The other proposition advanced by the hon. Gentleman is that the shadow office that produced the fakes or forgeries might have been run by someone within the then Iraqi regime, but that is even more far-fetched. Is it likely that at a time when the country faced the imminent threat of invasion so much resource would have been committed at the highest level to a plot using extraordinarily skilful forgery techniques, to bring down one of the few friends the then regime had—and a plot whose ultimate success, undertaken for motives never explained, depended on Mr. Blair or some other inquisitive journalist happening to come across the documents among a mass of files on the floor of one room in one specific Iraqi Government building following a successful coalition invasion, assuming of course that they survived the process? I have seen all the documents in the files—the several originals as well as the copies, including documents certified as true by the hon. Gentleman, and all the many post-it notes and annotations in Arabic on them, and the careful indexing—and I and the Committee were struck by the sheer implausibility of the forgery or fake theory.
We then addressed the alternative theory: that the documents were authentic. We went to some trouble to do so. Mr. Oliver Thorne, the head of the questioned documents group at LGC, a leading forensic science firm, and also the man originally instructed by the hon. Gentleman’s legal representatives in his libel action against The Daily Telegraph, was asked to conduct a forensic analysis of the documents. His conclusions are to be found at document 32 in volume II of our report. They are as unequivocal as any careful scientist is likely to be. Mr. Thorne found that neither the possibility that all the documents are forged, nor the possibility that some forged documents were later seeded among genuine ones, is at all credible. In short, the hon. Gentleman’s various accounts of the origin of the Telegraph documents are not underpinned either by the evidence or by expert opinion. Indeed, as he admitted when he gave oral evidence to us—an exchange that was more productive than that with the Senate sub-committee—even he could not give us a reason why we should have preferred his version of events. He promised us proof of his case, but never provided it. He mentioned to the commissioner that he had information of nuclear importance. That information turned out to be a damp squib. So the commissioner and the Committee were driven to the conclusion that the documents were authentic and that the story they told was credible. I am not saying that every fact in every document is accurate, but—putting all the evidence carefully assembled by the commissioner together—a coherent, plausible and convincing sequence of events emerges.
Simon Hughes: Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Committee felt that it was able to come to its views on, I understand, a balance of probabilities, rather than the stiffer test that has been used in some other deliberations by the Committee?
Sir George Young: The commissioner, in his report, sets out why he chose the balance of probabilities. Unless one is involved in a criminal case, that is the criterion that is normally used, and it is the one that we used. Having said that, if I had to put the case on a spectrum, it would have been more than just the balance of probabilities. The Committee would take the view that it was nearer the top end than the middle end.
Our conclusion was underpinned by two further considerations. First, it was underpinned by other evidence. For example, the allocations by the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Organisation on page 75 of volume I show allocations in the name of the Mariam campaign, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow and Mr. Zureikat. There was evidence from the United Nations that the oil allocated in those names had been lifted. All that and much other circumstantial evidence pointed to the conclusion that the hon. Member’s campaign against sanctions through the Mariam appeal was in effect supported for a substantial period by the former Iraqi regime, through Mr. Fawaz Zureikat and the oil for food programme. As the commissioner concluded, he chose at best to ignore what was going on, but more probably was complicit in it.
The second consideration was the translation of the minute of the hon. Member’s meeting with Saddam Hussein on 8 August 2002, to be found on pages 61 to 65 of volume II. That was not one of the Telegraph documents. The hon. Member is reported as saying:
“Mr Tariq Aziz has helped us with his contacts and has used his influence to facilitate our job and facilitate the mechanism by which we have been able to obtain the funding necessary to finance our activities. But we are now suffering from the problem of the price of oil which has resulted in a reduction in our income and delay in receiving our dues.”
The hon. Member has applied the same conspiracy theory to that document, whose provenance is explained in appendix 3 to volume I of our report, and has denied that that interview was ever recorded. However, as the appendix shows, we received credible evidence that the so-called private meetings with the President were routinely recorded and transcribed. The Committee concluded that this was important independent confirmation of the story that emerged from the Telegraph documents.
The hon. Member sought to portray himself as a passive spectator, neither knowing nor even asking where funds for the Mariam appeal came from. The House may well ask whether that was a wise stance for any hon. Member to take in circumstances in which £1.4 million was levered in largely to support campaigning for one of that Member’s political objectives. All the evidence, however, points in the opposite direction. The hon. Member was an active player on the field—complicit in the procuring of the funds and in covering up their provenance. In so doing, he deceived the public and he deceived this House.
I turn now to one other aspect of the hon. Member’s conduct that concerned the Committee—his habit of blackening the names of those who gave evidence against him. Using parliamentary privilege, the hon. Member in effect accused David Blair of perjury. In his Adjournment debate on 8 May 2006, he said that the claim
“that Mr. Blair was not led to those documents but had merely chanced upon them while wandering around a looted and burning building, and that he had found all of the documents published by the Telegraph in the same place, at the same time and in the same box, is quite simply a lie.”—[ Official Report, 8 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 144.]
If the hon. Member was right, and his assertion had been proved to the relevant standard, David Blair could have gone to prison.
In the same debate, he attributed a claim to another journalist—Philip Sherwell of The Sunday Telegraph—which, if true, would have undermined Mr. Blair’s story. When approached by the commissioner, however, Mr. Blair insisted that everything the hon. Member had said about him was untrue. Mr. Sherwell said that his comments had been misrepresented during the hon. Member’s contribution to the Adjournment debate. The commissioner asked, as did we, the hon. Member for evidence to substantiate the serious allegations he had made about the integrity of Mr. Blair. He never provided it. He relied in making those allegations on second-hand evidence that he claimed to have received from another journalist whose name he has consistently declined to provide in a way that would enable anyone to attempt to corroborate his story.
The hon. Member has asserted on several occasions that we should award him a medal for his part in these events. That action was the action not of a hero, but of a bully. As the Committee pointed out, the hon. Member has given inconsistent evidence on a number of occasions in the course of this inquiry—including on important points such as whether he was ever a signatory of a Mariam appeal bank account. So he himself has failed to observe the standards that he demanded of others.
The hon. Member finally accepted in oral evidence to the Committee last month, that it would have been wiser to have registered the Mariam appeal, and individual donations above the registration threshold. He also accepted, and apologised to us for, his failure consistently to observe his obligations to declare his interest in the Mariam appeal. The Committee also felt that the extent to which resources provided by the House at public expense to assist the hon. Member in discharging his parliamentary duties were used to run the Mariam appeal was excessive.
The hon. Member’s partial apology for those more technical offences, although welcome, does not address the seriousness of the overall charges against him. The manner of his dealings with the Iraqi Government was such as to lead him to breach the advocacy rule and the Nolan principles of openness, honesty and accountability. That is why my Committee is recommending more than the apology to the House that the more technical offences alone would warrant. The hon. Member has fundamentally and consistently fallen short in a number of important respects of the specific standards the House expects of its Members. Perhaps most seriously of all, despite the lengthy inquiry, the overwhelming weight of the evidence and the unanimous judgment of colleagues drawn from four political parties, he still remains trapped in a fantasy world of conspiracies and victimisation for his political beliefs.
Today marks the end of an inquiry that began more than four years ago. It has been the subject of the most exhaustive and painstaking inquiry ever undertaken by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who is entirely independent of the political process. His findings that the hon. Member has consistently denied, prevaricated and fudged in relation to the now undeniable evidence that the Mariam appeal—and he indirectly through it—received money derived, via the oil for food programme, from the former Iraqi regime, have been upheld unanimously by a Committee that has interviewed the hon. Member, seen the evidence and cross-examined the expert witness.
The hon. Member is entitled to defend himself vigorously. What has sunk him is not his vigour, his oratory or his views. What has sunk him is the evidence. Neither he nor any other Member is entitled to abuse the privilege of free speech in this Chamber to malign those outside this House, to distort and manipulate the facts to suit his argument in an attempt to mislead the House and the public or to breach the integrity of the House’s conduct arrangements while doing so. We have recommended to the House a response, which lies on the Order Paper, that we believe to be fair and proportionate. I invite the House to endorse it.