Sir George proposes suspension of Derek Conway
31 Jan 2008
In his capacity as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Sir George spoke to a series of motions relating to Derek Conway. The text of his speech is below.

Commenting on Press reports that he had produced a "watered-down report" and had resisted the proposed suspension, Sir George said that this simply was not true.

Text from Hansard.
"Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): My Committee’s report, which forms the basis for this debate, was published at 11 o’clock on Monday. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), the subject of the report, came to the House that afternoon to make his personal statement. He said that he accepted our criticisms in full and unreservedly apologised. That prompt admission, which I welcome, will hopefully enable the House to agree to the three-paragraph motion on the Order Paper.

This report on the hon. Gentleman’s conduct has evoked considerable interest and comment both inside and outside the House. Some of the comment has related to the fact that the hon. Gentleman had previously employed his elder son as a research assistant. The complaint from Mr. Barnbrook related to the employment of the hon. Gentleman’s younger son, and the commissioner’s investigation focused solely on that. Complaints have now been made to the commissioner about the employment of his elder son; under our rules, those complaints fall to the commissioner to consider.

In the past few days, my Committee has been accused of being both a kangaroo court and a gentleman’s club. In my view, both accusations are wide of the mark. At the heart of our system for dealing with complaints such as this one is the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards—an independent officer, appointed by the House, who investigates specific complaints about Members’ conduct. Before submitting a report to the Committee, the commissioner shares the factual sections of that report with the Member who is the subject of the complaint and makes any mutually agreed factual corrections. Having received the commissioner’s report, the Committee shares it in its entirety, including the commissioner’s conclusions, with the Member concerned, and invites his or her observations—written, oral or both. It does so before it enters into any consideration of the commissioner’s report. Before the Committee reaches its conclusions, any evidence that the Member gives is carefully weighed alongside the commissioner’s report and any other evidence.

Having chaired the Committee since 2001, I can testify to the fact that the Committee approaches the task of judging colleagues conscientiously and in an entirely non-partisan way. We strive to be fair to the House, which has asked us to enforce its rules, and we strive to be fair to the Member before us and to the public interest. In this case, as in all the others that I have brought to the House, our recommendations were unanimous. All 10 members of the Committee took part in the proceedings, and I am grateful to them for the way in which they handled this case.

As the record shows, the Committee has made tough recommendations to the House when, as in this case, they are justified. To those who say that the punishments that the House imposes on those who break its rules are disproportionately light, I would only add that, as this case and others before it have demonstrated, the reputational consequences of our reports can be fatal. I therefore reject any suggestion that the Committee is either a kangaroo court or a gentleman’s club. Our procedures are fair and transparent, and our judgments can have serious and far-reaching consequences for those who have breached the rules. Both the commissioner and the Committee approached this case just as they would any other. The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged the courtesy with which the commissioner treated him and has acknowledged that the Committee offered him every opportunity to explain his position.

As the Leader of the House said, this was the last case reported on by the previous commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, and I thank him once again for his characteristically thorough examination of this matter and clear recommendations to the Committee. His report speaks for itself.

At the heart of this case was whether Freddie Conway was appropriately remunerated for the tasks that he was required to perform, and whether the work was actually carried out. The commissioner concluded that Freddie’s rate of pay was unjustifiably high given his qualifications and experience, and that, on the balance of probabilities, he did not need consistently to work his full contracted hours to complete his work. The commissioner also found that bonus payments had been made in excess of the permitted levels. My Committee endorsed those conclusions. Given some of the press comment, however, I should stress that neither the commissioner nor the Committee asserts that Freddie Conway did no work for his father.

A difficulty for the commissioner and my Committee in this case has been the virtually complete absence of evidence of the work that Freddie Conway actually performed, not least when he was at university in Newcastle. The Committee made it clear that it was not for the hon. Gentleman to establish his innocence, but frankly we were astonished that after three years and a substantial amount of expenditure, there was no independent evidence of Freddie’s output—nor, apparently, could anyone outside the family be found who had seen him working. As the Committee commented on a case in

2004,

“It is…Members’ responsibility to ensure that, if requested, they can properly justify any use of voted money, in the same way as any other recipient.”

The hon. Gentleman has admitted that he failed to keep adequate records, and has apologised for his failure to do so. It is also common ground that bonus payments were made that exceeded the authorised ceiling.

What was the hon. Gentleman’s defence to the commissioner’s conclusions about the level of his son’s salary? In essence, he consistently maintained that, as his son’s salary was within the Department of Resources’ approved scale, he was entitled to set it at his discretion. The Committee rejected that argument. The salary scale, at the time of the original appointment, ranged from £12,184 to £29,353. Given the extent of that range, the Committee did not believe, as a matter of principle, that Members’ discretion could be regarded as completely unfettered. A judgment is clearly called for.

The question that we had to address was whether the hon. Gentleman had exercised his judgment sufficiently unreasonably for the payments to constitute improper use of the staffing allowance. The Committee concluded that it did. Freddie Conway was just 19, had just left school following his A-levels and had no experience. Department of Finance and Administration guidance would have suggested a salary at, or close to, the recommended London entry point of £16,614 full-time. Yet Freddie’s father, by his own admission, took no account of that, and paid him the full-time equivalent of £25,970. The Committee took the view that that was an improper use of the allowance.

Taking all this together, the Committee has made three recommendations that it is asking the House to approve today. The first is that the hon. Gentleman reimburse the House for the sums overpaid to his son by way of bonus. That is the recommendation in paragraph 33 of the report. The second, set out in paragraph 34, is that the hon. Gentleman reimburse the House £6,000 in recognition of the over-generous salary paid to his son. The Committee considered that, whatever other action the House took, some recompense for the sum improperly paid out would be appropriate. For the reasons set out in paragraph 34 of the report, it proposes a payment of £6,000 by the hon. Gentleman in recognition of that. Finally, in recognition of the overall seriousness of this case, the Committee recommends that the hon. Gentleman be suspended from the service of the House for 10 sitting days.

There are two other matters on which I wish to touch briefly before I conclude. The first is the speculation that the Committee or the House should refer this matter to the police for investigation. As the House will know, Members of Parliament enjoy no general immunity from the criminal law; anyone can refer a matter to the police for investigation at any time, if they have evidence to suggest that a criminal offence has been committed. Both the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and my Committee consider, if necessary after taking legal advice, whether there is sufficient evidence to justify our doing so in any particular case in the light of all the relevant facts. On the other hand, there is no reason, as I am sure the House will agree, for either the Committee or the commissioner to adopt automatically a presumption that a Member who is the subject of a complaint may have committed a criminal offence. The Committee was satisfied on all the evidence before it that reporting to the House, rather than referral to the police, was the right way forward in this case.

The second matter is whether Members should continue to be permitted to employ relatives, or others with whom they have other than an arm’s length relationship. At this point, I say to the House—and, indeed, to all the newspapers who have been ringing up since Monday—that I employ a member of my family, who is remunerated out of my parliamentary allowance. That is a debate for another day, along with a debate about what steps the House needs to take to address the reputational damage that this case has done.

In the meantime, I just say to the House that Members’ use of allowances is a perennially sensitive issue and that allegations of real or perceived misuse are damaging. This is money that our constituents have paid for through their taxes. It is important that Members can demonstrate robustly, if challenged, that their use of allowances is above reproach, particularly where they have a relationship with the employee that might suggest an element of personal benefit. We should set ourselves similar requirements to those that we would expect of others responsible for the expenditure of public money, as a predecessor Committee suggested in 2003. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup has paid the price for overlooking that principle. I commend the motion to the House."

 
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