Sir George proposes sanctions for leaking Select Committee report
8 Jun 2009
Below is the text of a speech which Sir George made in his capacity as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, following the leak of a draft Select Committee Report.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for his supportive remarks, for the action he outlined in his closing paragraphs and for his kind words about the work of my Committee.

At the end of last year, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), carried out an inquiry into the BBC’s commercial operations. On 25 February, substantial excerpts from the Committee’s draft heads of report were published on The Guardian website. The Committee immediately carried out a leak inquiry, which failed to discover the source of the leak. Having consulted the Liaison Committee, the CMS Committee made a special report to the House, stating that the leak constituted a serious interference with its work.

Like my colleagues on the Liaison Committee, I accept entirely that such leaks interfere with the work of Committees, and that it was right for the CMS Committee to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Disclosure of a Committee’s draft conclusions not only reduces the impact of the eventual report and gives prior but not necessarily wholly accurate warning to those who may be the subject of its recommendations, but as the Deputy Leader of the House has just said, can poison working relationships in a Committee. When a leak occurs, and it is not clear who is responsible, everyone is under suspicion. That includes the staff of the Committee and its advisers as well as Members.

The CMS Committee in its special report described leaking as “reprehensible”. My Committee used the same word last year to describe leaks from the Home Affairs and European Scrutiny Committees, and in a coda to the report we debate today we have tried to explain why, at a time when the public are more concerned with transparency and freedom of information than with preserving the confidentiality of Select Committee papers, the House should continue to take leaks seriously.

It is in the public interest for the work of Select Committees to be effective. All those of whatever political persuasion who value our parliamentary democracy wish the Government of the day to be subject to the most effective evidence-based scrutiny that can be brought to bear. Select Committees are an important part of the apparatus for achieving that, but the effectiveness of a Select Committee can be seriously compromised by a breakdown of trust. The House is right, therefore, not to tolerate the actions of those who breach its rules by leaking confidential Committee papers, and it rightly expects the Committee on Standards and Privileges to do a thorough job of investigating such leaks, as I believe my Committee has done in this case.

As our report sets out, we had grounds for pursuing a particular line of inquiry. We saw two of the main players twice, and all those involved had an opportunity to explain their actions in a private evidence session without the pressures of television or media coverage. With the assistance of PICT—Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology—we were able to discover how the leak came about and to obtain a full explanation from the person who provided the draft heads of report to a journalist from The Guardian. All the witnesses confirmed our understanding of the facts, which are set out in full in the report.

It was neither the first nor the last leak of the conclusions of the CMS Committee’s inquiry into the BBC. There had been an earlier leak to the same newspaper just 10 days previously, and there was a subsequent leak to The Daily Telegraph. Neither of those leaks was as serious as the one on 25 February and neither was referred to my Committee. Although we asked our witnesses about the earlier leak, we were unable fully to pursue it. I mention that because it is possible that there were others associated with the CMS Committee who were leaking but who as yet remain unidentified.

I turn to my Committee’s conclusions and recommendations. To start at the beginning, it is clear that the CMS Committee staff did not follow the correct procedures for the draft heads of report. They did not mark the document as confidential, they did not password-protect the electronic version, and they gave it an unnecessarily wide circulation. Although those shortcomings do not excuse the subsequent actions of others, they significantly mitigate them. Lessons have been learned, and I am delighted that the Liaison Committee has promulgated new guidance to Select Committee staff. I expect them to follow it and I ask colleagues who sit on Select Committees not to put pressure on Committee staff to depart from those procedures.

It is now clear that Mr. Tom Smith, the parliamentary researcher for the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) who sits on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, was in the habit of routinely passing on Committee papers to the office of the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). He should not have been doing that. In a crucial misjudgment on his part, Mr. Smith failed to tell us that he was routinely passing on those papers, until confronted with the evidence.

Mr. Smith also misled my Committee on his first appearance before it by withholding information and by failing to provide full answers to our questions. He has committed two serious contempts, to use the language of the House, first in passing on confidential papers and secondly in misleading the Committee. We therefore recommend withdrawal of Mr. Smith’s access to the House and its facilities for a period of 28 calendar days, which, if the House agrees, will begin today. In my Committee’s view, that is a proportionate penalty, given the seriousness of the offences.

As for the role of Alice Aitken, who works in the office of the hon. Member for Bath, it is clear that she was essentially acting as an intermediary by sharing the Culture, Media and Sport Committee papers sent to her with Mr. Stephen Lotinga, who was responsible for culture, media and sport in the parliamentary office of the Liberal Democrats. On balance, the Committee did not conclude that a formal penalty would be appropriate in that case, for reasons that we set out in paragraph 57.

It was Mr. Lotinga who passed a copy of the draft heads of report to a journalist on The Guardian, Mark Sweney. Although we were told by Mr. Smith that Mr. Lotinga had previously informed him that he was not involved in the leak, Mr. Lotinga admitted his involvement to us and made a full apology. We acknowledge his remorse and his co-operation with our inquiry, but we feel that the seriousness of the offence demands a formal penalty, and we have therefore recommended that Mr. Lotinga’s access to the House and its facilities be withdrawn for a period of 14 calendar days.

I turn finally to the role of hon. Members in this affair. I have mentioned already the part played by the office of the hon. Member for Bath. He told my Committee that he gave no specific guidance to his staff about the handling of Committee papers, and he was unaware that such papers were routinely passing through his office. We accept that he was not involved in the leak, or even aware of it, but like all hon. Members, he needs to take responsibility for the conduct of his office and those who work in it. As the report states, the hon. Gentleman has been “remiss”.

The hon. Member for Torbay was the only person named in our report who was entitled to see all the papers of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which he was a member. He was responsible for the secure custody of those papers, and he also had a duty of care towards his staff, and not least towards Mr. Smith. That included a duty to ensure that they were fully briefed on the importance of respecting and preserving the confidentiality of papers. The hon. Gentleman told us that he asked his staff to abide by the standard contractual terms and conditions of employment that applied to them, which include a duty of confidentiality. I think that he now accepts that that was not enough, and I look forward to his contribution to this debate.

Finally, may I make some observations on the respective roles in this place of Members and their staff? Just as Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the actions of their officials, so are we all, as hon. Members, accountable for what is done by our staff in our name. It is right, therefore, that the hon. Member for Torbay should take some responsibility for the actions of his researcher, of which, I accept, he was completely unaware at the time. That does not, however, absolve entirely those individuals who played the main roles in the affair, Mr. Smith and Mr. Lotinga. In my Committee’s view, the House needs to send a strong signal that it will not tolerate such breaches of trust as both men committed. Nor will it tolerate one of its Committees being misled by a witness. In agreeing the motion before it today, the House will send the appropriate signals.

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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015