Standards and Privileges
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House--
(i) approves the First Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 297); and
(ii) accordingly suspends Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Member for Coventry North West, from the service of the House for three weeks.--[Mr. McNulty.]
[The Seventh Report from the Committee on Standards and Privileges, Session 2000-01, HC 465, on the Complaint against Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, is relevant.]
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I rise to support the motion but, for obvious reasons, I take no pleasure in so doing. I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) for his apology and acceptance of the recommendations of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges.
This is not the first occasion on which I have taken part in one of these debates, but it is the first time that I have done so as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. The present Committee has done no more than write the last sentence of the report produced on the eve of the general election by the Committee chaired by Lord Sheldon. I wish to pay Lord Sheldon a warm tribute: he was a good House of Commons man and a doughty fighter in the campaign to raise the esteem in which the House is held by the public at large. I believe that good progress was made in the course of the previous Parliament in restoring the House's reputation, and I hope that we will make further progress in the same direction during the current Parliament.
I should also like to express my thanks to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who held the previous Standards and Privileges Committee together with great skill when Lord Sheldon was absent through illness at a very difficult time, and who remains on the Committee as a powerful voice for good sense.
The Committee's findings are based on the investigation carried out by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Elizabeth Filkin. The report that she has produced on this highly complex and difficult complaint is of a very high standard, for which the whole House should be grateful. Whether we always agree with her conclusions or not, we should recognise the diligence, thoroughness and scrupulous fairness and objectivity she brings to the cases that she has to investigate.
The Standards and Privileges Committee has dealt with this case, as I am sure that it will deal with every other that comes before it, without any concern for the party affiliation of the Member concerned. We will do our best to be fair both to the House, which has asked us to safeguard its reputation, and to the Members who appear before us, to whom we will give a fair hearing. However, my ambition as Chairman of the Committee is not to have to take part in too many of these debates.
The main purpose of the system that we have created should not be the investigation of past offences but the prevention of future offences. We should all seek to ensure that our conduct does not give rise to well-founded complaints. We should be scrupulous in our adherence to the rules. Where there is any doubt in our minds, we should seek advice and give a full explanation of the circumstances in good faith, and then act on the advice that we are given. We cannot control what use other people may make of our complaints system, but we in this House should not use it to do down political opponents by making trivial or politically motivated complaints. Therefore, I ask for the support of the entire House in my attempt to work myself out of a job.
I shall outline the facts of the present case as concisely as I can.
Between 1988 and 1990, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was chairman of a company in the Maxwell group called Hollis Industries. According to the company's published accounts, the chairman was paid £200,000. In 1998, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) made a complaint to the then Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey, that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West had failed to register this as a remunerated directorship. The hon. Gentleman told Sir Gordon that his chairmanship of Hollis had been unpaid, that he had never received this money, that he had never expected to receive it, and that the published accounts of the company were in error. Evidence from two firms of accountants supported his assertion that no such payment had been made to him personally. Sir Gordon did not uphold the complaint, and the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges agreed with his conclusion.
Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend made a fresh complaint to the present Standards Commissioner on the basis of new evidence which had come to light. Her inquiries revealed that in 1990, while the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was chairman of Hollis, he had negotiated an agreement with the Maxwell interests for his own company, TransTec, to provide management services to a Hollis subsidiary called Lock, in return for a payment to TransTec. The agreement included the provision of the hon. Gentleman's own services as executive chairman of Lock. In October 1990, the hon. Gentleman sent Hollis an invoice from his home address requesting payment of a
"fee for management service provided to Hollis Industries plc as agreed"
in the sum of £200,000. Hollis's finance director wrote "Approved" on the invoice, which also carried a further note saying:
"Paid by PAGB: Recharge H Industries".
"PAGB" is Pergamon AGB, another Maxwell company; "H Industries" is Hollis.
The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West subsequently made several further attempts to secure the agreed payment from the Maxwell interests. Early in December, the finance director's secretary attached a note to the invoice, recording a telephone call from the hon Gentleman. It stated:
"Geoffrey is not registered for VAT. Proposes make cheque payable to him personally."
At about that time, a payment of £200,000 was made to someone by Pergamon AGB, which then sent Hollis an invoice for the amount. Exactly what happened to that payment is still hotly disputed; the House will have heard the hon. Gentleman's statement. The commissioner established that £200,000 went out of Pergamon's bank account, £200,000 went into the account of the
31 Oct 2001 : Column 887
hon. Gentleman's company, TransTec, and the debt owed to TransTec by another of the hon. Gentleman's companies was reduced by £200,000.
The commissioner concluded that the hon. Gentleman or his beneficial interests had received the payment. The hon. Gentleman has consistently and strenuously denied that he received the money. The Committee gave him three months to see whether he could find the Pergamon cheque, which would tell us who actually got the money, but unfortunately the cheque has not been found. Although this is a matter of the greatest importance to the hon. Gentleman, it was less important to the previous Committee. The present Committee takes no view on this one way or the other. Indeed, our report says:
"We do not assume that payment was made to, or benefited, Mr. Robinson or one of his companies."
That does not mean, of course, that the Committee cleared him of receiving the payment. In the Committee's view, the payment was agreed, and the submission of the invoice indicated that the payment was expected. The interest was registrable whether the payment was received or not, and the hon. Gentleman failed to register it.
Much more serious than the failure to register the interest was the hon. Gentleman's failure to volunteer information to the 1998 inquiry. He was asked at that time whether he had received or had expected to receive any benefit in respect of his chairmanship of Hollis. He said no, but the reality is that Hollis and its subsidiary company, Lock, were the same thing, and TransTec and the hon. Gentleman were the same thing. However, the hon. Gentleman supplied no information to Sir Gordon Downey about the negotiations involving TransTec and Lock and no information about his efforts to secure the payment which had been agreed. He made available none of the documents, least of all the invoice he submitted. He said that he had forgotten about the arrangement when he was questioned about Hollis in 1998. If the Standards and Privileges Committee had been given the full story at that time, it might well have come to a very different conclusion.
We consider that our predecessors and the former commissioner were misled as a result of what the hon. Gentleman failed to tell them in 1998. Misleading the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges is a very serious matter. It is often far more serious than the offence on which the Committee is being misled.
The House is a forgiving place if a Member owns up and openly admits that he has made a mistake. I made that point in the last debate of this kind on 1 March last year. A Member who is not frank and open with the commissioner, the Committee and the House must expect a more serious penalty as a result.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Does anybody on this Committee have any inkling of what it was like to deal with the byzantine affairs of the late Bob Maxwell? Just trying to deal with Bob Maxwell leads to difficulties.
Sir George Young: The previous Committee examined this matter at length and took all the circumstances into account, including the byzantine nature of the Maxwell empire.
The House will be aware that in the last Parliament the Committee upheld complaints that the hon. Gentleman had failed to register interests in July 1998, November 1998 and March 1999. In November 1998, the hon. Gentleman was required to apologise to the House by means of a personal statement.
The period of suspension that the Committee has recommended reflects, on the one hand, the seriousness of the offence and, on the other hand, the fact that the hon. Gentleman and his solicitor co-operated fully with the commissioner and the Committee in allowing the matter to be resolved without delay. I ask the House to approve the Committee's recommendation.