As Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, Sir George spoke on the Committees Report into complaints against Keith Vaz MP. After a short debate, the Committees recommendations were agreed without a division.
This is Sir George's speech
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I am sorry that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) felt unable to make a personal statement in the usual way. That means that I will need to say a little more than I had hoped. I am very disappointed that, for the second time in less than four months, I have to support a motion to suspend a fellow Member from the service of the House.
The report is my Committee's second major report and, like the last one, it brings to a conclusion an inquiry that was started in the previous Parliament. I am glad to say that the Committee is now up to date with its work. I believe that both the reports give further proof that the system of parliamentary self-regulation is working successfully.
I am grateful to my colleagues on the Committee for the hard work that they have put into the report over the past two months. We are all grateful to the commissioner for her work in investigating these complaints since last March—indeed, for her distinguished service to the House since her appointment three years ago.
I need spend very little time on the complaints originally made against the hon. Gentleman. Of the 11 allegations, we upheld only three, two of which we did not regard as serious. We are having this debate today not because of the original complaints but because of the way in which the hon. Member responded to them. We were deeply dissatisfied with the way he dealt with the commissioner. The commissioner described his approach to the inquiry as one of
"obfuscation, prevarication, evasiveness and delay".
The commissioner has a job to do which the House has given her. All Members have a duty to co-operate with her inquiries. We found that the hon. Gentleman failed to do so. He did not answer her questions fully, directly, clearly and promptly. We were dismayed that it took him five months to provide the commissioner with information about his property interests, which must have been readily available to him. All the relevant correspondence is published in our report, so hon. Members can read it if they wish.
The hon. Gentleman was criticised by the Standards and Privileges Committee in the last Parliament for failing to co-operate with the earlier inquiry into complaints against him. That makes his lack of co-operation with the latest inquiry all the more serious. We found that the hon. Gentleman had failed in his duty of accountability under the code of conduct.
The more serious charge against the hon. Gentleman is that he wrongfully interfered with the House's investigation process. According to his oral evidence to us, his mother received a telephone call on 4 October last year and the words "Eggington" and "Filkin" were used. Miss Eggington is one of the complainants in this case. He informed the police that Miss Eggington had made a harassing telephone call to his mother, linked her with another witness in the case and gave the police her address. Then he told the commissioner that Miss Eggington had made the call, had claimed to be a police officer and had put questions to his mother, claiming to be acting on the commissioner's behalf.
Those allegations went way beyond what the hon. Gentleman and his mother told us they knew. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman made it clear to the commissioner that he expected her to follow up the matter. He asked the commissioner what action she proposed to take over his allegations against Miss Eggington. Miss Eggington has strongly denied these allegations, and the Committee accepts her evidence. We do not believe that she made any telephone call to Mrs. Vaz.
The police are now satisfied that no calls were received on the day in question which could be attributable to Miss Eggington or the other witness. The police officer in charge of the case said:
"We have found nothing that would lend weight to the allegations originally made by"
the hon. Gentleman. The police officer continued:
"Indeed, I am satisfied that no malicious calls were made."
The police would not make such categorical statements unless they were absolutely sure that they were well founded.
The Committee is also satisfied that the hon. Gentleman's allegations are false, yet on the basis of his false allegations, both Miss Eggington and the other witness that the hon. Gentleman identified were put through the ordeal of being interviewed by the police. The commissioner was also led to investigate his accusation against Miss Eggington.
We concluded that the hon. Gentleman recklessly made a damaging allegation against Miss Eggington to the commissioner, which was not true and which could have intimidated Miss Eggington or undermined her credibility. The hon. Gentleman also set the commissioner on a false line of inquiry, then accused her of interfering in a criminal investigation and threatened to report her to the Speaker. The hon. Gentleman failed in his public duty under the code of conduct and committed a contempt of the House.
The hon. Gentleman has made matters worse by his subsequent behaviour, which in my view has been aimed at undermining the entire investigative process. He was, perhaps, unwise to hold a press conference last Friday in which he sought to play down the severity of the Committee's report—he is quoted as saying:
"I am pleased that the Committee has found me innocent of many allegations"—
by focusing on the areas where complaints were not upheld and minimising the importance of those that were upheld. I believe that he was also unwise to criticise the punishment as "disproportionate" and the report as "misled".
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Before we leave the question of unwisdom, should not the House have some explanation as to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on the matter of leaks from the Committee? To some of us, that seems very unwise.
Sir George Young: I take the leaks seriously, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) says. I have launched a leak inquiry. I hope that he will discover who leaked those documents as the leaking of them is damaging to the investigative process and the integrity of the Select Committees.
Returning to the matter of the punishment, we reflected carefully on the appropriate punishment. We did as Sir Gordon Downey proposed and had a tariff before us of all previous punishments. We were anxious to be consistent and to be fair to the hon. Gentleman and others who came before us. We unanimously agreed on the punishment, which hon. Members are now considering. It is for the House, not the hon. Gentleman, to decide whether it is disproportionate.
The report was not rushed out, as the hon. Gentleman asserted on Friday. The commissioner's report was completed on 13 December, two months before her term of office ended. It would have been submitted earlier if the hon. Gentleman had co-operated. I vigorously reject the claim that our report was rushed out to meet a deadline. We sat for many hours in January and February to complete it. We wanted to do that sooner rather than later because we believed that it was in the interests of the House and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman to conclude our inquiry. However, nothing was rushed about our proceedings and, as Chairman, I resent that implication. No voice went unheard, no argument was stifled. We deliberated responsibly and fairly, as hon. Members would expect.
The hon. Gentleman said, "Natural justice should prevail." Our findings against him show that he was perhaps ill advised to make a plea for natural justice. His strategy appears to have been to throw mud at the commissioner in the hope that some might stick to the Committee. He asserted earlier that he had co-operated; he did not. He did much to obstruct our inquiry. He challenged the right of two members of the Committee to serve on it because they had signed an early-day motion. On the eve of our final meeting, he made representations that we should ditch the commissioner's report and start again.
We know that the hon. Gentleman has little time for the commissioner. The House is not debating her report, but that of the Select Committee. We read the commissioner's report and the annexes, we interviewed the hon. Gentleman and read all the documents that he presented to us. We then asked ourselves whether his behaviour fulfilled the code of conduct that the House has set.
In two similar debates, I said that the House is a forgiving place if an hon. Member admits that he has made a mistake. Even at this stage, the hon. Gentleman appears unable to acknowledge that he has done anything wrong. He has failed to apologise to Miss Eggington for what happened.
Our conclusion that the hon. Gentleman committed serious breaches of the code of conduct and contempt of the House was reached unanimously. We also unanimously concluded that he should be suspended for one month. I believe that we have been fair to the hon. Gentleman and to the House. I ask the House to endorse the Committee's report.
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