Skip to main content

Standards and Privileges

Volume 471: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House—

(i) approves the Fourth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 280);

(ii) endorses the recommendations in paragraphs 33, 34 and 36; and

(iii) accordingly suspends Mr Derek Conway from the service of the House for a period of ten sitting days.—[Ms Harman.]

It is always highly regrettable when the House has to debate a motion of this kind. The matter has come to the House after a full process of investigation and consideration by a recognised due process. The Committee on Standards and Privileges, following the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, published on Monday its fourth report of this Session, entitled “Conduct of Mr. Derek Conway”.

The Government have arranged this debate at the earliest practicable time. The debate will consider the case in the context of the standards of conduct that are set out by the House and that the public who elect us expect us all to uphold. The matters before us have been investigated by the Commissioner and then considered by the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I thank the former commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, for his work and commitment to this, his last inquiry. I also thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and all hon. Members who served on that Committee for their work on behalf of the House. It is very important work.

The Committee has concluded that there has been a failure to meet the standards expected and the Committee regarded the conduct as

“a serious breach of the rules”.

The motion before the House today approves the report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, endorses the recommendations of the Committee and proposes suspension for 10 days. I ask the House to support the motion.

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.

I should like to support the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges in respect of the motion and to draw some general points from his report, as he did. I do so knowing that while we may individually be held in very high esteem by our constituents, collectively that is not so; it is difficult to think how much lower our collective reputation might sink among voters generally.

There are at least four lessons to draw from this report. The first concerns the punishment. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said that other events had come into play and that it was difficult to think of a more severe punishment, but the Committee has been more severe on other Members in other reports, and those Members go around this place as happy as Larry. One of the lessons that I hope that the Committee will think about, not as regards specific cases but generally as regards its policy, is whether our series of punishments is adequate. If this example of what I would see as embezzlement had occurred on this scale in, say, the Refreshment Department, we would expect the person involved to leave the employment of this establishment on the day it was discovered. I believe that we should treat ourselves in a similar manner to how other people employed by this House would be treated.

Secondly, I want to make a plea about the employment of family members. I do so as somebody with no immediate family and so with no vested interest. The circumstances of Members of Parliament and those whom they employ are unique. We work on at least two sites over peculiar hours. I hope that there will be no rush by Members of this House to change the arrangements whereby family members can be employed if they are employed properly. It is proper for us to be clear about expenditure, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said, and it is not improper for us to agree that if family members are employed we can at least present to the Fees Office evidence that they have the qualifications for those jobs. However, given the arguments that I have heard, I would be against changing the rules about Members employing members of their families.

The third lesson concerns audit. I am amazed that the only case that has been put up against audit is based on the sovereignty of Parliament. Our constituents must give a hollow laugh at that when they witness how we have conceded our powers to check—not defeat, but check—the Executive and how we have allowed powers to go willy-nilly from this place to Brussels. There is no comparison between that movement of sovereignty out of this Chamber and the wish that our expenses should be properly audited. It is proper that as events change we should be prepared to consider the case put to us that our expenses should be properly audited.

My last point is about the balance between our salaries and expenses. I have been in the House for long enough to know Members who were here under the Wilson Government. At that time there was wage restraint for the population as a whole, which was applied to us. Members reported to me that the then Chief Whip went round the Tea Room saying to people, “You can vote for the wage restriction on your pay because we’re adjusting allowances—you get the message, don’t you?” The balance between our allowances and our salary is out of kilter. I do not think that our allowances are improper given the job that we are expected to do, but when we ask an outside body to look at our pay, we should be mindful of the fact that although we are overpaid in the eyes of many of our constituents, given their wages, we are certainly not overpaid compared with the responsibilities that we hold and the pay of people with comparable responsibilities elsewhere.

To sum up, first, I question whether the punishment in such cases is adequate. Secondly, I make a plea for the employment of family members. If we did not abide by that, how would we treat partners differently? Would we have some sort of co-habitation rules—and if so, who would we ask to enforce them? The situation would become absurd. I hope that we will consider carefully how we shall audit our expenses. Behind all this—the tension that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire alluded to—is the extraordinary position that we now find ourselves in whereby our allowances are considerably greater than our basic pay.

As the Leader of the House made clear, this matter comes before us following the investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards and Privileges Committee. I join her in thanking the former parliamentary commissioner for his work. I also thank the members of the Committee for their work, which they carry out diligently on behalf of this House and in the best interests of this House.

I endorse the recommendations made by the Standards and Privileges Committee and support the motion tabled by the Leader of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) described in some detail the Committee’s recommendations and said a little about its investigations. It did indeed find that the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) had “misused the Staffing Allowance” and

“also seemed to be oblivious to the broader reputational risks to the House of any perception of personal benefit to his family.”

All Members of this House should remember that in using public funds we have a duty to ensure that we use those funds properly and within the rules set. The Committee’s report also makes it clear how important it is for Members to recognise the impact of the behaviour of an individual Member on the reputation not only of MPs or politicians generally but on the reputation of this House. As the Committee said:

“Members’ use of allowances is a perennially sensitive issue, and allegations of real or perceived misuse risk damage to the reputation of the House as an institution, as well as to the personal reputation of individual Members.”

Our behaviour, how we conduct ourselves, and how we use public money do not matter only for us as individuals or for political parties; they matter because they affect the views that people have of this institution. It behoves all of us to remember that in all that we do, we carry not just our own reputations but the reputation of this House. I support the motion.

It is a difficult matter for a Committee to pass judgment on a fellow Member, even more so in cases where the Member belongs to the same political party as oneself. The Committee has carried out its work with the usual integrity that we expect, and we are grateful for its report. I have no criticism whatsoever of the manner in which it set about its work.

This case understandably gives rise to concerns about how our expenses are claimed. Perhaps some hon. Members will feel that the criticism being voiced in the press is without any reason or justification, and that the media misunderstand all about our expenses. We are not crooks; we are honest, and when someone makes claims unfairly and breaks the rules, we see what happens. Indeed, we would not want to go through what the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) rightly went through on Monday. Whether there should be a more severe punishment, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, is a matter of opinion.

The process is lacking at the moment, in that there is insufficient transparency. Yes, money is claimed for perfectly legitimate reasons; I have no doubts about that. But that is not the view of the public. It may be that there is a lack of understanding on the part of the public about what expenses are for. I have said previously that I do not pay expenses to my secretary; I pay her a salary, and I do the same for my assistant in the constituency office. Nevertheless, the question arises whether there is a better way of ensuring that the public can to some extent be satisfied that the money that can be claimed, which is a very large sum—more than £144,000 excluding travel expenses—is spent in the manner that we would expect of other organisations. We expect those bodies to have the transparency and control that we, perhaps, do not.

We are constantly preaching to other organisations about how important it is for proper controls to be in place where public money is concerned—but that practice seems to be lacking on our own part. The situation is even more annoying, because we are honest. We claim money that we believe to be absolutely essential for the carrying out of our parliamentary duties. I do not know whether everyone does, but I welcome the fact that each year the amount claimed is published—a state of affairs that arises from the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It would be appalling if we did otherwise.

However, questions have been raised. For example, the Senior Salaries Review Body has suggested that the National Audit Office should take a random sample of a number of claims. I know that that idea is being looked into, but why should that not happen? What possible criticism could we have of that idea if we are claiming money properly and legitimately according to the rules, as we say we are? Why should the NAO not be involved? I do not understand why there should be any reluctance on our part about that.

I do not employ any of my relatives, but I see no reason why there should be a ban on a partner or a relative being employed, as long as everything is above board—as, in the unfortunate case we are discussing at the moment, it was not. I am against such a ban, but would it not be right, without going to extremes, to say that any partner or relative employed should be listed in the Register of Members’ Interests? If the arrangement is above board, it is nothing to be ashamed about. If X employs his or her partner, it would be revealed in the register. I do not see why that should be a problem.

I shall conclude on this note. I do not altogether agree with the assertion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that our reputation is at rock bottom. That could have been said for centuries. Much of the criticism of our work is wrong and misplaced. However, it is in our own interest and for the good of our reputation that the manner in which we claim public money be shown to be transparent and justified, and the necessary controls be in place. I am not satisfied that they currently are, and I hope that this case means that changes and reforms that help the reputation of the House of Commons will take place.

As the Leader of the House said, these are always difficult moments for us as a House. That is right, and we should be careful in our response to such matters.

I support the motion tabled in the name of the Leader of the House, and I will invite my colleagues to do the same. I join her and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in thanking and paying tribute to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee, who do a very difficult job exceptionally well, with discretion, courtesy and the proper propriety. That is important.

You will remember, Mr. Speaker, that last week we debated the Senior Salaries Review Body report. Apart from colleagues who served on the Standards and Privileges Committee, none of us had knowledge at that point of what was to be published this week. That demonstrates the proper way in which such matters should be handled. The work was done by the Committee, it was published when the Committee was ready, and only then did it receive publicity. I too give thanks to the previous commissioner for his work, and I welcome his successor. Such jobs are very important, and the procedure works well. There is no criticism of the procedure involved, and if it errs on the side of caution, that is right. It should always presume people to be innocent unless the evidence proves otherwise.

In your earlier statement, Mr. Speaker, you reminded us that you had already considered the decisions we took last Thursday. At that time, we put forward three specific matters for a group of colleagues chaired by you to reflect upon, one of which was alluded to by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).

We asked for further consideration to be given to a lower limit on Members’ unreceipted expenditure; there was all-party agreement on that. The SSRB proposed that the limit should be £50, and my colleagues and I support that. We urge the Members Estimate Committee and the advisory panel on Members’ allowances to agree to that change as soon as possible; I hope that it will be agreed by 1 April so that it can come into force at the beginning of the next financial year.

The second matter—this was the one referred to by the hon. Member for Walsall, North—was the SSRB recommendation that the National Audit Office should have the power to audit a selection of Members all the time. In other words, there should be spot checks; any of us would be aware that we might be audited at any time. I support that, and so do my colleagues. I hope that the House authorities can bring back that recommendation for agreement in this House, so that it takes effect from 1 April. Such a move would allow spot checks every year on a random cross-section of colleagues in the House.

Thirdly, we asked the authorities to consider recognising partners who are sole beneficiaries as having the same rights for pension purposes as spouses and civil partners. In other words, people who are recognised as partners should have recognised status.

Arising from that, I would like to make two points about families. There seems to be a perfectly legitimate case for allowing colleagues who are married or have recognised partners to work with their partners. I speak as someone who is not in that position, so I am not speaking from self-interest. The job that someone does, working with a person to serve their constituents, can often best be done in a similar way to how things operate in a small business, for example.

However, if there is to be continuing acceptance of family members working for colleagues, there is not a strong case for more than one member of the family doing that, or for their being paid more than the going rate for the job, as recommended in the rules we set ourselves—within the parameters referred to by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, such as competence, age and experience. We clearly cannot make current or past arrangements suddenly illegal if people have made a commitment through a contract to a member of their family. Provided that they follow the rules properly, that situation must be allowed to continue. For the future, however, there seems be a case for allowing only one family member to be employed, and at the right rate for the job.

Confidentiality for the people whom we employ concerns many hon. Members. Until the previous Parliament, my friend Nigel Jones—now Lord Jones of Cheltenham—sat on the Liberal Democrat Benches in the House of Commons. He suffered a terrible injury and witnessed the death in his constituency office of a person whom he employed, and who was working at the time on constituency matters. I know of other colleagues and their staff who are currently under threat from members of the public, and who are being supported by the police. Indeed, in the past the Leader of the House has been in that position, as have I.

We must therefore be careful about separating the proper accountability of Members of Parliament for public money and the way in which it is spent—for example, by declaring that we use our £90,000 to pay the wages of two, three or four members of staff—from putting the names of all those people in the public domain and identifying them as working for us. Doing the latter would mean that their addresses and their families could also be in the public domain. Members’ staff are not in the same position as others who are paid from the public purse, because they are especially exposed. I have been in my surgery with people working for me, some paid and some volunteering, who have been put in difficult positions, with angry, aggressive and unstable constituents. Many colleagues from all parties have been in the same position.

I support the Committee’s careful and considered findings and I believe that the recommendations are right. We all have a duty to ensure that we spend every penny of public money properly. I hope that we can agree to the audit proposals and the lower maximum expense allowance without receipts soon, and that we will be careful when we determine whom we employ, and consider the implications.

For all such people other than a spouse or registered partner, we should, in 2008, apply full proper employment practice. We should give people of all backgrounds equal opportunities to work for us. If we do not, we shall be reinforcing the traditional white male-dominated society that pertains here, because there are more white men than other colleagues in this place. I hope that modern employment law will work, and that people whom the taxpayer and Members of Parliament employ will be recruited openly. I also hope that they will be employed in a way that employment law will ensure is entirely justified in future.

I believe that the first part of the speech of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will meet with more cross-party agreement than the latter part.

I want to make three points. First, when I became a Member of Parliament, I tried to follow the advice of always applying the local newspaper test, which is: am I doing something that I would not want to read in my local newspaper? If the answer is yes, I should either admit to it or not do it. That does not mean that one cannot do unpopular or unwise things, but at least they should not be done secretly.

Secondly, I believe that if Ministers’ names and private offices are published in directories and people know who our children are when they are at school or college, we should not be too prissy about including the names of those who work for us on letterheads. If they work with us and engage with the outside world, they should not hide their names. I therefore do not go along with the final remarks of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey.

Thirdly, the view of some outside that we should not employ members of our families or household is wrong. When I first stood for election in 1974, it was against a Labour Member of Parliament who was over 60 and had moved in with his competent secretary as her spouse. The idea that she would have to find some other Member of Parliament for whom to work because they had got together and lived in the same place is absurd.

The report and the commissioner’s findings were based on the balance of probability. The Committee should have applied that standard eight years ago. I am glad that it has now adopted it and that leaks, which are often distorting and issued for partisan or personal reasons, of conclusions of Committee reports no longer occur.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House—

(i) approves the Fourth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 280);

(ii) endorses the recommendations in paragraphs 33, 34 and 36; and

(iii) accordingly suspends Mr Derek Conway from the service of the House for a period of ten sitting days.

Topical debate