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Standards and Privileges

Volume 520: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2010

[Relevant document: The oral evidence taken from Mr Richard Caborn and reported by the Committee on 14 December 2010, HC 691.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House—

(1) approves the Ninth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 654);

(2) endorses the recommendations in paragraphs 31, 50 and 64 of the Report; and

(3) accordingly instructs the Serjeant at Arms to suspend the entitlement to use or to be issued with a Parliamentary photopass of—

(a) the Rt hon. Stephen Byers, for a period of two years commencing on 1 January 2011;

(b) the Rt hon. Geoff Hoon, for a period of five years commencing on 1 January 2011; and

(c) the Rt hon. Richard Caborn, for a period of six months commencing on 1 January 2011.—(Mr Heath.)

Before I turn to the three former Members who are the subject of the motion, I wish to make a few remarks about the behaviour of the people who duped them. They would no doubt argue that they have served the public interest, but they were also taking advantage of the need of retiring MPs in the run-up to a general election to provide for their future employment. They dangled the bait in front of our former colleagues and unfortunately some of them took it. If that was not entrapment, it was something close to it, and although I do not seek to excuse the conduct of those three former Members, I think the whole House will feel some sympathy for them because of the way they were deceived.

Three former Members—Sir John Butterfill, Patricia Hewitt and Adam Ingram—were cleared by the commissioner and the Committee that I chair of any breach of the rules. Whatever we may feel about the poor judgment they showed in agreeing to take part in the bogus interviews, and however ill-judged some of the remarks made in the interviews may have been, they did not break the rules and the Committee has therefore made no recommendations about them.

The remaining three former Members did break the rules, and the Committee has recommended sanctions accordingly. I will deal with each of them in turn, because although they were all part of the same deception practised by the media, their cases are different in important respects.

Stephen Byers has made a full and I would say gracious apology. He recognises that he made claims to the bogus interviewer that were untrue, and it is evident that he deeply regrets the damage he has caused not only to his reputation but to the reputation of the House. I do not dispute the genuineness of his apology, but unfortunately the seriousness of his offence means that saying sorry is not enough. That is why the Committee has recommended that Mr Byers’s entitlement to a parliamentary pass should be suspended for two years.

The Committee also found that Geoff Hoon committed a particularly serious breach of the code which, like that of Mr Byers, brought the House and its Members generally into disrepute. As those who have read the Committee’s report and the evidence will know, Mr Hoon has not accepted this conclusion.

He argued that the code of conduct should not apply because he was discussing his private life and what he might do after he had left the House. The Committee did not accept that argument. Mr Hoon was a Member of Parliament when he attended the bogus interview, and he talked in the interview about information that he had been given while he was a Member of Parliament, so the code applied.

Secondly, Mr Hoon suggested that the meaning of what he had said to the bogus interviewer had been misinterpreted. It seemed to come down to whether he had said “this” or “it”, or perhaps neither. Some of us refreshed our memory of what he said by watching a recording of the “Dispatches” programme, and he clearly said “this”. Ultimately, however, it is not so much about the exact words that he used as about the impression that he was giving. The Committee concluded that Mr Hoon was giving the clear impression that he could brief paying clients about defence policy on the basis of his inside knowledge. That is, as we said in our report, a particularly serious breach of the code, because it brings the House and its Members into disrepute. Unlike Mr Byers, Mr Hoon has neither accepted that he breached the code nor apologised. The Committee has therefore recommended that Mr Hoon’s entitlement to a parliamentary pass should be suspended for five years. Hopefully, the apology will ensue.

The Committee found that in Richard Caborn’s case there were several minor breaches of the rules in relation to his failure to declare an interest when arranging or taking part in functions in the House. They were most likely due to carelessness on Mr Caborn’s part; there is no evidence that he deliberately set out to break the rules. Mr Caborn accepts that that was the case, and he has apologised unreservedly for those breaches.

The Committee found that Mr Caborn committed a further breach when he failed to declare a financial interest in the course of a meeting with a senior NHS official at which a proposal was raised which might have benefited the members of an organisation for which he was a paid consultant. In our judgment and that of the commissioner, that breach was also due to carelessness. There is no evidence of intent on Mr Caborn’s part. The commissioner therefore described it in his memorandum to us as “less serious” than the breaches committed by Mr Byers and Mr Hoon, but that does not mean that it was not a serious breach. It was a breach both of the rules on declaration of interests and of paragraph 12 of the code of conduct, which covers all members.

The Committee took the view that, because that was a less serious breach than those committed by the other former Members, a less severe sanction was appropriate. We could have recommended just an apology, but Mr Caborn had written to us stating that he did not accept that he should have declared his interest and did not accept that he had breached the rules. As we pointed out in our report, we could have invited the House to summon Mr Caborn to the Bar to apologise in person, but if he did not accept that he had breached the rules, it was not clear what that would achieve. We therefore agreed that Mr Caborn should also lose his privileged rights of access, and, because his was a less serious case than the others, we set the tariff at six months.

Mr Caborn wrote to me on 12 December seeking a meeting with the Committee. I consulted my colleagues on the Committee, who agreed to offer him an opportunity to give oral evidence at its meeting on 14 December. We had, of course, invited Mr Caborn and the others to give oral evidence before we produced our report, but he had declined that initial invitation. We would not normally agree to a request to give evidence after the publication of a report, but in this case we felt that it was right to grant Mr Caborn’s request to have his say, because, as a former Member, he was unable to speak in today’s debate. The transcript of his evidence, and his letter to me of 12 December, are in the Vote Office, and I hope that Members have had an opportunity to read them.

I do not propose to go through Mr Caborn’s evidence in detail, but this is the nub of it. First, we are finding against him on the basis of a rule that we ourselves say is insufficiently clear and needs reviewing. Secondly, he is being treated in the same way as those who have committed particularly serious breaches of the code of conduct.

The Committee says that the rules on lobbying need to be reviewed. The 1974 resolution refers to

“transactions or communications...with Ministers or servants of the Crown”;

the guide to the rules refers to

“correspondence and meetings with Ministers and public officials”

and the code of conduct, article 12, refers to

“any activities...with Ministers, Members and officials.”

That all needs to be brought together and tidied up, but, as the Committee’s report states:

“Mr Caborn should have had greater regard to the purpose of the rule”.

The purpose of the rule is quite clear: it is to ensure that Members are transparent in their dealings with people who might be in a position to influence public policy or the spending of public money. Mr Caborn tried in his evidence to tie the rule very tightly to people who are in a position to influence legislation, but such a narrow interpretation is not one that most of us would recognise. To sum up: yes, the rules need reviewing and clarifying, but the purpose of the rules is clear and the evidence that Mr Caborn breached the rules is, in my Committee’s view, also clear.

Turning to the Committee’s recommendation, I have already explained that we felt that a sanction was appropriate. If Mr Caborn had apologised up front, that might have been enough, depending on what he said, but the fact is that, until I received a letter from him this morning, Mr Caborn did not accept that he had breached the code and had not apologised. In his letter today, Mr Caborn writes that the Committee has “given a new interpretation” of the rules and set a new precedent. I do not accept that, but in his letter he continues:

“Your Committee have come to its conclusion which I accept and in respect to the House, apologise.”

I welcome this apology, although I am disappointed that it has come so late in the day.

An apology was sought and has been given, but that still leaves the House with a decision to take on what sanction should apply. We could, as I said earlier, have recommended that Mr Caborn be summoned to the Bar of the House for a formal reprimand. That would have been humiliating for him, and I am not sure that it would have been all that great for the House. The media would have loved it, and the pictures no doubt would have been broadcast around the world, but it would have been a bit like a public flogging, and we did not think that right or appropriate, so we did not go there.

Given that Mr Caborn is a former Member, the only real option that the House is left with is to take away his pass. He told us that losing his former Member’s pass is just like being suspended from the service of the House. With respect, it is not. A serving Member who is suspended loses his or her pay and expenses for the period of suspension and is excluded from the precincts of Parliament. All that Mr Caborn will lose is his ability to enter the building without going through the visitors’ entrance and his access to certain facilities, such as the Strangers Bar. He can still come here as a member of the public. Some might say that losing those privileges for a period of just six months is a very light punishment. Well, it is intended to be light, because we recognised that Mr Caborn did not intend to breach the rules or to bring the House or its Members generally into disrepute. In that respect, his case is different from the other two.

In the view of the Committee, its recommendations in respect of those three former Members are regrettable but necessary. They are also proportionate. Once the period of suspension of the former Members’ privileged rights of access is over, and assuming an apology has been made, they will be free to re-apply for their passes. It is painful to have to take such action against former colleagues, but by agreeing to the Committee’s proposals today, the House will send an important signal that it does not tolerate breaches of its rules.

The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) has clearly set out the basis for the complaints, the commissioner’s findings of fact and the Committee’s recommendations.

These debates are never easy. The House can take no pleasure in imposing sanctions on Members and former Members who have breached the code of conduct, but it is something that we must do if we are to have any hope of restoring and maintaining public faith in the House. For those former Members who have breached the code, the Committee recommends suspending their entitlement to a parliamentary photo pass for a period ranging from six months to five years. There are those outside this place who might argue that such a sanction is not tough enough. As the Committee has noted, however, the power of the House to discipline former Members once they have left this place is severely limited. In fact, the Committee is not aware of any disciplinary action having been taken against a former Member in modern times.

As these cases do not relate to the misuse of allowances, there is no money to repay and the removal of access is, in effect, the only sanction open to the House to impose. Such a sanction sends a clear message about the strength with which the House deprecates the breaches carried out in these cases. We should not lose sight of the damage that this episode has done to the reputations of the former Members who have breached the code, as they seek to establish new lives and new careers outside this place.

As the right hon. Member for Rother Valley has said, I emphasise that three of the six former Members about whom complaints were made following the clandestine recordings by The Sunday Times and “Dispatches” were cleared of any breach of the code by the commissioner. The motion makes no reference to those Members, because no sanction is required in their cases, but it is important that the record shows that not every Member who is subject to media criticism has, in fact, breached the code of conduct for MPs, however unwise their actions may have been.

In the course of these investigations, the commissioner identified three areas where he felt that the code of conduct should be reviewed. First, the paid advocacy rule prohibits a Member from being paid for participating in any proceeding or from lobbying Ministers or officials, if in doing so they would be seeking to confer an exclusive benefit on the organisation that is paying them. However, the commissioner is not confident that the rule as currently expressed has the effect of ruling out lobbying on behalf of a wider business sector of which the organisation paying the Member forms a part.

Secondly, the code of conduct does not apply to former Members, although it does apply to discussions Members have while serving in the House about what they might do after they leave. The commissioner is concerned about contacts between former Members and serving Members, Ministers and officials based on previous working relationships. An issue arose in the case of Mr Richard Caborn about the scope of the rules relating to contact with public officials. Although the rule itself refers to “Ministers and crown servants,” the guidance refers to “public officials.” That is another area the commissioner feels should be clarified. The Committee proposes that the rules regarding lobbying should be reviewed as soon as time permits. I understand that that will be a wide-ranging review conducted by the commissioner, who will report to the Committee. The Committee will, in turn, make a report to the House.

I remind the House of the measures that the Government have taken and will take to raise standards in public life. The coalition agreement sets out the Government’s commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists. We intend to take as many views as possible of those who are interested through a broad consultation on the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists, before publishing a draft Bill before the end of this Session. We will introduce legislation in the next parliamentary Session. When Ministers leave office, they will be prohibited from lobbying Government for a period of two years. They must also seek advice from the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments about any proposed appointments or employment they wish to take up within two years of leaving office. The ministerial code is also clear that former Ministers must abide by the advice of the advisory committee. In conclusion, on behalf of the House, I thank the right hon. Member for Rother Valley, other Committee members and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for their work. I hope that the House will feel able to support its Committee.

I echo the thanks given to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges and to the commissioner for their work on investigating these matters. These were very difficult issues to get to grips with. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) has said, they have arisen from the contact that former Members had with a fictitious company set up by journalists. It is worth noting that the commissioner obtained full certified transcripts of those meetings before making his report, and that he did not rely simply on the parts that had been broadcast or that had appeared in the media. I think we are all grateful for the thoroughness of the investigations that have been carried out.

It is important to put on the record the fact that the report is not concerned with whether former Members were unwise in their dealings, with whether they exaggerated their claims, or even with what they planned to do when they had left the House; it is concerned solely with whether they breached the rules while they were Members of this House. That is the only question before us. Indeed, in some cases the Committee found that Members who had been reported to the commissioner for investigation had not breached those rules, and they were exonerated through the investigation. In three cases, as we have heard, they upheld the complaints and have recommended that parliamentary passes be withdrawn for different periods.

Labour Members support the Committee’s recommendations on this matter. As has been said, however, we believe that the case involving Richard Caborn, who, it is fair to say, was and is widely respected in this House, raises some issues that need to be looked at in future. The report clearly states that

“Mr Caborn…did not bring the House and its Members generally into disrepute”.

We agree with that. However, the Committee found that he had breached the code of conduct. As the Deputy Leader of the House has said, this case raises some important issues. First, the rules need to be clarified. Members need clear rules that they can obey, in which case there is no dispute about whether they have been breached. Secondly, the definition of “a public official” needs to be the same as that in the rules, in the code and anywhere else that it is mentioned. Thirdly, there is the whole problem of what Members who are planning to leave the House may and may not do when they are planning their future careers. Again, clear guidelines are needed.

We also need to consider whether former Members should have a right of appeal. Any existing Member of this House who is subject to a report by the Standards and Privileges Committee can stand up in this Chamber and make their case; clearly, that is not possible for former Members. I welcome the fact that the Committee decided today to hear evidence from Richard Caborn, but that is something that we will perhaps need to consider formalising in future.

I, too, hope that the House will support this motion, and I look forward to a proper debate on the issues that have arisen during the investigation of these cases.

Let me say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) that I welcome all aspects of his Committee’s report apart from one, to which I will refer in a moment.

As the Deputy Leader of House has said, it is never easy for the House to discuss such matters. It is even less easy for someone to stand up and say that they do not agree with parts of a report such as this, because inevitably those comments will be picked up by whoever is out there and played against them. However, I feel absolutely obliged to do so in respect of the case of Richard Caborn. Richard Caborn is a person who gave 27 years of honourable service in this place. In the past few weeks, people from both sides of the House have told me that what he and other colleagues are going through is absolutely appalling.

What about the three former Members who were exonerated entirely? We must, as a House, look to see what they have been put through over the past few weeks and months by people outside this place. Perhaps, as the Chair intimated at the beginning of his address, we need to look at how people treat this place and how they portray it to the general populace, as that is not in the interests of the democratic process.

I turn to what the Chair of the Select Committee said in respect of Richard Caborn. The Committee’s recommendation states:

“Like the Commissioner, we accept that there is no evidence to suggest that any of these breaches were intentional. Mr Caborn did not bring the House or its Members generally into disrepute.”

As its Chair said, the Committee accepts in its conclusions that the rules and associated guidance need to be clarified and amended, and that the rules relating to lobbying must be reviewed as a matter of urgency.

I conclude as I started by reminding the House of Richard Caborn’s long years of honourable service in this place. He served at all levels of Government and served the House well—as did Sir John Butterfill, who was exonerated in this examination. Richard Caborn spent most of his working life in this place, serving the people of this country and the people of Sheffield, only to be admonished at the end of it by this place because of our lack of rules, the sting that was referred to by the Chair of the Select Committee, and that Committee’s findings, which state that he brought neither the House nor Members into disrepute. The six-month suspension that he has been given is, frankly, disproportionate to his so-called crimes. It would have been enough to say that it was unsatisfactory that he did not make a full apology to this House at an earlier stage. If we are going into the business of bringing stings performed by people outside this place to the Floor of the House and of purging our own Members, something wrong is happening.

Question put and agreed to.