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Volume 615: debated on Monday 10 October 2016

I beg to move,

That this House—

(1) approves the Second Report of the Committee on Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 672);

(2) endorses the recommendation in paragraph 12; and

(3) accordingly suspends Justin Tomlinson from the service of the House for a period of two sitting days, beginning on Tuesday 11 October.

The facts of this case are set out in the Privileges Committee report and the report published by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) was found to have shared a draft report by the Committee of Public Accounts with an outside party in breach of the confidentiality rules. The Privileges Committee concluded that my hon. Friend committed a contempt in disclosing a draft Committee report to a third party and that his actions constituted substantial interference in the work of that Committee. His co-operation throughout the relevant inquiries was noted by the Committee, which also made reference to the fact that he was not motivated in his actions by financial gain.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his personal statement of 15 September, in which he accepted in full the findings of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, took full responsibility for his actions and made his apology to the House. I invite hon. Members to endorse the findings of the Privileges Committee

I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. On this, my first appearance as shadow Leader of the House, I would also like to thank my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for his hard work. I agree with the Leader of the House and add my thanks to the Privileges Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for their work and diligence in coming to their conclusion.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) made a personal statement on 15 September, at the earliest opportunity. He indicated that he was naive. However, the draft report was sent to the company that was under investigation by the Public Accounts Committee and, as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said in paragraph 40 of her report, it gave the company

“an additional opportunity, not available to or known to anyone else, to influence the recommendations of the Committee.”

In my experience, Committee Clerks are assiduous in stating on the draft report that it is confidential, and the copies produced are numbered and password protected. It is alarming to other members of a Committee when a draft report is leaked. It undermines the Committee process and, as “Erskine May” says, may be a contempt. In this case it was found to be a contempt.

Perhaps I could make a suggestion that when new Members join a Select Committee, and at the same time as they declare their interests, they are reminded of the confidential nature of draft reports and discussions.

It is normal practice to agree with the reports of the Privileges Committee. The Opposition therefore support the motion.

This case came to light when Wonga contacted the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in June 2015 to say that it had evidence that appeared to show that two years earlier the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) had provided a draft report by the Committee of Public Accounts to a Wonga employee and given that employee a chance to comment on the draft. The commissioner rightly referred to the matter to the Committee of Public Accounts, which conducted its own initial investigation and published a special report that concluded that the disclosure of the draft report by the hon. Member constituted a substantial interference in the work of the Committee. It is for the Privileges Committee to investigate such allegations, but we felt that in this case there were complications which made it desirable to ask the commissioner to conduct an investigation on our behalf. Not least among the reasons for this were media allegations that the hon. Member had benefited financially from his actions. I wish to stress from the start that those allegations were unsubstantiated and were dismissed by the commissioner as groundless. The Privileges Committee agrees completely with that finding.

The commissioner reported to the Standards Committee, as required under Standing Orders. In view of her conclusions that the case touched on matters of privilege, the Committee referred the commissioner’s report to us for adjudication. On behalf of the Privileges Committee, I thank the commissioner for her thorough investigation and the Standards Committee for its co-operation.

There have been three separate inquiries into the allegations and at each stage the hon. Gentleman made no attempt to deny his role in these events. Instead, he has continually apologised unreservedly. Our role on the Privileges Committee is therefore less concerned with what happened. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman disclosed the draft report without authority and therefore committed a contempt of the House. I am more concerned about what sanctions should be applied as a result.

In 2008, the then Standards and Privileges Committee concluded that the unauthorised disclosure of a draft report or of advice to a Select Committee not only betrays confidence but can damage trust between Members, and between those who work for or with them. It also undermines the effectiveness of the Committee’s work. Leaking is a reprehensible act. In any case, where the Committee is able to discover the source of a leak it will be prepared to recommend appropriately severe sanctions. There is no doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s actions did have a significant effect on the work of the Committee and so more than an apology is in order. We now turn to mitigating factors.

The Privileges Committee explored with the hon. Gentleman his motives for sharing the draft report and his grasp of the confidential nature of such documents at the time he committed the contempt. It was clear to the Committee that he did not act out of financial gain and was not seeking to ensure that the views of Wonga were written into the report. Instead, this was part of a long-running campaign he had led against payday lenders. He described his actions as the result of his own naiveté and stupidity. We accept that this was the case. We also accept the sincerity of his apologies and have borne in mind his full co-operation with all the inquiries into his behaviour.

Turning to sanctions, there are few precedents for this kind of case. In 1999, there were two cases involving the passing on of draft reports to the Government, which we consider to be more serious than the circumstances we are currently examining. In those cases, one Member was suspended for 10 sitting days and another was suspended for five sitting days. Bearing in mind the mitigating factors above, but also the undoubted seriousness of the offence in the hon. Gentleman’s case, we have recommended a personal statement to the House and a suspension for two sitting days. The hon. Member made a personal statement at the first possible opportunity: on the day the report was published. I ask the House today to approve our recommendation on suspension as proportionate to the offence and as a clear message to others inside and outside the House that leaking Select Committee papers is wrong and will be met with appropriate sanctions where the source of the leak is identified.

Question put and agreed to.