Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Third Report

Annex 27

Letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards from Mr Geoffrey Bindman, Bindman & Partners, Solicitors

  Thank you for your letter of 19 May. Since receiving it, I have also read my client's letter to you of 21 May and your reply of 23 May, a copy of which you have kindly sent me. Mr Vaz has asked me to say in relation to the latter that he has not passed or shown Mr Kamal's letter to any person other than myself. He does not know how Mr Kamal's letter came into the possession of Mr Hall or what provoked Mr Hall's letter of 8 May to Mr Kamal.

  The purpose of this letter is to review the course of your investigation and make submissions as to what should happen now. Before turning to those matters, however, I will comment briefly on your letter to me of 19 May.

  1.  I have seen copies of the letters which you list in your letter of 19 May and I believe I have seen all my client's replies to your letters. You say that the complaints against him are contained in the letters in your list but it remains unclear what you consider to be a complaint other than that originally made by Mr Milne, namely that Mr Vaz received unregistered payments from Mr Zaiwalla, an allegation which has been categorically denied by both Mr Vaz and Mr Zaiwalla himself. Nevertheless, Mr Vaz has replied in detail to all your letters and has, with one exception, provided all the information you have requested.

  2.  The only question addressed to Mr Vaz which he has not previously answered is whether he recommended Mr Zaiwalla for an honour. You have not explained the relevance of this question to any allegation. You know that it has been the subject of communications between Mr Vaz and Madam Speaker. Moreover, you know the answer to your question because it was given to you by Sir Hayden Phillips. I am instructed by Mr Vaz to confirm that the information given to you by Sir Hayden Phillips is correct. Otherwise he will not comment on the matter unless he is advised that it is proper for him to do so. It is not the case, as suggested in your letter to me of 19 May that he has asked me to gather material on this issue and I do not understand why you say that his replies on this or any other matter "may not be sufficiently comprehensive". In what respect is this claimed?

  3.  As I submit below, Mr Vaz is entitled to be told clearly and explicitly what complaints are made against him, identifying the breaches of rules which are alleged, so that he knows precisely what case he has to answer. He must then be given a reasonable opportunity of answering that specific case. Apart from the complaint by Mr Milne of failure to register a payment or payments alleged to have been made to him by Mr Zaiwalla, no explicit complaint of conduct which violates any rule has been put to him.

The allegations

  4.  On 4 February 2000, you sent Mr Vaz a copy of a letter from Mr Andrew Milne complaining that a young man from Mr Vaz's office had called to collect £2,000 in cash from Mr S R Zaiwalla in 1994, which alleged payment was not registered by Mr Vaz, and expressing Mr Milne's belief that other unregistered payments had been made. Mr Milne also alleged that Mr Vaz had promised to use his influence to stop an Inland Revenue investigation into the affairs of Mr Zaiwalla. Mr Milne's letter does not claim direct or personal knowledge of the facts he alleges, and nor does it state the source of his information. The allegations were promptly denied both by Mr Vaz and Mr Zaiwalla. The latter volunteered information about payments properly made for events attended by Mr Vaz which clearly had nothing to do with Mr Milne's allegations. He also referred to judicial findings which, at the very least, cast serious doubt on Mr Milne's credibility.

The evidence

  5.  By 12 February you had not informed Mr Vaz that you had received any evidence at all to support Mr Milne's allegations. On that day, Mr Vaz was told by a journalist that you had contacted another former employee of Mr Zaiwalla, called Brown. Mr Vaz informed you that he did not know this person. On 22 February you informed Mr Vaz that a Mr Brian Brown had given you a statement saying that he thought a payment of £1,000 was made to Mr Vaz by Mr Zaiwalla for an "office fund" and that a cheque was refused (by whom is not stated) and replaced by cash. But, Mr Brown is then claimed to have gone on to say "This may or may not be the case, I simply cannot be certain though I suspect that could be the case". The figure is not the same as that mentioned by Mr Milne and the evidential value of this statement, again denied by Mr Vaz, is zero.

  6.  On 8 March you wrote again to Mr Vaz setting out extracts from an alleged transcript of a telephone conversation between Mr Milne and Mr Brown on 14 January 2000 in which Mr Brown states, prompted by Mr Milne, that he gave an envelope containing cash to Mr Vaz on one occasion and that "it may well have" contained £2,000. You do not say when you received the alleged transcript. It was not mentioned in your letter of 22 February which gives a quite different account of Mr Brown's evidence; nor do you explain how the alleged transcript came into you possession or whether you were also provided with the original tape recording. Mr Vaz has analysed the numerous discrepancies and uncertainties in the accounts given by Mr Milne and Mr Brown in his letter to you of 13 March. Mr Milne himself has confirmed that Mr Brown is a convicted criminal, having been sentenced to four years imprisonment for theft from Zaiwalla & Co. Without the original tape recording, and indeed even if there was an original tape recording, the belated disclosure of the alleged conversation between such persons must reduce the credibility of its contents to vanishing point.

  7.  On 14 March you wrote to Mr Vaz again recording further allegations of failure to register payments which you said had been sent to you "in the course of investigating the complaints against" my client. Mr Vaz responded to all these further allegations in detail in his letter of 19 March. He also raised certain matters concerning the conduct of two journalists.

  In your reply of 20 March you confirmed that the complaint you were investigating was the one made by Mr Milne. You reminded Mr Vaz that the specific incidents he cited concerned Mr Zaiwalla. You said that the information you received since then concerned allegations which relate to the same issue, though in fact the allegations set out in your letter of 14 March have nothing to do with Mr Zaiwalla. Furthermore, the letter addressed to you by Mr Paul Gosling of 29 February, a copy of which you sent to Mr Vaz on 3 March, raises yet other issues which have nothing to do with Mr Milne's complaint. In any event Mr Vaz has provided you with a full response which shows Mr Gosling's complaints to be without foundation. He has also provided you with a copy of his letter to the Registrar after he had sought his advice on the previous occasion when Mr Gosling raised this matter.

  8.  In your letter of 20 March you say that you have no outstanding points to put to Mr Vaz. Although you had told him on 18 March that you had written to an unidentified "local Labour councillor", it could reasonably be inferred from your letter of 20 March that at that point, both Mr Milne and Mr Vaz having been given reasonable opportunities to respond to the allegations and the answers to them, you would promptly decide to reject the complaint.

  9.  Instead, you apparently confirmed to The Sunday Telegraph journalists on 5 or 6 April that you had received a further letter from Mr Milne. They contacted Mr Vaz and told him this whereupon he telephoned you and subsequently received copies of two letters from Mr Milne dated 4 April. These letters added further claims which Mr Vaz has also refuted. Again, instead of concluding your investigation by rejecting Mr Milne's complaint, you wrote to Mr Vaz on 17 April asking whether he had proposed Mr Zaiwalla for an honour, an issue not raised by Mr Milne in his original complaint.

  10.  On 20 April you sent Mr Vaz a copy of a letter from Mr Kamal dated 17 April. Evidently he is the Labour councillor you referred to in your conversation with Mr Vaz on 18 March. Until Mr Vaz saw Mr Kamal's letter he was unaware of any allegations or complaints about unregistered payments having been made by Mr Kamal, nor that you were investigating any such allegation. Certainly there is nothing in the matters raised by Mr Kamal, all of which were fully answered by Mr Vaz by fax within four hours, which has any connection with the complaint by Mr Milne.

  11.  In the light of your claims that you always keep members informed of your continuing investigations (see paragraph 12 of "the Investigation Process") it is surprising that Mr Vaz only learned that you were investigating matters in Leicester from The Sunday Telegraph.

Submission on Mr Milne's complaint

  12.  It is assumed for the purpose of this paragraph that the only allegation against Mr Vaz is that he failed to register payments from Mr Zaiwalla which he was under a duty to register. At best this allegation is supported by no more than oral evidence of Mr Milne and Mr Brown that they observed cash payments being made to Mr Vaz in Mr Zaiwalla's office. That evidence is both vague and contradictory. Both witnesses have records of dishonesty and in Mr Milne's case a strong personal grievance against Mr Zaiwalla. Both Mr Vaz and Mr Zaiwalla have flatly denied the allegations. There is no credible evidence in support of the allegations and, in the face of his denial, no rational basis on which Mr Vaz can be found to have violated any of his obligations as a Member of Parliament. He is entitled to be fully exonerated.

Other complaints

  13.  While it remains unclear that the allegations by Mr Gosling and those set out in your letter of 14 March and Mr Kamal's letter of 17 April have been treated as complaints within the scope of your investigation, Mr Vaz has answered them swiftly and conclusively and there can be no justification for continuing to investigate them or initiating any fresh or separate investigation. Mr Kamal has produced no evidence at all. They should be dismissed at the same time as Mr Milne's complaint.

Procedural fairness and the content of your report

  14.  Even if Mr Vaz is completely exonerated and is not criticised in your report his reputation will not easily recover from the damage it has suffered as a result of this investigation. If, on the other hand, he is criticised, that damage can only be unfairly and unnecessarily exacerbated. In my submission there is no basis for any criticism. I draw attention to the fact that he has discussed his entries in the register with relevant officials and has always acted on their advice. The Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges has said in a letter to the Shadow Leader of the House that in such circumstances he could not conceive of circumstances in which a Member would be exposed to criticism. (See your report of Mr John Major MP.)

  15.  Mr Vaz has, however, made clear in the course of the investigation that he has important concerns about the manner in which it has been conducted, While it is plain that your conduct is not susceptible to challenge by judicial review (see R v Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards ex parte Fayed [1998] 1 All ER 93), I assume nevertheless that you seek to exercise your functions in accordance with the principles of natural justice (now more commonly described as procedural fairness) and they would be applied by the Court if it had jurisdiction over them. For an account of those principles I refer you to De Smith, Woolf and Jowell Judicial Review of Administrative Action (Fifth edition, 1995), especially chapter 9.

  16.  Paragraph 2 of your paper on the Investigation Process says that "when it appears that the allegation has some substance which would merit further inquiry my practice is to ask the Member of Parliament for a response." In the present case you were, according to your letter of 20 March, investigating only a complaint by Mr Milne alleging unregistered payments by Mr Zaiwalla. Presumably this complaint passed the threshold of "some substance" referred to in paragraph 2. In your letter to Mr Vaz of 28 March you refer to other allegations but you do not say you are investigating them or whether you have determined that they have the required substance.

  17.  It may be that you have followed up these other allegations only for the purpose of your investigation into the complaint by Mr Milne. If they remain to be treated as independent complaints which you are investigating, Mr Vaz is plainly entitled to be told this and to know the case which is being put against him. He is entitled to know what breach of the code or rules relating to the conduct of Members of Parliament he is accused of violating or indeed if he is accused of breaches of the law. Mr Milne has made accusations which are not merely of failing to register payments by Mr Zaiwalla, but which are allegations of corruption: accepting bribes for the purpose of influencing decisions of the Inland Revenue and those responsible for the Honours system. Are you investigating the latter allegations? If so, Mr Vaz is entitled to be told.

  18.  Paragraphs 4 to 6 of "the Investigation Process" indicate that the Member's response to your initial approach to him or her will be sufficient to enable you to reject the complaint. Mr Vaz was not informed that this was not the case and why it was not the case. He was not informed what further information you were seeking or from whom you were seeking it. It emerged that you had written to a number of businessmen known to Mr Vaz but it is impossible to see how they could have thrown any light on whether payments had been made to Mr Vaz in Mr Zaiwalla's office. Did you limit your questions to that matter or did they range more widely? If the latter to what investigation or allegation were they directed? In paragraph 12 of "the Investigation Process" you say that you always keep the Member informed that you are continuing your inquiries, but do you consider that you are entitled to extend those inquiries beyond the scope of the complaint which you have informed the Member that you are investigating? I submit that to do so would be manifestly unfair.

  19.  As I have said already, procedural fairness requires that the Member is informed of the case which he or she has to meet and what specific offences are alleged. He or she is also entitled to be told the evidence which is relied on to support the allegations. If you are now minded to exonerate Mr Vaz completely and without criticism, this may no longer be required. Otherwise, I invite you to let me have your assurance that Mr Vaz will be supplied with this information and an opportunity to respond to it before your report is finalised.

  20.  At the same time I would be grateful if you would confirm that you are not minded to make any criticism of him in your report. If this is not the case, would you please indicate the nature of such criticism so that he may have an opportunity of responding to it. In any event, it would be appreciated if any part of your report which refers to the conduct of Mr Vaz could be disclosed to him in draft so that he has the opportunity to comment on it, as has been done in other cases.

  21.  One further issue which concerns my client is the role of the Press. Naturally, there is likely to be media interest in complaints against Members of Parliament, but you make no reference in "the Investigation Process" to this topic. Mr Vaz has been subjected to repeated and damaging media harassment during the lengthy progress of your investigation. There have been several claims by journalists that you have talked to journalists about its substance or at least confirmed information put to you. Although I understand you have argued that you need to talk to the media to assure the public that they can have confidence in your investigations, they can perfectly well be given that assurance when the investigation has been concluded. I submit that no communication between you and the media about the content of an investigation during its progress can ever be justified. It must surely be sufficient that the public has access to the report of its outcome.

  I would be grateful for your response to this letter before any further step is taken in the matter.

25 May 2000

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