Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Fourth Report


Memorandum submitted by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

Complaints against Mr William Hague MP

The Complaints

1.    I have received a complaint against the Rt Hon William Hague, Member for Richmond (Yorkshire), from Ms Kathy Lewis of Haynes, Bedfordshire. In her letter, dated 8 February 2001 (Annex A), Ms Lewis stated that since January 1999 Mr Hague's Register entry had included:

    "Any fees received as a result of speaking engagements will be paid into The William Hague Charitable Trust. Donations from this Trust will be distributed by an independent board of trustees to charitable organisations within my constituency".

2.    Ms Lewis's complaint was that the William Hague Charitable Trust "does not exist and never has existed and that Mr Hague's entry is therefore both inaccurate and misleading". Ms Lewis added: "If fees have not been paid into the William Hague Charitable Trust then where have they gone?". Ms Lewis also stated that if I required further formation on the matter I should approach Mr Jack Cheshire or Mr Mark Thomas of Vera Productions Ltd.[6]

3.    I wrote to Ms Lewis on 9 February and again on 14 February 2001 asking her to let me have the evidence she had indicated was held by Mr Cheshire or Mr Thomas.

4.    Mr Cheshire wrote to me at Ms Lewis's request on 15 February 2001. With his letter (Annex B), Mr Cheshire enclosed his evidence "that the William Hague Charitable Trust [did] not exist". The evidence consisted of the following documents[7]:

    —   Statement by the Charities Commission regarding the charitable status of The William Hague Charitable Trust. (This was confirmed to me in a letter dated 14 February 2001 from the Director of Operations at the Charity Commission (Annex C).)

    —   Transcripts of conversations on 7 February 2001 between Mr Mark Thomas of Vera Productions Ltd and Ms Charlotte Kenyon, Conservative Party Press Office, and between Mr Thomas and Ms Claire Gibson, Mr Hague's Personal Secretary in Richmond, Yorkshire

    —   Copy of a letter sent by Mr Thomas to Mr Hague, dated 8 February 2001

    —   Statement issued by the Conservative Party to Vera Productions Ltd on 9 February 2001

    —   Transcript of a telephone call between Mr Thomas and Mr Andrew Scadding, Conservative Central Office, on 9 February 2001.

5.    Mr Cheshire's letter concluded:

    "We would be very grateful if you could fully investigate not only the clearly misleading and inaccurate entry in the Register, but, more importantly, precisely what fees Mr Hague has received, from whom, and to whom they have been distributed. This is a matter of the utmost public interest and I look forward to hearing from you soon."

6.    I also received a complaint from Mr Fraser Kemp, Member for Houghton and Washington East. In his letter, dated 13 February 2001 (Annex D), Mr Kemp asked: "Why did William Hague mislead the Registrar by declaring a charitable trust that had not yet been set up?". Mr Kemp also listed a number of other questions which, he believed, ought to be put to Mr Hague, including a request for confirmation that all of the fees received by Mr Hague from speaking engagements had in fact been donated to charity.

Background to the complaints

7.    On 7 February 2001, shortly before the complaints were lodged, Mr Hague had written to the Registrar, following a telephone conversation between the Registrar and Mr Hague's Private Secretary, Lord Coe, in which the latter sought advice about the best way to correct what Lord Coe described as an inaccuracy which had come to light in Mr Hague's Register entry.

8.    In his letter to the Registrar (Annex E), Mr Hague confirmed that he wished to remove the reference to the William Hague Charitable Trust from his Register entry. He added:

    "On the advice of your predecessor, I requested its inclusion whilst arrangements were still being made for its establishment. Over time, however, it became clear that a charitable trust intended to distribute my occasional fees to good causes in my constituency would prove too complicated to manage for the small sums involved. I have therefore reverted to my original practice of requesting any fees to be paid direct to charities and good causes of my choice.

    I am sorry that this change in circumstance was not registered with you earlier. But I should be grateful if you would amend my entry as soon as possible."

9.    The change requested by Mr Hague was included in the annual printed edition of the Register as at 31 January 2001, which was published on 26 February 2001. The revised wording, agreed with Mr Hague's office, read:

    "Any fees received as a result of speaking or other engagements will be donated to charities and good causes of my choice".

10.  The original Register entry referring to the William Hague Charitable Trust first appeared in the printed edition of the Register as at 31 January 1999, following a letter from Mr Hague to the Registrar dated 21 January 1999 requesting the addition. It was carried forward to the next printed edition, dated 31 January 2000, a draft of the relevant portion of which was sent to Mr Hague for checking during December 1999. The same entry also appeared in seven separate updated print-outs which were sent to Mr Hague for verification in relation to other changes or additions made by him to his entry during the course of 1999 and 2000.

Mr Hague's response to the complaints

11.  I wrote to Mr Hague on 9 February 2001 (Annex F), asking him to provide me with information about the circumstances surrounding the decision to establish, and subsequently not to proceed with, the Trust, as well as details of his speaking engagements since January 1999 and the way in which the relevant fees had been handled.

12.  On 12 February 2001, Mr Hague's Private Secretary, Lord Coe, came to see me to explain the background to the Trust. He provided me with a list of articles and speeches for which Mr Hague had received fees, in respect of which some cheques had been made payable to the Trust and others direct to individual charities. I told Lord Coe that I would need confirmation in writing from the providers that, in the case of the six payments made to the Trust, none of the cheques had been cashed. Lord Coe assured me that this information would be provided as part of Mr Hague's formal response to the complaints.

13.  On 13 February 2001, Lord Coe wrote to me on Mr Hague's behalf (Annex G), stating that the decision not to proceed with the establishment of the Trust had been taken around July 2000 as it was "proving too complicated for the sums involved". Lord Coe said that since then Mr Hague had reverted to his original practice of requesting any fees earned from speaking engagements or writing articles to be paid to charities and good causes of his choice. Lord Coe concluded:

    "Clearly, we should have amended Mr Hague's entry to reflect this at that time and I am sorry that this did not occur until later.

    I hope you will agree that this issue has now been resolved satisfactorily."

14.  Attached to Lord Coe's letter were the following details of Mr Hague's fees for speaking and other media engagements:

    —   a list of seven engagements where the fee cheques had been made payable to the Trust, together with confirmation from the relevant paying organisation that the cheque had not been cashed

    —  a list of three further engagements, all carried out since the beginning of November 2000, where the fees were paid directly to a specified charity.

15.  On 14 February 2001, I wrote to Lord Coe (Annex H), informing him of my view that there remained issues relating to Mr Hague's Register entry which I needed to investigate further, in particular the precise circumstances surrounding the decisions to set up the Trust and subsequently to abandon the proposal. For convenience I set out in my letter the points on which I required detailed information from Mr Hague in order to be able to reach a conclusion on the complaints. In addition to requesting answers to my specific questions I asked Lord Coe to provide me with any relevant material in the form of correspondence, file notes etc which would enable me to form a complete picture of the way in which matters concerning the Trust had been handled.

16.  On 21 February 2001 Lord Coe wrote to me again on Mr Hague's behalf (Annex I) in response to some of the points raised in my letter to Lord Coe of 14 February. The main points of this letter were as follows:

    —   the idea of creating a charitable trust to receive fees earned by Mr Hague from speaking engagements had come from Lord Coe;

    —   no formal steps had been taken to establish the Trust;

    —   around the end of 1998, Mr Hague's constituency secretary, Ms Claire Gibson, undertook to seek advice about establishing a Trust from legal and accountancy professionals who agreed to provide their services on a voluntary basis;

    —   on the basis of the initial professional advice as to the feasibility of establishing the Trust it was thought appropriate to choose a name for it and, "having sought advice from the Registrar", to amend Mr Hague's Register entry accordingly;

    —   in the event, the advice and assistance which had been offered did not materialise and "other work pressures, and some rather serious family pressures caused Ms Gibson to perhaps not pursue the establishment of the Trust as vigorously as she might";

    —   the sums of money received by Mr Hague for engagements between January 1999 and July 2000 "were minimal";

    —   Mr Hague did not seek, and had never sought, payment for any speech, article or appearance; any moneys received were either unsolicited donations by host organisations or "automatic payments" from the publications involved;

    —   in around July 2000 it was decided—jointly by Ms Gibson and Mr Hague—to discontinue attempts to establish the Trust;

    —   at that time, Mr Hague's office at Westminster was informed by Ms Gibson of "the difficulties experienced in establishing the Trust" and it was "suggested that Mr Hague's entry in the Register [referring to the Trust] be amended";

    —   however, it was decided to delay that action "because Ms Gibson remained hopeful that the trust could be established, if only she could receive the professional advice required"; and "in the spirit of over-registering information" it was thought best "to leave matters as they stood";

    —   "with hindsight, Mr Hague's entry should have been amended at that time".

17.  Lord Coe said that there was no other documentation relevant to my investigation as he had sent me "all the papers on our files" with his letter of 13 February. He also indicated that he would contact me again when he had had a chance to "explore the details of the issue further" when he visited Mr Hague's constituency within the next ten days.

18.  Lord Coe concluded:

    "The issue you wish to investigate relating to Mr Hague is a result of mis-communication between Mr Hague's two offices and I repeat here that no wrong-doing has occurred by Mr Hague or any of his staff".

19.  Following his visit to Mr Hagues's constituency, Lord Coe wrote to me again on 9 March 2001 (Annex J). The main points of Lord Coe's further letter were:

    —   that the inquiries he had made in Richmond had confirmed his earlier account

    —   that the professional advice about the establishment of the Trust had been sought informally and had not been recorded in writing

    —   that the lack of urgency with which the idea of the Trust had been pursued by Mr Hagues's personal staff in the constituency had led those from whom advice had been sought to conclude that implementing the proposal was not a priority

    —   that the confusion over Mr Hagues's Register entry was the result of "miscommunication and misunderstanding" between Mr Hagues's offices in Westminster and the constituency.

20.  Lord Coe added two further points:

    —   that "none of the monies that were donated for charitable purposes were in excess of the amount [Members are advised] to consider registering following speaking engagements or media work" and that "Mr Hagues's desire to be open about how any monies received for speaking engagements would be redirected was in fact well beyond what is required by Parliament"

    —   that, having learned that none of the cheques made payable to the Trust were ever cashed, Mr Hague had decided "to make personal donations to charities and good causes in his constituency totalling £1,750 (the total amount of cheques made payable to the... Trust)".


21.  Since it is not disputed by Mr Hague that the William Hague Charitable Trust was never set up, it has not been necessary for me to comment on the evidence concerning the Trust provided to me by Mr Cheshire of Vera Productions Ltd and the Charity Commission.

22.  From my analysis of the information supplied by Mr Hague, the sequence of events relating to the non-establishment of the Trust appears to be as follows.

23.  Mr Hague says that, shortly after the idea of creating a charitable trust to receive and distribute his earnings from speeches was first mooted in late 1998, he sought advice from the then Registrar as to whether the arrangement should be registered. There is no file record of the exchanges between the Registrar and Mr Hague's office, so that it is not possible to be certain of the details of the proposal as it then stood and, in particular, how imminent its implementation was thought to be. Given, however, that the first of the fee cheques made payable to the William Hague Charitable Trust was dated 20 January 1999, it is understandable that the Registrar should have thought it right to advise Mr Hague to make an appropriate addition to his Register entry. Mr Hague formally requested that the change be made in a letter to the Registrar dated 21 January 1999. The revised entry duly appeared in the annual printed Register as at 31 January 1999.

24.  It may be that the proposal to set up a trust had not been fully thought through before the Registrar was approached for advice and the request was made by Mr Hague for the addition of the Register entry referring to the Trust. But what is clear is that the practical difficulties proved to be unexpectedly large and, ultimately, insuperable. This appears to have resulted from a combination of the failure of the promised professional assistance to materialise and the inability of Mr Hague's constituency office, because of pressure of work and other factors, to devote sufficient time to drive the project forward.

25.  By July 2000, according to Lord Coe, it was evident that no progress was likely to be made with the scheme and a decision was taken jointly by Mr Hague and his constituency secretary, Ms Claire Gibson, not to proceed further. But no action was taken to correct Mr Hague's register entry because, in an unexplained change of heart, Ms Gibson subsequently indicated that she was still hopeful of obtaining the necessary professional assistance to establish the trust. It is not clear why this confidence on Ms Gibson's part was accepted so soon after the decision had been taken to abandon the proposal, and especially in view of the lack of progress hitherto.

26.  In the event, there were no further developments in relation to the trust and Mr Hague's Register Entry was eventually corrected in February 2001. However, it appears that the decision to remove the reference to the trust was prompted by an approach to Mr Hague's office by Vera Productions in preparation for a Channel 4 television programme which was to include an item about Mr Hague's Register entry.[8]

27.  In consequence of the failure to take appropriate corrective action as soon as it became clear that the trust's establishment could not reasonably be regarded as imminent, Mr Hague's Register entry was allowed to continue in a materially inaccurate form for a considerable period. This oversight cannot be excused by reference to a "spirit of over-registering"—as Lord Coe put it—if that is taken to mean including in the Register more information than is strictly required by the rules of the House. Such a wise precautionary approach is not comparable with permitting the continuation of a potentially misleading reference to a non-existent arrangement for handling fees from speaking engagements.

28.  However, it should be emphasised that there is no evidence of any intention on Mr Hague's part deliberately to mislead the House and the public through his Register entry. Moreover, it is clear from the documentary evidence provided to me by Lord Coe that none of the cheques made out to the William Hague Charitable Trust was cashed and that all the subsequent cheques made out to individual charities reached their intended recipients. In fairness to Mr Hague it should also be acknowledged that, as a party leader, in addition to his duties as a Member, he runs a busy office and inevitably has to rely to a large extent on his personal staff both at Westminster and in his constituency.

29.  Nevertheless, it remains a fundamental principle underlying the rules relating to registration that each Member is responsible for the accuracy of his Register entry. Nor was this a single oversight on Mr Hague's part since, during the period following the inclusion of the reference to the Trust, he was given eight separate opportunities to check his entry (in December 1999 in preparation for publication of the 2000 printed edition of the Register and through seven updated print-outs following other changes in his registrable interests). It is important that the process whereby my office sends draft Register entries to Members for verification is not seen as a mere formality. Its purpose is to ensure that any errors or omissions are corrected at the earliest possible opportunity so that other Members, and the public, are provided with accurate information.

30.  When I had drafted my memorandum, but prior to coming to any conclusions, I sent a copy to Mr Hague so that he could provide me with corrections of fact and any other comments he might wish to make. Mr Hague replied on 14 March 2001 (Annex K) attaching a letter from Lord Coe (Annex L). I have considered these letters and have made some corrections of fact, together with some other amendments to my draft, in the light of them.

31.  In his letter commenting on my memorandum in draft, Lord Coe put it to me that it was unfair to describe Mr Hague as having failed to take eight separate opportunities to correct his Register entry, since, Lord Coe argued, only four revised print-outs had been sent to Mr Hague after July 2000, the date when a decision was finally taken to abandon attempts to establish the Trust.

32.  I cannot accept this argument. Mr Hague's entry was inaccurate from the moment it became clear, shortly after the first reference to the Trust appeared in the January 1999 Register, that the establishment of the Trust could not reasonably be regarded as imminent. Each of the proofs sent to Mr Hague between January 1999 and July 2000 (as well as the subsequent ones) ought to have acted as a reminder to check on progress with setting up the Trust and, in case of doubt, to seek advice from the Registrar.

33.  It is true, as Lord Coe points out, that Mr Hague twice made handwritten notes on copies of his Register entry, once in July 2000 and again in September of that year, indicating that he wished the reference to the Trust to be removed. Unfortunately, Mr Hague's staff failed to act on this instruction. Moreover, the practice of Mr Hague's office had been only to consult Mr Hague on the wording of requests for additions to his entry, leaving the checking of proofs sent to Mr Hague by my office to be dealt with by a member of staff. This meant that Mr Hague personally never saw any of the proofs sent to him after September 2000 and was thus unaware that his instructions had not been carried out.

34.  It remains the case, however, that Mr Hague knew that his entry was no longer accurate and it was his responsibility to ensure that an appropriate correction was made. It is undesirable for Members to subcontract to staff the checking of proofs of their Register entry. Lord Coe has told me that this practice will no longer be followed in Mr Hague's office.


35.  Although the reference to the William Hague Charitable Trust was originally included in good faith, Mr Hague's Register entry ceased to be accurate as soon as it began to become clear that the process of establishing the trust had run into serious difficulty and that the proposal was unlikely to be implemented in the near future—if at all. This was increasingly the case from early 1999 onwards until, in July 2000, Mr Hague reached the conclusion that the proposal was a non-starter.

36.  Mr Hague twice asked his staff to remove the reference to the Trust from his entry, once in late July 2000 and again in September of that year, but he did not follow through this instruction to make sure that it had been carried out. This was partly due to defective procedures in his office, whereby Mr Hague did not personally see all Register proofs sent to his office for checking. Despite the extenuating circumstances to which I have referred, it was Mr Hague's personal responsibility to ensure that his entry was accurate.

37.  Mr Hague failed to respond correctly on eight separate occasions when required to check his entry, with the result that it continued in a materially inaccurate form for a considerable period—at least six months and arguably longer.

38.  There is, however, no evidence that Mr Hague intended his Register entry to be misleading nor that there was any irregularity or impropriety in the use to which his fees for speaking engagements were put.

Complaint upheld

39.  Mr Hague has expressed his regret for not amending his Register entry promptly and Lord Coe has emphasised that this was due to an oversight following "miscommunication and misunderstanding between his two offices". Mr Hague has also taken steps voluntarily to make donations to charities in his constituency, amounting in total to the sums originally intended to be paid to the Trust. Lord Coe has indicated that Mr Hague's office procedures will be tightened up to ensure that Mr Hague personally sees all Register proofs sent to him for checking.

15 March 2001

Elizabeth Filkin

6  Makers of the Channel 4 television programme The Mark Thomas ProductBack

7  Not printed. Back

8  See paragraph 2 and Annex B. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 21 March 2001