Select Committee on Standards and Privileges First Report


Letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards from Mr Tony McWalter MP


Following our telephone conversation on the above matter, I believe it behoves me to put on the record my disquiet about reports that a Member or Members placed bets on the outcome of the above election. I hope it will prove within your powers to investigate these claims and if there is substance in them to take appropriate action to preserve the good name of the House.

My disquiet arises because my votes for the current Speaker were in some ways marginal decisions. I thought he had been the most effective Deputy Speaker, but I had to think very carefully before making that judgement. I thought also he spoke well in the debate on October 23rd, but there were a large number of matters on which I would have liked to know his views but which I was not able to ascertain from what one might call the official record. I am strongly in favour of what is called modernisation, for instance, but as it happens I am rather in favour of historic formality in ceremonial aspects of proceedings of the House—what one might call the gown and wigs agenda. What I was interested in was voting for a candidate who seemed most likely to support reform in two areas. First, I wanted a Speaker who would recognise that a long summer recess now makes it more difficult for conscientious Members to perform their duties, and that adjustment of the Parliamentary day would provide scope for reform of the Parliamentary day. Secondly, I am concerned that the current regime with respect to office costs has many deleterious consequences, and among other things it forces MPs to be poor employers.

Given that I wished to cast my vote for policy reasons, the fact that Mr Martin had not attended the hustings meant that I had to ask other Members, particularly those involved with the Modernisation Committee, where Mr Martin stood on issues I was concerned about. Those Members gave me the kind of assurances which made it much more likely that I would vote for Mr Martin.

I do not know whether any Member to whom I spoke had placed a bet, but clearly if it turned out that one of them had done so I would feel that was a major breach of trust. I suspect very strongly that none of them had placed a bet, but that then raises a different issue. If a Member had placed a bet, then he or she would be effectively excluding himself or herself from communicating to other Members information which perhaps should have been vouchsafed. If for instance someone knew something negative about a candidate on which he or she had placed a bet, even staying silent when that candidate was being praised in the tea-room could be regarded as an omission performed in a financial interest.

I think all of this reflects badly on any Member who placed a bet on an event which he or she could not only influence through a vote, but whose outcome he or she was in a position to influence, whether or not that Member chose to exercise such influence. Such action in my view does bring the House into disrepute, and I say that even if sadly it turns out that it is a colleague (or colleagues) who were involved in such action.

I now ask you to consider action, should your investigations elicit that indeed a Member or Members did bet on this outcome. There are two cases. First, where a Member bet on and voted for Mr Martin. Secondly, where a Member bet on Mr Martin, but who then voted for other candidates particularly in those votes which were regarded by most Members as decisive (the closer votes). The former case is clearly more serious, but even the latter should in my view be an offence, since even if you do not vote personally for a candidate you could influence several Members to vote for that person, and hence Members are in a position to help secure victory for a person on whom they might have placed a bet.

In the case of Member who bet on and voted for a certain person (which I suspect is the more likely event), I do think that it is likely that the person did not see at the time the sense of outrage which would be felt by those whose votes were in part decided by conversations with other Members. In my view it would be condign to ask the Member to apologise to the House and to confirm that any winnings will be transmitted to a charity not of that Member's choosing. I would hope that we could then make this an offence to be dealt in future by suspension from the House. In other words, I am asking for leniency to be shown in this case, if as I suspect the behaviour was unwitting, but I would not want that leniency to establish a precedent.

I am very sorry that we seem to be forced to make rules on this matter. I would have thought it obvious that one ought to adopt a disinterested stance with respect to such proceedings.

I note that in one of the publications which depicts the character of Members I am described as something of a puritan. While I am pleased at that description when it comes to some matters, for example the use of foul language, I want to emphasise that I am not of puritanical disposition when it comes to betting or gambling. I accept that betting can be a pleasurable activity, and I took to heart some years ago the late Iain Macleod's judgement that one should pay rubber bridge for the maximum stakes one can afford. My objection comes, not as an objection to betting as such, but to the action of betting on a process in which it is assumed that one is acting in an honest and disinterested way. The disinterestedness arises because in the election for Speaker all Members are assumed to be voting entirely on what is for the best for the House, and hence on what is best for the country. Betting comprises that irrevocably, and in future (in my view) it should be subject to the strictest sanctions.

4 November 2000

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