Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Second Report


SECOND REPORT

The Committee on Standards and Privileges has agreed to the following Report:—

COMPLAINT AGAINST MR JOHN MAXTON AND DR JOHN REID

Introduction

1. We have considered memoranda by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards relating to the complaint by Mr Dean Nelson, a journalist, against Mr John Maxton, Member for Glasgow, Cathcart, and Dr John Reid, Member for Hamilton North and Bellshill. The Commissioner`s memoranda and written evidence submitted by Mr Maxton and Dr Reid are appended to this Report. We have also taken oral evidence from both Members and from Mr John Rafferty, formerly Campaign Co-ordinator, and Mr Alex Rowley, formerly General Secretary, of the Scottish Labour Party. The minutes of the evidence are published with this Report.

2. The essence of the complaint was that Dr Reid and Mr Maxton made an arrangement to draw upon their House of Commons office costs allowance (OCA) to pay salaries to three researchers—Mr Kevin Reid, and then Ms Suzanne Hilliard, who worked for Dr Reid, and Mr Chris Winslow, who worked for Mr Maxton—knowing that they would be working for the Labour Party rather than for their Member for at least some of their paid time. The Commissioner concluded that such an arrangement had been entered into and, whilst she did not find that Dr Reid had misled the Fees Office about the employment status of Mr Kevin Reid, she concluded that Dr Reid and Mr Maxton had misled the Fees Office as to the employment arrangements of Ms Hilliard and Mr Winslow respectively.[6] We do not uphold this complaint for the reasons we give later in the Report.

3. In the Commissioner`s opinion—

    ...(i)  there was an arrangement, agreed by Labour Party officials and sufficiently formal to have been incorporated within the budget assumptions, whereby the OCA was used to supplement the Party salaries of Mr Reid (until he went onto a full-time contract) and Mr Winslow, and, in Ms Hilliard`s case, to pay her for at least some of the Party work she was ostensibly doing as a volunteer; and

    (ii)  as the employers of the three researchers, Dr Reid and Mr Maxton must, at the very least, have been aware of the arrangement, if not involved in its instigation.[7]

4. In reaching her conclusion the Commissioner had regard to—

    (i)  adjustments made to the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) budget, namely reductions in the projected monthly salary figures for Mr Kevin Reid and Mr Winslow which in her view took account of the payments made to them through the OCA, and notes in the SLP budget documents, referring to the salary projections for Mr Winslow and Mr Reid respectively, which read:

    "Salary and employers contributions: income of £6,000 from J. Maxton MP"

    "Salary and employers contributions: income of £10,000 from J. Reid MP"; and

    (ii)  the evidence of Mr Rowley and Mr Rafferty, senior SLP officials with responsibility for the deployment of campaign staff, which in her view was corroborated by the evidence of Mr Paul McKinney, formerly Labour Party Director of Communications in Scotland, and Mr Willie Sullivan, formerly Scottish Development Officer at SLP headquarters.

5. The evidence of those witnesses led the Commissioner to the view that—

    (a)  an arrangement had been entered into to cross-subsidise the Party`s campaign expenditure from the OCA;

    (b)  the Party`s budget projections were revised to reflect the fact that the work done by the three researchers for the Party was at least partly supported by payments from the OCA; and

    (c)  particularly during the election period, Ms Hilliard and Mr Winslow were working full-time for the Labour Party, and had insufficient time to do all their parliamentary research work effectively on top of their commitments to the Party. (At no stage has the Commissioner suggested that the researchers had done no parliamentary work.)

6. Dr Reid and Mr Maxton emphatically denied the allegations against them. They said their researchers had carried out their duties effectively and had fulfilled their contractual obligations, which allowed for variable hours. The Commissioner summarised their responses to the evidence in support of the complaints in the following terms:

    —   the complaints are groundless and are motivated by malice;

    —   the witnesses who gave evidence in support of the complaints are, according to Dr Reid and Mr Maxton, untrustworthy and driven by a grudge because of the circumstances in which they left the Labour Party;

    —   only Dr Reid and Mr Maxton are in a position to know whether the three researchers did the work asked of them and fulfilled their contractual obligations towards them;

    —   as far as Dr Reid and Mr Maxton are concerned, Mr Reid, Ms Hilliard and Mr Winslow all carried out their duties as House of Commons researchers fully and effectively and none of the evidence about the alleged number of hours worked by them for the Labour Party proves otherwise;

    —  the evidence of Ms Quinn and Ms Whyte, in so far as it is specific, tends to support the account of Dr Reid and Mr Maxton as regards the hours worked for the Party by the three researchers;

    —   the fact that the three researchers were simultaneously working for the Labour Party while on part-time contracts with Members of the House of Commons was open and above board; indeed considerable trouble was taken to ensure that all the necessary proprieties were observed.

    —  the budget documents are inconclusive on the question of whether the Party assumed that the researchers` salaries would be topped up from the Office Costs Allowance.[8]

The Director of Finance and Administration, whose opinion on the budget documents was sought by the Commissioner, said that

    on the basis of the written information we have seen,[9] there is no prima facie evidence of a cross-subsidy from the OCA. The SLP budget projections are consistent with an entirely innocent explanation ...

    Much of this scenario is guesswork, and other equally innocent explanations are possible. But it shows that the facts that we have are not inconsistent with a straightforward explanation...

    In summary, from the documentation I have seen, I remain of the view that there is no clear evidence of wrongdoing. Indeed, if anything I am a little more inclined to favour an innocent explanation. The key question remains: were either or both of them working full-time for the SLP, while they were still being paid from the OCA? I doubt that the budget figures are going to give us a clear answer. Even an authoritative set of accounts might not get us any further.[10]"

We discuss in paragraph 29 below the weight we give to the budget documents.

7. Dr Reid and Mr Maxton have rejected the Commissioner`s findings and conclusions and have strongly criticised the manner in which she conducted her investigation.

8. In recent weeks this case has been the subject of much comment in the media, particularly in Scotland. We deplore this. It is not helpful and it is wrong for anyone to try to whip up media interest in a case which is still under investigation. Media stories about a current case which may be based on incomplete or inaccurate information, or on speculation masquerading as fact, can be unfair to Members who are the subject of a complaint or to witnesses assisting the Committee or Commissioner.

The Commissioner`s procedures

9. In each case the Commissioner brings before us we review her procedures and evidence before reaching our conclusions. We have done so with particular care in the present case in view of the trenchant criticisms made by both Members.

10. We were not assisted by the submissions of Dr Reid`s legal adviser, Mr James Goudie QC, which seemed to us to miss the point and misunderstand the process. Dr Reid drew our attention to Mr Goudie`s description of the Commissioner`s report as "the more than shoddy outcome of an investigation that has been mishandled throughout"[11] and "a series of attempts by the Commissioner to smear Dr Reid",[12] and said, "I do not believe someone in his position uses expressions like that lightly at all" (Q277). We disagree. We reject this unwarranted attack on the integrity of the Commissioner.

11. We have considered the submissions from Dr Reid and Mr Maxton and the Commissioner`s response.[13] On that evidence we are satisfied that the Commissioner`s inquiry was properly conducted and met appropriate standards of care, fairness and competence.

12. We must also consider the proposition, which was put to us by both Members, that the Commissioner had acted wrongly in accepting the complaint for investigation on the basis of the evidence tendered by the complainant. They drew our attention to paragraph 67 of The Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members ("the Code"), which reads as follows:

    Both the Commissioner and the Committee on Standards and Privileges will be guided by the view of the former Select Committee on Members' Interests that "it is not sufficient to make an unsubstantiated allegation and expect the Committee to assemble the supporting evidence", and that it "would not normally regard a complaint founded upon no more than a newspaper story or television report as a substantiated allegation".[14] The Commissioner will not entertain anonymous complaints.

13. The Commissioner`s response was as follows:

    Mr Nelson did not make unsubstantiated allegations. He had, through his own investigative efforts, assembled information which led me to believe that if I approached certain witnesses they would give truthful evidence on the issues he had raised with me.[15] ... Mr Nelson`s complaint was not a vague allegation submitted in a vacuum; his letter was detailed and set out the supporting material. He had, as a result of his own investigations, assembled information in the form of notes of conversations and tapes which indicated that people with direct knowledge of the events in question could provide relevant and truthful information. Mr Maxton is correct in stating that I had not, when deciding to take up the complaints, either heard the tapes made by Mr Nelson or, at that stage, obtained a copy of his notes. However, Mr Nelson had read his notes to me in full, so I was aware of their content and in addition, he had shown me the notes (with names removed), but without handing them over. Shortly afterwards he played the tapes to me. Equally importantly he had also, in his letter of 26 January 2000, supplied me with the names of those he believed were likely to provide me with accurate information.[16]

14. We consider that the Commissioner interpreted the requirements of paragraph 67 of the Code correctly. This complaint was not founded upon "no more than a newspaper story". The facts that the complainant is a journalist, and that a newspaper story played a part in the complaint, do not disqualify the complaint from being taken up if the normal conditions are met.

15. Paragraph 69 of the Code requires that sufficient evidence should be tendered in support of the complaint to justify the Commissioner`s taking the matter further. The Commissioner has discretion to decide whether or not the evidence is sufficient for this purpose, and rightly so, for that ensures that that judgement is reached independently. In the light of the information provided by the Commissioner,[17] we consider that she exercised her discretion correctly in starting her investigation.

The standard of proof

16. The Commissioner said in her report that she had reached her conclusions on the balance of probabilities. She has explained to us that this was not a low standard of proof. We have considered what was the appropriate standard of proof for us to apply in a case where the allegations went beyond negligence.

17. In reaching our conclusions on the standard of proof we have taken account of a statement made by Sir Gordon Downey about the approach he had adopted when inquiring into the allegations against Mr Neil Hamilton:

18. We were also assisted by some remarks of (the then) Lord Justice Denning:

    ... In civil cases the case may be proved by a preponderance of probability, but there may be degrees of probability within that standard. The degree depends on the subject-matter. A civil court, when considering a charge of fraud, will naturally require for itself a higher degree of probability than that which it would require when asking if negligence is established. It does not adopt so high a degree as a criminal court, even when it is considering a charge of a criminal nature; but still it does require a degree of probability which is commensurate with the occasion.[19]

19. Lord Scarman, who quoted Lord Denning with approval in the House of Lords, said:

    The flexibility of the civil standard of proof suffices to ensure that the court will require the high degree of probability which is appropriate to what is at stake.

We also note that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has called for a high standard of proof in cases of alleged professional misconduct, as it could not envisage professional men condemning each other on a mere balance of probabilities.[20]

20. We would not expect the complaint to be established beyond reasonable doubt, since it does not involve criminal charges or criminal sanctions. The courts have interpreted the concept of balance of probabilities to require a higher standard of proof in serious cases. A case such as this has serious implications for holders of public office. Accordingly we have concluded that we should need to be persuaded that these allegations were significantly more likely to be true than not to be true before we could properly uphold them. It is against that test that we have assessed the evidence in support of the complaint. We do not therefore need to consider whether the simple test of a balance of probabilities has been met.


6  Appendix 1, para. 285. Back

7  Appendix 1, para. 255. Back

8  Appendix 1, para. 144. Back

9  The written information referred to was -


10  Appendix 1, Annex 207. Back

11  Appendix 2, section 2, para. 95. Back

12  Appendix 5, para. 47. Back

13  Appendix 4. Back

14  Select Committee on Members' Interests, First Report, Session 1992-93, HC 383, paragraph 4. Back

15  Appendix 4, Section III, para. 12 (16-20). Back

16  Appendix 4, Section VII, para. 15. Back

17  Appendix 1, paras. 2 and 6; Appendix 6. Back

18  Eighth Report, Session 1997-98, HC 261, p. xi. Back

19  Baker v. Baker [1951], quoted by Lord Scarman in R v. Home Secretary, ex parte Khawaja [1984]. Back

20  Bhandari v. Advocates Committee [1956]. Back


 
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