Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Second Report

Annex 69

Letter to Mr John Maxton MP from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

Thank you for your letter of 4 June. I will try to deal with the points you raise as briefly as I can. I must emphasise, however, that I am reluctant to be drawn into lengthy exchanges about procedural issues, the substance of which relate to ground already covered extensively in previous correspondence and discussions between us.

You have returned to the issue of my grounds for beginning an investigation under paragraph 69 of the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members. As I have explained, both at the outset of this process (letter of 16 February) and since then (letters of 28 February, 8 March, 4 and 19 May), I am required under that paragraph to form a judgment as to whether the information supplied by a complainant in support of a complaint is sufficient to warrant my "taking the matter further". That was all I needed to consider when examining the information provided by Mr Nelson. My conclusion was—and I have subsequently seen no reason to revise it, though I could have done so at any stage—that the letter and accounts of conversations with various individuals provided by Mr Nelson required me to conduct an investigation and to formally describe it as such. It is the results of that investigation which I have now put to you in the form of my letter of 22 May, together with the accompanying written questions. I say again that because I am conducting an investigation in no way implies any wrong doing; it is the method by which a complaint is looked at in order to decide whether it has any substance.

On the question of the tapes made by Mr Nelson, I was prepared to respect his responsibilities as a journalist towards his sources, having satisfied myself both from his account and the letter he wrote to me (which you have seen) and from listening to the tapes mentioned in that letter, that they ought to be followed up through further inquiries by me. What you now have is the evidence of witnesses whom I have interviewed myself and the tape of Mr Nelson`s conversation with Mr McKinney.

May I take your other points in turn.

    1.    You questioned my opening paragraph reminding you that you should not discuss, or seek to discuss, with any other person your evidence to this inquiry. This is a standard clause which I have included in letters to witnesses whenever I have asked them to provide evidence. It seemed, therefore, that my request to you for your detailed response to the evidence in support of the complaint was the appropriate point at which to draw this requirement to your attention.

    The purpose of the requirement is twofold. First, it underlines the fact that each witness should give his or her own account of the facts rather than seek to co-ordinate or concert his response with others. Of course, there is no objection to your checking matters of fact with Ms Hilliard or Mr Winslow. But there can be no justification for approaching other witnesses who may have given evidence. You can of course raise any such queries with me and I will consider whether I should put any further questions to others or make further enquiries.

    This brings me to the second reason for the requirement, namely to avoid any suggestion, however unjustified, that pressure has been brought to bear on any person in relation to their evidence to me. In that sense it is for the protection of the Member, individual witnesses and the integrity of my investigation. I cannot, of course, prevent you from discussing your evidence with others—I can only strongly advise you, in your own interest, not to do so. You are of course free to discuss your evidence with your adviser.

    2.    You asked why some material relating only to Dr Reid has been shown to you. I should explain, by way of background, as I have also done to Dr Reid, that although Mr Nelson`s complaint relates to two individual Members of Parliament, I have so far thought it right, in order to avoid unnecessary duplication and to assess the facts, to treat the process as a single investigation. This is not just a matter of convenience: there are also, as you will appreciate, many common features to the complaints against yourself and Dr Reid; they cover similar issues, they are set against the same background of the Scottish Parliament election campaign and some of the same personnel are involved. Until I receive the separate accounts from you and Dr Reid, for example about the detail of the various employment arrangements and the meeting which Mr McKinney describes, I cannot be clear whether I should regard the complaints as separate or intertwined. It is for that reason that I have sent to both you and Dr Reid the same documentation for your comments even though some of the material may refer to one of you only. You are responsible only for providing me with an account of matters in which you were involved. I have also reminded Dr Reid of the necessity of keeping these matters confidential. I can, however, reassure you that material concerning you has not been sent to any other witness.

    The fact that I have proceeded in this way so far does not mean that I am committed to making a single, joint report to the Standards and Privileges Committee. To be fair to both you and Dr Reid I have always kept open the possibility of making two quite separate reports. When I have received both responses I shall decide whether I should make separate reports or a joint report. If you have views on whether these matters were totally separate I should be glad to consider them. What is not in doubt is that each Member is responsible as an individual for upholding the Code of Conduct and Rules and only if the facts are demonstrated to be linked will I provide a joint report to the Committee.

    3.    Your third point has already been addressed in my response to your opening comments about my decision to begin an investigation on the basis of the information supplied by Mr Nelson.

    4.    The nature of the complaint has not changed and remains as set out in Mr Nelson`s letter of 26 January. Of course, the evidence may differ in emphasis as between the period up to the 3-4 weeks of the election campaign and the campaign itself. This is reflected in the various documents sent to you.

On the assumption that your letter of 4 June does not constitute your formal response to the list of questions sent in my letter of 19 May, may I ask you to confirm whether you intend to provide written answers by 12 June or, failing that, whether you wish to arrange to see me at your convenience to discuss these matters orally?

8 June 2000

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