Nadine Dorries - Standards and Privileges Committee Contents


Nadine Dorries



Introduction

1.  We have received from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards the report of his investigation of a complaint made in June 2009 against Nadine Dorries, the Member for Mid Bedfordshire. The complainant, Mr Michael Barnbrook, who at the time was a law and order spokesman for the British National Party, told the Commissioner that in his view Ms Dorries had breached the rules of the Additional Cost Allowance by claiming second home expenses in respect of her constituency home, which Mr Barnbrook said was in fact her main home.[1] In support of his complaint, Mr Barnbrook drew the Commissioner's attention to an article published in the Daily Telegraph of 26 June 2009, in which Ms Dorries was described as having said that she spent only spare weekends and holidays away from her constituency home.[2]

2.  The Commissioner's report of his investigation was submitted to the Committee in the form of a memorandum, which is published at Appendix 1 to this Report. In accordance with the Committee's usual procedure, we supplied Ms Dorries with a copy of the Commissioner's memorandum and invited her to give evidence, in person or in writing. Ms Dorries chose to submit written evidence, which is published at Appendix 2.

The Commissioner's findings

3.  The complainant told the Commissioner that Ms Dorries had breached the rules by claiming expenses for her constituency home. In the complainant's view, comments she had made in the press showed that this constituency home was the one where she spent most of her time, and was in fact her main home.[3] The Commissioner found that the constituency home was not Ms Dorries' main home, and did not uphold the complaint.[4] Whilst investigating the complaint, the Commissioner also found that Ms Dorries had breached the rules by failing to notify the Department of Resources of two changes to the address of her main home.[5] The Commissioner does not regard this breach as serious.[6]

4.  The rules relating to the claiming of second home expenses by Members are set out in the Commissioner's memorandum.[7] In essence, during the relevant period, a Member could claim an allowance for a home which was not his or her main home. Members were required to notify the Department of Resources of any change in the address of either their main or additional home. Until March 2009, the location of a main home would, according to the Green Book, "normally be a matter of fact" and would normally be the place in which the Member spent "more nights than any other." From 1 April 2009, the location of the main home was "for a Member to determine."

5.  According to a best estimate produced by the Commissioner, and based on information Ms Dorries supplied to him, Ms Dorries spent the great majority of her nights in her main home in the Cotswolds.[8] Ms Dorries did not confirm that she agreed with the Commissioner's best estimate, but told him that, during the period in question, she had spent most nights of the week when the House of Commons was sitting, and almost every night when it was not sitting, at her main home.[9] In addition, Ms Dorries told the Commissioner that the Cotswolds was the place that she and her family regarded as home.[10] The area had always been the centre of their family life.[11] She told the Commissioner that the constituency home was used "as a means of maintaining a base in my constituency in order to assist with my duties as an MP".[12]

6.  That picture of Ms Dorries' pattern of use of her two homes was broadly confirmed by the evidence of four neighbours who lived near to Ms Dorries' constituency home. One constituency neighbour told the Commissioner that she "only occasionally" saw Ms Dorries or her car at the house; [13] another told the Commissioner Ms Dorries was "hardly ever" at the house. [14] A third neighbour confirmed the picture, saying that he had seen Ms Dorries "on a maximum of 20 occasions over the last two years", and that she spent "weekends and holidays elsewhere."[15]

7.  Two people who knew Ms Dorries in the Cotswolds also corresponded with the Commissioner. One witness, who helped Ms Dorries with moving house and with transporting her children and pets whilst she was away, told the Commissioner that Ms Dorries would spend a few nights a week at the constituency house, and had never asked him for help over the weekend or during the summer—suggesting she was at her main home at those times. [16] Ms Dorries' general practitioner, who had been her family doctor since 1996, told the Commissioner that Ms Dorries and her family spent most of her time in the area; he saw her and her family regularly and could say "with certainty that their lives are very much based in and around this area."[17]

8.  The evidence of one neighbour from Ms Dorries' constituency differs markedly from that of all the other witnesses. This neighbour, called neighbour 1 in the Commissioner's memorandum, told the Commissioner that the constituency house was "very much the 'family' home where [she] lived with her daughter/daughters and the family pets." He estimated that Ms Dorries spent about 80% of her time at the constituency house.[18]

9.  Ms Dorries told the Commissioner that neighbour 1 had "apparently spent the last six months living in France", meaning that he had limited opportunity to observe her use of the constituency house.[19] Two of her constituency neighbours confirmed this point.[20] Neighbour 1, however, told the Commissioner he had only recently purchased a house abroad and that during the period being investigated he had been well placed to notice how much Ms Dorries used the constituency house[21]. In addition, Ms Dorries suggested that neighbour 1 might have been paid by the Daily Telegraph or influenced by a representative of the newspaper in his comments.[22] That suggestion was firmly denied by neighbour 1.[23]

10.  The evidence of Ms Dorries and her other neighbours and that of neighbour 1 could not be reconciled. Whilst he does not question the good faith of the witness, the Commissioner notes that personal observation is "bound to give no more than an impression" of the way in which a neighbour uses a property. The Commissioner records that he therefore decided to accept the evidence of all the other witnesses in preference to that of neighbour 1.[24] He concludes that Ms Dorries "has established that she spent more nights in her Cotswold homes than anywhere else, including in her constituency home."[25] He also finds no other reason not to regard the Cotswolds as Ms Dorries' main home.[26]

11.  Comments made by Ms Dorries on her blog suggested that she spent the majority of her weekends in the constituency, whilst she had told the Commissioner that nearly all weekends were spent in her main home.[27] Ms Dorries explained to the Commissioner that her blog contained fiction and "poetic licence" as well as fact, and that she used it to reassure her constituents of her absolute commitment to the constituency.[28] She had also been concerned to maintain "some degree of a private life". She stated that, although she was often in the constituency at weekends, as she had said on her blog, that did not mean she slept there.[29]

12.  During the course of his investigation, the Commissioner found that Ms Dorries had not declared to the Department of Resources two changes to the address of her main home. She had left her original main home in January 2007 when she separated from her then husband. After that, she rented properties in Stratford-on-Avon, spending time in three different rented properties before buying a home in the Cotswolds, some two years and nine months after leaving her initial main home. Only the second of the three rental properties was formally declared to the Department of Resources.[30]

13.  Ms Dorries told the Commissioner that she had kept the Department informed at all times, and that she had taken advice from the Department "every single step of the way". She said the Department had advised her that she did not need to change her designated main address until she knew where her new permanent home would be. [31] The Department informed the Commissioner that it was "entirely possible" that Ms Dorries had been advised in that way, but that it would have regarded that situation as "strictly temporary".[32] It was only after a request from the Department that Ms Dorries informed it of the second of her three addresses.[33]

14.  Ms Dorries told the Commissioner that she had initially regarded the move to the rented home as temporary. She also explained that the omission had happened at a time when she had to deal with "massive upheaval" in her family life, and had been under considerable work pressure in her Parliamentary role. She had launched a major campaign to change abortion law, "which took over almost every day of my life." She had also been "one of the four MPs mentioned in the No 10 Smeargate e-mails [...] which resulted in an extraordinary amount of invasive media attention, adding more stress to what was already a very tense and difficult situation." There had also been health problems in her close family.[34]

15.  The Commissioner comments:

I agree with the Department that it would be unreasonable to expect Members to notify the Department of a change in the designation of their main home in the immediate aftermath of a domestic upheaval which required them to leave that home. [...] The length of that initial period [after which a declaration should be made] depends on personal circumstances. In Ms Dorries' case it seems to me that that initial period should have ended soon after the signing of the rental agreement for her first property in Stratford-upon-Avon in January 2007. [...] Of course, like any person, her personal circumstances could have changed during any of those years, as they did for the final rental. But the prospect of such a possible change should not absolve a Member from the responsibility of keeping up to date the formal notification to the Department of the location of their main home.

The Commissioner concludes that Ms Dorries breached the rules by failing to notify the Department of either her first or third rented main home. He finds no evidence that her omissions had any effect on the claims which Ms Dorries made against her Parliamentary allowances.[35] He does not regard the breach as serious.[36]

16.  The Commissioner comments in his memorandum on the length of time Ms Dorries took to provide some information he requested. He notes that it took her fourteen weeks to supply an estimate of the number of nights she spent in each of her properties after his initial request, and six months to supply a consistent estimate. He records his disappointment at the fact Ms Dorries did not recognise that such estimates were necessary to his investigation.[37] The Commissioner expresses the view that Ms Dorries was unrealistic in expecting her right to privacy to extend to concealing the "broad details" of her accommodation arrangements, whilst claiming the Parliamentary accommodation allowance to which she was entitled.[38] The Commissioner accepts Ms Dorries' explanation of the comments she made on her blog, but notes that they "provided a misleading impression of her arrangements", as did her comments about her use of the constituency home reported in the newspaper article which was referred to in the original complaint.[39] The Commissioner also states that his inquiries were "complicated and extended" by Ms Dorries' criticisms of neighbour 1.[40]

17.  The Commissioner records that he has submitted a memorandum to the Committee on this case "principally so as to reinforce the importance I attach to Members responding promptly, fully and openly to the questions which I necessarily ask of them so that I can judge a Member's conduct on the basis of the best evidence available".[41]

Ms Dorries' evidence

18.  Ms Dorries wrote to the Committee clerks and has confirmed that she would like her letter to be treated as evidence to the Committee. With regard to her failure to declare the two changes of rented main home address, she writes:

[the Commissioner] has described this breach as not serious; however, it is a breach. At the time I was in the midst of dealing with a number of very serious personal issues. My prime concern at this time was the management of my case load and maintaining my constituency and Parliamentary duties. I regret that certain elements of paperwork did not receive due attention and I would like to wholeheartedly and most sincerely apologise for this breach of House rules.[42]

19.  Ms Dorries goes on to note that the memorandum from the Commissioner states that her main home is "apparently" still in the Cotswolds. She asks for that wording to be removed, as it "suggests doubt ... of which there is none."[43]

20.  Ms Dorries also takes issue with the comments made by the Commissioner about the length of time she took to supply the information he requested. She asks for these comments to be removed, saying that:

[the Commissioner] did not ask for information regarding a neighbour at my main home location until a considerable time l into the inquiry. I was incredibly frustrated at the length the inquiry took [...] fifteen months is much too long a time period to sustain without personal ill effect. I did inform the Standards Commissioner some three months ago that I was going to raise with the Committee my concern that this inquiry had taken so long, however, it appears many inquires take this length of time.[44]

21.  Finally, Ms Dorries takes issue with the Commissioner's comments about her use of her blog, where he says that it "gave information to its readers, including Ms Dorries' constituents and party supporters, which provided a misleading impression of her arrangements as the Member of Parliament for the constituency".[45] Ms Dorries says that the comments are "strongly worded and incorrect."[46]

Conclusions

22.  We agree with the Commissioner that Ms Dorries has shown that her constituency home was indeed her second home, and we believe he is therefore correct in deciding not to uphold the original complaint.

23.  We agree with the Commissioner that Ms Dorries did breach the rules of the House when she failed to declare the addresses of her first and third rented main homes to the Department of Resources. We understand that at such a difficult time, the completion of a declaration form would not have been foremost in anybody's mind; however, once Ms Dorries had signed a rental agreement for a year, she ought to have declared her new address. She should also have declared her third rented main home. The rules of the Green Book are clear on this requirement. We note that the Commissioner found no evidence that those omissions had had any effect on Ms Dorries' claims against her Parliamentary allowances. We agree with him that this breach of the rules was not a serious one, and we are pleased that Ms Dorries has apologised for it "wholeheartedly and sincerely". We make no recommendation on this point.

24.  Ms Dorries does not agree with the comments made by the Commissioner about her use of her blog. She states that his description of comments made on the blog as "misleading" is "strongly worded and incorrect." We accept that Ms Dorries used the blog to reassure her constituents of her commitment to them, and also to protect her own privacy. We do not feel, however, that the Commissioner's comment is unfair. There are discrepancies between some of the information that appeared on Ms Dorries' blog and the information she supplied to the Commissioner during the investigation. The Commissioner was quite correct in seeking an explanation of the differences, in order to form a judgement about the complaint. It is right that he sets out in his memorandum his conclusions about which information he could rely on.

25.  We understand that Ms Dorries feels that some of the information in the Commissioner's memorandum about her family breaches their right to privacy. We are sympathetic to this concern and we respect the right of Ms Dorries and her family to a private life. However, we consider that all the information which the Commissioner records in his memorandum is necessary to explain why he reached the conclusion he did. We also note that, when the Commissioner wrote to Ms Dorries at the start of his inquiry, he included a copy of a note of guidance. The note includes the following explanation:

The Commissioner will include in his report the Member's version of events and views, both in the body of the report and as annexes. Any evidence which a Member supplies can therefore be expected to become public, although the Committee is normally sympathetic to requests for the deletion of confidential and personal information where it can protect privacy without jeopardising the public interest in knowing the facts on which the Committee has based its conclusions.[47]

Ms Dorries should, therefore, have been aware that information she sent to the Commissioner would probably become public.

26.  Finally, we note that Ms Dorries feels that the Commissioner's comments about the length of time it took her to supply information she requested are unfair. However, we agree with the Commissioner that fourteen weeks was too long to provide initial estimates of the number of nights Ms Dorries spent at each home. We also note that it took Ms Dorries some time to resolve conflicts and lack of clarity in the answers she provided. The Commissioner states that he has submitted his memorandum to the Committee "principally so as to reinforce the importance I attach to Members responding promptly, fully and openly to the questions which I necessarily ask of them so that I can judge a Member's conduct on the basis of the best evidence available."[48] We agree with the Commissioner that prompt, full and open responses to the Commissioner's inquiries are of great importance and we take this opportunity to remind Members of that fact.



1   Appendix 1, paragraph 6 Back

2   Appendix 1, paragraph 2 Back

3   Appendix 1, paragraph 6 Back

4   Appendix 1, paragraph 162 Back

5   Appendix 1, paragraph 173 Back

6   Appendix 1, paragraph 175 Back

7   Appendix 1, paragraphs 9 to 24 Back

8   Appendix 1, paragraph 147 Back

9   Appendix 1, paragraph 148 Back

10   Appendix 1, paragraph 34 Back

11   Appendix 1, paragraph 38 Back

12   Appendix 1, paragraph 35 Back

13   Appendix 1, paragraph 69 Back

14   Appendix 1, paragraph 72 Back

15   Appendix 1, paragraph 87 Back

16   Appendix 1, paragraph 118 Back

17   Appendix 1, paragraph 74 Back

18   Appendix 1, paragraph 64 Back

19   Appendix 1, paragraph 44 Back

20   Appendix 1, paragraphs 69 and 72 Back

21   Appendix 1, paragraph 66 Back

22   Appendix 1, paragraphs 84 and 128 Back

23   Appendix 1, paragraph 122 Back

24   Appendix 1, paragraph 164 Back

25   Appendix 1, paragraph 163 Back

26   Appendix 1, paragraph 165 Back

27   Appendix 1, paragraph 131 Back

28   Appendix 1, paragraph 81 Back

29   Appendix 1, paragraph 132 Back

30   Appendix 1, paragraph 171 Back

31   Appendix 1, paragraph 50 Back

32   Appendix 1, paragraph 95 Back

33   Appendix 1, paragraph 98 Back

34   Appendix 1, paragraph 112 Back

35   Appendix 1, paragraphs 171 to 173 Back

36   Appendix 1, paragraph 175 Back

37   Appendix 1, paragraph 166 Back

38   Appendix 1, paragraph 169 Back

39   Appendix 1, paragraphs 167 and 168 Back

40   Appendix 1, paragraph 170 Back

41   Appendix 1, paragraph 176 Back

42   Appendix 2 Back

43   IbidBack

44   IbidBack

45   Appendix 1, paragraph 167 Back

46   Appendix 2 Back

47   See www.parliament.uk/documents/pcfs/pcfsprocednote3.pdf, paragraph 25 Back

48   Appendix 1, para 176 Back


 
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