Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Mr Jack Straw - Committee on Standards Contents

Overall Conclusion

1) My individual reports on the allegations made about Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw make it clear that I have not found any evidence that their conduct, in itself, caused significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House as a whole, or to other Members generally. Nevertheless I do consider that these have been damaged by the circumstances and publicity surrounding this inquiry and would like now to consider some of the implications of this. The rule that: "Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally" is intended to be used in cases where it is clear that serious misconduct by a Member could not be caught within the letter of other existing rules. In this situation it appears that the distorted coverage of the actions and words of the Members concerned has itself been the main cause of the damage.

2) Mr Straw had already referred himself to me before the Dispatches programme was aired and Sir Malcolm indicated his intention to follow this course of action immediately afterwards. In taking on any matter for investigation, I am required to consider whether there is sufficient evidence to justify beginning an inquiry. In this situation, as in other cases of self-referral, I took into account the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that unless I accepted the matter for investigation, there would be no detailed, authoritative and independent examination of all the evidence. There would also have been no finding on whether the rules of the House had been breached. This would not have been fair to the Members concerned.

3) Having considered the evidence, I could at a later stage have decided to discontinue my investigations, rather than completing a formal memorandum for the Committee on Standards in each case, particularly since both of the individuals concerned are now no longer Members. Had I done so, the evidence and the depth of my investigation would not necessarily have been apparent to others and could easily have led to suggestions that information had been hidden. In addition to this, the Committee on Standards would have had no opportunity either to comment on the matter, or to consider any action it might wish to recommend in relation to the damage to the reputation of the House. Both Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw, while anxious to have this matter concluded as quickly as possible, have understood my reasoning. I am grateful for their full and timely co-operation with my work which must, on occasions, have been onerous and intrusive. They have conducted themselves throughout my inquiry with dignity and honesty.

4) It has already been made clear that the Dispatches programme was intended to be a follow-up to a previous programme undertaken with The Sunday Times in 2010. My predecessor[117] observed that the interviews given by the six Members subject to that undercover investigation raised some questions about the adequacy of the rules on lobbying by Members of Parliament and former Members. He raised questions about the way in which the rules prohibiting paid advocacy operated and the need to avoid giving the impression that a Member could advocate a policy or lobby a Minister for personal benefit rather than a public purpose. He also considered issues about the activities of former Members of Parliament. While he found that three of the six Members had not breached the Code, he concluded "The mischief which needs to be considered is whether former Members of Parliament should be able to be "hired hands", using the contacts they have made in the course of their parliamentary duties to benefit directly an employer."

5) Outside employment per se is permitted by the House, but must be detailed in the Register of Members' Financial Interests and declared appropriately when relevant to the proceedings of the House. The new rules which apply in the 2015 Parliament have tightened the restrictions on paid lobbying (as defined by the House) by existing Members, and will in future prohibit Members from taking up jobs involving paid lobbying for at least 6 months after their departure from the House. [118] However, it is not at all clear whether if either Member had taken up the advisory board position being proposed by "PMR", this would have infringed any rule of the House, provided that it was registered and declared appropriately, since at no point was either Member explicitly asked to lobby and at no point did they offer to do so. Both in fact explained that there would be limits on what they would be able to do.

6) As is clear from my inquiries concerning Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw, although several allegations were made about each of them, arising from interviews recorded by undercover reporters, neither was in breach of the Code of Conduct or the Rules of the House other than-in Mr Straw's case—by a minor misuse of parliamentary resources. The use of carefully selected excerpts from the recordings does not necessarily give the viewer a detailed understanding of the circumstances and the full evidence behind the interviews. This may result in the viewer being led to conclusions which do not stand up to detailed scrutiny.

7) The House has on several occasions considered restricting the outside employment of Members, and has not done so. (The most recent occasion was on 25 February 2015, when a motion to ban Members from taking paid directorships and consultancies was defeated.[119]) In this context it is not unusual for Members to be approached and asked to consider positions such as the one described on this occasion. It is Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw's misfortune that on this occasion the company making the offer was a bogus one and they have paid a heavy price for that.

8) Mr Straw had announced in 2014 his intention to leave the House at the next election. He had responded to an initial email from PMR because he was looking at possible opportunities available to him after that time. The outcome has been that he resigned from the Parliamentary Labour Party and his last few weeks in Parliament were not the farewell he would have anticipated after his long service.

9) Sir Malcolm had intended to stand for re-election in May 2015. As a result of this "sting" the Conservative whip was suspended, he resigned as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee and he was unable to stand for a further term in office.

10) Both men suffered adverse publicity and were presumed guilty of breaches of the Code of Conduct before any authoritative examination of the facts had taken place, with consequent reflection upon the House and Members as a whole.

11) The question of whether Members should be permitted to take external employment has already been widely discussed in connection with this incident. Such a discussion leads to a consideration of the whole role of Members. It relates in part to the insecure prospects of elected Members of the House (who, in common with many others, cannot be sure of their long term positions and may protect themselves by maintaining their professional interests or seeking other opportunities) and in part to the trust and confidence which the public has in the motivation of Members and the level of their continuing engagement with the "outside" world.

12) It may also be that "broad brush" rules do not fit the circumstances of different Members who come from widely varying backgrounds, nor the expectations which their constituents from equally varied backgrounds may have of them and of the opportunities available to them. This matter was discussed more fully in the Committee on Standards' report on Interests of Committee Chairs: a consultation.[120] What is clear is that if the current arrangements remain, I and my successors will continue to receive allegations concerning external employment and lobbying, which may or may not be justified. On each occasion the reputation of the House and Members risks further damage from the inference that Members are serving their personal interests rather than those of the public.

13) The report by the Standards Committee on The Standards System in the House of Commons, published shortly before the end of the last Parliament, identifies the issue of the lack of public trust and its continued impact upon how Members' activities are seen and reported.[121] It also considers how the House might give a clearer picture of the role and expectations of a Member. It makes proposals to improve contact with the media in relation to standards matters, again with a view to increasing the knowledge and understanding of the general public of the work of Members. The new Committee, with the increase in lay members from 3 to 7, may wish to take up some of the ideas contained in that report and develop that work further.

14) If in their coverage of this story, the reporters for Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph had accurately reported what was said by the two Members in their interviews, and measured their words against the rules of the House, it would have been possible to avoid the damage that has been done to the lives of two individuals and those around them, and to the reputation of the House. However, it is not for me to investigate or make any judgement on the actions of the reporters or programme makers. This is for others to consider.

15) It must also concern all those who value the reputations of the House and of its Members generally that those reputations proved so easy to tarnish. For the truth was that in this situation, there was no breach of the rules on paid lobbying, although it is clear that many people thought that there had been.

16) In this new Parliament the time has come to review the rules again, as is done on a regular basis, and I hope that this will provide an opportunity to clarify expectations and to broaden understanding of the standards of behaviour expected of Members. The resolution of the issues raised will be a matter of political consensus and not easily achieved, but I am of course ready to assist the Standards Committee and the House in any way possible in tackling them.

Kathryn Hudson

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

1 September 2015

117   9th report 2010-11 HC 654-11 Back

118   In addition, former Members are not allowed to use the parliamentary estate for lobbying, and their security pass can be forfeited if misused. And those who left Ministerial office within the last two years are subject to a separate set of restrictions imposed by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, and those who become peers are subject to the restrictions on lobbying which apply in the House of Lords. Back

119   Official Report, 25 February 2015, cols 381-426 Back

120   Eighth report of 2013-14 HC997 Back

121   Sixth report of 2014-15 HC383 Back

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Prepared 17 September 2015