Committee on Standards publishes report on Greg Hands
4 May 2020
The Committee on Standards today releases a report relating to a breach of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament by Rt Hon Greg Hands, the MP for Chelsea and Fulham.
The Committee is grateful to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for her inquiry, which was undertaken following a complaint that Mr Hands had breached the rules for use of stationery and post-paid envelopes provided by the House of Commons.
A detailed memorandum from the Commissioner is appended to the report. Associated evidence is published on the internet.
The Commissioner's findings
House-provided stationery and pre-paid envelopes are provided only for the performance of a Member's parliamentary functions and the rules exclude using stationery or postage for newsletters or "general updates to constituents on a range of issues". In April 2019, Mr Hands sent a letter to some of his constituents, using House of Commons stationery and post-paid envelopes. The letter provided updates on a number of topics, including Charing Cross Hospital; Heathrow expansion; crime and policing; local schools; and Transport for London's proposed bus cuts.
Mr Hands told the Commissioner that the purpose of his mailing had been to combine responses to several different petitions he had been running. He argued that to have sent separate letters to each category of petitioner would have led to a greater volume of letters and envelopes overall, and therefore greater public expenditure.
In September 2019, the Commissioner wrote to Mr Hands to inform him that she considered the mailing to have been a breach of the rules because its content could reasonably be viewed as a general update or newsletter. She considered the breach to be "at the less serious end of the spectrum", and invited him to agree to resolution of the matter through use of her powers of 'rectification', which in this case would have required an apology, an acknowledgment that the rules had been breached, and reimbursement to the House of the cost of the mailing, subsequently assessed by the Commissioner to be £4,4865.55.
Mr Hands expressed willingness to use the rectification procedure, but also made clear that he disagreed with the Commissioner's decision, and considered that the relevant rule relating to stationery was "bizarre and extremely cost ineffective". The Commissioner responded that the relevant rule was clear and that in her judgement Mr Hands had breached it. She advised him that if he wished to seek a change in the rules, he should make representations to the appropriate body in the House, the Administration Committee. She repeated her offer to use the rectification procedure to deal with the breach, if Mr Hands was willing to accept the attached conditions (apology, acknowledgement of breach, and reimbursement).
On 14 October 2019 Mr Hands wrote to the Commissioner accepting those conditions, and undertaking that he would raise what he considered to be a flaw in the rules with the Administration Committee. However, on 4 November he wrote to the Commissioner to say that he did not wish to proceed with the rectification process and wished to appear before the Committee on Standards "to discuss what I perceive to be the lack of cost efficiency of the present rules" In response the Commissioner pointed out that any such discussion would be a matter for the Administration Committee and "need not impede the resolution of this inquiry". Mr Hands replied, briefly, on 21 November, insisting that he wished to appear before the Committee on Standards "in order to present my case in person".
The Commissioner was therefore unable to conclude the case using the rectification procedure before the general election in December 2019 and submitted her memorandum to the Committee in February 2020.
The Committee's conclusions
In March the Committee was reappointed and proceeded to consider the case. Mr Hands sent written evidence, published with the report, in which he maintained his argument that the rules on stationery were flawed.
The Committee gave serious consideration to Mr Hands' letter. It concludes that it is not persuaded by his calculations as to the extra cost of writing separately in respect of each of the petitions, not by Mr Hands' claim that the mailing was "not political". The Committee notes that "a communication sent by a Member of Parliament to 7,000 constituents dealing with issues such as crime, policing, health and transport policy is unlikely to be sent without some consideration of its political impact on potential voters".
The Committee notes that Mr Hands is perfectly entitled to argue that he thinks there is a flaw in the House's rules on stationery. However, it had been made clear to Mr Hands by the Commissioner, before he took the decision to insist on the case being referred to the Committee, that any change in the rules was a matter for the Administration Committee not the Committee on Standards.
The Committee considered the matter of Mr Hands' change of mind on using the rectification procedure, and concludes that "there is no obvious reasonable ground for his having done so". However, it draws attention to the timing of this change of mind, which was notified to the Commissioner shortly after the House had voted in support of an early Dissolution of Parliament, and concludes that he may well have been motivated by the desire to avoid the embarrassment of having to make a public apology for breaking parliamentary rules during an election campaign.
The Committee accepts the Commissioner's finding that Mr Hands, by using House-provided stationery to send what on any reasonable interpretation was a general update on issues of concern to constituents, breached the House's rules on use of stationery and also breached paragraph 16 of the Code of Conduct which states that Members must ensure that their use of expenses, allowances, facilities and services provided from the public purse is in accordance with the rules laid down on these matters.
The Committee accepts, as a mitigating factor, the Commissioner's finding that the breach was "not at the serious end of the spectrum". It considered whether the alleged deficiencies of the rule excluding the use of House-provided stationery for general updates to constituents was a mitigating factor and concludes that it was not. The Committee comments, "it is open to any Member to seek changes to the rules, but it is not acceptable for a Member knowingly to breach a rule simply because they disagree with it."
The Committee considers that Mr Hands' decision to withdraw his participation in the rectification process is an aggravating factor. It comments that, "whatever his motivation in doing so, the outcome was to extend the consideration of this case by nearly six months, quite unnecessarily".
The Committee recommends that Mr Hands should apologise to the House both for his initial breach of the rules and for his inappropriate conduct in insisting on a futile reference to the Committee. This apology should be by way of a personal statement, the terms of which should be agreed in advance with Mr Speaker.
The report was agreed unanimously. The lay members of the Committee, who have full voting rights on the Committee, played a full and active part in drawing up the Committee's report, with which they are in agreement.
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