Committee on Standards report on the conduct of Matt Hancock published
5 June 2023
This report arises from an investigation opened by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on his own initiative. The Commissioner investigated whether Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP had breached paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct for Members when sending a letter in relation to an ongoing investigation to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, on 28 March 2023.
- Read the report (HTML)
- Read the report (PDF 201KB)
- Read the written evidence from Matt Hancock
- Committee on Standards
The Commissioner has supplied the Committee with a memorandum relating to this matter, which is published as an Appendix to the report. Mr Hancock has provided further written evidence which the Committee has also published as an Appendix to this report. Written evidence relating to the Commissioner’s inquiry is published on the Committee’s webpages here.
The Commissioner opened an investigation into Steve Brine MP on 15 March 2023. The Commissioner published the terms of the investigation on his webpages on 17 March 2023, namely, that he was investigating whether Mr Brine had breached paragraphs 12 and 14 of the 2019 Code of Conduct.
The Commissioner’s investigation into Mr Brine concerned a message that Mr Brine had sent to Rt Hon. Michael Gove MP in February 2021 about doctors that could be provided to the NHS through a company who was employing Mr Brine as a paid adviser. (The Commissioner did not uphold the allegation that Mr Brine breached the rule against paid lobbying; the rectification decision relating to the investigation is published online on the Commissioner’s webpages.)
On 28 March 2023 Mr Hancock sent the Commissioner an unsolicited letter about Mr Brine’s case, published in full in the report. Mr Hancock did not ask the Commissioner beforehand whether his letter would be appropriate, nor check the terms of the inquiry into Mr Brine and whether this letter would assist that inquiry.
Paragraph 14 of the Code states that “Members must not lobby a member of the Committee on Standards, the Independent Expert Panel or the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, or their staff, in a manner calculated or intended to influence their consideration of whether a breach of the Code of Conduct has occurred, or in relation to the imposition of a sanction”.
On 12 April 2023, the Commissioner opened an investigation into whether Mr Hancock breached paragraph 14 of the Code and published the fact of this on his webpage in the usual way.
On the same day, 12 April 2023, a spokesperson for Mr Hancock made a public statement about the investigation, which he told the Commissioner had been drafted “carefully to ensure it is within the terms set out in your initial letter” (that is, the standard letter sent by the Commissioner to Members when commencing an investigation) and that, in his view, releasing a statement had been “entirely reasonable to try to limit the damage from [the Commissioner’s] announcement”.
The Commissioner’s opinion
The Commissioner has given his opinion that Mr Hancock’s letter to him regarding Mr Brine’s case sought to influence his consideration of whether a breach of the Code had occurred, and therefore breached paragraph 14 of the Code.
The Commissioner has also stated that “I am of the view that his breach of the Code was likely to have been an inadvertent result of failing to appreciate that the House’s Rules would be engaged by this particular approach”.
The Commissioner has also drawn the Committee’s attention to his opinion that:
a) Mr Hancock wrote to the Commissioner in the expectation that his letter would be published;
b) The lobbying in his letter was relatively mild in terms;
c) Mr Hancock’s letter formed part of a wider programme of letter writing that reflected a genuine concern about how actions taken during the COVID-19 crisis were now being investigated and subject to sanction. The lobbying in his letter was likely due to inattention and carelessness rather than a deliberate attempt to subvert the Commissioner’s inquiry into Mr Brine.
The Commissioner’s opinion is that Mr Hancock’s press statement also risked a breach of paragraph 13 of the Code, on the confidentiality of investigations; however, as the information released did not hinder the inquiry, the Commissioner was satisfied that it was not proportionate to formally extend his investigation on this occasion. However, the Commissioner has recorded his concern that Mr Hancock’s unauthorised public statement “demonstrates a further lack of attention to the House’s Rules”.
Mr Hancock’s position
Mr Hancock maintains his actions were appropriate and considers that he did not breach the Code, on the basis of what he considers to be the intention behind the rule prohibiting lobbying the Commissioner. Mr Hancock told the Committee in written evidence: “While I do not agree that the letter I write [sic] was a breach of these new rules, I do accept that the Commission [sic] has found any breach to be minor and inadvertent”.
The Committee’s findings
The Committee noted that Mr Hancock’s evidence was not relevant to the Commissioner’s inquiry into Mr Brine, because it did not concern an approach from Mr Brine to Mr Hancock.
The Committee notes that “Whatever else Mr Hancock included in his letter, the penultimate paragraph included the following line: ‘It is, therefore, my firm belief that Mr Brine did nothing improper and should be cleared from any accusation […]’”. The Committee found that this was a “clear attempt to influence the Commissioner’s investigation”.
The Committee therefore agrees with the Commissioner that Mr Hancock sought to “lobby […] the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards […] in a manner calculated or intended to influence their consideration of whether a breach of the Code of Conduct has occurred”.
The Committee also notes in its report that the prohibition on lobbying the Commissioner or Committee is not a new rule, and has been in place since 2009.
The Committee therefore agrees with the Commissioner that Mr Hancock breached paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct for Members, which concerns lobbying the Commissioner, when sending an unsolicited letter to the Commissioner on 28 March. However, the Committee considers this to be a minor breach of the Code.
The Committee’s recommended sanction
The Committee found the following points to be aggravating factors:
- Mr Hancock has evidenced a lack of attention to the rules.
- Mr Hancock is a former Cabinet Minister and has been an MP for over ten years. It is concerning that a Member with this experience has not taken account of these provisions of the Code.
- Mr Hancock made a statement to the press on the investigation which showed a lack of attention to the rules on confidentiality.
The Committee found the following points to be mitigating factors:
- Mr Hancock did not set out to breach the rules.
- Mr Hancock had no prospect of personal gain through writing his letter to the Commissioner.
- Mr Hancock did not act with malice.
The Committee found that this was a minor breach of the Code; however, it states that “Mr Hancock has still not acknowledged his mistake”. The Committee recommends that he should apologise to the House and to the Commissioner by means of a personal statement, the terms of which should be agreed in advance by Mr Speaker and the Chair of the Committee.
The Committee also recommends that Mr Hancock attends a briefing on his obligations under the Code with the Commissioner.
The Committee states that this case underlines that respect for the Code and the processes for investigating potential breaches of the Code, which were voted for by the House, is an important and necessary part of the Code, and that it expects Mr Hancock to reflect his understanding of this in his apology.
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