Parliament’s standards commissioner, Kathryn Hudson, has let former MPs Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw off the hook after they were accused of corruption – but is this because they only offered to break the rules, rather than actually breaking them?
Rifkind and Straw were filmed secretly by Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary programme, speaking with an undercover reporter posing as a representative of a fake Hong Kong firm, ‘PMR’.
This representative asked Sir Malcolm if he would be able to provide advance information on HS3 – the mooted high-speed train route linking the northeast of England with the northwest.
He was recorded saying: “I could write to a minister… And I wouldn’t name who was asking… But I would say I’ve been asked to establish what your thinking is on X, Y, Z. Can you tell me what that is?”
Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said on the programme: “It’s absolutely clear in the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament that they have to be open and frank in all communications and yet he was saying on that clip that he would be able to write to ministers, and he wouldn’t have to say who exactly he was representing.
“Well that would be a clear breach of the Code of Conduct and an example of, here, an experienced Member of Parliament rather using their privileged position as a public servant in trying to get access to information which would benefit individuals and this company in a way that I think the public would find totally unacceptable.”
But of course, he didn’t actually do it, because PMR was a fictitious company.
Jack Straw was filmed telling an undercover reporter how he managed to get Ukrainian law changed in order to allow another company to run its business more easily there – a perfectly legal and reasonable activity, according to Dispatches.
But then he said that EU regulations had been hampering the business so he “got in to see the relevant director general and his officials in Brussels” and got the regulations changed. He said: “The best way of doing things is under the radar.”
Sir Alistair Graham pointed out, on the programme: “That’s worrying because that’s saying ‘I can do these things without transparency’ – without the
openness and frankness that the MPs’ Code of Conduct is expecting is the normal behaviour from Members of Parliament.”
But, again, he didn’t actually do anything “under the radar” because PMR was a fictitious company.
So Ms Hudson cleared both former MPs of any wrong-doing – and gave both Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph (with whom the programme had run its investigation as a joint affair) a lashing.
“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.”
This seems unreasonable as Dispatches actually filmed both these people making their claims, and measured them against the words of Sir Alistair Graham – and there was plenty of qualification in the voice-over, explaining what was permitted by the rules and what was not.
What was she really saying? That Rifkind and Straw had to carry out their suggestions before they could be accused of anything? Wouldn’t that be leaving things a little late? Fixing the barn door after the horse has bolted, to quote a well-known phrase?
Remember, this is the standards commissioner who was reluctant to examine the case of George Osborne, who paid mortgage interest on his paddock with taxpayers’ money before selling it off with a neighbouring farmhouse for around £1 million and pocketing the cash.
She refused to look into it, saying she had already investigated the case – but an examination of her report revealed no mention of the million-pound paddock at all.
Prime Minister David Cameron was said to have welcomed the commissioner’s whitewash, in a BBC report.
But Channel 4 is standing by its story and has asked broadcasting watchdog Ofcom to investigate the programme. Channel 4 says the programme raised legitimate questions and, in all honesty, this is true.
Let’s hope the result of this investigation takes Ms Hudson down a peg or two. She is long overdue for it.
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