Furthermore, it has emerged that Rifkind was a member of the panel that helped appoint Hudson as Standards Commissioner, three years ago. Corruption?
The parliamentary standards commissioner Kathryn Hudson is facing questions for criticising the media sting on Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, after regulator Ofcom found the reporting was of significant public interest and did not unfairly represent the MPs.
Ofcom opened an investigation into the programme in question, a joint operation between Channel 4 and the Daily Telegraph, after Rifkind and Straw were cleared of cash-for-access allegations by Hudson and the standards committee of MPs in September.
The programme used secret filming to allege that the MPs offered their political connections to earn money from commercial companies.
After exonerating the MPs of breaching parliamentary standards, Hudson said the damage done to the former MPs could have been avoided if Channel 4’s Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph had accurately reported the exchanges they had filmed.
The House of Commons standards committee was even more critical of the journalism, saying it was “very concerned that the matter should have been reported in this fashion”.
But Ofcom took a different view on Monday, saying there was a “significant public interest” in exploring the conduct of the MPs and that in the circumstances undercover filming was “proportionate and warranted”.
In its 38-page ruling, Ofcom also said that the filming was an “accurate representation” of the discussions the MPs held.
Painful though it is to agree with the Torygraph, the paper is absolutely right to go for Kathryn Hudson’s jugular in its editorial about her ruling on the Rifkind/Straw cases.
It seems that, rather than investigating MPs and uncovering wrongdoing, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is more interested in defending them against any investigation or criticism.
Where the Telegraph editorial questions whether she is fit to hold her post, This Writer would question whether that post should be dissolved altogether and potential wrongdoing by MPs referred to the police – preferably to be investigated by a force not directly connected to the Member in question or Parliament itself.
In her ruling, Kathryn Hudson, criticised the journalists who broke the story, commenting: “The distorted coverage of the actions and words of the Members concerned has itself been the main cause of the damage.
“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.”
But the Telegraph retorted with its own scathing editorial this week, saying the “sorry tale” of both ex-MPs proved “beyond doubt” that those in the Commons could not be trusted to regulate themselves over lobbying.
“Ms Hudson’s credulity towards MPs raises questions about whether she is fit to hold her post,” leader writers wrote, “yet her performance is laudable in comparison with the egregious work of the Standards Committee.
“Far from accepting any error by Sir Malcolm or Mr Straw, or any flaw in the rules they so nimbly stepped around, the committee suggests that the failing here lies with the public for not properly “understanding” the role of MPs.
It continued, saying: “That is bad enough. Worse are the committee’s words on the press. It is only because of investigative journalism that the conduct of Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw became known to the voters they were supposed to serve.
“Yet the committee’s report amounts to a warning to journalists not to carry out such investigations in future, promising to ‘consider further the role of the press in furthering…understanding and detecting wrongdoing’.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Not the only Tory suspected of wrong-doing.
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.
One law for them…: This image appeared on Twitter, summarising how the law treats MPs in comparison with the rest of us.
How strange that John Bercow would want to make himself an accessory to MPs’ fraudulent expenses claims!
It seems the Speaker of the House of Commons has ordered that details of all MPs’ expenses, claimed before the system was reformed in 2010, should be shredded.
The decision will have come as good news for Members such as George Osborne, who made a cool £1 million off the taxpayer from expenses payments made to cover a mortgage on open land in his Cheshire constituency which he claimed he was using for Parliamentary business.
(The bad news for him is that Vox Political holds copies of relevant documents and will certainly launch another attempt to have Osborne prosecuted, if the opportunity presents itself. Oh, and the Daily Telegraph – which has a complete record of claims made under the former system and used it in a series of reports that shocked the nation and led to the system being reformed, a matter that has now become a two-edged sword.)
Bercow’s reasons for burning the books are a mystery. According to the Telegraph, weakling standards watchdog Kathryn Hudson has been dealing with multiple allegations raised by constituents. Now she is able to tell them that their concerns cannot be investigated due to lack of evidence.
This is not good enough.
In fact, it is worse than the original, scandalous system. At least, with that, it was possible to find out who had claimed money and why; that is no longer the case.
The Telegraph article tells us that the Commons’ ‘Authorised Records Disposal Practice’ lays down guidelines about the length of time for which records may be kept. Thousands are stored indefinitely in the Parliamentary Archive. The pay, discipline and sickness records of Commons staff are kept until their 100th birthday. Health and safety records are kept for up to 40 years.
How long are records of MPs’ expenses kept until they are destroyed? Three years.
Why such a short period? “Data protection”.
Why does this only apply to MPs’ expenses and not to the other matters? No answer.
We know why, though, don’t we? It’s in order to cover up the wrongdoings of the most corrupt Parliament in living memory.
We know that the government has been legislating to ensure that money is drained from the poor and needy into the hands of the rich and the powerful corporations they run, in return for generous donations to the Conservative Party (arrangements for the Liberal Democrats are not known to this blog).
Who knows what backbenchers have been doing in the meantime? They’ve certainly been living the life of Riley while some of us have had to struggle simply to secure the state benefits that we have spent our entire working lives subsidising – and many others, having been denied those benefits for spurious reasons, are no longer with us as a result.
Still, considering the limp punishment handed down to Maria Miller, who between 2005 and 2009 claimed £90,718 in Parliamentary expenses for the mortgage and upkeep of a south London house that was occupied, not by herself, but by her parents, there is no reason to believe any of them would have received a just and proper punishment.
(She was fined £5,800 and made a half-hearted apology – not to the taxpayer, but to Parliament, after a committee of, you guessed it, MPs overruled the standards commissioner’s recommendation that she be made to repay £45,000.)
If any other citizen (who did not have the right business- or class-based connections) embezzled that much money, they would be jailed for a lengthy period of time – in fact we have recently seen cases in which people who were reduced to stealing from supermarkets or food banks, after the DWP sanctioned their benefits, have been jailed for unduly lengthy periods. Yet MPs are, essentially, let off the hook.
The problem is: They’re above the law.
There won’t be any justice in this system until the whole mechanism for investigating allegations against MPs – of any kind – is handed over to the police, where it belongs.
And not just the Metropolitan Police, who are nearby and may end up facing their own corruption allegations. Perhaps it is best that the responsibility be handed between forces on a rota system, in order to minimise the opportunity for underhandedness.
No MP would ever vote for that, of course. In a perfect world they might but, in this one, all that is required to buy their silence is peer pressure. In a perfect world (again) the electorate would be able to hold MPs to account with the threat of being removed from their seat at the next election, but we know that this does not happen in practice. Some ex-MPs who were disgraced in the last expenses scandal will be standing for election again next May.
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