Lib Dems hit out on Tory Sleaze

July 5, 2007 1:05 PM
Mark speaking out in Parliament against Tory sleaze

Mark speaking out in Parliament against Tory sleaze

Cheadle Liberal Democrat MP, Mark Hunter, has today in Parliament challenged the Conservative Party over the alleged improper use of House of Commons facilities.

Mr Hunter claims that a private dining room in the House was used for a meeting of a Tory affiliated group of business people from his Cheadle constituency - under the sponsorship of the Conservative Party Chairman. Mr Hunter made his allegation during Business Questions to the new Leader of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP, calling for a debate in the House on this matter.

Referring to a specific event which had taken place just three weeks ago on 13th June, Mr Hunter told the House he had been surprised to note that a private luncheon had taken place (in Dining Room A) of the Cheadle Business & Professional Group - which according to the official Cheadle Conservatives web-site is an affiliated organisation. In reply the Leader of the House, said that the matter should be investigated to ensure that publicly funded facilities are not used for party political fund-raising.

Speaking after Business Questions, Mr Hunter said, "I was astonished to discover that this event was sponsored by a very senior official of the Conservative Party (Caroline Spelman the MP for Meriden, now Tory Party Chairman). When senior Conservatives are busy hosting such events, often at subsidised prices, in the House of Commons it is not surprising that many people feel tax-payers are forking out in support of Tory Party fund-raising. I am told it is virtually unheard of for senior members of one party to host an exclusive event for constituents of another member in this way. On the face of it, it looks like a clear breech of the parliamentary protocols that govern this sort of thing which is why I took up the matter with the Leader of the House.

I know that the Standards and Privileges Committee of the House of Commons have already investigated several similar instances and I have today written to both the Chairman of the Committee, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Sir Philip Mawer to bring the matter to their attention and asked them to investigate further".

Below is a copy of the letter from the Parliamentary Commissioners for Standards regarding this matter.

Letter from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

Dear Mr Hunter,

Thank you for your letter of 5 July about the lunch at the House which Mrs Spelman sponsored on 13 June for the Cheadle Business and Professional Group.

You complain that, as the Member for Cheadle, you had no prior knowledge of the event and were not invited to it. You suggest that only the local Member may book dining facilities for his or her constituents. You also say that the Cheadle Business and Professional Group is a Conservative Party organisation, with the implication that Conservative Party funds benefited from the lunch and that its use of the House's dining facilities was improper.

First it may be helpful if I clarify that the Banqueting Regulations, which govern the use of the House's private dining rooms, do not restrict a Member's right to sponsor an event only to those events organised by his or her own constituents. So Mrs Spelman (who incidentally, tells me that she has never been a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party) was free to sponsor the Cheadle Group's lunch, if she so wished, provided that it complied in every way with the Regulations.

Mrs Spelman has been in touch with me since she became aware of your complaint. She tells me that she agreed to sponsor the lunch as long ago as August 2006, when a booking was made for it with the Refreshment Department. The lunch was not intended to raise money, although in the event, the entire day trip by the Group (including boat trip, sightseeing, etc) made a small surplus.

Mrs Spelman says that the Cheadle Business and Professional Group is not run by the Cheadle Conservative Association but by a retired businessman. It is not primarily a fund-raising organisation; rather its purpose is to enable retired and active professionals to enjoy a series of events and excursions for members of any political party and none. However, it has, of its own volition, made occasional donations in the past at the time of a general election to the local Conservative Association.

In your letter you refer to recent decisions of the Committee on Standards and Privileges which have resulted from complaints that the House's dining facilities have been used for party political fund-raising purposes. As you will know, paragraph 5.1 of the Banqueting Regulations states:

"Subject to the exclusion in 5.2 [which relate to All-Party Parliamentary Groups and registered charities], the private dining room are not to be used for direct financial or material gain by a Sponsor, political party, or any other person or outside organisation."

In paragraph 11 of its Third Report of the current session (HC 431), the Committee on Standards and Privileges expressed the view that:

"...the current distinction inherent in the Banqueting Regulations between direct fundraising by political parties, which is specifically prohibited, and indirect fund-raising, which by implication is acceptable, is unsustainable."

The Committee went on to recommend that paragraph 5.1 of the Banqueting Regulations be amended to add the words "or indirect" after "direct". That recommendation is currently being considered by Mr Speaker, advised by the Administration Committee.

Recognising that the approach it had adopted represented a significant departure from what had hitherto been understood by many Members to be permissible, and therefore from customary practice in these matters, the Committee on Standards and Privileges set out in its Fifth Report of the current session (HC 683) how it proposed to handle the consequences for Members. The Committee agreed that it would be helpful to Members if it gave a clear statement of its intentions and said that, in respect of functions already booked, it proposed to apply the approach it had adopted in its Third Report to complaints in respect of existing bookings for all functions taking place on or after 1 September 2007.

It follows that I am unable to consider your complaint against Mrs Spelman, as the function in question has taken place before 1 September, i.e. within the period of grace given Members by the Committee. I know from my conversation with Mrs Spelman that she is fully seized of the approach adopted by the Committee on Standards and Privileges and she has assured me that she will take care to ensure that any future events she sponsors in the House's private dining are fully complaint with the Banqueting Regulations.

I am copying this letter to Mrs Spelman, and to Sir George Young.

Sir Philip Mawer.

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