I shall not detain the House long, because all the relevant arguments and background material are set out in the Committee on Standards’ report and in the memorandum from the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards that accompanied it.
The investigation started under Kathryn Hudson, as the Leader of the House said, and both commissioners did a meticulous job of investigating this matter over many months. They point out that the process could have been considerably shorter if Mr Paisley had been more co-operative initially, though the current commissioner is careful to point out that in the later stages of her inquiry, Mr Paisley showed a greater sense of urgency and was proactive in putting together costings for his visits to Sri Lanka.
It is those visits that were at the heart of our inquiry. Mr Paisley made three visits to that country in 2013, all of them paid for by the Sri Lankan Government. The first two visits, in March/April and July 2013, also involved members of Mr Paisley’s family—five family members on the first visit, and three on the second visit. At that time, the threshold above which a visit had to be registered in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests was £660. It is still not firmly established how much the two earlier visits in 2013 cost, but Mr Paisley, who initially argued for a cost in the area of £20,000, now accepts a figure of £50,000. In our view and that of the commissioner, it may have been much higher. The point is that the cost massively exceeded the threshold for registration, but Mr Paisley did not register either visit.
Mr Paisley travelled again to Sri Lanka in November 2013, again at the expense of the Government there, to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo. On that occasion, he travelled without his family, and he did punctually declare the financial benefits he received.
In March 2014, Mr Paisley, along with other MPs, wrote to the Prime Minister to urge the British Government to change their foreign policy towards Sri Lanka by withdrawing their stated support for a UN resolution setting up an international investigation into human rights abuses. In this letter, he did not declare any of the financial benefits he and his family had received from the Sri Lankan Government in the previous 12 months.
The commissioner found that Mr Paisley was in breach of the rules relating to registration in respect of the two earlier visits in 2013. He accepts this. She also found that he breached the rules by not making a declaration in his letter to the Prime Minister and, most seriously of all, that he breached the rule against paid advocacy in that letter by lobbying the British Government to confer an exclusive benefit on a foreign Government from which he and his family had accepted financial benefits within 12 months of having received them. Mr Paisley disputed these findings of the commissioner. On his failure to declare, the commissioner points out that his arguments are based on a misunderstanding of the rules. We share the commissioner’s view, and we concluded that Mr Paisley was in breach of the rules of declaration.
On paid advocacy, the situation is slightly more complicated, but we and the commissioner both came to a clear decision. Mr Paisley argues that he did not breach the paid advocacy rule on two grounds. The first is that the rule, as it stood in 2014, prohibits advocacy that seeks to confer benefit exclusively on a body outside Parliament from which Members have received a financial benefit. Mr Paisley claims that his letter to the Prime Minister was not seeking to confer a benefit exclusively upon Sri Lanka in that the British Government stood to benefit too because they
“would not have had to pay for the internationalisation of the internal political affairs of another country through the auspices of the UN.”
We were not persuaded by this argument. We point out that, in diplomatic terms, the UK would arguably have suffered at least as much as it gained by withdrawing its publicly announced support from an initiative aimed at promoting international human rights observance. In financial terms, Mr Paisley supplied no evidence to support his view that this shift in policy would have saved money for the UK Government. We think that it is entirely reasonable to interpret his letter to the Prime Minister as seeking to confer a benefit exclusively on the Sri Lankan Government.
Mr Paisley’s other argument arises from an apparent inconsistency in the guidance provided in 2014 on the paid advocacy rule. The Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests drew our attention to this matter, which had not been raised in the commissioner’s original memorandum. We thought it only fair to share the information with Mr Paisley, and offer him the opportunity to submit further evidence addressing this point. He has done so, and we have carefully considered it.
I should mention that we and the commissioner have been careful throughout this investigation to assess Mr Paisley’s conduct against the rules and the guidance that actually applied back in 2013 and 2014, taking no account of any subsequent modifications that are not relevant to the case. Although we acknowledge that there was indeed inconsistent guidance in 2014—the House has subsequently put that right—we are clear that this does not exonerate Mr Paisley from breaching the paid advocacy rule. We set out our reasons in paragraph 27 of the report, but I will mention just the first reason because it is decisive in itself. Even if one accepts Mr Paisley’s interpretation of the rule, rather than that of successive commissioners, it would only exempt Mr Paisley’s own visit to Sri Lanka from the application of the rule; it would not exempt those of his family, which represent a significant financial benefit received by Mr Paisley.
We were therefore in no doubt that the commissioner was right to find that Mr Paisley breached the rules in respect of registration, declaration and paid advocacy. In assessing a suitable sanction, we considered what might be taken to be mitigating and aggravating factors. Mitigating factors are Mr Paisley’s apology for failing to register, his recent activity in analysing the likely costs of the visit, and his acceptance that he needed a “far greater understanding” of the rules. Aggravating factors are the scale of the unregistered, undeclared hospitality received by him and his family, grounds for thinking that the failures to register were, to use the commissioner’s words, “not inadvertent”, and his delays in dealing with the commissioner in the early stages of her inquiry.
Taking these factors into account, we concluded that Mr Paisley had committed serious misconduct, and that his actions
“were of a nature to bring the House of Commons into disrepute”,
which is a further breach of the code of conduct. Because we regard this as an especially serious case, we have recommended that Mr Paisley be suspended from the service of the House for a period of 30 sitting days, starting on
The motion before the House today makes separate provision for the withdrawal of Mr Paisley’s salary, and I should say a word or two by way of explanation about that. The intention of the Committee was that Mr Paisley should be suspended from the service of the House for 30 days, and that he should forfeit his parliamentary salary for an equivalent period—that is, also 30 days. However, I have been advised that the effect of simply suspending him for 30 sitting days without making separate provision for his salary is likely to be that he will automatically forfeit that salary for a period longer than 30 days, because of the inclusion of non-sitting days in the overall period of suspension. That was not the Committee’s intention. In retrospect, we could have been clearer about that in the wording of our report. I am therefore grateful to the Leader of the House for having acceded to my request to table today’s motion in a form that makes clear the Committee’s intention and avoids any ambiguity over the period of time for which Mr Paisley’s salary will be withdrawn.
We also recommend that Mr Paisley should register the benefits he received from the Sri Lankan government, which will be italicised in the Register to indicate that they are a late entry.
Finally, I should mention that the lay members of the Committee played a full and active part in the drawing up of the Committee’s report, which they are in full agreement with.
Question put and agreed to.