John BercowMain Page: John Bercow (Speaker) - Buckingham)
Department Debates - View all John Bercow's debates with the Leader of the House
May I add my own warm tribute to you, Mr Speaker, because you have been an exceptional Speaker throughout my time in Parliament? I am sorry to contribute to this short debate, and I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward this motion before Dissolution next week.
I assure the House that the Committee on Standards has taken the greatest possible care with all the information that was put before us. We have done our best to focus only on issues that pertain to this House’s code of conduct, and not on extraneous matters of personal and private conduct. Neither have we wanted to put any information into the public domain, other than where that has been absolutely necessary to explain the reason behind the Committee’s decision. The decision is unanimous, and we have accepted the recommendations of the current commissioner. We are grateful to her for her work, and for the work of the previous commissioner. I wish to put on record my thanks to all colleagues on the Committee, and to my Clerk and his staff.
Subsequent to our report, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) put some information on his website. I assure the House that all the points raised in that posting are addressed within the Committee’s report. I and my Committee appreciate that constitutionally, no Parliament can bind the actions of the next Parliament, but our view—we have placed this on the record in a letter to the Leader of the House which is published on the Committee’s website—is that should the right hon. Gentleman be returned to the House at the forthcoming election, we urge the incoming Parliament and the new Leader of the House to pass a resolution as quickly as possible to ensure that the full period of the proposed sanction is served. I am grateful for the chance to contribute this afternoon.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Although I am the originator of the complaint to the Committee on Standards in September 2016, I rise more in sorrow than anger to comment on these matters. I, too, wish to thank the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, for her diligent work on our behalf, protecting the reputation of this House. I also thank her predecessor, Kathryn Hudson, and all elected and lay members of the Committee on Standards.
After 37 months we have the report. It is 69 pages long, and it makes grim reading for those colleagues who have taken the time to wade through it. The recommendations of the Committee include the longest suspension to be handed out since records began—six months—which in normal times would trigger a recall. The Committee also said that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) should not be offered a former Member’s pass when his time in this House ceases.
It is clear why this investigation has taken so long, and the delays, deflection and confusion that the Committee believes the right hon. Gentleman to have conducted, have been quite damning on his character. He sought to drag out these proceedings so that if he does not stand at the next election, none of the punishment will be meted out to him, and he will have avoided a suspension. If the House decides to accept the recommendations, they will be in place for only a few days, not for six months, and there will therefore be no recall. Effectively, the only censure that he will face is that of not having the privilege of a former Member’s pass when he ceases to be here.
I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman is not present, but the Chair of the Committee on Standards hinted at a statement that he put on his website immediately after the publication of this report. In fairness to the right hon. Gentleman, and to inform the House, I would like to read the statement that was posted on his website on 28 October, shortly after the release of the report by the Committee on Standards into his conduct:
“The events of 27th August 2016 were purely personal and private, and occurred in circumstances where neither Mr Vaz’s public nor his Parliamentary role were engaged.
Mr Vaz has never bought, possessed, dealt with or used illegal drugs. He has a cardiovascular condition which would mean that were he to consume any non-prescribed drugs he would in all likelihood die. The Commissioner has confirmed that Mr Vaz has not committed any criminal acts. The referrals made (including by Andrew Bridgen MP) were a waste of police resources.
The transcript of the recording which the Committee and Commissioner rely on has been completed discredited by a highly qualified forensic scientist, who has cast considerable doubt on its reliability. She stated: “Overall the transcript supplied to me fell significantly short of what is expected in terms of a transcript intended for use in legal, disciplinary or similar proceedings and it cannot be considered a reliable evidential record of the speech content of the questioned recording.
Mr Vaz has cooperated at all stages of this process. At no stage during the inquiry has either Commissioner stated in writing or otherwise that Mr Vaz has been uncooperative. Commissioner Hudson stated in terms that Mr Vaz has been helpful. Mr Vaz vigorously rejects the allegation that he has failed to cooperate with the inquiry: to the contrary he holds the standards system in the highest regard and with the highest respect.”
There are then some links to reports from the inquiry that are available on the parliamentary website, and it indicates where people should look in the report for various information that the right hon. Gentleman regards as evidential to support his statement. The statement concludes:
“Keith Vaz has been treated for a serious mental health condition for the last three years as a result of the events of 27th August 2016. He has shared all his medical reports in confidence with the Committee. He has today been admitted to hospital and this office will not be making any further comments.”
I have read the report, and there is no apology from the right hon. Member for Leicester East. There is no hint of apology, no hint of regret, and a complete denial of the unanimous conclusions of the Committee on Standards. That may hint at his state of mind—he is in complete denial about the level of dissatisfaction that the public feel with the behaviour of some Members of this House, and he has certainly detracted from our reputation.
Many tributes have been paid to you today, Mr Speaker, and I wish to add my own. If you had acted on the letter that I wrote to you in September 2015—a year before the incident involving the then Chair of the Home Affairs Committee—in which I raised my concerns that if the actions and activities of the right hon. Gentleman came to light, they would risk seriously damaging—
Mr Speaker, I thank you for your advice, as always. For the past 10 years you have advised me on many occasions, but had you waited for my conclusion, you would have seen that I was going to extol your decision not to get involved in this matter. Had you done so, we may well have protected the reputation of this House, but I doubt that we ever would have got to see the full report that is now before us.
Despite this report being public knowledge—it has been available for Members to read for several days—the right hon. Member for Leicester East remains a member of the Labour party. He has the Labour Whip. He is still a serving member of the Labour national executive committee and he is still currently the candidate for Leicester East at the forthcoming election. That, of course, is a matter for the Labour party, and it is also, I believe, a matter for the public we all serve in our constituencies, not least in Leicester East. I believe—I think that many other people do—that Leicester East deserves rather better, Mr Speaker.
We can recall what we have done in the past and the way we have voted. We will all be held to account for that very shortly, on 12 December. Only a month after the right hon. Member for Leicester East rather reluctantly resigned, following the rent boy and cocaine scandal, from the chairmanship of the Home Affairs Committee, he was nominated by the Labour party to serve on the Justice Committee. That was only four weeks after he had considered himself unsuitable to continue as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.
Thank you once again for more help and advice, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker, I will bring my remarks to a conclusion, but it is clear to me, and it will be clear to the public, that to the fag-end of your tenure in that Chair, you are defending the indefensible and your very close relationship with the right hon. Member in question. The House can come to its own conclusions. The Standards Committee has come to its own conclusions. And, Mr Speaker, the public will come to theirs. Thank you very much.
I, and I hope the whole House, wish that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) recovers and that his health is restored.
I strongly support the motion, which says that the House
“approves the First Report of the Committee on Standards …HC 93”,
and that we endorse
“the recommendations in paragraphs 99 and 101”
and the suspension from the service of the House for a period of six months.
I served with others on the Standards Committee in the early 2000s, when Elizabeth Filkin was the Standards Commissioner. She was badly treated by the House and treated even worse by the right hon. Member for Leicester East. Paragraph 97 of the report states:
“Mr Vaz has previously been found to have been in serious breach of the Code and in contempt of the House. In 2002 the Standards and Privileges Committee found he had recklessly made a damaging and untrue allegation against another person, which could have intimidated them, and had wrongly interfered with the House’s investigative process: in particular that ‘having set the Commissioner on a false line of inquiry Mr Vaz then accused her of interfering in a criminal investigation and threatened to report her to the Speaker’”.
It goes on to other points that he made.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) rightly read out some of the words on the right hon. Gentleman’s website, which are totally contradicted by the report that I have in my hand. I think that someone who has done that after the report has come out should have the suspension doubled to a year.
I say this: this is not a party point, but the right hon. Gentleman should not be nominated. If he is nominated, he should not be elected, and if he is elected, he should be suspended for a very long time.
I had not intended to participate in the debate, but I am a member of the current Committee. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) will recognise, serving on the Standards Committee is one of the less pleasant responsibilities that falls to Members, but that is the position I have been in for quite a long time. I can recall a time when we passed sentence, in a sense, on my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), saying that she should make an apology to the House. I was in the House when she made her apology, and I recall the sense of outrage that her apology was not as full as some people might have wished. As a result, she suffered additional penalties in her constituency—it was a long time ago and I am sure that has all been forgiven.
In that context, when I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) reading out what is on the website of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), it filled me with horror, because it is totally contradictory to the findings of the Committee. What does not come across in a report such as this is the detail that has been gone into by the members of the Committee—including lay-members, who do it for love, really—the commissioner and her predecessor. An enormous amount of work has gone into this, and we reached a conclusion:
“We are satisfied from the evidence we have considered that Mr Vaz did on 27 August 2016 offer to procure and pay for illegal drugs for use by a third party.”
Paragraph 54 states:
“On the basis of the evidence supplied by the audio-recording and the transcript, we reach the following conclusions germane to the Commissioner’s findings…that Mr Vaz’s explanation of the incident on 27 August 2016 is not believable…that on this occasion Mr Vaz expressed a willingness to procure a Class A drug, cocaine, for the use of another person…that on this occasion Mr Vaz engaged in paid-for sex. We consider that the evidence supporting these conclusions is compelling.”
On that basis, I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) in asking whether it would be reasonable, if the right hon. Gentleman is returned following the next general election, for the Standards Committee to revisit this issue, having regard to what is on the website now. I commend the work of the Standards Committee and particularly that of its Chair, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), but it seems to me that what is on the website is designed to bring the work of the Standards Committee into disrepute.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On that point, we notice that the motion is in the name of the Leader of the House, so were the person concerned to be re-elected, we would not have to wait for the re-establishment of the Standards Committee. The Leader of the House could re-present a motion in the same terms, and if, subsequently, the Standards Committee wanted to take further action, that would then follow.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It might help the House if I explain that the Standards Committee has specifically asked that the next Leader of the House—or me, if I continue in office in the new Parliament—bring the suspension forward as soon as the House reassembles, so that it is not, in effect, only a two-day suspension. That has been specifically requested by the Committee.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. My understanding is that in the event that the right hon. Member is returned, we would like the next Leader of the House to bring forward a motion to continue the suspension, but neither this Parliament, this Leader of the House nor any Member of this Parliament can compel that. It would be a matter for the next Parliament. In so far as the next Committee is concerned, any Member is at liberty to make a complaint about the conduct of a Member at the time that he was serving as a Member. We have recently introduced new provisions around historic cases, but the Committee would be a new Committee, and would not be able simply to pick up an old case conducted by our current Committee.