The Committee is grateful to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for her inquiry, which was undertaken following a complaint that Mr Burns had used House stationery to deal with a purely personal family interest, and had attempted to secure a payment to his father by suggesting that he might use parliamentary privilege to raise the case in the House, with the implication that the complainant could avoid this (in the complainant’s words) “potentially unpleasant experience” by helping to secure that payment to Mr Burns’ father.
A detailed memorandum from the Commissioner is appended to the report. Associated evidence is published on the internet.
The Commissioner’s findings
House -provided stationery is provided only for the performance of a Member’s Parliamentary function and must not be used to exploit the system for personal or financial advantage.
The Commissioner found that Mr Burns acted in breach of paragraph 11 and 16 of the Code of Conduct in his use of House-supplied stationery to write to the complainant, a member of the public (the name is redacted in the report) who was connected with a company (name also redacted) with which Mr Burns’ father was in dispute over repayment of a loan.
Within this correspondence he referred to parliamentary privilege, stating “my role in the public eye could well attract interest especially if I were to use parliamentary privilege to raise the case”.
The Commissioner concluded that this was a breach of the rules, as the letter to the complainant was concerned solely with a personal financial situation and was not sent in support of his parliamentary activities.
She also concluded that Mr Burns “put personal interest before the public interest by suggesting that he would take advantage of his public office to pursue his father's financial dispute”.
The Commissioner found that Mr Burns had acted in breach of paragraph 17 of the Code (which relates to damage to the reputation of the House) through his implied threat to use parliamentary privilege to speak about the complainant in a forum where the complainant would not have a right of reply, through comments to her during the investigation which she did “not think were respectful of the standards system of the House”, and through his misleading claim to have consulted the House authorities about this potential use of privilege.
She noted that his actions “gives fuel to the belief that Members are able and willing to use the privileges accorded them by their membership of the House to benefit their own personal interests”.
The Commissioner notes that the substance of the dispute between Mr Burns’ father and the company is not a matter for her. She comments that “with appropriate care, it should be possible for Mr Burns to make an apology in the House, or elsewhere, without any further disclosure of the substance of his father’s dispute with the company and the complainant.”
The Committee’s conclusions
Mr Burns submitted written evidence in the form of a letter to the Committee in which he apologised, stating “I absolutely should not have written to the complainant in the terms I did or used House stationery to do so”.
The Committee accepts the Commissioner’s findings that Mr Burns breached paragraphs 11,16 and 17 of the Code of Conduct. They consider that mitigating factors were that Mr Burns had been under a considerable degree of personal stress, and that he had apologised to the Committee.
They considered that aggravating factors were that Mr Burns’ apology, though welcome, came at the end of a process in which he had initially argued he had acted within the rules, and that he had persisted in making ill-disguised threats to use his privileged position as a Member to pursue his family interests, even after the Commissioner had informed him that this was a serious breach of the rules. His seniority within the House is also regarded as an aggravating factor.
The Committee’s overall conclusion is that Mr Burns used his parliamentary position in an attempt to intimidate a member of the public into doing as Mr Burns wished, in a dispute relating to purely private family interests which had no connection with Mr Burns’ parliamentary duties, that he persisted in making veiled threats to use parliamentary privilege to further his family’s interests even during the course of the Commissioner’s investigation, and that he misleadingly implied that his conduct had the support of the House authorities.
The Committee comment that “The right of Members of Parliament to speak in the Chamber without fear or favour is essential to Parliament's ability to scrutinise the Executive and to tackle social abuses, particularly if the latter are committed by the rich and powerful who might use the threat of defamation proceedings to deter legitimate criticism.
Precisely because parliamentary privilege is so important, it is essential to maintaining public respect for Parliament that the protection afforded by privilege should not be abused by a Member in the pursuit of their purely private and personal interests.”
The Committee considers that Mr Burns’ abuse of his privileged status in an attempt to intimidate a member of the public calls for a sanction more severe than apology. It recommends that Mr Burns should be suspended from the service of the House for seven days.
It also recommends that he should apologise in writing to the House by way of a letter to the Speaker, and to the complainant as the injured party, and that he should copy these letters to the Committee which will publish them. The Committee reserves the right to take further action if it feels that Mr Burns has not complied with the spirit as well as the letter of this recommendation.
The report was agreed unanimously.
The lay members of the Committee, who have full voting rights on the Committee, played a full and active part in drawing up the Committee’s report, with which they are in agreement.
The Committee Chair, Kate Green MP, says that
“The Committee regrets the time taken to bring this matter to a conclusion. Both the Commissioner and the Committee are however aware of the importance of proceeding according to due process, which sometimes extends the duration of an investigation, as a result of giving the parties to a complaint full opportunity to provide evidence or to comment on the factual accuracy of draft material. In this case, the delay was also due to events beyond the control of the Commissioner or the Committee, such as the general election campaign, the time taken to re-appoint the Committee afterwards, and the impact of the coronavirus lockdown.”
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