Commons approves sanctions against Lib Dems who leaked to The Guardian

June 9, 2009 at 3:15 pm Leave a comment

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The House of Commons has decided to withdraw access to the House from two Liberal Democrat Parliamentary staff after the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges ruled they had leaked a report.

Stephen Lotinga, who was responsible for culture, media and sport in the parliamentary office of the Liberal Democrats, will be denied access to the House for 14 days.

Tom Smith, the parliamentary researcher for the MP for Torbay, Adrian Sanders, will be excluded for 28 days and was accused of misleading the committee.

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, Sir George Young, told the House:

“At the end of last year, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport carried out an inquiry into the BBC’s commercial operations.

“On 25 February, substantial excerpts from the Committee’s draft heads of report were published on The Guardian website.

“It is now clear that Mr Tom Smith, the parliamentary researcher for the hon. Member for Torbay (Adrian Sanders) who sits on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, was in the habit of routinely passing on Committee papers to the office of the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Bath (Don Foster).

“He should not have been doing that.

“In a crucial misjudgment on his part, Mr Smith failed to tell us that he was routinely passing on those papers, until confronted with the evidence.

“Mr Smith also misled my Committee on his first appearance before it by withholding information and by failing to provide full answers to our questions.

“He has committed two serious contempts, to use the language of the House, first in passing on confidential papers and secondly in misleading the Committee.

“We therefore recommend withdrawal of Mr Smith’s access to the House and its facilities for a period of 28 calendar days, which, if the House agrees, will begin today.

“In my Committee’s view, that is a proportionate penalty, given the seriousness of the offences.

“As for the role of Alice Aitken, who works in the office of the hon. Member for Bath, it is clear that she was essentially acting as an intermediary by sharing the Culture, Media and Sport Committee papers sent to her with Mr Stephen Lotinga, who was responsible for culture, media and sport in the parliamentary office of the Liberal Democrats.

“On balance, the Committee did not conclude that a formal penalty would be appropriate in that case.

“It was Mr Lotinga who passed a copy of the draft heads of report to a journalist on The Guardian, Mark Sweney.

“Although we were told by Mr Smith that Mr Lotinga had previously informed him that he was not involved in the leak, Mr Lotinga admitted his involvement to us and made a full apology.

“We acknowledge his remorse and his co-operation with our inquiry, but we feel that the seriousness of the offence demands a formal penalty, and we have therefore recommended that Mr Lotinga’s access to the House and its facilities be withdrawn for a period of 14 calendar days.”

Sir George said that Mr Sanders “was responsible for the secure custody of those papers, and he also had a duty of care towards his staff, and not least towards Mr Smith.

“That included a duty to ensure that they were fully briefed on the importance of respecting and preserving the confidentiality of papers.

“Just as Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the actions of their officials, so are we all, as hon. Members, accountable for what is done by our staff in our name.

“It is right, therefore, that the hon. Member for Torbay should take some responsibility for the actions of his researcher, of which, I accept, he was completely unaware at the time.

“That does not, however, absolve entirely those individuals who played the main roles in the affair, Mr Smith and Mr Lotinga.

“In my Committee’s view, the House needs to send a strong signal that it will not tolerate such breaches of trust as both men committed.

“Nor will it tolerate one of its Committees being misled by a witness.

“In agreeing the motion before it today, the House will send the appropriate signals.”

Mr Sanders said he was grateful to the Committee for finding he was not directly responsible for the unauthorised disclosure of the draft heads of report.

“The Committee found, however, that I should have explained more fully to my assistant his duties under rules of parliamentary privilege, and that I had a duty to explain to him the meaning of the confidentiality clauses in the contract that he had signed,” he said.

“In so far as I failed to make this plain to a member of my staff, I of course accept the conclusions of the Committee and apologise to the House.”

Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay accused MPs of talking “a lot of humbug” and said he was disappointed at the Committee’s conclusions.

“It is an example of the culture of this place, the overbearing command of Front Benchers—Government, Conservative and Liberal—and the tribal view that one must be able to score points and expose things in advance, get brownie points in the press and so on.

“In my view, there must be severe sanctions, because they will mean that people do not commit wrongdoing, and sanctions afford a degree of protection to people who want to tell the truth to a Select Committee.

“If they know that they have to take an oath or—if I cannot persuade the House about an oath—that a serious sanction will be applied to them, such events will not happen.”

Shailesh Vara, Shadow Deputy Leader of the House, had three suggestions.

“First, given the discussions on a new parliamentary standards authority, we must ensure that it does not impact on this type of investigation being carried out with similar conclusions, including the ability to impose sanctions.

“Secondly, as we reform the way in which MPs’ staff are employed, we must give serious thought to sanctions being imposed by the Committee on Members’ staff, even if they are to be directly employed by the House authorities.

“Finally, given the large turnover of Members’ staff, it would be no bad thing for some Members to remind their staff of the confidential nature of Select Committees and all their deliberations.

“Leaks to journalists, or for that matter to anyone else, undermine not only the work of Select Committees but the whole of Parliament.”

The House then approved the sanctions against Mr Lotinga and Mr Smith.

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