Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley's failure to register hospitality is made more serious by its scale, says report

Key extracts from the Westminster Standards Committee report

In September 2017 the Daily Telegraph published an article that claimed Ian Paisley had failed to register and declare visits to Sri Lanka for himself and his family, which were paid for by the Sri Lankan government, in breach of parliamentary rules.

In response the North Antrim MP referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Hudson, who started an investigation that has been completed by her successor Kathryn Stone.

Her report was then forwarded to the Standards Committee, chaired by Sir Kevin Barron. Here are some of the key extracts from the Committee's report:

The Commissioner's findings

"Mr Paisley and his family made two visits to Sri Lanka in March/April 2013 and July 2013. These visits were paid for by the Sri Lankan government. Although the precise value of the hospitality offered cannot be precisely calculated, they were of a value significantly in excess of the then registration threshold of £660. (The Daily Telegraph claimed that the cost of the visits was £100,000; Mr Paisley accepts an estimate of about £50,000).

Mr Paisley did not register either visit in the Register of Members' Financial Interests. He paid a further visit to Sri Lanka in November 2013 without his family, but also paid for by the Sri Lankan government, to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This visit was entered in the Register.

"On 19 March 2014 Mr Paisley wrote to the then Prime Minister about a proposed United Nations resolution concerning Sri Lanka. In this letter he did not declare the financial benefits he and his family had received from the Sri Lankan government during the previous 12 months. Mr Paisley subsequently argued that he had felt a declaration was not necessary because "sufficient time had elapsed" since the visits and because the Prime Minister was aware of his interest in Sri Lanka".

"The Commissioner finds that the hospitality Mr Paisley and his family received in Sri Lanka in 2013 constituted a financial interest which 'might reasonably be thought by others to influence the speech, representation or communication in question'."

Commissioner's conclusions on alleged breaches

"In relation to the failure to declare the benefit received in his letter to the Prime Minister, we note the Commissioner's response to Mr Paisley's arguments and her conclusion that they are based on misunderstandings of the rules (see paragraph 8 above).

"We find the Commissioner's rebuttal of Mr Paisley's arguments entirely convincing and we share her conclusion that Mr Paisley breached the rules on declaration in this instance."

"Had Mr Paisley inquired in 2014 as to the applicability of the paid advocacy rule, he would...have been advised of the need to declare the relevant interest in any letter to Ministers. It appears that he did not seek advice on either of these matters.

"We support the conclusion of the Commissioner that Mr Paisley was in breach of the Code of Conduct by engaging in paid advocacy in his letter of 19 March 2014 to the Prime Minister, and by failing to declare in that letter the benefits he and his family had received from the Sri Lankan government...

"We also support the Commissioner's conclusion (not contested by Mr Paisley) that he was in breach of the Code of Conduct by failing to register his March/April and July 2013 visits."

Mitigating factors

"Mr Paisley apologised immediately for his failure to register the hospitality. He told us: 'I have a good record of registration, both before and since. In recognition of my mistake, I have apologised profusely for this. I am deeply embarrassed by it and fully understand that it has an impact on my reputation. Members of the House are held to the highest standards and a failure, such as this, reflects on both the Member concerned and the wider House'.

"The Commissioner has informed us that Mr Paisley has latterly been proactive and has commissioned his own analysis of the likely costs of the various elements of the visits. The Commissioner has accepted these valuations.

"Mr Paisley accepts that the Commissioner's investigation has led to his having "a far greater appreciation of the rules and code that I suspect many members are possibly not aware of".

Aggravating factors

"Mr Paisley's failure to register the hospitality he received from the Sri Lankan government is made more serious by the scale of that hospitality.

"While he has disputed the Daily Telegraph's claim that the value was £100,000, by his own calculation it amounted to over £50,000 - and may have been significantly more than that. This massively exceeded the threshold for registration, which at that time was £660.

"The expenditure on the two visits included that on business-class air travel, accommodation at first-class hotels, helicopter trips and visits to tourist attractions for Mr Paisley and his wider family. Mr Paisley may have taken part in meeting with government ministers and others, but for his accompanying family members these two visits were clearly holidays at significant cost.

"Mr Paisley's prompt registration of the third visit he paid to Sri Lanka in 2013, on his own, to attend CHOGM, suggests that he was well aware at the time of the need to register relevant interests.

"It is difficult, therefore, to avoid the conclusion that the reason why the third visit was registered and the two earlier ones were not, was that Mr Paisley was conscious of the potential embarrassment that would be caused to him were it to become publicly known that he had accepted very expensive hospitality, for himself and his family, from a foreign government accused of serious human rights violations.

"We note the Commissioner's conclusion that her inquiry could have been concluded much sooner if Mr Paisley had provided evidence to her predecessor 'in a few weeks' as he stated he would do in September 2017, rather than waiting until the present Commissioner presented him with, in effect, an ultimatum about the evidence she would rely on, to conclude her inquiry in the absence of any further information from himself.

"In view of the seriousness of this matter, we recommend that Mr Paisley be suspended from the service of the House for a period of 30 sitting days starting on 4 September 2018.

"We also require that Mr Paisley 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."

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