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Ian Paisley - full report from Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

This Report arises from an article published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper on 8 September 2017.

The article claimed that Mr 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, and that he may have been in breach of the rule prohibiting paid advocacy. The article also referred to Mr Paisley having a role in “helping to secure a post-Brexit trade deal”. Following publication of the article, Mr Paisley referred himself to the then Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Hudson. She commenced an investigation which has been completed by her successor as Commissioner, Kathryn Stone.

2.The Commissioner’s memorandum is appended to this Report.1 In accordance with usual procedure, we supplied Mr Paisley with a copy of the memorandum and asked him if he wished to submit written or oral evidence to the Committee. Mr Paisley has submitted written evidence which we publish with the Report.2 He has not disputed the key findings of fact in the Commissioner’s report and has apologised for having failed to register the visits. However, he has disputed the Commissioner’s interpretation of the ‘paid advocacy’ rule as it relates to his actions.

The Commissioner’s findings

3.In view of the fact that Mr Paisley does not dispute the key findings of fact in the Commissioner’s memorandum, we shall not rehearse those findings in detail but will summarise the main points.

Registration

4.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.

5.The Commissioner notes that, under the rules in force in 2013, it was the responsibility of a Member to register within 28 days:

[…] overseas visits made by the Member or the Member’s spouse or partner relating to or in any way arising out of Membership of the House where the cost of the visit exceeds one per cent of the current parliamentary salary and was not wholly borne by the Member or by United Kingdom public funds.3

6.The Commissioner finds that Mr Paisley accordingly breached the Rules of the House by failing to register within 28 days the two visits made to Sri Lanka with family members in March/April 2013 and in July 2013.

Declaration

7.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. As evidence for that, Mr Paisley referred to having met the Prime Minister in Sri Lanka during CHOGM in November 2013 and to his having registered that visit in the Register.

8.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”.4 She notes that Mr Paisley’s explanation as to why he did not declare this interest in his letter to the Prime Minister is based on misunderstandings of the rules then in force: the time-limit for such a declaration was 12 months, and the letter was written within 12 months of Mr Paisley’s two unregistered visits; and the fact that the Prime Minister may have known of Mr Paisley’s concern about Sri Lankan affairs did not relieve him of the responsibility to make a declaration (nor did he supply any reason for supposing that UK Government Ministers knew that he had experienced the hospitality of the Sri Lankan government).

9.The Commissioner therefore concluded that Mr Paisley breached the Rules of the House on declaration by failing to declare the personal benefit and hospitality from the Sri Lankan government received during three visits to Sri Lanka in his letter to the Prime Minister of 19 March 2014.

Paid advocacy

10.In his letter to the Prime Minister, which was co-signed with other Members, Mr Paisley “note[d] with alarm the decision by HMG to internationalise the internal affairs of Sri Lanka” and appealed for the Government not to support a UN resolution “internationalising” the conflict in that country.5 The reference was to the UK Government’s stated position of support for a resolution to be moved in the UN Human Rights Council authorising (in the words of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in response to Mr Paisley’s letter) “an international investigation which will uncover the truth about alleged violations on both sides of the conflict”.6

11.To contextualise the UK Government’s position in this matter, the FCO’s 2012 Human Rights and Democracy Report, published in April 2013, spoke of “a number of negative developments” in Sri Lanka, where the human rights situation was already “of serious concern”.7 In its own 2013 review of international human rights, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that “There is scant evidence of progress in political and human rights in Sri Lanka”, and recommended that the Prime Minister should not attend the forthcoming CHOGM to be held in Colombo in November 2013.8

12.The Sri Lankan government was under considerable diplomatic pressure at this time and it is reasonable to assume that it was actively seeking the support of parliamentarians in key UN member states to argue its case with their own governments.

13.The Commissioner considered whether Mr Paisley’s letter to the Prime Minister breached the House’s rule prohibiting paid advocacy. That rule, in the form in which it existed in 2013 and 2014, stated that:

When a Member is […] making any approach to a Minister […] of the Crown, advocacy is prohibited which seeks to confer benefit exclusively upon a body […] outside Parliament, from which the Member has received […] a financial benefit […].

The rule applies to ‘one-off’ registrable benefits, both visits and gifts, from the day upon which the interest was acquired until one year after it is registered.

The rule includes relevant payments to a Member’s family […].9

14.The 2009 Guide to the Rules sets out advice to Members on the application of the paid advocacy rule in relation to foreign visits funded by others. It states in paragraph 100(d):

Members are reminded that when accepting foreign visits they should be mindful of the reputation of the House. However, the knowledge obtained by Members on such visits can often be of value to the House as a whole. While it is desirable that Members should be able to use that knowledge in debate in the House there is a point where promoting the interests of, e.g. a foreign Government from which hospitality has been received, crosses the line between informed debate and lobbying. Members may not, for example, advocate in debate increased United Kingdom financial assistance to a Government from which they have recently received hospitality. Nor may a Member advocate any other measure for the exclusive benefit of the host Government.10

15.However, the 2009 Guide to the Rules also included a provision, in paragraph 99(7), that “Although […] overseas visits must be registered and declared, such visits shall not be taken into account when applying the rule”. The Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests has supplied us with a paper, printed with this Report, giving some background on these two provisions which appear to offer inconsistent advice. The Registrar sums up this advice as follows:

◾Paragraph 99(7) says that overseas visits were not to be taken into account for the purposes of the rule. This would suggest that an MP who made an overseas visit at someone else’s expense was permitted to lobby when he/she returned.

◾The longer passage at paragraph 100(d) says that MPs who accepted foreign visits hosted by others were permitted to use their knowledge in the House only if they did not advocate any measures for the exclusive benefit of the organisation which had hosted them.

16.The Registrar notes that:

In 2014 it was customary for the Commissioner’s office, if asked to advise on foreign visits, to point MPs towards paragraph 100(d) rather than paragraph 99(7). In other words MPs were advised that they were permitted to speak about matters they had discovered during their visit so long as they did not advocate any measure for the exclusive benefit of the person or organisation which had hosted them. This reading of the rules is supported by the Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges of 2000–01, which recommended the addition of paragraph 99(7).11

17.The Commissioner, following this customary interpretation of the paid advocacy rule, concluded that Mr Paisley had breached the House’s rule on paid advocacy (lobbying in return for reward or consideration) by writing to the Prime Minister on 19 March 2014 to lobby against supporting a UN resolution on Sri Lanka. She concluded that this amounted to asking for an exclusive benefit for Sri Lanka, when he had received personal benefit and hospitality from the Sri Lankan government within the previous 12 months.12

18.The Registrar’s paper on the interpretation of the paid advocacy rule in 2014 was sent to Mr Paisley, who was given the opportunity, if he wished to take it, to submit further evidence addressing this matter. Mr Paisley accepted this invitation and on 16 July submitted further evidence. In this, in addition to repeating some of the arguments he had used earlier in support of his claim that he had not undertaken paid advocacy, he stated that Rules 99(7) and 100(d) “totally contradict each other on the matter of declaration and paid advocacy”. He therefore argued that “considered through the lens of the time [ … .] it would be unfair to conclude that I breached the rule on paid advocacy”.13

Other matters

19.The Daily Telegraph article of 8 September 2017 alleged that Mr Paisley had offered to help “[Sri Lanka] broker an oil deal, saying ‘he had significant arrangements with national oil suppliers’ in Oman and Nigeria”.14 The Commissioner considered a copy of an email exchange submitted to her by the Daily Telegraph and comments on this by Mr Paisley, and concluded that “[i]n the absence of further evidence, I did not consider I would be justified in probing this matter further as part of this inquiry.”15

Conclusions on alleged breaches of the rules

20.We note that Mr Paisley accepts the Commissioner’s finding that he committed a breach of the Rules of the House by failing to register within 28 days the two visits he made to Sri Lanka with family members in March/April 2013 and in July 2013. However, he disputes the Commissioner’s findings that he (a) breached the Rules of the House on declaration by failing to declare the personal benefit and hospitality from the Sri Lankan government in his letter to the Prime Minister of 19 March 2014, and (b) breached the House’s rule on paid advocacy by asking in that letter for an exclusive benefit for Sri Lanka, having received personal benefit and hospitality from that government within the previous 12 months.

21.We have considered the arguments Mr Paisley has adduced for disputing these latter two findings of the Commissioner.

22.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.

23.In relation to the issue of paid advocacy, we have considered Mr Paisley’s argument that it was “harsh to accuse me of breaching the rule on paid advocacy as it turned on an interpretation of who was the actual benefactor”.16 Mr Paisley is referring here to the requirement in the paid advocacy rule, as it existed in 2014, that:

When a Member is […] making any approach to a Minister […] of the Crown, advocacy is prohibited which seeks to confer benefit exclusively [our italics] upon a body […] outside Parliament, from which the Member has received […] a financial benefit […].

24.Mr Paisley argues that the request in the letter, that HM Government should not support a UN resolution relating to Sri Lanka, was “a general request […] not for the ‘exclusive benefit’ of the Sri Lanka government but, in fact, […] urging our own government to hold to a well-established position of non-intervention”. In earlier correspondence with the Commissioner he stated that:

My letter to the PM, if acted upon, would not have conferred an ‘exclusive benefit’ on Sri Lanka. In fact the beneficiary would have been the UK government who would not have had to pay for the internationalisation of the internal political affairs of another country through the auspices of the UN.17

25.We do not find this argument persuasive. On any reasonable view of the letter to the Prime Minister, it was lobbying the UK Government to take action which would confer a significant diplomatic benefit on the government of Sri Lanka. By contrast, it is highly contestable whether there would have been any benefit to the UK: (1) it might be held that the UK would have suffered at least as much as it gained in diplomatic terms if it had withdrawn its publicly announced support from an initiative aimed at promoting international human rights observance; and (2) Mr Paisley supplies no evidence to support his assertion that there would have been a financial cost to the UK (by which we assume he is referring to an increase in the UK’s financial contribution to the UN to help cover the costs of an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses). We therefore support the Commissioner’s view that the proposal in Mr Paisley’s letter was intended to confer a benefit “exclusively upon a body […] outside Parliament, from which the Member has received […] a financial benefit “.

26.The Commissioner and the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests have been scrupulous in drawing our attention, and that of Mr Paisley, to the apparent inconsistency in the guidance provided in 2014 on the paid advocacy rule. We have given careful consideration to this matter and to Mr Paisley’s supplementary evidence dealing with it. We note that there was indeed some degree of ambiguity in the guidance offered to Members at that time. That was acknowledged by our predecessor Committee in a report published in 2014, which led to a decision by the House in 2015 to change the guidance.18

27.We do not consider that the existence of this degree of ambiguity exonorates Mr Paisley from the charge of having breached the paid advocacy rule, for the following reasons:

◾The object of the provision in paragraph 99(7) of the 2009 Guide was to enable the House to profit from the knowledge obtained by Members on overseas visits, including such visits when paid for by others. This exemption from the application of the rule was certainly not intended to cover a scenario in which a Member’s family also received material benefits. In the present case there is no dispute that Mr Paisley’s family benefited. On the March/April 2013 visit he was accompanied by five family members and on the July 2013 visit he was accompanied by three family members. The Sri Lankan government paid for those family members to receive business-class air travel, accommodation at “first class” hotels, and helicopter flights to tourist destinations.19 Although Mr Paisley initially described these two visits to Sri Lanka as “official visits” (on the grounds that he held meetings with and received briefings from government ministers and officials), for his accompanying family members they were clearly holidays. None of the benefits received by Mr Paisley’s family members could be argued to have contributed to his gaining knowledge about the political situation in Sri Lanka for use as part of his parliamentary duties.

◾The provisions of paragraph 99(7) of the 2009 Guide have to be read in conjunction with the very clear statement in paragraph 100(d) of the same Guide that:

[…] there is a point where promoting the interests of, e.g. a foreign Government from which hospitality has been received, crosses the line between informed debate and lobbying. Members may not, for example, advocate in debate increased United Kingdom financial assistance to a Government from which they have recently received hospitality. Nor may a Member advocate any other measure for the exclusive benefit of the host Government.20

◾Had Mr Paisley inquired in 2014 as to the applicability of the paid advocacy rule, he would have been referred to paragraph 100(d) of the Guide. He would also 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.

28.For these reasons 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 during two of his visits to Sri Lanka in 2013, and those he had received during his third visit in that year. 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.

Recommended sanction

29.In considering the appropriate sanction for Mr Paisley’s breaches of the Code of Conduct, we have taken into account both mitigating and aggravating factors.

30.We consider the following to be 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.”21

◾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”.22

31.We consider the following to be 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. His argument that his failure to register one of the earlier visits arose from a misunderstanding between him and a member of his staff does not explain the failure to register the other earlier visit.23 (In addition, of course, Members are accountable for the activities of their staff and have to carry ultimate responsibility themselves for what is done, or not done, in their name.) Mr Paisley was not a novice Member at this time (he was first elected to the House in 2010); he must have been aware that there are particular sensitivities about accepting gifts and hospitality from foreign governments.

◾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.24

32.Taking into account the various factors set out in the previous two paragraphs, we conclude that Mr Paisley has committed serious misconduct. Given the nature of this misconduct, we have considered whether Mr Paisley also breached paragraph 15 of the Rules of Conduct in force in 2013 and 2014. This stated that:

Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute.25

33.Neither the present Commissioner nor her predecessor investigated whether Mr Paisley was in breach of Rule 15, because this did not form part of the specific allegations brought against him. We have concluded that Mr Paisley’s actions were of a nature to bring the House of Commons into disrepute and that he was therefore in breach of this rule also.

34.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.

35.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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