A Conservative minister has resigned from Government after an investigation found he threatened a company chairman over a financial dispute with his father.
Conor Burns attempted to intimidate the man by using parliamentary privilege and continued to make “veiled threats” during the probe, the Commons standards committee said.
The watchdog recommended a suspension from Parliament over multiple breaches of the MPs code before Downing Street announced his resignation from the Department of International Trade.
With deep regret I have decided to resign as Minister of State for International Trade. @BorisJohnson will continue to have my wholehearted support from the backbenches.— Conor Burns (@ConorBurnsUK) May 4, 2020
The MP for Bournemouth West said he would continue to give Prime Minister Boris Johnson his “wholehearted support” from the backbenches on Monday morning.
The unnamed chairman received a letter on House of Commons paper dated February 6 2019 from Mr Burns about the “long-standing financial dispute” with his father.
The MP suggested the complainant could avoid having him raise the case in the Commons by securing the payment of the loan to his father.
Mr Burns said he had taken advice from House authorities and noted the complainant’s “high-profile role” outside the company “could well add to that attention”.
This was seemingly a reference to the complainant’s past role as a senior public service official. By raising the case during parliamentary proceedings, Mr Burns’s words would have been protected from a legal challenge by parliamentary privilege.
Parliamentary standards commissioner Kathryn Stone said the complainant “understood the reference to it to be a threat of the consequences if he did not do as Mr Burns wished”.
“Mr Burns’ conduct in this matter does not reflect well on him personally. However, I think his conduct has a wider impact,” she concluded.
“It 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. That Mr Burns has not acted on his threat to use parliamentary privilege will do little to dispel that belief.”
Aggravating factors adding to the three breaches were Mr Burns persisting in “making ill-disguised threats” to use his position “to pursue his family interest” even after he was informed of the breach, the committee said.
In a letter to the commissioner, Mr Burns said: “My letter was one written by a son which is very concerned at the stress and distress that the complainant’s repeated refusal to engage of the subject has caused to a man in his late 70s. If the charge is being a caring son, I would accept it.”
But Downing Street announced his resignation and said a replacement will be found “in due course”.
The committee ruled: “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.”
Instead, it recommended a seven-day suspension for from Parliament, during which he would be barred from the estate and unable to take part in debates.
Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg must schedule time for MPs to vote on the recommendation.
Meanwhile, Greg Hands, another minister at the Department for International Trade, was ordered to apologise to MPs for misusing parliamentary stationery to send a letter to thousands of constituents.
The standards committee accepted that the breach was “not at the serious end of the spectrum”, but criticised Mr Hands for dragging the process out until after the 2019 general election.
In October 2019, Chelsea and Fulham MP Mr Hands had told the commissioner that he was willing to publicly acknowledge he had breached the rules, apologise and reimburse the £4,865 costs.
But with the election looming, Mr Hands changed his mind and the committee said: “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr Hands may well have been motivated by a desire to avoid the embarrassment of having to make a public apology for breaking parliamentary rules during a general election campaign.”