Never for one moment did Labour appreciate that if you pick a large Black Mamba up by the tail, you have to hold it properly to avoid being injected with a hefty dose of highly toxic venom. Rather they took the view that the rules only applied to the Tories and the Liberal ‘Democrats’ and that they need only pay lip service to them. Instead the Mamba turned and bit them.
Now the story is about them and is a product of their arrogant assumption that they could act with impunity and that degree of hubris which leads to the belief that they will never get caught. They reckoned, however, without the virtues of good old-fashioned investigative journalism (initiated on this occasion by The Mail on Sunday) which has impaled them firmly on PPERA 2000’s horns.
Which brings me to this little titbit which I have been gnawing away at for a month or so. I say ‘gnawing’ because PPERA 2000 must be one of the worst drafted Acts of Parliament ever: incoherent and disjointed, it is truly a mess. In this instance I am grateful, however, to a charming and helpful lady at the Electoral Commission for having helped unravel some of the more Gordian Knots (or is that Gordon’s Knots?).
On 28th. October 2007 The Sunday Times ran this story about MP Barbara Follett, wife of mega-rich author and long-term Labour supporter Ken Follett and the expenses she draws from Parliament as an MP:
BARBARA FOLLETT, the Labour minister and wife of millionaire novelist Ken Follett, has claimed more than £120,000 in MPs’ allowances to pay for a London home, while owning a buy-to-let flat in the capital.
Follett last year claimed £22,107 in expenses for a central London flat bought by her husband seven years ago. But it was confirmed last week that she owns another flat near the houses of parliament that she could have used instead.
The MP also has the use of the family home in Hertfordshire, less than a 30-minute rail commute from London. The use of public funds to effectively subsidise an extra London home for the Folletts – who are together worth more than £15m – has prompted new calls for a review of the controversial housing allowance.
This was yet another example of a perceived abuse of the system of MP’s expenses which does so much to bring MPs into disrepute, particularly in the absence of any sense of transparency in the disclosure of the details of their claims. I commend the story to you as further evidence for the need for greater details of expenses to be provided by Parliament, preferably online as the Scottish Parliament does. But I digress.
Quite by coincidence (or perhaps not: as coincidences go, this one seemed too good to be true), Mr. Follett was that very same morning the invited guest of Andrew Marr on the latter’s Sunday AM programme as the third reviewer of the day’s papers. Marr took the opportunity, somewhat clumsily, to spoon-feed Mr. Follett the chance to defend his wife on the expenses story. Which, chuckling, he did, like a pelican gorging itself on a school of fish:
“I should be so lucky. Barbara in ten years as MP has never brought a penny home. She spends all of her allowances and all of her salary running her office and I actually subsidise it to the tune of every year at least a hundred thousand pounds a year”.
In other words, Mr. Follett gives at least £100,000 per year, every year to his wife which effectively doubles the expenses she gets from the Taxpayer to run her office as an MP. By way of comparison, Mrs. Follett claimed some £109,000 as office expenses (out of a total expense claim for 2006/2007 of £133,300) as her Parliamentary Expenses.
Mrs. Follett has been an MP since winning Stevenage in May 1997, ten and a half years ago, so we are talking about something like £1,050,000 over time if he has been doing this throughout her time as Stevenage’s MP.
This statement by Mr. Follett raises a number of questions:
- Is the ‘subsidy’ of which he boasted actually financial support that is liable to registration by Mrs. Follett in the Register of MP’s interests?;
- If so, has the ‘subsidy’ in fact been registered in accordance with the rules?;
- Is this ‘subsidy’ a ‘controlled donation’ within the meaning of Schedule 7 paragraph 1(3) (c) of PPERA 2000?;
- If so, has a Mrs. Follett rendered a report of the ‘controlled donation’ as is required by Schedule 7 paragraph (10) of PPERA 2000 within the required period to the Electoral Commission?
I deal first with the question of the Register of MP’s Interests.
Primâ facie such a contribution, being a form of financial support to her office as a Member of Parliament, is registerable under “The Categories of Registerable Interests” Category 4 (b), to wit:
(a) Any donation received by a Member’s constituency association which is linked either to candidacy at an election or to membership of the House; and
(b) any other form of financial or material support as a Member of Parliament, amounting to more than £1,000 from a single source, whether as a single donation or as multiple donations of more than £200 during the course of a calendar year.
25. This Category deals with sponsorship or other forms of support by companies, trade unions, professional bodies, trade associations, other organisations and individuals. Political donations which Members are required to report to the Electoral Commission should be entered under this Category unless —
a) it would be more appropriate to enter them under another Category, such as Category 5 (Gifts, benefits and hospitality (UK)) or Category 6 (Overseas visits); or
b) they are exempt from registration.
27. Category 4(b) covers support from which the Member receives any financial or material benefit in support of his or her role as a Member of Parliament. (Any contribution for the personal benefit of a Member should be entered under Category 5 (Gifts, benefits and hospitality (UK)).) The types of support which should be registered under this Category include the services of a research assistant or secretary whose salary, in whole or in part, is met by an outside organisation or individual; the provision of free or subsidised accommodation for the Member’s use, other than accommodation provided by a local authority to a Member for the sole purpose of holding constituency surgeries or accommodation provided solely by the constituency party; and financial contributions towards such services or accommodation.
Barbara Follett’s current register Entry (20/11/2007) reads as follows:
FOLLETT, Barbara (Stevenage)
2.Remunerated employment, office, profession etc Communications consultant to Ken Follett (author).
8.Land and Property Residential flat in London, from which rental income is received. Residential house in Cape Town, South Africa, from which rental income is occasionally received.
9.Registerable shareholdings (a)BEK Partnership; recording studio.
It will be seen, therefore, that no mention is made in her Register entry of any sort of donation, ‘subsidy’ or any kind of financial support from Mr. Ken Follett though there is the interesting entry concerning “remunerated employment by Mr. Follett.
Primâ facie therefore this MP has failed to register a substantial financial or material benefit in support of her role as a Member of Parliament which she is required to register; and, if, as Mr. Follett says, this has been going on for years, it would appear that she has failed to register such donation for many years.
It also raises a further question: is this ‘subsidy’ (ie financial support) being concealed under the guise of her entry concerning employment under para 2 of her register entry?
I turn now to the requirements of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (c. 41).
Primâ facie the ‘subsidy’ of £100,000 per annum for her office expenses is a ‘controlled donation’ under Schedule 7 paragraph 1(3) of the Act:
(3) “Controlled donation”—
(c) in relation to a holder of a relevant elective office, means a donation received by that person which is—
(i) offered to him, or
(ii) where it has been accepted, retained by him,
for his use or benefit (as the holder of such an office) in connection with any of his political activities.
The Electoral Commission considers that providing finance for an MP’s office expenses falls within the ambit of ‘political activities’.
As such it falls to be reported to the Electoral Commission under Schedule 7 Part III Paragraph 10 (1) of the Act:
10 (1) A regulated donee shall—
(a) prepare a report under this paragraph in respect of each controlled donation accepted by the donee which is a recordable donation; and
(b) deliver the report to the Commission within the period of 30 days beginning with the date of acceptance of the donation.
Given the terms of Schedule 7 paragraph 10 (2) and the amount involved this is plainly a ‘controlled donation’ for the purposes of this part of the Act, being far in excess of the sum of £1,000 set out therein.
Thus Mr. Follett’s ‘subsidy’ (i.e. donation) was, primâ facie, a ‘controlled donation’ that should have been made subject of a report under paragraph 10.
Looking at the Electoral Commission’s Register of Donations to Regulated Donees, the only current amount reported by Mrs. Follett is car parking pass valued at £ 5,245.20 from BAA Plc (nice if you can get it). No mention is made of any donation of any sort from Mr. Follett. Nor since the Act came into force is Mr. Follett listed as a donor of any kind to Labour, though, as we shall see, Mrs. Follett is so listed.
Primâ facie Mrs. Follett has failed to make a report of a ‘controlled donation’, to wit Mr. Follett’s donations to her office expenses, to the Electoral Commission within 30 days, or, indeed at all.
Paragraph 12 of Schedule 7 creates an offence:
1) Where a report required to be delivered to the Commission under paragraph 10(1) or 11(1) is not delivered by the end of the period of 30 days mentioned in that provision—
(a) the regulated donee, or
(b) (if a members association) the responsible person,
is guilty of an offence.
This is triable before the Justices and a fine up to level 5 may be imposed.
Finally one notes from the Electoral Commission Register that since 2000 Mrs. Follett has made 62 cash donations to the Labour party totalling £85,771 of which 5 were to the National Labour Party under Section 62 (12) PPERA 2000. The rest were made to Stevenage Labour Party. A further donation of premises to Stevenage LP valued at £3,000 was made in 2001.
In the light of recent events and Mr. Follett’s admission against interest on Mr. Marr’s programme, one is bound to ask if Mrs. Follett’s donations were in effect donations by Mr. Follett, whether to Stevenage Labour Party or the Labour Party nationally and whether therefore she was an ‘agent’ and he the ‘donor’ within the meaning of Section 54 of the Act. And did this raise a liability under the Act to supply information about the donor in much the same way as Mr. Abrahams in the Donorgate scandal?
An email sent to Mrs. Follett yesterday inviting her comments on this situation has been marked as read but has gone unanswered.
Why is this important? Well quite apart from the apparent breaches of Parliamentary Rules and electoral law, it is worth remembering that Labour makes a considerable amount of noise about the rules concerning political funding and spending being ‘fair’. Well, one wonders if the Conservative candidate in Stevenage will think it ‘fair’ that he has to compete against Mrs. Follett’s £109,000 worth of Parliamentary expenses, her £10,000 ‘communications’ allowance and her £100,000 per annum ‘subsidy from her husband? In that context a modest £25,000, say, from Lord Ashcroft looks eminently reasonable, does it not?
It may be worth noting the result at the 2005 election for Stevenage:
Labour Barbara Follett 18,003 (42.9 %)
Conservative George Freeman 14,864 (35.4%)
Liberal Democrat Julia Davies 7,610 (18.1% )
UK Independence Victoria Peebles 1,305 (3.1%)
Independent Antal Losonczi 152 (0.4% )
Labour Majority 3,139
Turnout 41,934 (62.7%)
Stevenage is thus well within the range of the Conservatives at the next election if they are to win an overall majority. Is therefore this not an example of how, when it suits them, they are prepared to countenance support in marginal seats every bit as extensive as anything Lord Ashcroft does? Labour whines and whinges perpetually about Lord Ashcroft and his donations to the Tories, but when it suits them they are more than willing to match his efforts.
The words humbug and hypocrisy come readily to mind, as they do so often with the Labour Party.